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Non-Review Review: Tangled

Disney’s 50th animated feature film is something of a return to traditional values. Despite the surrounding discussion about whether this would be Disney’s last “princess” fairytale film or whether boys would respond to the story of Rapunzel, the movie is assuredly old school in its style. Although the way that it has been handled by the studio betrays a stunning insecurity about it, it’s self-assured a good old fashioned fairytale at heart. Though it moves away from hand-drawn animation to computer-generated imagery (though it’s reportedly heavily influenced by the old-school approach to animation), it couldn’t be more of a traditional Disney film if it tried. After so many attempts to update, subvert, revise, deconstruct or play with that classic formula, sometimes it’s nice to be served a traditional film, straight-up.

Go on, let your hair down!

It’s somewhat fitting that the fairytale is rendered with computer-generated imagery. It calls to mind one of the earlier films animated in the same style, Shrek. Don’t get me wrong, I love that giant green ogre just as much as the next guy, but it pretty much murdered Disney. At once parodying the corporate structure of the company and the stereotypical and straight-forward yarns which they spun, the movie was an instant classic – a brutal subversion of core animated film values, picking apart all the outdated clichés and tropes associated with the genre.

To be honest, after seeing Shrek, I wasn’t entirely sure I could ever look at an old-fashioned Disney story the same way again. Whether it was a kung-fu princess or the speciest undertones of the “fairytale kingdoms”, it looked like the movie had brutally jolted me awake from some childish dream – I could see the flaws and the holes and the implications as clear as day. Disney itself never recovered from the blow. The not-so-jolly green giant had shaken public expectations, and the company was unsure how to respond. It tried branching into CGI to tell non-fairytale stories (Meet the Robinsons, On the Range) with disappointing results. Even its return to conventional animation with The Princess and the Frog was a plagued with uncertainty and complications, as the company tried to “update” the classic fairytale. I liked it, as did a lot of people, but it didn’t feel “right” somehow – as if it was too conscious of trying to avoid being another generic fairytale.

And, so, I was excited for Rapunzel, even when it was retitled Tangled.

This sort of thing's not usually my bag...

The film sticks slavishly to the Disney formula. There’s a young lady and a young man, who end up exploring together while a villain hunts them, there’s a last act complication (and implication of betrayal), followed by a sweet and genuine reunion – an acknowledgement that both parties have grown through their experience together. It doesn’t dress it up in modern trappings, nor attempt to maker it “hip” or “relatable”. It plays everything entirely straight – to the point of a unforeshadowed deus ex machina to tie everything up (in contrast to the admittedly ingenious deus ex machina from The Princess and the Frog).

It works. It works because the movie acknowledges that the core ideas behind fairytales are always relevant. Hansel & Gretel is essentially a story about the dangers of strangers offering candy, something that we still teach our children. Little Red Riding Hood warns us about the predators waiting in the real world, often wearing the cloak of friendship. These are ideas that we can all comprehend and relate to, even if they are cautionary tales couched in the language of magic and fantasy. Of course, cynics will reply that the Disney version alters the original story so much that it doesn’t really count, but I’d disagree. Even the versions of the above stories we tell to children differ greatly from the downright terrifying original versions. So a little revision seems fair – there’s no need to blind or maim the prince in this version of the tale.

Is making a fairytale story an uphill struggle?

And so Tangled gets to the heart of Rapunzel. She’s a princess locked away in a tower so that her “mother” can extend her own life. You see, Rapunzel’s hair has magic, rejuvenating power – so “Mother Gothel” seeks to lock her away from the rest of the world. Like all parents living through their children (literally or vicariously), this mother is emotionally manipulative and downright poisonous. She undermines her daughter to keep her in line, telling her that the world is a strange and horrible place. And so Rapunzel is locked away from the rest of the world, growing up under the thumb of a parental figure who is cynically exploiting her.

