Nathan Greno, Byron Howard
Dan Fogelman (Fairy Tale: The Brothers Grimm)
Mandy Moore, Zachary Levi, Donna Murphy, Ron Perlman, M.C. Gainey, Jeffrey Tambor, Brad Garrett, Paul F. Tompkins, Richard Kiel
PG for brief mild violence
Buy on DVD
Buy on Blu-ray
When I reviewed last year’s Princess and the Frog, I had voiced hope that the future for Walt Disney’s old cell animation department would be renewed under the leadership of John Lasseter and although the cell animation component has been replaced by computer animation, I’m glad to report that Lasseter has managed to avoid many of the pitfalls Disney had succumbed to in the late ’90s with their latest animated musical outing: Tangled.
The story of Rapunzel (voiced here by Mandy Moore), a maiden trapped in a tower where her long golden hair is the only means of entrance of egress, has surprisingly not been mined by Disney’s animation studio before now. With their history of princess sagas, this seemed like the perfect opportunity. Yet here it is, 2010, and we’re finally getting the story. Embellished greatly over the short story, this tale centers around a magical flower with healing powers that is used to save the life of a young queen and her unborn daughter. The cure imbues her hair with a golden color and the ability to heal the sick or wounded. An old hag, who had kept the flower’s existence under wraps for so long is angered by the destruction of the flower for anyone other than her own youthful transformations, steals the child in the night and locks her away in a tower where she convinces the young girl that the outside world is cruel, wicked and filled with those who would do her harm. And only by staying within the tower will she be protected from those evils.
When a handsome thief, escaping both his betrayed partners and the King’s guards all in pursuit of the crown he possesses, seeks asylum in Rapunzel’s tower, she gets the idea to use the crown as a bargaining chip to convince Flynn Ryder (voice of Zachary Levi) to guide her to the strange festival of lights that she is certain are not stars, but which she has little idea that they are merely annual remembrances of her own abduction.
The film follows many of Disney’s classic archetypes, all semi-spoofed in other films (Dreamworks’ Shrek and Disney’s own Enchanted), which were the keys to the success of many of their greatest films, but which, when abused, were also part of their biggest failures. The film opens with the backstory, but the first musical number of the film belongs to Moore as she sings about her life within the tower, the sweet but innocuous “When Will My Life Begin”. We are very soon presented with another song by villainness Mother Gothel (voice of Donna Murphy), an interesting, cautionary tune “Mother Knows Best”. And there are a half dozen other songs in the film, including the gorgeous tune that unleashes her hair’s magical power (referred to on the soundtrack only as “Healing Incantation”, the generic romantic ballad “I See the Light” and the pop closer “Something That I Want”. It’s not Alan Menken’s best work, but it’s better than anything Phil Collins ever wrote for Disney’s Tarzan. And while I’m not as impressed with the music in this film, though the undescore is pretty strong, it’s the film around these numbers that really shines.
Of the three essential stars of the film, Murphy is simply the standout. While not the evil magnificence of Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty, or the moralistically flawed Judge Claude Frollo from Hunchback of Notre Dame, Murphy has made Gothel one of Disney’s most dynamic and believable villains to date. In her scenes with Rapunzel, even though we know her to be selfish and a thief, there are moments where a genuine motherly bond starts to peak out. Even though it’s quickly snatched back as she digs her claws into the impressionable girl, there is still a spark of humanity. Below her a bit is TV’s Chuck star Zachary Levi who is one of Disney’s more multi-faceted “princes”. On par with Princess and the Frog’s Prince Naveen, they are two of the best male love interests since Beast in Beauty and the Beast. Flawed, but lovable, they make it easier for the audience to understand the romantic entanglements that develop and unlike the sudden leap-to-love between Naveen and Tiana in Frog, this relationship feels more organic and naturally progressive. But that has little to do with Mandy Moore’s performance.
Not the worst one could have imagined, but her high pitched voice grates on the nerves quickly and gives the audience very little emotional resonance when necessary. Perhaps an actress like Amy Adams from Enchanted could have given her some pointers, but a far cry she is from the pinnacles of Disney princesses like Belle and Tiana, strong women who don’t feel forced into the position. Of course, there’s something to be said for the sweet naifs like Ariel from The Little Mermaid or Snow White. They feel like little girls growing big, which make for good role models for young girls. And since these characters generally aren’t adult women (well, Snow White was, but that’s more a byproduct of the more repressed era of the 1930s than any lack of character), it makes a bit of sense that they are forced to grow up fast and learn quickly that the world is a terrible place, but there are good things in it.
You can pretty much guess every step of the story, yet there are small gems of scenes within the whole that elevate the surrounding elements: most of the scenes with the part-bloodhound horse Maximus or Rapunzel’s emotive chameleon Pascal; the animation used for Rapunzel’s glowing hair (the main reason computer animation was the right animated medium for this film); the boat ride for the launch of the lanterns; and of course the film’s final scene. The animation really does make the film more magnificent, the humor isn’t too childish and I love that the animals don’t actually talk but convey their emotions with facial gestures or noises.
When compared to the underviewed Princess and the Frog, Tangled is clearly inferior, but with two solid to excellent efforts in the span of two years, it’s clear that Disney’s extra-Pixar animation house is finally building itself back up again. And if John Lasseter isn’t to thank, I don’t know who else is.
November 29, 2010