“Tangled” marks the long-awaited return of the Prodigal Studio, the revival of classic Disney story-telling. The trailers made "Tangled" seem like an irreverent romp through the Disney Princess archetype, along the lines of "Enchanted" or (Heaven help us) "Shrek." Bless the stars, it wasn't. Sincere, sentimental, and mostly unselfconscious, "Tangled" was the genuine article. It also features my new favorite sidekick and favorite villain of all the Disney movies I’ve seen. All told, "Tangled" was pretty swell.
In case you haven't read the fairy tale (originally from the brothers Grimm), Rapunzel is a princess with very long hair trapped by Mother Gothel in a very tall tower, who ultimately gets rescued by a prince, the end. In case you haven't seen the movie, Rapunzel has grown up ignorant of her real parents, firmly convinced that Gothel is her actual mother, and instead of a prince she is rescued by a charismatic thief, Flynn Rider.
Aesthetically, the film is gorgeous. The scene with the lanterns ascending into the night sky very literally took my breath away for a second. The film trades primarily on an aesthetic of Joy – both with Rapunzel’s first steps on solid earth, and her vibrant dance when she first comes to the town square. On a technical level, the animators sought to marry the detail of modern graphics technology with the beauty of classic hand-drawn technique. They truly succeeded.
Musically, the film was scored by Alan Mencken, the man responsible for basically every memorable song from our childhood. His work here isn't quite as jaw-dropping as the scores he composed for "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin," and more recently "Enchanted," but still more than passable. The lyrics for the typical "I want" intro song were -- dare I say it? -- almost unexpected at times, while the deliciously menacing "Mother Knows Best" is guaranteed to bring the house down on Broadway. The most memorable melody for me, however, was the falling-in-love duet "Waiting for the Lights," which was set in the lantern scene described above and complemented it perfectly.
Let's talk characters. First, the sidekicks were hilarious. Rapunzel's pet chameleon Pascal was a bundle of contradictions: mute but expressive, tiny but powerful, withdrawn but intimidating. However, the show was absolutely stolen by Maximus, the horse of the captain of the Palace Guard. The animators gave him the tenacity, temperament, and tracking ability of a bloodhound. Being a dog person, this enthused me greatly.
The villain, Mother Gothel, adds another layer of excellence to this film. I'm pretty sure she is Disney's first passive-aggressive villain. Alternating protestations of love with biting deprecations, she has kept Rapunzel almost terminally insecure, trapping her in the tower by bars of stronger stuff than iron. Her manipulative nature actually amplifies and justifies the classic arch-villain trope of not seizing the immediate advantage. She finds Rapunzel, but decides to let her stay with Flynn Rider to ensure that Rapunzel's heart is broken. She can't compete with Jafar or the great villains of classic Disney for menace or sheer quantity of evil, but in terms of plausibility and narrative coherence Mother Gothel is my new favorite.
Rapunzel herself is an interesting case-study in the Disney Princess files. Her relationship with Mother Gothel has made her so emotionally unstable, that you really do understand her initial passivity and dependence on others. Yet her true personality is defined outside that relationship. Not as aggressive as Jasmine in "Aladdin,” Rapunzel is certainly forceful enough to hold her own against the roguish charms of Flynn Rider and the roguish gallery at "The Snuggly Duckling." Unlike Mulan or Portia in "The Merchant of Venice," Rapunzel does not have to become a man, nor suspend her dreams and romantic aspirations, in order to learn the culturally “masculine” virtues of courage and assertiveness. Indeed, Rapunzel is refreshingly feminine for a modern heroine.
Flynn Rider may in fact be the more interesting character study in "Tangled." I was initially worried that this would turn out to be another entry for the "Myth of the Romantic Scoundrel" files, and indeed his initial betrayal of his partners-in-crime was concerning. I partly sympathized with Mother Gothel when Rapunzel started talking about how she met a boy. "Who, the wanted thief? I'm so proud." On the other hand, the character for Flynn Rider is voiced by Zachary Levi (of TV's "Chuck"), who conveys such an unassuming "nice guy" vibe that it's hard to even think of him as a villain. His vanity is apparent, but his primary flaw seems to lie in his reticence. He is unwilling to open up to people: "I don't do back-story," he explains to Rapunzel. But when he is trapped to drown in a cave, his defenses break down and he makes his first baby-step towards trust, by admitting that his real name is Eugene Fitzherbert. The name is a delightfully archaic touch, but conveys a deeper truth: namely, his entire persona as "Flynn Rider" is a lie (as he practically admits in his next sentence), and that even his vanity was a defense mechanism for insecurity. I also thought it noteworthy that Rapunzel never again addresses him as "Flynn" but always calls him Eugene from that point on. She knows, and loves, his real nature. The two characters are in this sense growing in parallel -- Rapunzel learns the cardinal or classical virtues (courage, temperance, justice and prudence), while Eugene learns the spiritual or Christian virtues (faith, hope and love). Romantic love may test and teach those who already desire the Good, but it should not be seen as a means of redeeming and bringing virtue to those who do not already seek it.
"Tangled" is a sincere celebration of romantic idealism in a world that satirizes idealism for breakfast. It must be conceded that this ironic mentality does penetrate the film on occasion. Parts of the opening narration, for instance, do incline towards the satiric or self-consciously cutesy. The worst offense to my mind was the “I’ve Got A Dream” sequence where the rogues in the Snuggly Duckling burst into song detailing their oddly domestic aspirations. Even as the scene abounds with joy and revels in its own cheesiness, the film finds it necessary to cut to skeptical mug of Flynn Rider, whose face seems to shout “I am not amused in the least.” On the other hand, it’s hard to find a single non-Pixar animated film from the last decade that didn’t at least wrestle with the satiric impulse. But like this year’s “How To Train Your Dragon,” “Tangled” succeeds in overcoming that initial handicap, and presents ideas and ideals of real meaning with honest sincerity.