A Tangled Web, or some random thoughts on animation

I noted yesterday that Tangled is likely to be the last of the “Disney Princess” films. This still seems like a bit of an odd decision, considering how popular the girls are as a brand. They have their own clothing, doll and even comic ranges, and new direct-to-disc movies seem to roll out on a regular basis. It’s funny to see how Tinkerbell seems to have been folded into the gang. She’s an uncomfortable fit. A bit too feisty for the rest of the girls. It’s apparently to do with appealing to boys. Note that Disney didn’t say anything about quitting the fairy-tale genre. That Jack fella’s got some stories to tell.

When pictured together, the Princesses have a disturbing similarity. As their images are tweaked and refined, they are slowly nudged into templates that look very familiar. The eyes get bigger, the mouth smaller, the head shape more overtly heart-shaped. Granted, Mulan and Jasmine don’t quite fit the mould, but it’s starting to become difficult to tell Cinderella apart from Sleeping Beauty, Belle from Ariel*.

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Rapunzel’s the most extreme version thus far of the look. It’s a very anime approach. Her eyes take up half her head and her mouth almost disappears to compensate. There’s a lot of the japanimation heroine in Rapunzel. Her hair becomes prop, weapon and maguffin. Anime is full of characters with ridiculously long hair, that seems to have a life of its own (and also seems to randomly change length based on what the character is up to at the time).

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The thing is, of course, that the influence goes both ways. The father of modern manga, Osamu Tezuka, was famously influenced by early Disney, with characters like Astro Boy given the big eyes and childish features that he found so appealing in Mickey Mouse and his friends. We could say that by making Rapunzel look so anime, the designers are simply acknowledging, however subconsciously, the history and influences that have placed The House Of Mouse at the heart of world animation.

We can look to Europe too. It fascinates me how we are happy to have cartoony characters as long as the backgrounds and settings are rendered realistically. Tangled again is a prime example of this idea, with gorgeously rendered scenery playing up against massively stylised heroes and villains. It’s an example of the style that French bande desinee artists have made their own. Think of Tintin, with all those beautiful, exquisitely researched landscapes backing our blank-eyed hero. Or Asterix, if you want to go more cartoony. There’s nothing to say that Disney was at all influenced by the French school, but the comparisons are there to be had.

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The Europeans are also big on their anthropomorphic animals. The biggest selling comic album in France right now is Blacksad, a noirish detective tale. The main character just happens to be a panther, with a snappy line in suits. Again, Disney made their name with animals that wear clothes, walk on two legs and talk. Which came first – the mouse or the marsupilami? It’s a knotted mess of influence and cross-fertilisation. And it’s not helped by the fact that, contrary to common practice in modern animation, the two animal sidekicks in Tangled don’t talk. They react in human ways, but in dumbshow. Even more messily, the horse Maximus is presented as half cop, half jock and half dog. He chases down Flynn by smell, and reacts very favourably to Rapunzel scratching him behind the ears. It’s yet another knot in the net.

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It’s worth sticking around to watch the end credits, which are illustrated with character designs (by the brilliant Shiyoon Kim) in a lovely, scratchy inky style that has more than a nodding relationship to the work of one of my favourites, St. Trinian’s creator Ronald Searle. I’ve always seen nods to Searle’s style in some of my favourite Disney’s, and the linework in the Tangled end credits hearkens back to some of those classic mid-60s films. 101 Dalmations and The Aristocats are prime examples of this looser, freer form. It’s great to see this little tribute to past triumphs, and I was quietly amused to see how much more busty Rapunzel is in these early sketches. I didn’t think Disney did cleavage.

Dammit, this film has got me thinking about cartooning again in a big way. In a kind of unfocussed, scattershot manner, for which I apologise (how else could it be when talking around a film with a title like that?). But the fun in watching a film as rich this rich reference and tribute comes from seeing the images spark and fire off connections, however randomly. Tangled provides a dense web in which it’s a pleasure to get tied up.

 

 

*yes, alright, apart from the tail…

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Rob

Writer. Film-maker. Cartoonist. Cook. Lover.

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