Saturday, June 15, 2019

Second Look - Tangled

I’ll admit that when I first saw Tangled, the 50th entry in the Disney Animated Canon, back in 2010, I wasn’t very enthusiastic about it going in and didn’t have a high opinion of it when I walked out of the theater. This movie also happens to be a victim of my early reviewing style, which hadn’t quite developed yet. In an attempt to re-review it about nine years later, I re-watched it through a 3D Blu-ray with only vague memories and a rough retelling from Kingdom Hearts III to go on. With so much time between viewings, I found that I enjoyed it a lot more the second time.

Long ago, a drop of sunlight fell to Earth and grew a magic flower capable of healing illness, decay and injury. This power is used by Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy) for centuries to keep herself young, until soldiers from the kingdom of Corona retrieve the flower to heal their queen. The Queen later gives birth to Rapunzel (Delaney Rose Stein), a girl with golden hair that Gothel discovers has retained the flower’s healing properties. She then abducts Rapunzel and raises her as her own daughter in an isolated tower. Once a year, the King and Queen of Corona release sky lanterns on Rapunzel’s birthday in the hopes that Rapunzel will find her way back to them. On the eve of her 18th birthday, Rapunzel (Mandy Moore), who sees the lanterns in the sky every year, requests to leave the tower and see them in person, but Gothel refuses and tells her that the outside world is too dangerous. Soon after Gothel leaves, however, a thief named Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi) stumbles into the tower and is coerced by Rapunzel into showing her the outside world, with his stolen loot as collateral. Their journey to Corona begins, but Mother Gothel discovers that Rapunzel has left against her wishes and is hot on their trail.

Rapunzel (left, Mandy Moore) finds a way out when
Flynn Rider (right, Zachary Levi) stumbles into her tower.

The story of Tangled takes a lot of liberties in adapting the Brothers Grimm story Rapunzel, but the changes were necessary to allow for a 100-minute runtime and the results are actually pretty good and very enjoyable.

What helps is the contrasting personalities of both Flynn and Rapunzel. Where Rapunzel is sheltered and naïve, but caring, Flynn is cynical, sarcastic and experienced. Their journey to see the sky lanterns allows them to see new sides of each other, with Rapunzel growing more resourceful and Flynn willing to show his more vulnerable side when he reveals his real name and sympathetic backstory. As a result, when they reach Corona and watch the lanterns, the romance that blossoms between them feels earned and it feels more tragic when they’re ripped apart by Mother Gothel’s deception.

Rapunzel is also joined by a chameleon named Pascal, who she had kept as a sort of secret pet in the tower. When Rapunzel isn’t speaking to him, he displays a rather tough personality, which often compliments Rapunzel’s own personality very well. At times, he also seems like a sort of living subconscious, a visual extension of Rapunzel’s emotions.

One other prominent animal character is Maximus, a palace guard horse who originally chases Flynn for the stolen crown, but eventually becomes his sidekick. His expressive movements and relentless personality are funny and help provide some of the film’s laughs. However, I have to admit that this time around, since I’ve had experience dealing with horses, I wasn’t a huge fan of his dog-like actions that make him more like a bloodhound. They did allow the animators to convey his emotions without dialogue, but considering Disney’s own Sleeping Beauty (1959) featured an expressive horse that still behaved in a more horse-like fashion, I don’t know why they couldn’t have given Maximus a similar treatment and still have him act more like a horse.

While I understand the intention, it bothered me whenever
Maximus (Frank Welker) acted more like a dog than a horse.

What didn’t bother me this time, however, was the entire scene at the Snuggly Duckling pub. Near the beginning of their journey, Flynn takes Rapunzel to the pub to try to scare her out of their deal and walk away with his stolen loot. However, the thugs who occupy the pub are instead charmed by Rapunzel and a musical number ensues in which they reveal their dreams for a better life. I remember I didn’t enjoy this sequence the first time due to the overall atmosphere of the scene and how I thought it felt out of place with the rest of the movie. On a second viewing, however, I realized that this sequence is full of well-timed humor and visuals that reveal more about the characters and provides a good moment of levity just before the palace guards arrive and later engage in a big action set piece.

This pub scene also highlights that while Tangled is generally a fairly comedic movie, it knows exactly when to take itself more seriously and does it well. When Flynn and Rapunzel aren’t having a moment where they learn more about each other and themselves, the characters have their snarky moments, especially Flynn, or engage in general slapstick, especially Maximus. Striking the right balance of these moments allows the film to remain engaging throughout its entire runtime. When I read more about the development of the film, however, I wondered if that had anything to do with the general approach to the humor.

