Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Series Report Card: Disney Animated Features (2010)

49. Tangled

When John Lasseter took over as head of the animation department at Disney, fans were expecting a lot. After all, this is the man who had done so much great work at Pixar. Lasseter promised to return the studio to its traditional animation roots and its former greatness. “The Princess and the Frog” was well-received by fans, critics, and earned several Oscar nominations. However, the film performed under the Disney suits’ expectations. Originally conceived under the Eisner era as a lame “Shrek” rip-off, “Tangled” was the second run at reviving the musical fairy tale adaptation.

Many people are familiar with the story of Rapunzel but not the specifics. There’s a girl in a tower with really long hair, long enough that her male suitor can scale the tower by climbing it. “Tangled” provides the context. In a vaguely Spanish renaissance setting, a pregnant queen falls sick. A flower, granted magical healing powers by a drop of sun, is sought out. Drinking the flower as a tea, the queen is healed and the baby girl is born healthy. The princess inherits the flower’s powers, the ability to heal stored in her blonde hair. Enter Mother Gothal, a prototypical fairy tale witch who has lived for centuries from the flower. Realizing the situation, she kidnaps the baby girl and keeps her locked in a tower, never cutting the magical hair. A rogue comes along to whisk the girl away from the tower and we’re off. That’s a clever way to get all the expected pieces in places while setting the story off in its own direction.

Like “The Princess and the Frog,” “Tangled” boldly patterns itself after the fairy tale-based classics of Disney’s various golden ages. Like Ariel and Jasmine before her, Rapunzel is a teenage girl struggling against the lot in her life. She wishes to leave the nest, to experience the world she’s never known. Her adventure is framed as a classic story of a young girl growing into adulthood. Naturally, she finds love outside of the tower. Mother Gothal is an archetypal fairy tale villain. Like Snow White’s Wicked Queen, her villainous actions are motivated by vanity. The coming-of-age angle extends even further, since Gothal is a literal mother figure to the young girl. And what could be ending could be more appropriate to a fairy tale then the young girl realizing she’s a princess? While the general outline of “Tangled” stays faithful to fairy tale roots, the film wildly subverts other traditions. Flynn Rider is no pure-hearted prince. Instead, he’s a thief and a scoundrel. He aspires to be a swashbuckling adventurer but isn’t quite there. These changes and subversion gives the audience what they expect without boring them.

Another differencing factor in “Tangled” is the project’s sense of humor. While the comic relief showcased in the trailer concerned with its broad wackiness, a surprising amount of the humor is character-oriented. One of the funniest moments involves Rapunzel’s reaction to freedom, sling-shoting between elation and deep guilt. The use of that long hair is frequently creative. Cocooning herself inside when frightened or getting wrapped up like a pig in a blanket is both cute and amusing. The girl’s back-and-forth with Rider provides a lot of humor as well. The two try to outsmart each other on their first encounter. A campfire revelation about magical healing powers play out in a very amusing manner. Much of the dialogue is fast-paced and screw-bally. The second variety of humor in the film isn’t as endearing but proves just as many laughs. A surprisingly portion of “Tangled” is indebted not to Disney but rather Chuck Jones and other madcap Looney Toons animators. Maximus is a horse that acts like a dog, his snout to the ground, leg kicking when scratched behind the ears. He chews up wanted poster like a paper shredder. An attempt to hide behind a rock and a bush is amusingly ineffective. His human expressions are handled in an off-handed fashion. Other wacky laughs come in the form of Viking-like ruffians with unexpected soft sides. Only a reoccurring gag about frying pans is overdone.

One of the reasons Disney believed “The Princess and the Frog” underperformed is because it didn’t appeal to young boys. “Tangled” hoped to avoid this by playing up its humor and action qualities. Aside from two sequences, “Tangled” is low on action. However, those two moments make an impression. The first has the protagonists pursued by royal guards, thieves, and a horse. A sword and frying pan duel is presented by dynamically. A collapsing dam really drives the moment into overdrive. The rushing water ramps up the excitement as everyone attempts to escape the flood. The second big action set-piece is more comedic in nature but still features a daring roof top escape. “Tangled” balances genres very well.

Of course, this is an animated movie. What does it look like? Drawing its visual cues from rococo paintings, the picture has a lush, rich look to it. Scenes of sunlight breaking through forest trees are especially impressive. The nights are green in tone, with a deep, painted quality to them. The environments are detailed and impressive. While the backgrounds are rich and life-like, the character designs are more classic cartoony. The eyes are wide and expressive, the faces round and cute. While nothing can replace the charm of hand-drawn animation, the film makes an effort to import the classic Disney style into the world of computer animated imagery.

Upon seeing the film for the first time theatrically, I was immediately struck by how the film embraced music. Long-time Disney composer Alan Menkin provides the music while Glenn Slater provides the lyrics. The song styles recall earlier Disney classics while the lyrics have a more modern, almost pop-music angle to them. Rapunzel’s opening song, “When Will My Life Begin?,” establishes her character and her life fully. A reprisal of that song is especially stirring. Any Disney musical can be measured by the weight of its villain song. Mother Gothal’s “Listen to Mother” is darkly funny while acknowledging her passive-aggressive intentions. Both songs are insanely catchy as well. The Academy went for the big love ballad, “I See the Light,” which is a fine song for sure. However, the best number in the film is “I’ve Got a Dream,” a bouncy, upbeat song about hopes and aspirations. I was worried former pop princess Mandy Moore would push things too far into a pop direction but Moore adapts nicely. Zachary Levi unrepentantly has a singing voice to match his vocal performance. The orchestral score is excellent as well. When Rapunzel and Flynn first arrive at the castle, we are greeted to an enchanting dance number, vaguely Celtic in style. For someone who has always loved the Disney animated musicals of the eighties and nineties, “Tangled” is a wonderful return to form.

“Tangled” was the box office success Disney was looking for. The movie made plenty of money and introduced another princess the studio can merchandise endlessly. The film’s success proved something of a double edged sword. At least classical fairy tale style stories will stick around for the time being. Disney’s next Animated Feature, “Frozen,” is obviously patterned after this one. Disappointingly, those new films won’t be traditionally animated. It’s hard to say if the Mouse Factory will ever return to its classic style. Still, if this sets the precedence, I suppose they could do worse. “Tangled” is massively entertaining, modern in its amusement while paying tribute to the classics. [Grade: B+]

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