Since the debut of Toy Story there has been a debate about whether a computer animated musical could ever be a success. The argument was that computer animated characters are too realistic to believably break into song. As a result, musicals remained in the realm of hand-drawn animation, which had become troubling given the slow death of traditional animation. But leave it to Disney to reinvent the animated musical once again.
Tangled is an absolutely charming take on the classic story of Rapunzel. In this version, Rapunzel is a princess, kidnapped as a baby for her magical hair. It seems that when a particular song is sung, her hair will heal wounds or turn back the aging process. An old woman stole Rapunzel from her crib and locked her in a hidden tower, raiser her as her daughter in order to have eternal youth. Even more inescapable than the tower is her “mother’s” grasp. Desperate to remain young, Mother teaches Rapunzel to fear the outside world, telling her that it is full of dangerous people and creatures, and that Rapunzel is incapable of handling or surviving leaving the tower.
But Rapunzel has a dream. Every year on her birthday, the King and Queen release floating lanterns into the sky, in the hopes that their lost daughter will follow the lights home. Rapunzel’s dream, and her eighteenth birthday wish, is to go see the lights up close instead of watching them from her window once again. She asks Mother to take her, but gets put in her place. So she makes plans to escape and follow her dream, and who should stumble across her tower but the perfect person to help her chase that dream.
Flynn Ryder is a new type of hero in the princess movie genre. He is far more than just an object of desire for our heroine, or a white knight to rescue a damsel in distress. A cocky thief, Flynn climbs Rapunzel’s tower to escape from palace guards after stealing Rapunzel’s crown from the castle. But he more than meets his match in our princess. After knocking him out with a frying pan and hiding his bag, she cuts a deal with him. If he will take her to the floating lights, she will give him back the crown. What follows is a fun, sweet and exciting adventure, with singing thugs, chases, escapes, romance and magic.
Rapunzel is an interesting character. She’s strong and she is a dreamer, but her “mother” has inflicted a lot of damage on her. It is a bit of a shock to see such an abusive parent-child relationship in an animated film. Mother has taught Rapunzel that she is weak and incapable of surviving without Mother’s protection. She keeps her locked up and fearful of the outside world, all the while using Rapunzel to keep her young. Mother even uses phrases like, “Great, now I’m the bad guy” to make Rapunzel feel guilty for questioning her judgment. It’s very telling that as obviously evil as the Mother’s behavior is, when Rapunzel finally sets foot on the ground she is torn between joy at being free and guilt for even wanting to be free. Her emotional tower, built by Mother’s selfishness and cruelty, is a much bigger obstacle than the one built of stone. But throughout it all, Rapunzel is a strong individual, firmly fixed on her dream, something any real parent couldn’t be prouder of, and it speaks volumes that her real parents never stop believing in her.
Tangled is a lot of fun. Mandy Moore and Zachary Levi give Rapunzel and Flynn a lot of character. The supporting voice cast is great, especially the singing criminals who all have secret dreams of their own. But two mute characters really steal the show. Rapunzel’s only friend is Pascal the chameleon. In the same vein as Gromit, Pascal is expressive and hilarious without ever saying a word. Flynn gets his own animal companion, Maximus, a royal horse who continues chasing Flynn for his crime after losing the guard who was riding him. The sword fighting Max behaves more like a bloodhound than a horse, and eventually joins our duo to help Rapunzel find her dream.
Tangled is gorgeously animated. It recalls the great tradition of Disney animation while combing with the sort of expertise we have come to expect from Disney’s other animation studio, Pixar. It is also, in my eyes, the most tactile animated film I’ve ever seen. All of the textures and surfaces look lusciously real, as though you could reach out and touch them (and I saw it in good, old fashioned 2D). The main characters, Rapunzel in particular, look and feel real, despite the animated nature of their faces. Their hair (by necessity of the story) and clothes look and move especially convincingly in close-up, and their hands and feet do, too. Rapunzel spends the entire movie barefoot, and the ways her feet move throughout her journey really help to make her real. It’s not something someone would necessarily notice, but it really works. In the days of motion-capture and Avatar-style effects, it’s a refreshing example of the artistic abilities of animators.
It’s fitting that Alan Menken was chosen to musically transition the animated musical into this new medium. His score for The Little Mermaid helped that film revolutionize and reinvigorate animation, paving the way for Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King, whose successes helped prepare the way for Pixar and the animation of today. Menken’s score is fantastic, incorporating a lot of classical guitar and giving the film its voice and mood. His songs (with lyrics by Glenn Slater) are simple but memorable. Whether in Rapunzel’s opening song of dreaming for her life to finally begin, or with a rowdy number where thugs can let themselves be who they truly are, Menken shows he is a master of the genre. It all comes together, animation, music, acting and story, in one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve seen on film, when Rapunzel finally gets her dream. In a boat with Flynn, surrounded by floating lanterns, they sing to each other of love and dreams, and we, the audience, remember why we get out of bed in the morning, why we keep going when life grabs you by the hair, why you need to cut yourself free of the things and people holding you back, and why we all need a little help to chase our dreams.