05 April 2011

Movie Review: Tangled

Tangled (2010)
Directed by Nathan Greno and Byron Howard. Featuring the Voices of Mandy Moore, Zachary Levi, Donna Murphy, Brad Garrett, Ron Perelman, Jeffrey Tambor, Richard Kiel.

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

There are many moments in Disney’s CGI animated film Tangled (out on DVD and Blu-ray this week) where it seems the story is putting itself on a collision course with an ironic, rib-nudging joke about fairy-tale fantasy clichés. For example, young heroine Rapunzel, feeling freedom from her tower prison for the first time, dashes through a forest grove while singing. Suddenly, a flight of bluebirds rush above her head and flit up through a gap in the leaves into an azure sky; Rapunzel gazes at their disappearing flight, enrapt with the metaphor of liberation.

Cue Rapunzel tripping, or a huge bird dropping splatting onto her head, or a helicopter smashing into the birds, or a scratchy needle-drop ripping apart the soundtrack.

But… it doesn’t happen!

I think that’s wonderful. Ten years after Shrek came out, Disney Animation has fired back at the “Ironic Fairy Tale” genre that the DreamWorks hit fostered into a subgenre. Shrek inspired not only three increasingly bad sequels, but also films like Hoodwinked, Happily N’Ever After, and the live-action Ella Enchanted. Shrek itself was something of a personal vendetta from former Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg against his old employer: no chance was passed up to blast away at the Mouse House, often viciously.

It was funny for a time, and if viewers wanted less ironic fare they could at least turn to Disney’s partner Pixar. Disney got back to its classic style with the traditionally animated The Princess and the Frog in 2009, although the script and design updated the fairy tale into the early twentieth century. With Tangled, the company was eager to grab up the Medieval wonderland that had made them famous in the first place and embrace it without any excuses.

Until I saw Tangled, I had no idea how much I had missed the old-fashioned Disney storytelling style. Tangled is an almost-great work. Beautiful to behold, fun to watch, uplifting and exciting. This is the first time that I have seen Walt Disney Animation use CGI in a way that meshes well with their hand-animated films; it’s definitely the best non-Pixar CGI film they have ever released. (What, better than Chicken Little? Yes, I dare say.)

Six years in the making and sporting an estimated budget of $260 million, Tangled was a big risk for the Mouse House—and although it didn’t gross at the sky-high level some had anticipated, it still pulled in $575 million worldwide, the eighth highest world gross of 2010. Once Rapunzel gets officially inducted into the “Disney Princess Mafia,” the merchandizing cash will flow like the golden locks of her hair.

However, the marketing of Tangled was a bit, well, snarled. The blame lies with the poor performance of The Princess and the Frog. Despite positive reviews (and I think it’s a fine film), the 2009 movie did unspectacular business. Scuttlebutt within the industry has Disney’s CEOs laying the blame on the film’s marketing lacking an appeal to boys. Suddenly, the film titled Rapunzel got re-named Tangled, and its marketing campaign hyped a sort of DreamWorks-style modern snark. The teaser trailer was a dreadful gag-fest featuring the song “Trouble” by Pink (or P!nk or P¿nk or whatever) and the poster emphasized characters giving knowing smirks at the audience without any evidence of the fairy-tale setting.

That’s a shame, because this campaign kept me out of theaters when the film was released, and probably a lot of other people like me who are wary of any CGI film that doesn’t have the name “PIXAR” on it. I thought Disney was trying to imitate DreamWorks’ model, and I had no interest in that. Even How to Train Your Dragon, a film many people appreciated, did nothing for me because of the DreamWorks touch and jokey attitude toward fantasy.

Did Tangled get a larger gross because it took this advertising route, or did it miss out scoring an even wider audience that wanted classic Disney back and didn’t know the film actually had it? It’s impossible to say, but the advertising campaign does misrepresent what the film is. And there was no reason to deviate from a classic, instantly recognizable title like Rapunzel for the confused Tangled. I don’t think the movie made one buck more because of the title change. Imagine if Beauty and the Beast had been titled Beastly. (Yes, there was just a movie with that title based on Beauty and the Beast.)

Tangled has humor, and even some wiseacre comedy, mostly from its supporting hero character of Flynn Rider. (Disney had an addiction to the name “Flynn” in late 2010, apparently.) But most of its humor is similar to the style of the 1990s animated films like Aladdin and The Lion King, with comic support characters doing their shtick. The plight of heroine Rapunzel and the scheming of her villainous foster mother (yeah, one of those!) are taken with admirable seriousness. Even a sword fight that seems like a parody, where a man with frying pan fences with a horse wielding a short sword in its mouth, plays more for Medieval light action than for overt “yuk-yuks.”

