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…

A Very Good Hair Day: X&HT Watched “Tangled”

Tangled is something of a landmark for Disney. It’s their fiftieth animated movie. It’s also, according to reports, most likely to be their last “princess” film. I’m still not sure if that’s a shame or not. Mind you, I’m not sure how many other princesses of legend are left to chronicle.

The film also marks a return to the core values and tropes that make your classic Disney films so satisfying. By going back to its roots, the House Of Mouse has made their most successful movie since 2007’s Enchanted; a film which took delight in extracting the Mickey out of the story beats that Tangled embraces and celebrates.

We all know the tale. A girl, imprisoned in a tower by an evil witch, whose only means of entry is by means of her long golden hair, is rescued by a handsome prince. It ties into the myth of the lost princess, one of the main building blocks of yer average fairy tale. Sleeping Beauty. Beauty And The Beast. Cinderella, stuck in near-slavery. Snow White, in exile with a bunch of vertically-challenged miners. It’s a base to build a story on, a solid foundation of myth and legend.

Tangled’s screenwriter, Dan Fogelman (sweetly, IMDB also lists Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm as co-writers) takes that core idea and answers the simple question that everyone asks. What happens if Rapunzel lets down her golden hair and breaks herself out of her prison, rather than waiting for a prince? By making her story a quest, a love story, a rite of passage and a return home, Fogelman does a great job of not just answering the question, but telling a story that bears retelling at bedtime. More importantly, by giving Rapunzel’s ‘do a point and a purpose, the story has an impetus, becoming the engine that drives the tale on.

It’s traditional enough, sure. There’s a happy ending (ok, fine SPOILER ALERT, Disney film has happy ending. In other news, water is wet, the sky is blue, yo’ mama wears an afro with a chinstrap) and cute animal sidekicks. It’s all set in that pleasingly ill-defined land of mittel-European castles, forests and jolly, clean, well-fed peasants that we may as well call HistoryLand. But there are subtle trims to the formula. The animals are unvoiced, letting the character animation do all the talking. Maximus the horse is bold and brave. Pascal the chameleon is loyal and sassy. We get it, and we don’t need a comedy voice to put a wig on it and make it do a shuck and jive. There’s plenty of slapstick and broad humour, but the jokes work on the grown-ups in the audience too. The main characters aren’t limp and lifeless. They’re sharply drawn and inhabit the screen with flair and verve.

And I mean sharply-drawn in all senses of the word. The animation is, as you’d expect, stunning. But it’s not just the vistas, set pieces and special effects that make it special (although yeah, the lantern sequence, something in my eye, I’ll be fine). The character animation is beautifully nuanced. Every little flit of emotion on Rapunzel and Flynn’s faces is exquisitely done. This isn’t performance capture or any of the other cheats in which Zemekis, Cameron and Jackson have decided to base their careers. This is proper, honest to goodness cartooning, showing the magic that happens when talented animators use the best tools the 21st century can offer.

It’s bolstered with great voice work too. Thank goodness, for Tangled the directors plumped for actors with Broadway experience, who know how to project a line and make it sing. I’m so sick of animated films with all-star casts that don’t understand how to act for cartoons. You have to be larger than life. Instead, you so often get a flat, cold delivery that’s not so much “will this do?” as “screw you, pay me.” Mandy Moore, Zachary Levi and the amazing Donna Murphy get it so right that I’m astonished there isn’t a Best Voice category at the Oscars. They bring the gold, the final grace notes of wit and charm, menace and wickedness that make the characters shine. You get to believe in, and root for them.

By bringing back Alan Menken, the talent behind most of the Disney songs you know since The Little Mermaid, Tangled gets another boost. I’d gone off songs in Disney films, (and towards the end of Menken’s run they were kind of jammed on and lacquered into place) but here they do the perfect job – commenting on the inner life of Rapunzel, the relationship between her and Mother Gothel and in the riotous Snuggy Duckling sequence, showing that even hardened brigands and ruffians have dreams. They’re neatly done, don’t overstay their welcome, and move the story forward in graceful ways to which the writers of Glee should be paying note.

The fiftieth Disney animated film shows how far the studio has come since Snow White, and how much they’ve learned. It’s a company that has always been prepared to take risks with their movies, and to learn from them. After the major mis-step of Home On The Range (Don’t. Seriously. Just … don’t.) Disney retrenched, learning with the brilliant Enchanted how to laugh at themselves, and with The Princess And The Frog that it’s the story rather than the CGI that makes the film. Under the watchful eye of Pixar’s John Lasseter I feel quietly hopeful that rather than marking the end of an era, Tangled takes the best of the past and zshuzzes it up into something new and fresh.

Maybe I’m overthinking it. Tangled is one of those films that works as entertainment and history lesson, but ultimately, it’s a fun, smart and extremely pretty family movie. You can just let your hair down and enjoy it.