November 29, 2010

Rapunzel's Fine Form: Tangled Shines Brightly

Finally had the chance to see Tangled Saturday night. The quick and dirty answer to the question is "yes", this new Disney animated film is clearly worth your time. While Princess and the Frog was a much heralded return to traditional animation, and hopefully the start of the third generation of animation excellence, it was sadly not as well received as it should have been. Tangled shouldn't have this problem.

The Rapunzel fable was ripe for a great story by Disney. Any long time viewer of animated films would wonder how Disney could pull off yet another princess story and not repeat themselves. Surprisingly, there's only the slightest feel of deja vu at the end of the film. Everything else feels new.

The beautiful girl with the golden magical locks is only half the story, as her dashing counterpart Flynn Rider provides the male friendly action, giving the plot its excitement. Disney marketing may have changed the title to appeal to more male viewers, but in reality, it is a more accurate representation of screen time and story told. In fact, to its ultimate benefit, Tangled is filled with more action and better pacing than any Disney princess movie in recent memory. The previews would make you think the film is striving for a Shrek like ambiance, but this is actually a very traditional feeling film with one exception. Just a hint to those of you with small children: make sure you are there for the very beginning of the film. Flynn narrates the story and does it so quickly and covers so much turf, that the littler ones would need much explanation to understand the film. The same can be said for the ending wrap up to the story.

With any great film, where story is king, it takes terrifically engaging characters to pull it off. This time, it only takes three. Secondary characters are wisely few and are unimportant to the story. In the princess role, Mandy Moore is a great fit for the movie, her Rapunzel is at once youthful and charming. Beneath the obvious differences in storyline, parts of our heroine's personality remind me of a younger Belle of Beauty and the Beast, maybe even a bit of Ariel from The Little Mermaid. There's more depth to her love interest Flynn Rider than you'd first expect. His story unfolds at just the right time and pace. Zachary Levi gives him the perfect balance of brashness and vulnerability. Not a bad singing voice either.

The Disney Villainess, a staple of the genre. Mother Gothel is so well written, and she is so well played by Donna Murphy, that you almost expect her to redeem herself by the end of the film. Almost. This is Disney after all, and it would be a truly unexpected twist- and maybe a first- should an evil character repent and change their ways.

Due to the smart dialogue between she and Rapunzel, highlighted by the "I love you more/most" exchange - and a less than stellar song for her to sing as her centerpiece- Mother Gothel initially is less apparent the villain when compared to those before her. Even less obvious than Cinderella's stepmother Lady Tramaine or Beast's brute Gaston. When the exchange gets heated between she and Rapunzel, like almost any mother daughter relationship, it seems as if the two actually do love each other. This brings the film a true to life complexity that is rather bold, more akin to a Pixar animated film. There's a good moral to the story that shows people are not always what they first seem to be.

The animation of the film completes the package without overpowering it. Sleeping Beauty provided the most gorgeous background to any Disney animated film, but the characters seemed lost in that world. Here, the scenery is no less stunning, perhaps better and certainly more realistic, but the characters belong here and are not overpowered by the grandeur. (Watch the backgrounds in the movie closely. I think this is what Walt Disney World's new Fantasyland Forest should look like!) The landscapes are varied and traditionally rich looking. Such an accomplishment that I almost forgot this film was computer generated!

The character animation is very good, although at times Rapunzel's doe eyed look was a little too doe eyed. Computer generated humans are the shortfall of this tool and generally don't seem as warm to me as those drawn by hand. The work of Glen Keane is to be commended here as I could almost imagine he would press the animators for a more real look than those found in Toy Story, Up, or others. The film is all the better for his work.

Superbly executed chase scenes aside, when great characters meet stunning landscape meets great song, the result is Tangled's lantern scene. It is one of the finest moments in any Disney film in any era. Period. For this reason alone, go see the movie. There will be no in home screen large enough to capture its beauty. I won't ramble on here, although I could. It is that stunning.

Lastly, for a musical, I expected Mandy's singing to be wonderful, but it is only better than serviceable aside from her subtle and beautiful duet with Zachary Levi, "I See the Light", sung during the above mentioned scene. Maybe it was just the songs she was given to sing. The music itself may be the very reason I cannot give Tangled the A+ I'd like to. Alan Menken is a gifted man. The songs here are good, but this is far from his best work. I've long thought his strongest work ended with Howard Ashman's death, and sadly, this seems to prove me right.

If it is in fact true this is Disney's last animated fairy tale, which I think to say is a fairy tale itself, Tangled is the way to go out with style. The film is warm, funny, and unique. You won't leave the theater humming the songs, but you will leave thinking "Disney still has it!", and you'd be right.
(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

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