I mentioned last week, in my review of The Princess and the Frog, how it could be regarded as the first part in an informal post-modern/post-renaissance trilogy, being as it is, a movie very much interested in playing with the traditional conceptions of what a Disney Princess is like. Tangled, which came only a year later, would be the second installment in the trilogy, although it is undoubtedly the least experimental of the three. Honestly, while I was re-watching Tangled, I felt that maybe it wasn’t deconstructive enough of the Princess idea to comfortably fit in my theory. Ultimately, I think it does fit, and if not necessarily about deconstructing its classic heroines, the one-two-three punch of Princess and the Frog, Tangled, and Frozen, is a trilogy about Disney trying to bring their classic style to the 21st Century.
The plot of Tangled is pretty straightforward as far as movies about cartoon princesses go. It is worth mentioning that it is based on the classic Grimm fairy tale of Rapunzel, and that unlike Princess and the Frog and Frozen, which are also based on fairy tales, it is the one that stays closest to the source material. The biggest experimentation in making this a more modern movie than Disney’s previous oeuvre is in how much the characterization of Rapunzel feels like that of an actual teenager and not a cartoon Princess. But apart from that, the fact that it is computer animation instead of traditional hand-drawn, and some character relationships I will get into later, Tangled absolutely looks and feels like a movie Disney could have released in the early nineties. More specifically, the movie that it particularly makes me think of is The Little Mermaid.
The thing you might remember about the time when Tangled came out, is how horrible the marketing was. It seems like the commercial disappointment of Princess and the Frog fed the executive’s foolish notion that “female” movies don’t make money at the box office. Starting from the title change from the classic Rapunzel to the generic Tangled, going all the way to the horrible trailer that focused on the male character’s perspective and was scored to Pink’s “Trouble” indicated that we had another Shrek-like attempt to “modernize” animated fairy tales. The fact that Tangled made money cemented the idea that this was the way to go as far as marketing goes. I mean, Frozen’s production and marketing history is practically a mirror image of what happened to Tangled (its title was originally The Snow Queen, and its ads focused heavily on sidekick snowman Olaf instead of the two female leads). The fact that both movies made a gazillion dollars (Frozen, as I’ve said before, is now the highest grossing animated movie of all time), gives me hope that this trend of horrible marketing will end, but really, at this point it seems like Disney doesn’t know its audience. Every time Disney Animation Studios has been at the top of its game (financially, if not always critically) it has been aided by Princess stories and female protagonists: Snow White, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid… all three of those movies were huge unexpected successes, the latter of which was actually released with low expectations because it was considered a “female” movie.
I feel like I might have spent way too much time writing about this, but it’s a subject that makes me real angry. Anyway, Disney, own you brand, be yourself, don’t try to disguise in the clothes of inferior movies. The reason people loves Tangled (and Frozen for that matter) is because of how it harkens back to the classics. Case in point, Tangled, despite its 3D appearance, is the most classically Disney movie released since… probably since Beauty and the Beast. Even more than Princess and the Frog, which is set in a real city in the real world and features a jazz-inpsired soundtrack, Tangled is set in a fantasy kingdom and features typically Disney songs. Well, typical of the Renaissance period, which isn’t a surprise considering composer Alan Menken was in charge of the soundtrack (along with lyricist Glenn Slater). And like I said before, the story is very much the one we associate with the “Rapunzel” fairy tale. A princess is kidnapped at birth by an old, mean lady and kept alone in a tower until a young man -who is often a prince in the fairy tale, but a bandit in the movie- comes to “save” her. Now, this movie being made in the 21st Century, bandit Flynn Ryder (Zachary Levi) doesn’t save Rapunzel (Mandy Moore), as much as they collaborate to get out of trouble, save each other, and fall in love in the process. The movie, and here is an aspect in which it is perfectly like the other members of my informal trilogy, is structured like an opposites-attract/road-trip-movie. In this case, sheltered, naive Rapunzel, and scheming bad-boy Flynn. It unfolds almost like a classic screwball comedy. I guess it’s what Disney wanted to achieve with all three of these Princess movies, but it’s obvious to me that thanks to having the strongest character development of the three, Tangled is by far the best at it.
There is no question in my mind that Tangled is the best of the three Princess movies I’ve been talking about, even though I recognize that is also the least ambitious of the group. The truth is that even if its conservative heart (meaning in terms of movie conceptions, not politically) doesn’t bring something unabashedly new to the table, it is just so freakishly well made that I can’t help but absolutely love it. Two of the reasons for my affection, I wanted to make clear with the video I posted above this paragraph. First is the comedy, which is: one, largely based on silent gags (thanks in part to the wise decision to not have the animal characters talk), and two, at its best when it’s based on character. Tangled benefits a lot out of this last characteristic due to the fact that its plot comes down to basically three players: Rapunzel, Flynn Ryder, and villain Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy). The movie takes its time to flesh out the characters, and what’s even more important, doesn’t seem too concerned with giving too much time to any other side-players. This last remark brings me back to the movie’s economy, and how confident it is at not spelling things out, but letting images speak for themselves. The perfect example of this is the treatment of the Rapunzel’s parents, whose emotional arch of losing and regaining their daughter is conveyed without them uttering a single word.
Since we’ve transitioned into talking about the movie’s more dramatic elements, let me tell you how much I love the central relationship of Tangled, which is not the one between Rapunzel and Flynn Ryder, in case you were wondering, but the one between Rapunzel and Mother Gothel. Gothel, who is played wonderfully by Broadway veteran Donna Murphy as the biggest diva the Disney Canon has seen since Ursula (if not Cruella De Vil), is not only the kind of character Disney’s best villains are made of, but a woman who has kidnapped a child and raised her believing she is her daughter. That is the kind of fascinating plot development that is taken for granted in fairy tales, but one that provides us with the most complex parent-child relationships a Disney movie has ever seen. Because it is first and foremost a family movie with young children as its target audience, the movie doesn’t quite dare to go as far as to suggest that after all these years living together, Gothel might have developed maternal feelings towards Rapunzel. It is pretty clear that she keeps the kidnapped princess in the tower for the selfish purpose of using her magic hair to keep herself young, but the movie does a tremendous work in showing how torn Rapunzel is about leaving the tower (even if it is the thing she most wants in the world) out of the love she feels for the person that she believes to be her mother.
With every re-watch of the movie, it always comes down to Rapunzel for me. I just love the character. She might very well be my favorite princess in all of Disney’s canon. I love the design, starting from the very basic notion of making her look like a teenager (that toothy grin!), and I love the characterization, which is helped by Mandy Moore, who does a surprisingly fantastic work both in dialogue and singing. If I’m being honest, I could go on and on trying to analyze what is it about her that is so effective, but at the end of the day, as with the things one loves most in art and entertainment, I just can’t quite put my finger on the reason why she speaks to me so much. If I were to guess, I’d say it has something to do with her very basic longing to see the lanterns that float in the sky on her birthday. I guess the innocence of her quest (and her character) gets to me. Like I said, I don’t know what it is, but what I do know is that the movie sells that longing to me and I eat it up like candy every single time. That scene towards the end, when she is on the boat and finally gets to see the lanterns, that shit always makes me cry… which might mean that the reason I love the movie so much might have to do with something deeply personal within me? In any case, I don’t care, because, one: isn’t that what movies are supposed to do? two: I think I’ve made a pretty good case for why it is a good movie, and three: I’m sad to inform you that if you don’t cry watching this movie, the probabilities are you might not have a heart.
Next Week: Disney keeps playing with its own past in Winnie the Pooh