Tangled could have been a disaster. Directors Nathan Greno and Byron Howard really pushed for something different by attempting to modernize a classic tale for contemporary audiences while combining the classic storylines and imagery of Disney’s illustrious past. All of that experimentation can unbalance a film by leaning too heavily on one side or the other, but Tangled does a remarkable job at harmonizing the past and present. Gorgeous CG, an involving and up-tempo score, and some of the best sidekicks seen on screen propel this take on the character of Rapunzel. There is a sense of contemporary fun throughout the film, and yet the heart remains where it should; right in the middle. My full review after the jump:
Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy) has sheltered and raised Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) as her own to utilize her mysterious restorative hair, but the world beckons to the young girl from her secluded tower in the form of floating lanterns each year on the day of her birth. When smooth talking thief Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi) seeks the shelter of the tower after stealing a crown, he is lured into guiding Rapunzel and her pet chameleon Pascal to the lanterns on the promise that his stolen crown will be the reward. Despite Rapunzel having mixed emotions about leaving, they have nowhere to go but forward when the vigilant palace horse Maximus, Mother Gothel, and the Stabbington Brothers (Ron Perlman) come after them. As their journey brings them closer to danger, truths are revealed that will forever affect themselves and the kingdom around them.
The journey is the bulk of the film, which is a curious twist on the story of Rapunzel. Instead of lingering in the tower as the Grimm fairytale does, Tangled opts to leave the tower behind within the first 15 minutes of the film. Right away, we know that this isn’t going to stick to the conventions of the story which it is based, which is fine by co-directors Nathan and Byron. The duo bring a knack for action set pieces that propel the story forward along the 100 minute runtime and yet the film delivers two emotional punches. One is subtle, while the other is obvious, and they continually play with that mixture throughout.
While Tangled takes inspiration from the tale of Rapunzel, the entire cast of characters is what makes the film such a success. Flynn has a fun sense of humor and his wit is blisteringly quick; some of his lines will fly over the heads of young ones but register completely with the older audience. Meanwhile, Rapunzel is immature and goofy, but has a voracious appetite for exploration that her tower simply cannot quell. Then we have Mothel Gothel, who is dark and cunning, and manages to form a mother/daughter bond that is realistically twisted. Murphy provides the perfect mixture that makes Mother Gothel so haunting. She can’t help but fall for the alluring Rapunzel, but their relationship is based on lies and deception for Gothel’s gain. She has no magical power of her own, so she has to be subtle in her deceits, which to me makes her one of the best villains in the heritage of Disney. Luckily, the great characters don’t stop there.
Slapstick is a constant source of laughter for the younger audience members, and it frequently stems from Pascal and Maximus, two of the most memorable animal sidekicks you likely have seen. While neither character talks, both are expressive in their own ways. Pascal changes color based on mood and is a positive inspiration for Rapunzel throughout the film. As for Maximus, he is part horse, part super cop and has an entire character arc within the film. Again, we see the directors playing with conventions as Maximus has decidedly canine temperaments that play out incredibly well on screen; when was the last time you saw a horse wag its tail?
Speaking of the screen, the animation is where the film really makes every effort to impress. Over the last few years, animation has made incredible leaps and bounds in ways that many audience members may have not noticed. However, when you deal with a film about Rapunzel, you have to account for 70 feet of flowing blonde hair, and hair is something many animated CG films struggle with even today. If the hair doesn’t work, Tangled doesn’t work; period. That’s why animation director Glen Keane, known for his fluid drawing and characters that deal with hair, and his animation team are worthy of praise. You may never notice how natural the characters and their hair moves, but that is the goal; to blend in and become seamless.
The art throughout the film is also playing with old and new. The target is to bring the sensibility of hand-drawn animation to a CG film, and that’s where the beauty of Tangled resides. The characters and backgrounds feel like classic Disney, but with modern techniques and visual appeal. You would be forgiven for mistaking stills of the film as traditional animation. Additionally, the stereoscopic 3D really pops in a number of scenes, including a climactic lake scene at night, but nothing is thrown at the screen. Whether you see that as a gimmick or not, it means the 3D isn’t integral to the experience of the film; it’s the cherry on this tasty cake and some people don’t like cherries or want to pay for them.
Experimenting with different mixtures also seeps its way into the musical scores in Tangled, and that’s where eight-time Oscar-winning composer Alan Menken shows his versatility. Menken has been a Disney staple on their animated musicals, and his talent shines through on Mother Gothel’s Mother Knows Best. Catchy and dark, there are a number of variations to the tempo and tone throughout the film while the lyrics, nailed by Murphy, will stay with you. Meanwhile, Menken went a different direction with Rapunzel’s songs. Joni Mitchell is an influence on When Will My Life Begin?, and the barebones use of guitar provides a different feel. One can easily see the parallels that Menken and the directors went for in blending old with new, and there is an interesting result. Mother Gothel’s songs feel as ancient as she is, while Rapunzel’s songs have a truly youthful exuberance and feel.
There are pitfalls, as the film’s constant mixture of tones can feel a bit off-putting for some. Inspiration is unabashedly taken from a number of eras and the darkness of the film isn’t quite as dark as past films in the illustrious history of Disney, and yet it feels more real. Gothel’s character is grounded in reality and her relationship with Rapunzel is a disturbing showcase of subtle brainwashing. Yet, Gothel will likely be one of the fan favorite characters–even for the little ones.
In the end, Tangled makes for a tasty smoothie that utilizes freshly picked ideas from Greno and Howard, while the classic storyline of discovery and adventure provide the usual vanilla standbys. There are exciting twists and turns when the film works, and the few pitfalls in the clashing tones of the characters aren’t enough to keep the ball from rolling. While Disney may not have the dominating foothold on animated films like they used to, if they continue to make films with this much heart and fun there is no doubt they can remain viable in this increasingly competitive genre.