Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Long Beautiful Hair: TANGLED

Disney’s latest animated feature is Tangled, a retelling of the story of Rapunzel, the princess with the incredibly long golden hair. The film’s a straight-up fairy tale, no apologies. It doesn’t feel the need to wink at the audience, distancing itself from the formula for cheap gags or in a bid for elusive contemporary coolness. That kind of hedging and equivocating has infected not just Disney films, but many animated family films in the last decade. There was a rush to learn from Pixar’s example by using computer animation, while overlooking the true strengths of Pixar: sincerity and simple emotion, the same qualities that Disney itself once knew by heart.

With Tangled, Disney finds its way back to its sweet spot, building on last year’s good first step with Princess and the Frog. Their latest film is sweet and charming. It’s not exactly innovating, but it’s fresh and surprisingly powerful. In Dan Fogelman’s script, Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) has been locked in a tower for her entire childhood. The evil Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy) has raised her as her daughter after kidnapping the infant princess. You see, Rapunzel’s hair is a fountain of youth. Now, on the precipice of adulthood, Rapunzel yearns to explore the outside world. Of course, for all this time, the king and queen have been searching for their missing daughter. Gothel knows that to let Rapunzel leave the tower would mean to lose youth forever.

The film is filled with rich mother issues. It’s essentially a stand-off between an old view of femininity that tells women to stay locked in a domestic setting, useful only for their physical qualities, and a modern view of women as complete, resourceful individuals of great inherent worth, with talents and insights well worth sharing with the outside world. Rapunzel’s small, personal rebellion against her “mother” consists of secretly cultivating myriad talents. Gothel knows the girl paints, bakes, reads, thinks, and dreams (for starters), but does she know how well? And does she even begin to realize the girl’s potential? She keeps Rapunzel captive by subtly undermining her self-esteem. The film sits on this conflict, deepened by the sense of awful betrayal at the center. Rapunzel has a love for this maternal figure that is painfully sad to us in the audience, aware as we are of the kidnapping.

Dropping into the tower to complicate the plot is Flynn Ryder (Zachary Levi), a thief who, by ditching his thuggish partners-in-crime (Ron Perlman), has just barely escaped the royal guards chasing him. To Rapunzel he represents both a novelty and an opportunity. He is the outside world and all the promise and danger that entails. She talks him into escorting her outside the tower, so together they climb down, kicking off a plot that is a well-oiled machine consisting of various overlapping chases. Mother Gothel’s on the hunt for Rapunzel while two groups, both the royal guards and the cheated thugs, are on the trail of Flynn. The film develops into a bright and sunny chase picture with plenty of funny little detours and zippy, exciting action sequences.

It’s never a possibility to forget that it’s a Disney picture, filled as it is with the trappings of the Disney formula, but that’s hardly a burden in this case. Rather than feeling rote, these elements soar by being exceptionally well done. Co-directors Nathan Greno and Byron Howard have made the best animated feature to come out of Disney since 2002’s Lilo and Stitch and the studio's best fairy tale since 1991’s Beauty and the Beast. The animation is a gorgeous, rounded CG style that is a close approximation to the traditional Disney 2D style. (It even uses the new 3D technology to lovely effect). The songs are delightful (if not immediately catchy), the supporting characters are likable, and the animal sidekicks are more than ready for their reaction shots. A goofy little chameleon is surprisingly subdued for a sidekick, with cute, nonverbal expressiveness. Even better is a mute law-enforcement horse that engages in a single-minded pursuit that gallops through the film bringing only hilarious antics.

And, of course, what would a Disney movie be without a romance? The relationship between Flynn and Rapunzel develops with admirable restraint, emerging slowly and cautiously out of the characters themselves. There’s never a sense that she needs a man to rescue her. (If any saving happens in the film, she saves him, or they save each other). Nor is there a sense that the romance is what’s driving her curiosity. She learns that she’s self-sufficient. Her romance develops along with her love of the outside world.

More than the average family film, and certainly more than anything Disney has done in a decade, Tangled packs plenty of emotion into a breezily entertaining romp. It’s pleasantly complicated and surprisingly touching. This is a film of direct, earnestly simple, skillfully playful, and self-assured storytelling that builds (in advance of its very satisfying climax) to one of the most beautiful sequences to hit the big screen all year. It starts with a tear running down a monarch’s face and ends with hundreds of floating lanterns surrounding a pair of potential lovers in a rowboat. It's surprisingly moving sequences like this, especially when they hit with such unexpected force, that make the movies worthwhile.

No comments:

Post a Comment