I didn’t think Disney had it in them. An unironic fairy tale, in 2010–long after DreamWorks’ Shrek had endeavored to tear the genre’s conventions to bits, during a time when (as I recall) the popularity of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series was ramping up with the television show on the horizon? It still works. The idea of a girl kept in a tower by an evil witch may not seem new, but this story gladly justifies its existence with plenty of good ideas that make it a modern classic.
Welcome to Disney’s fiftieth animated feature.
This retelling of the Rapunzel story begins not with her but with one “Flynn Rider,” who presents the film as a story of how he died–quickly backpedaling to specify that it’s a happy story. It also establishes the origins of the plot: an old woman harvests a magical flower and uses it to restore her own youth, at a time when the queen is sick and preparing for childbirth. The flower is later used to heal the queen just in time. The baby is born, with a full head of golden hair, and her adoring parents launch a flying lantern into the sky. The older woman, a witch, steals the child and raises her as a daughter, isolating the girl from direct contact with the outside world.
Rapunzel is taught by the witch, Gothel, to be cynical and deeply distrusting toward everyone outside their tower, without knowledge of a kingdom that loves her deeply and hasn’t given up searching for her since she was born. The girl herself is shown having an especially playful, inquisitive, and rather bright personality, as she plays hide-and-seek over and over with her pet chameleon Pascal, shortly before launching into a spirited song about her chores and her daily lifestyle. She reads, she cooks, she plays music, and on and on she goes. (Yep, she’s literate, and this seems to be one of the few ways her witch-mother does let her learn about the world around her.) It’s understandable that her claimed hobbies don’t have more appearances throughout the movie, given its sometimes hectic pacing. Oh, and her lovely blonde hair literally fills whatever room she’s in.
The girl expresses her desires to live her life without being stuck in a tower, but Gothel will have none of it. The witch asks Rapunzel to sing a magic-endowed song, which–in a thankful nod to the audience, who’s been listening to the girl sing for quite some time–Rapunzel rushes through. The latter is turning eighteen soon, and she’s desperate to see, up close, the stars that appear in the sky every year on her birthday, exclusively on that day. Rapunzel’s smart enough to see that they’re probably meant for her, and this isn’t the only time in the movie where she figures things out without needing to be told first.
The story in Tangled comes with some really nicely explored themes of children maturing into adults and leaving the nest, and Gothel vacillates between being a markedly overprotective with and being, or pretending to be, an honestly concerned and caring mother figure. In either case she expresses a very low opinion of Rapunzel’s ability to take care of herself, which threatens to become a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy if Gothel, or any mother in her situation, doesn’t take risks enough to give her daughter the tools and skills the child will need to thrive in the adult world, even with the possibility that the girl might make mistakes and need additional learning or experience. Granted, the witch, being who she is, does have a story-relevant reason for all of this.
Palace guards who look like Roman soldiers chase after Flynn after he steals a satchel. The horse he tries to commandeer refuses to obey him, and the satchel ends up on a cliffside branch, which collapses; since this is a cartoon, the two survive without serious injury but are separated. Flynn happens upon Rapunzel’s tower, which he climbs up by using arrows … only to be conked on the head by her frying pan. (The film does play a lot of these physical-abuse gags for laughs, though I don’t think the movie means anything dark by it in the long run.)
The confused girl’s lizard tries to determine whether Flynn has a monster’s teeth, according to one of Gothel’s numerous warnings. Rapunzel determines this to be false but conks Flynn again and, lest Gothel find him, tries many surprisingly funny ways of stuffing him into a closet. She opens the satchel Flynn stole and discovers a tiara, which she doesn’t understand the purpose of, and she randomly yet elegantly sticks it on her head in what happens to be the proper direction. It’s a great-looking shot, and it would make for some blatantly obvious foreshadowing even if the movie hadn’t already explained the girl’s lineage in the first five minutes.
After he wakes, Flynn’s first introduction of Rapunzel is rather gorgeous, even as she is armed and distrustful, not only of him but of the witch who happens to be on an errand at the moment. Flynn’s attempts to woo the girl are absolutely hilarious, but Rapunzel fears he’s come to take her hair, since she’s evidently had to deal with this before. Because she’s restraining him, however, all he really wants is to be untied from it!
Life’s too short not to make the most of it.
Rapunzel asks Flynn to take her to see the “stars,” which are mentioned as actually being lanterns sent up annually that are similar to the royal family’s, and return her home. In a gutsy move, she holds his satchel hostage, a deal he initially refuses, since he (a thief) isn’t on very good terms with the kingdom. Flynn is a really interesting character, being neither a spotless prince nor a heartless individual, and Rapunzel gains just enough depth to supplement her natural likability, thanks to some really well done confrontation scenes between her and Gothel at various points in the film.