Nothing about the plot of Tangled will surprise viewers. Anyone old enough to have watched a few Disney classics will recognize the simple fable quality of the hero/heroine who Yearns to Overcome and Follow His/Her Dreams to Find His/Her Truest Bestest Self. But the formula works if tackled with skill and sincerity, and Tangled manages that. The choice not to make a joke out of the standards of the fairy tale works immensely in the film’s favor so that it feels fresh even though its ingredients have been sold over-the-counter since the Brothers Grimm.

Of course, “Rapunzel” is one of the fairy tales that the Brothers Grimm collected in the early 19th century (Aarne-Thompson type 310, “Maiden in Tower”). The story has undergone the usual set of Disney-tweaks to make it into a feature-length film that includes the requisite magic, action, and villains. The core idea is identical: a witch takes a newborn baby from a couple and encloses the girl in a tower, where she grows out her hair to absurd but climbable length. A handsome young man finds her when she is older and helps her to escape. The script from Dan Fogelman makes Rapunzel into a princess, and the hero—originally a prince—into a thief who stumbles onto the tower as a place to hide. The major addition to the story is the enchanting of Rapunzel’s hair, which can restore youth and heal wounds, but cannot be cut or else it loses its power. This magic hair is the reason the witch, Mother Gothel, kidnapped Rapunzel in the first place.

The two main thrusters in Tangled’s engine that push it toward greatness are the character of Rapunzel and the film’s animation design, supervised by Glen Keane.

Rapunzel is a perfect “Dinsey Princess” character, and it seems amazing that the company took so long to get to this fairy tale considering what a goldmine of potential the female lead is. Voiced with verve by Mandy Moore, and animated with marvelous fluidity and warmth, Rapunzel is my favorite Disney heroine since Belle of Beauty and the Beast. The script doesn’t work overtime to convince us that she’s a strong character, but lets her vivacity shine through naturally to make her assertive and attractive as the movie’s center and mover of the plot. We’ve seen this sort of aspiring character before, but Rapunzel is wonderfully alive on the screen and a joy to watch overcome obstacles. Of course, she has an animal sidekick: an adorable chameleon named Pascal, who gives the animators many opportunities to blend him in creative ways with his background.

I can sum up my reaction to Tangled’s design in one word: Wow. Animator Glen Keane wanted the CGI work on the film to have a quality similar to classic cel animation, and he got exactly what he asked for. Almost every frame of Tangled is shimmering oil-painting beauty. The medieval Germanic appearance is the perfect combination of reality and fantasy that makes the world tactile but also transporting. Rapunzel’s hair is a marvel of computer-image wizardry, and the colorful “Sky Lantern” festival that is a thematic center point of the movie is full of soft, ethereal colors that compare well with the wonderful work Pixar did with the balloons on Up. Even if Tangled had nothing else to offer, I would still recommend the film simply for the visual experience it delivers. The film cost $260 million dollars and too six years of work, and all that money and effort is right on the screen.

Where Tangled flops around a bit is with ostensible male lead Flynn Rider (voiced by Zacahary Levi). He’s a playbook dashing rogue figure, a huckster who eventually finds his underlying heart. His cliché never takes off the way that Rapunzel’s does. Most of the groaner moments of comedy come from him, but even he mellows into the heartfelt flow of the movie by the end.

Another aspect of Tangled that holds it back is the surprisingly uninteresting musical score. Alan Menken, who wrote popular hits for many of Disney films over the last twenty-plus years like “Beauty and the Beast,” “Under the Sea,” and “Be Our Guest,” manages nothing memorable here at all. I couldn’t remember a single song the moment the credits ended, except for the title “Mother Knows Best”—the obligatory villain anthem—and even then I couldn’t recall its melody. Perhaps it isn’t Menken’s fault, but that of lyricist Glenn Slater. Regardless, it makes me fondly reminiscence about the days when Jerry Goldsmith composed a score for a Disney animated film (Mulan).

I hope that I’ve reached a few people out there who, like myself, passed on this film when it originally came out: Tangled is superb fantasy entertainment and one of the most lovely CGI animated creations. It works as the ideal fairy-tale complement to the cerebral modern films of Pixar.