Like several of the films on Disney’s slate after the Pixar merge, Tangled had some shakeups on the way to the screen. Besides the change in Glen Keane’s status, perhaps the most notable were the title changes. The original Rapunzel Unbraided hinted that the film might follow a more DreamWorks-ish storyline. It was eventually changed to just Rapunzel, which pleased the purists who thought Disney’s latest princess should have the classic name of her fairly tale preserved. But after The Princess and the Frog didn’t perform as well as some at Disney had hoped, the name of the next film was changed again, this time to Tangled. A vocal group of fans criticized the decision as being completely marketing driven — their theory being Disney thought boys don’t want to see a film about a princess. But the directors insist is was purely driven by the story, which in the end was really about two people, not just Rapunzel. With all the drama in the years leading to its release, could Tangled make both the average fan Disney covets happy while pleasing the hardcore fanbase as well?

Tangled is the story of a girl named Rapunzel who was imbibed with the magical properties of a healing flower while her mother was pregnant. An old woman who had been using the flower to keep herself young, kidnaps the child and hides her away in a tower where she raises her so she can continue getting the benefit of the magic. She grows to adulthood having never left her secluded home, but dreams of the world outside. That world collides with hers, when a thief finds her tower and considers it a pretty good hiding spot.

While straying from the original fairy tale maybe more than ever before, the writers have done an admirable job creating a different version of the Rapunzel story that doesn’t feel too new. And they’ve then taken that new fairy tale and adapted it into a Disney film. Maybe the magic is a bit too convenient. And maybe the characters fall in love too easily. But find another Disney princess story where that isn’t true. So it’s unfair to knock that aspect of the plot much. What makes it all come together so well is the characters placed in this new version of the tale.

Rapunzel is extremely smart, talented, and good at just about everything. I know what you’re thinking but, no, this is not just politically correct — done solely to break the princess stereotype. She’s been locked in a tower for 18 years and with all that spare time she’s naturally had time to learn and practice… everything! What she does not have is street smarts, and there is where the conflict in the story revolves. Flynn Ryder, the thief that invades her tower, has plenty of those street smarts but is more concerned with money than helping anyone else out. And Mother Gothel seems to care about nothing more than staying young at any cost. All three main characters are fleshed out nicely in the story and their arcs to the end of the tale are not only interesting but emotional as well. Without the well written characters that we end up caring about, the flimsy nature of fairy tales probably would have brought the whole film crashing down. But you know they’ve done well when even the obligatory animal sidekick is perfectly done!

All of the above and you get your average Disney classic. But this film adds just the right amount of the DreamWorks-style modernness and humor to make the whole thing feel fresh. It’s definitely not too much either. I’m pleased to say someone may have finally found the perfect mix of old and new without crossing the “annoying” barrier! While Tangled does feature some pop music, a sassy princess, an over the top male lead, and some anachronistic parts, it never lets those aspects overwhelm any scene. And more importantly it’s all intertwined with classic storytelling and a traditional look and feel (despite the CG). The overall effect is something new, but built with the best of the the classics of old and the newer popular animated films. Disney purists will feel right at home. One minor point that might deserve criticism is the narrator choice that bookends the film. Another character or a generic narrator I think might have been a better choice.

The animation in Tangled is some of the best I’ve ever seen in a computer animated film. And by best, I don’t mean “most realistic looking”. In fact, just the opposite, it seems downright hand drawn at times! The only break was a scene where the characters were wet. Other than that everything is just perfect. Stunning views, beautiful and detailed animation, exciting camera work, spot on movement, and fun character designs — this is the new standard for CG animation.

Alan Menken returns with lyricist Glenn Slater for the music. Some songs are a little more pop-infused than what we’re used to from Disney, but they fit the film and are very good and catchy. In fact, it’s the one more Broadway-inspired song that seems out of place. And Slater is proving himself to be almost as clever with a rhyme as the late Howard Ashman. I’ve always been a fan of Menken’s scores, and this one is no exception. Maybe not as stand-alone hummable as others, it is still great to listen to outside the film. And of course in the film adds just the right emotional punches when needed.

As good as the animation, characters, story, and music are, it’s the voice actors who really make this a new Disney masterpiece. I was leery of Mandy Moore as the lead, but she is pitch perfect. Her acting gave the character just the right amount of confidence and confusion. And her singing voice brings a pop sensibility to the part without being too jarring. When the songs call for emotion, her voice drips with it in an achingly beautiful way. Moore may be Disney’s best singing princess ever. Zachary Levi was another surprise as I didn’t think he could could pull off both the overconfident swagger of Flynn Rider and his more vulnerable alter ego, but he did so with aplomb. Donna Murphy is all but unrecognizable as Mother Gothel! Both amusing and menacing, and with a show stopping number or two thrown in for good measure, Murphy is a very different but worthy addition to the line of Disney villains.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to buy my tickets and popcorn, take my seat, let my hair down, and sit back to watch a Disney animated film on the big screen with the same enjoyment and childlike wonder as I did in the days of Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. And it’s been sad to watch that decline. But that just makes it all the more gratifying to see Disney disentangling itself from its problems of the past and bringing kids of a new generation — and their parents — the same delight the Disney name has brought to people for so long. And speaking of names: Tangled turns out to be a pretty good one after all.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

Walt Disney Animation Studios
November 24, 2010
100 minutes
Rated PG
directed by Nathan Greno & Byron Howard