Film review by: Witney Seibold

Finally. Finally a CGI animated film from Disney that does it correctly. It doesn’t take a very astute observer to notice the sorry state of the American animated film. There are a few high-quality standouts every year, and we are frequently blessed with the occasional foreign master, but the overwhelming bulk of American animated features tend to be callow, over-commercialized hyperactive kiddie fare that’s in 3-D, and contains no substance or artistry of merit. What’s more, they are lazily written, and when they’re not being ironic or self-referential, they’re peppering the audience with deliberately anachronistic (and hugely obnoxious) pop culture references.

It’s odd, then, that Disney, the biggest, most bloated animation studio of them all, known for their adherence to formula, should provide the world with Nathan Greno and Byron Howard’s “Tangled,” a fairy tale that’s actually more concerned with story and quality animation than it is with cheap, jejune yuks and cheeky cinematic quotations.

“Tangled” is the Rapunzel story, tweaked slightly. “Shrek” has dictated that little kids are no longer interested in straightforward fairy tales, and Disney’s own semi-animate fable “Enchanted” tried really hard to deconstruct the feminist messages behind the well-known blonde-princess pop myths, but “Tangled” shakes free of “Shrek’s” protracted cynicism and “Enchanted’s” calculated/safe rebellion, and goes for the heart. An extraneous narration at the film’s outset informs us that Rapunzel, once the daughter of royalty was kidnapped as an infant by a vain old witch. Rapunzel’s long blonde hair has magical healing powers, and the old witch, claiming to be her mother, keeps her locked up in a tower, using her healing powers to stay eternally youthful.  On the eve of her 18th birthday, Rapunzel gets a serious case of cabin fever, and longs to visit a castle she knows to be nearby.

The evil witch in “Tangled” is a far more innovative creation than the usual brand of Disney cacklers; Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy) is a manipulative schemer, but one that subtly browbeats her charge under the guise of love. She sings a wonderfully nasty song about mother knowing best. She comes across less like a monster, and more like a stage mother.

Rapunzel herself, played by Mandy Moore, is a typical bubbleheaded teen girl, looks a lot like a Barbie Doll, and she reacts to the world with wide-eyed awe. When she breaks her surly bonds and goes on her birthday quest, her ambivalence is comically vocal. Accompanying Rapunzel is the dashing thief Flynn Ryder (Zachary Levi), who, thankfully stays away from predictable asshole territory, and, while mildly bland, at least reads as a self-deprecating human character. What’s more, his jokes and one-liners are actually funny, rather than filler dialogue.

Disney films are often known for their obnoxious animal sidekicks, and “Tangled” has its share; there’s a cute li’l chameleon that serves little function. But I have to admit that my favorite character in the film was a hard-nosed police horse who doggedly pursued Flynn through all manner of trials. The horse was smarter than any of the cops, and the stern, comic animation on him was some of the best CGI I’ve seen in ages. A friend of mine compared the horse to Javert from Les Miserables, which is an apt comparison.

The songs are nice, but kind of forgettable (although I was fond of a song sung by ambitious brigands, revealing their more womanly talents). I liked that the animators focused less on creating images for a fairy tale location, and seemed to focus more on actually creating livable places. There wasn’t any extraneous action, and the chase scenes never felt like fodder. Thre quarters of the way through “Tangled,” I began to feel that this was the best animated feature that Disney has put out in years; it felt uncalculated, so much more natural than the obvious marketing ploys of “The Princess and the Frog.”

I’m going to give away the ending here, but there’s something I wanted to talk about. If you plan on seeing the film, don’t read this paragraph. At the end of the film, when it looks like all is at its worst, Mother Gothel has the young hero and heroine cornered, and one of them is bleeding to death, Rapunzel has her magical hair cut from her head. She turns into a brunette, and the hair loses its power. This may seem like a cockeyed theory, but I saw this detail as a clever way to subvert the usual Disney fairy tale nonsense in a subtle fashion. The blonde princess was able to become free and independent, and she had to sacrifice her childhood images of flighty bliss. The childhood was a fairy tale dream, and a blonde princess fantasy. By becoming a brunette, she became more human. Disney was taking the magic out of the wasp-waisted Aryans that are commonly associated with the genre. Maybe that one requires more thought.

I do encourage you to see “Tangled.” It seems like we’re back in the game, and Disney proves that they can actually make entertaining films every once in a while, films that don’t feel like they were mass-produced out of the Mouse Candy Machine.

Published in: on December 7, 2010 at 8:42 pm  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. I second this review. Go see Tangled it brings back that nostalgic feel you use to get when watching the long awaited new Disney animated film.

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