The girl also isn’t completely selfish, and she does express concern over whether to free herself from the tower and therefore from her keeper, despite being unsure of the woman’s intentions. After Rapunzel and Flynn do leave, she soon becomes homesick, a moment that’s touching in its bare sincerity, even as her indecisive mood swings are played for laughs. Flynn, on the other hand, wants Rapunzel to rebel for her own sake, even at the expense of the witch’s, making for a difficult tension between the desires of these two capable women.
“Maximus,” the horse from earlier in the film, returns and is hilarious with every goofy thing he does, which usually somehow involves aggravating or being aggravated by Flynn, his quarry. The horse’s relationship with this thief is enjoyable to follow, since it continually raises the question of whose side Maximus is ultimately on throughout the story. Unfortunately Gothel picks now to return from her errand, and she discovers that Rapunzel cannot be found.
Earlier in the film I’d been wondering what would happened if Rapunzel had refused to let her lengthy hair down for Gothel to climb upon (thankfully with the use of a pulley system, probably to reduce stress), and that question is answered here. The witch has her first legitimately sympathetic moment when she can’t find her not-daughter, because whether her motives are pure or not, the panic in her words and actions is plain to see. Upon making some crucial discoveries, she arms herself with a blade and goes hunting.
The tavern to which Flynn takes Rapunzel, adorably named the “Snuggly Duckling,” is filled with every sort of thug, warrior, and low-life Gothel made sure to warn the young girl of, but Flynn confidently guides her through this morbid yet funny place. Just when the events start to become dark, they become hilarious as the various thugs reveal their individual life aspirations: this one plays piano! (When does this film take place? Then again, I’m not sure it matters.) Another one knits, while yet another is a mime or likes puppet shows! Throughout this joyous number, Rapunzel’s hair animates especially well, as it most certainly should–though in situations where she’s holding lots of it in her hands, it sometimes looks like it loses what frizzle it has as it goes away from her head. (I don’t think we need another Aero-Troopers.) Before anyone can get too comfortable, old enemies catch up to Flynn and Rapunzel, forcing them to quickly find a means of escape. Maximus, a “tracking horse,” is at least as smart as either of the heroes.
The movie’s quick pacing never gets too far ahead of itself, and Rapunzel and Flynn, who still don’t yet know each other very well, both respect that there are parts of each other’s histories that are off-limits at the moment, especially with regard to Rapunzel’s guardian witch. Even still, the story constantly moves forward, and the few “action” scenes the film has all feel very unique. In this case, several individuals’ actions cause a dam to burst, which is quite a sight to see. A scene that comes afterward is extremely dimly lit, and while the story makes brilliant use of this here, there are one or two other moments in the film where some events can become difficult to follow if one’s viewing monitor isn’t good at showing color contrast.
The film is optimistic, but it’s well worth discussing.
Gothel eventually catches back up to Rapunzel and immediately begins demeaning the poor girl, doing everything she can to wreck the girl’s confidence and sense of self-reliance. Gothel goes so far as to question Flynn’s motives: “Why would he like you?” Her mother-knows-best song is disturbing and is one of the finest performances in the whole film. (Since she’s singing it specifically for Rapunzel, it’s not an aside, but I’m not sure how Flynn seems to not hear the song despite being fairly close by.) Rapunzel gains her independence, at the cost of a heavy guilt trip in a movie filled with them. Gothel ultimately tries to keep Rapunzel at home not with magic or brute force but through manipulation and deception, which is particularly cruel because it’s so believable. This could easily happen, and I wish the very best to people who see this movie or read this review and are reminded of their own difficult family experiences, whether they should see themselves in the witch’s or Rapunzel’s position, a tragedy either way.
The movie carefully works its way back to being a comedy, and Rapunzel and Maximus share a whimsical moment together on her way to see the lanterns as Flynn has agreed to take her. The kingdom is beautiful and crammed with detail in its scenery and its people, all moving about and doing one thing or another. A certain someone’s hair manages to get caught on everything, and accordingly, several children braid her hair with great enthusiasm. Let the little girls in the audience squeal with delight: this sequence is a marvel of animation.
Rapunzel starts to get the idea of who she really is, and while the movie never kept this from its audience even from the opening minutes, it’s still fun to watch Rapunzel quickly figure out all of this and piece the evidence together without needing external help. She and Flynn share a remarkably skillful dance, while the queen (as beautiful as her daughter) and her king hold onto one more vestige of hope, that someday they’ll see their precious child again. They set off their lantern … and the entire kingdom follows.
