Just over 21 years ago, Disney revitalized animation with the release of The Little Mermaid. The film heralded a resurgence of both animation and the musical genre. A strong argument could be made that the musical craze many attribute to High School Musical, also a Disney production, can trace its roots to a rebellious red-head, a crab and a flounder. Mermaid also paved the way for the creative powerhouse that would become Pixar. Perhaps most importantly to little girls of a generation, it created the phenomenon known as “The Disney Princesses.”
In all, Mermaid launched a new dynasty, with gorgeous animation and superb music. Nearly 21 years to the day, Disney released what they announced would be the final Princess movie: Tangled. The box office disappointment of the Princess and the Frog, snubbed by some as too girly, seemed to signal the end of the two-decade reign of Disney royalty. Having heard the complaints, the studio’s take on the Rapunzel story was retooled, introducing a much more prominent male figure, more action, and a new name.
Whatever changes were made, the final result works. I thoroughly enjoyed Princess and the Frog, but Tangled was a delight that reminded me of those extraordinary films from the early 90s.
The tale begins with an old woman witnessing a drop of pure sunlight fall to earth, blossoming into a glorious glowing flower. She finds that if she sings to it, it restores her youth and beauty. Seeking to secure her eternal youth, she hides the flower under a camouflaged basket. Years later, the queen of a nearby kingdom falls deathly ill as the birth of her daughter approaches. The soldiers scour the countryside, seeking a cure for their queen. They find the flower, to the horror of the woman who had hidden it. They uproot it, taking it back with them. It is turned into a broth and heals the queen when she drinks it. She gives birth to a healthy baby girl, Rapunzel, with sun-kissed golden locks. The old woman enters the royal nursery, and finds that if she sings over the child, her hair glows and the healing power of the flower are released. The woman, named Gothel, attempts to cut off a lock of the hair to keep and hopefully hold on to her youth. To her dismay, when cut, the hair becomes brown, and loses its magical properties. She seizes the infant, and flees the castle as the King and Queen watch helplessly as their daughter disappears. Gothel locks the girl away in a tall tower, raises her as her own, and uses the child’s power to stay young and beautiful. Heartbroken at their loss, the king and queen release floating lanterns into the night sky, every year on Rapunzel’s birthday, hoping for their daughter’s safe return.
Immediately, the Disney treatment of the old tale resonated with me. All too often, Disney’s take is diluted and modified to the point the story is unrecognizable and insipid. In this case, the changes deepen the story. The extraordinary length of Rapunzel’s hair is not just a detail but an intrinsically key part of the plot. Gothel, superbly portrayed by the incomparable Donna Murphy, is a terrifying villainess without the aid of magic to demonstrate her evil intentions. She’s manipulative and wicked in a real, familiar, and chilling way. Gothel is the kind of demon we can all too often see in the real world, and the writers and Murphy deserve props for crafting a villain of this depth and caliber. As she alternates from saccharine sweetness and aggression, Gothel could arguably be the most compelling heavy in the Disney pantheon.
Rapunzel, a sassy and well-realized heroine voiced by Mandy Moore, lives in her tower prison, covering the walls in vibrant murals. We are treated to a clever montage of the acrobatic feats the young girl can perform with her prodigious locks. We are also introduced to her only friend, a silent but entirely amusing chameleon named Pascal. Rapunzel is a heroine in the classic sense: she has strong character, charm, wit, and a yearning for more. Her murals are a two-dimensional substitute for a world she desperately longs to see, however her “mother” uses guilt and her faux concern for her “daughter” to keep her trapped in the tower.
This status quo would remain intact were it not for the exploits of our hero, the roguish, rakish Flynn Rider. Our introduction to the handsome thief comes as he and his two massive, muttonheaded associates stage a daring heist in a heavily guarded citadel. Rider absconds with a jeweled tiara, that observant audience members will recognize as belonging to the missing princess. In short order, his henchmen attempt to betray him, but he deftly escapes from their and the pursuing soldiers’ clutches. Unbeknownst to Rider, the horse of the captain of the guard, a large, proud white stallion named Maximus, breaks free from his master and chases after the thief with the resolve, and more than a few of the mannerisms of a bloodhound.
Once the stage is set, our heroes and villains introduced, Tangled kicks into high gear. The journey introduces us and the unlikely couple to a disreputable pub filled with a gallery of outlandish characters who look like the thugs they are but deliver mirth and humor by the truckload.
As in Mermaid, Alan Menken penned the music. The soundtrack is filled with winning songs performed wonderfully by the cast. The single greatest surprise was the duet I See The Light. Zachary Levi, best known as the title character of the delightful and underrated Chuck, voices Flynn, imbuing him with all the humor and heart I expect of Levi. However, he sings with Moore in what is destined to be an instant Disney classic ballad. His voice is pure and strong and lovely, a perfect counterpart to Moore’s dulcet pipes.
I saw this movie in 3D, and I would easily recommend it over the 2D version. As the charming I See the Light plays out, Rapunzel and Flynn are seated in a gondola, while 50,000 glowing, floating paper lanterns drift through the night sky. The effect is nothing short of breathtaking. Including the extraordinary imagery of Avatar, I have seen nothing as movingly beautiful on the screen. That scene alone is worth the price of admission and should not be missed. It is a gloriously poignant and gorgeous bit of movie magic.
Visually, Tangled is an achievement on every front. The plot never drags, but carries us along with a perfect rhythm of fast-paced action and slower more intimate moments. All of the performances are top notch, even from the silent, sidekick critters. I will admit that the pivotal moment at the climax utterly surprised me. I had no inkling what was coming and it was artfully done. I can say that no Disney animated film has surprised me in this fashion.
Tangled does what classic Disney should do: it delights children and adults through its visuals and its music. Tangled sweetens the pot with one of the strongest stories to emerge from the House of Mouse. This was the first computer generated animated princess movie they have done, and, if they are to be believed, it is the last. Tangled cost approximately $260 million to make, earning it the spot of most expensive animated feature ever. As of this writing, Disney had earned almost $500 million in worldwide box office. The success of the film might cause the powers that be to reconsider their stance. The snub by the Academy for this year’s Oscars is, in my opinion, unforgivable, but at least I See the Light earned a nomination.
Regardless, Tangled is a wonderful film, and audiences of all ages will not be disappointed. If you can see it in 3D, do so. This is do-not-miss entertainment.