Saturday, November 27, 2010

Love: Tangled

The trailers for Disney's 50th animated motion picture, Tangled, tell a very different story than the film itself.  I have to admit, the initial teasers with the dull royal blue title backing and that irritating P!nk song bummed me out.  With each passing advertisement, I became more and more convinced that Disney had obliterated their credibility when it comes to weaving fairy tales.  Let's face it: the trailers make this movie look like a piece of schlocky, low-rent crap chock full of dumb sight gags and nonsensical animal sidekicks.  In short: it made it look like a Dreamworks movie.  The cutting room scraps from Shrek 3, if you will.  I was very nearly convinced that there would be no need for me to see this film.  That, in spite of all the early concept art and film geek buzz on the animation being engineered to look very much like a painting, this would be nothing more than a weak companion piece to offset the noise of a million cashiers ringing up long-haired Rapunzel dolls and plastic princess tiaras.   Yes, I believed this.  Me.  The kid who has been otherwise brainwashed by the Disney corporation (I admit this) into defending them even when they don't deserve the defense.  I was worried that we were dipping into an unfortunate low point where dumb humor counted more than story, a second coming of the Treasure Planet, Home on the Range era of forgettable fare.   That said: you have no idea how relieved I was when, roughly 10 minutes in, I realized that this would not be the case.  That, in spite of a relatively forgettable soundtrack, Tangled is a legitimate addition to the Disney Princess canon, as well as a beautiful progression for Disney's computer based animation. 
Tangled is, of course, not a straight retelling of the Rapunzel story.  It's been retooled and refurbished to allow for more action, more depth of character, and significantly less young damsel in distress.  Our new Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) is the other side of the modern princess coin thrown by Disney with last year's Princess and the Frog.  In that film, Tiana was a young, African-American girl with big goals and the drive to achieve them.  She was all business, literally.  Where Tiana was criticized for being at times just too serious (to the point of blandness), Rapunzel is your snarky, can't wait to have fun, teenager.  On her 18th birthday, she's been locked in a tower by Gothel, the kidnapper who has raised her as her own,  for as long as she can remember.  While Gothel claims the world is simply too dangerous for a ray of sunshine like herself, the back story is (and you'll have to see the film to understand why) that Rapunzel's hair possesses magical, regenerative qualities.  It can heal the sick and reverse the aging process, and Gothel is all about being eternally young.  While locked away, Rapunzel has not spent her time crying, idly wishing for companionship or a saviour prince.  Instead, she's cultivated an insane bevy of talents and kept herself on a rigorous (though obviously repetitive) schedule.  In our sing-song introduction to Rapunzel, she runs us through her average day. She reads, paints, plays guitar, cooks, bakes, charts the stars, exercises, holds extensive conversations with her pet chameleon Pascal, etc.  Her dream is not one of love, but one of just getting out of the house.  She wants nothing more than to see the source of the mysterious "floating lights" that appear in the nightsky every year on her birthday.  Gothel, her less obviously wicked, more textbook guilt-tripping narcissist surrogate mother, of course refuses.  Rapunzel, however, is a tougher cookie than that.
When Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi) climbs the tower in a desperate attempt to escape his captors, Rapunzel knocks him out with a frying pan (several times, actually), locks him in her closet, binds him in her hair, and interrogates him until they strike a bargain.  He becomes her unwilling guide to the outside world, and unlike Ariel or Jasmine, Rapunzel doesn't get a song about escaping her confines or desperate longing.  As they continue, it's clear she doesn't even need Flynn Rider.  If she knew where she was going, she could take care of herself.  He can't.  No, instead, her biggest trials initially stem from a more realistic combination of pure, gleeful excitement and total, guilt-ridden anxiety.  She is, 100%, your average 18-year old in the midst of doing that which she knows she shouldn't.  Of course, the romance comes later, but it's a slow blossom with more realistic attachments than a pretty face and a once upon a dream mentality.  This isn't love at first sight for either party.  The characters are allowed to exist in grey areas.  They're good, bad, and conflicted.  The relationship between Flynn and Rapunzel evolves in a logical way, and ends with each self-interested character (Rapunzel earns that title simply because she has had so few human experiences) discovering their own capacity to feel something about someone.  Even Mother Gothel, the obvious villain, isn't painted as entirely devoid of her merits. 
At the core of Tangled there is less fairy tale romance than a relatively straightforward delving into the mother/daughter relationship.  Where Disney tales have frequently bypassed the parents, killed them off, or painted them either jealous shrews (Snow White, Cinderella) or embarrassingly weak (Jasmine, Belle); Tangled is more nuanced.  Gothel is possessive in a way that feels alternately doting and abusive.  In a way, she does love Rapunzel.  She cooks for her, tends to her needs, encourages her in-tower pursuits, and will travel for 3-days simply to pick up seashells so that Rapunzel can grind them into paint.  You have to admit, it's a far cry from making her scrub the floors ten times a day in rags.  At the same time, however, Gothel is verbally (and eventually physically) abusive.  She's controlling, quietly mocking, and manipulative.  Rapunzel believes that Gothel cares for her, and Gothel does; if only because Rapunzel is the only embodiment of the magical component she requires to live her life the way she wants to.  Their relationship is complex, though it evolves into something maniacal and dangerous.  For adults, the glib, easy breezy psychology is a sort of treat.  There's a weightlessness to Tangled, an airy levity that permeates the narrative even in its darkest moments. The magic, though, is that this is accomplished without too many sacrifices to the maturity of the story.  Clever dialogue and smart banter abound in Tangled, and when juxtaposed against two fabulous, silent sidekicks, the balance of kid to adult is pitch perfect. 
Tangled, while perhaps not quite accomplishing the impressionistic visuals aimed for, is also visually dazzling in the manner of a well-illustrated storybook.  Its lush greenery and worn down stone gives way to scene after scene of surprisingly naturalistic imagery.  The songs, by Beauty and the Beast lyricist Alan Menken, are not quite as standout.  With Tangled, the score is unmistakably Broadway.  Within the scenes, they do the trick, but are obviously ill-fitting.  By my count, there are approximately 4 major numbers in Tangled, and perhaps what's missing, what makes them feel out of place and underwhelming, is simply that 4 is just about 3 too few to make this a real musical.  For some viewers, the long pauses between vocal eruptions may be distracting.  The few songs there are work fantastically as introductions or sneakily expository information, but it's possible Tangled would have worked without them.  Personally, I'm kind of glad they're there.  It just wouldn't be a Disney princess movie without a song or two, however fleeting.  I sense the nine year olds would agree with me.


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