This is the lantern festival the whole movie has been building toward, and it’s one of the story’s most pivotal moments. Flynn has accomplished his mission, and a very lovely song begins, complete with stringed instruments. Tangled is careful, patient, and hardly subtle about what it’s planned to do with its two leads, and all of that waiting pays off in this moment. Everything about this scene is essentially perfect: the lanterns themselves probably number in the hundreds, and the reason they’re up there in the first place never ceases to be heartwarming; the art direction makes me wish I were viewing this in 3D and on a very large screen; and while the songs at the beginning of the film were mostly fine if somewhat forgettable, this is an amazing song that I would easily place on the level of any of Disney’s classics that I can think of. It does kind of make me think of “A Whole New World” from Aladdin.
This optimism takes effort.
The movie allows itself several really unsettling scenes en route to its well earned ending, one of which involves some of Flynn’s old “friends” stalking Rapunzel in the middle of the night when she happens to be alone. Another of these finds Flynn in an extreme but rather punitive form of danger. On the bright side, Rapunzel now fully understands the significance of who she is, and she and Flynn make absolutely beautiful decisions on each other’s behalf that give this story an unexpected maturity without making it inappropriate–granted, perhaps a little scary–for younger viewers.
There is an epic horse-riding sequence late in the film, which feels as polished and creative as the earlier dam-busting scene was, and while the movie doesn’t have very much traditional “action,” what’s there always manages to feel special. I don’t recall any first-person riding shots, and the movie doesn’t need them. The scenery looks excellent, and the more of it we get to see at any one time, the better. Late in the story, one solution to a problem seems to come at random, but this is gorgeously done, making a wonderful ending for a wonderful film. (As a minor spoiler warning, one character’s death, while distant and not bloody, is visibly shown in order to make a point about that person’s unnatural existence.)
Conclusion: “You were my new dream.”
Tangled feels like an often vocal opposition to the kinds of cynicism that “deconstruction” fantasy stories like the ones mentioned early in this review sometimes run on. This is a story of clear good and evil that makes room for well-meaning yet imperfect characters who are given reason to learn and grow as they understand more about the world, each other, and themselves. While they don’t always succeed, this movie reminds us that sometimes the world isn’t as ugly as it’s said to be, and seeing a fairy tale espouse this point of view while also expressing awareness of real-life issues like parental abuse is refreshing and challenging. People with actual malevolent intentions don’t saturate their setting, and the heroes don’t know everything; it therefore feels meaningful whenever the latter find themselves facing a new obstacle. Romance comes slowly and tenderly (and cutely), not as the product of a request, and as we are told in the closing narration, readiness for commitment isn’t something that happens overnight.
From a technical standpoint, the art direction is fantastic for characters and environments alike, none of which feel derivative. The early portions of the film seem to focus more on the quantity of songs than their quality, making certain scenes feel crowded with musical pieces that feel “adequate” if not particularly daring. The movie improves in both of these areas as it goes on, as later songs, especially Gothel’s, are much more delightful to listen to than they are numerous.
This movie would have been perfectly fine with the title of “Rapunzel”–I keep calling her Daenerys in my head–as most of the story is indeed about her. She’s a wonderful and independent character who is often forced to solve her problems in ways that are much more realistic than whacking through everything in her path. This emphasis on making the story believable sometimes becomes uncomfortable because of how easy it is to relate to. Difficult situations and questions are navigated with little margin for error, as the film finds a notable middle ground that at once avoids cheapening its subject matter and dragging down the movie’s atmosphere.
In hindsight, Pixar’s own fantasy entry Brave was “nice” but didn’t seem to have much to it. Tangled, by contrast, feels more crowded with activity and liveliness from start to finish despite being the earlier film. Both films have on their own themes and are worth watching, but Tangled is an excellently detailed movie that is as enjoyable to analyze as it is to watch. This is a traditional yet bold story that lets its hair down in an era it wouldn’t seem to belong in and manages to flourish; if this is the future of the fairy tale, it’s a sunny future indeed. (I’m glad to be back from my short reviewing break! I didn’t realize I needed a rest.)
Image credits (thanks, Disney)
Movie poster, cropped — source
Rapunzel — source
Witch Gothel — source
Rapunzel’s tower — source
Flynn — source
Maximus — source
Snuggly Duckling interior — source
Kingdom picture — source
Lantern scene — source
Rapunzel and Gothel — source
Rapunzel, Flynn, and Maximus — source
This article was originally written and published on my movie review blog, Projected Realities.