Tangled, Disney’s 50th animated feature, returns the company (like The Princess and the Frog did a year ago) to a more comfortable traditional fairy tale setting after years of, ahem, more ambitious storytelling.
The source here is the Brothers Grimm tale of Rapunzel, the story of the long-haired girl in the tower (“Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair.”)
It’s a simple-enough tale, jazzed up with anthropomorphic animal characters, broad humor, and modern dialogue to accommodate contemporary audiences. It’s Disney’s best film in years, I think, but this modern mindset prevents it from approaching classic status (I had to check; recent Disney films have almost all reached a certain level of quality, but the last one that could truly be called great is probably 1994’s The Lion King).
Backstory for Tangled‘s version of Rapunzel: a magic flower has given the witch Gothel (voiced by Donna Murphy) eternal beauty, but it’s harvested to save a dying, and pregnant, queen. The witch is out for revenge, but when she discovers the hair of the queen’s daughter contains the same healing properties as the flower, she kidnaps the child, stores her in a tower in the forest, and raises her as her own daughter, forbidding her to venture to the outside world.
But into Rapunzel’s (Mandy Moore) world comes Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi), a dashing thief who has just made off with a crown jewel and decided to lie low in the isolated tower. Rapunzel hides his loot and offers him a deal: he’ll get it back if he takes her out into the real world to get a good look at the Chinese lanterns that the kingdom sends out every year on her birthday.
Now, there’s plenty that doesn’t quite work here: the human characters, particularly Flynn, are flat (two non-speaking animals – a horse named Maximus and a chameleon named Pascal – easily steal the show), the plot is light, the frequent songs unmemorable (but short enough not to distract), some of the more broad jokes groan-inducing. And the modern sensibilities, including a you-go-girl ‘tude, are frequently at odds with the story basics.
But there’s a lot of heart here, and the film wears it on its sleeve. The setup, with the stolen child and the isolated girl (who is, nevertheless, a tad better adjusted than Kaspar Hausar), has a lot of emotional pull, and the filmmakers know how to mine it for all it’s worth. A strong climax threatens to become a real weepie, but the film expectedly pulls back into more familiar territory.
Best of all, however, is the animation, which combines traditional hand-drawn techniques with a CGI environment; it’s fluid and frequently beautiful, and Disney’s biggest leap since Tarzan.
The box office failure of The Princess and the Frog has likely sealed the fate of hand-drawn films from Disney, but it’s great to see them experimenting like this in the CGI realm; it’s as good (dare I say better?) that what we’ve come to expect from Pixar.