Mother Gothel is an ingenious Disney villain, if only because she calls to mind so many deeply warped maternal figures from the company’s rich tapestry of evil characters. Still, you know there’s something special when the villain’s song is called Mother Knows Best. Today, she becomes an indictment of the controlling and domineering “helicopter” parents, who seek to control rather than empower their own children. Like all the best Disney villains, it’s this emotional exploitation which makes her seem far more evil than random acts of violence – in The Lion King, for example, it’s the moment that Scar tosses his brother into the stampede and convinces his nephew that it’s all the kid’s fault which makes him irredeemable, not the action of usurping the throne or letting the land decay during his subsequent rule.

You'll be on the edge of your seat...

Similarly, Mother Gothel isn’t a physically powerful villain, but she instead exploits and chips away at Rapunzel’s self esteem. “Oh! Rapunzel, how you manage to do that every single day, it looks absolutely exhausting, darling!” she declares as the young woman hoists her up in her hair. “Oh, it’s nothing,” Rapunzel replies, genuinely happy at the perceived compliment. Mother Gothel then comments, “Then I don’t know why it takes so long.” She constantly makes little snide remarks about the girl in her care, dismissing them with “I’m only teasing”, but you know (and Rapunzel knows) she’s not.

Tangled is an unashamedly girly film. Disney was reportedly concerned about selling the film to young boys but, c’mon… that’s what they bought Marvel for. The film revels in the feminine, while firmly rebuking conventional masculine notions. The local rough bar, “the Snuggly Duckling”, is filled with hordes of what are seemingly Viking warriors (what they’re doing drinking in a continental European fairytale, I don’t know – maybe they’re Goths and Visgoths with fashion sense) who – underneath their gruff exteriors – just want to live their lives free of the stereotypical masculine ideals of violence and confrontation.

It's a girly movie, no point dressing it up as anything else...

These guys want to be concert pianists or collect ceramic unicorns or study mime, regardless of the expectations the world puts upon them. Their musical number (perhaps the best of the film) is I’ve Got a Dream, the kind of song usually reserved for the princess. The fact that Brad Garret voices one of these characters might contribute to the awesomeness – and I was actually a bit disappointed when the film left the group in the middle of their jailbreak at the climax.

Even the film’s “nominal” prince, Fynn, is just a caddish buffoon who is living out a childish masculine fantasy. It’s Flynn, despite being the male lead, who wants a castle. “I could get used to this,” he remarks to his two partners in crime, as he stares at the view from the top of the royal castle. While Rapunzel simply wants a chance to see the outside world, it’s Flynn who yearns for the status and the position. Although Rapunzel is actually a princess by birth, she doesn’t necessarily aspire to it – while the male lead does want to be a prince.

Enemy mime...

There are certain aspects I’m a little uncomfortable with – I could have done without Rapunzel’s “mood swing” montage as she embraces the wide open world, and am not quite sure what to make of the fact that she wanders through most of the movie with a frying pan in her hand – but it works quite well. It isn’t the story of a woman waiting to be rescued by a handsome man who knows best – and who seeks to be a princess, just because. It’s the story of a teenager who just once wants to see the world outside her small little house. She isn’t exactly the most proactive lead, but there’s something very witty in the way that she is able to handle herself – while proving immune to Flynn’s “smoulder.”

Besides, it’s nice to see a traditional Disney movie. It’s nice, for example, to enjoy a silent animal sidekick (this movie’s chameleon, Pascal). It’s nice to see all the pageantry. It’s nice to see a magical fairytale kingdom that isn’t cynical or flawed or deconstructed. It’s nice to hear a cheesy romantic song delivered by the leads in the most earnest style possible. These moments aren’t revolutionary, but they aren’t  meant to be. It’s a fairytale, for better or worse – although the comments from the studio since it was finished suggest it might be the last one for quite some time, so perhaps that informs my fondness of it.

See what other Irish reviewers had to say about the film at Cine.ie.

2 Responses

  1. this looks great, i have to say. Mandy Moore.. underrated

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