Walt Disney himself had first attempted to adapt Rapunzel in the 1930s and 1940s, but couldn’t figure out how to make it feature length and abandoned the project. The idea floated back up to Glen Keane in 1996, who then pitched it to then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner, who wanted it to be computer animated, which didn’t seem feasible to Keane at the time. In 2003, the film was announced as Rapunzel Unbraided, slated for 2007, and was to be a Shrek-style comedy, likely to capitalize on the success of Dreamworks’ Shrek (2001). In 2005 Rapunzel Unbraided was pushed back to a 2009 release to work on the story before the project was ultimately cancelled and restarted in 2006, still with Glen Keane attached. Keane later suffered a heart attack in 2008 and, along with co-director Dean Wellins, stepped down from the position and were replaced by Byron Howard and Nathan Greno, though Keane stayed on as an executive producer and animation supervisor until the film finally released as Tangled in 2010.

The animation in Tangled is simply phenomenal. Characters and objects feel like they have weight to them when they move, a feat which helps greatly with the more comedic portions. The most impressive effects are the lighting, especially during the night; the water, which helps sell the times when the characters are on a boat and also gives the action set piece at the dam more of an impact; and Rapunzel’s 70 feet of hair. Rapunzel’s hair is the most important part of the movie, as it’s a key feature of her character, so it’s especially great that it moves and largely acts like real hair.

There are times when Rapunzel’s hair length seems inconsistent, including when she’s gathered up enough of it to carry it or during one scene when it’s somehow short enough to get perfectly braided. However, for the sake of the story, I was willing to overlook it.

Equally as interesting as the visuals is the development that went into them. In short, Glen Keane wanted to animate Tangled traditionally, but when he could only move forward if they went with CG, he adopted a best of both worlds approach and went for CG that gave the feeling of traditional animation. The animation team emphasized aesthetic over realism and took inspiration from oil paintings on canvas, in particular French Rococo artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s painting The Swing. Through an innovative technique called multi-rigging, they were able to capture the feeling that Keane had sought, essentially a living painting that would seem impossible in reality, but would otherwise be aesthetically pleasing.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s The Swing,
the main influence for the aesthetic of Tangled.

The voice acting in Tangled is also very good, especially from the main stars, Mandy Moore, Zachary Levi and Donna Murphy. They do a great job with bringing out the personalities of Rapunzel, Flynn Rider and Mother Gothel respectively and have very good chemistry when they share screen time. What also helps each of them are their prior backgrounds.

Mandy Moore got her start as a fairly successful singer-songwriter, as her debut album, So Real (1999), received platinum certification from the RIAA. Two years later, in 2001, she would begin her acting career with a minor voice role in Dr. Dolittle 2, before co-starring in The Princess Diaries (2001) and starring in A Walk to Remember (2002). She would have a number of other smaller roles in various films and TV shows, as well as the voice of Aerith Gainsborough in Kingdom Hearts (2002), before her role as Rapunzel in Tangled. She gives a very strong and convincing performance in this role, one which she has since reprised in Tangled Ever After, Tangled: Before Ever After, Rapzunel’s Tangled Adventure, Disney Infinity, Ralph Breaks the Internet and Kingdom Hearts III. As of late, she has also gained a lead role as Rebecca Pearson in the NBC series This Is Us.

Zachary Levi had a career in film and television before Tangled, but was best known for a lead role as Chuck Bartowski in the NBC series Chuck. His role as Flynn Rider in Tangled shows off a great range as both an actor and singer and it’s a role he would later reprise in Tangled Ever After, Tangled: Before Ever After, Rapunzel’s Tangled Adventure and Kingdom Hearts III; fittingly, Levi had said that one of the reasons he took the role as Flynn was so he could be in a Kingdom Hearts game one day. Since Tangled, Levi received a Tony Award nomination for his role as Georg Nowack in the 2016 Broadway revival of She Loves Me. He has also had roles as, among others, Arcade Gannon in the video game Fallout: New Vegas and Fandral in Thor: The Dark World (2013) and Thor: Ragnarok (2017), plus, most notably, the titular role in Shazam! (2019).

Donna Murphy had a background in theater, where she performed in several Broadway and Off-Broadway productions and would be nominated for five Tony Awards and win two of them. She also had an extensive background in film and television, where, among other roles, she is known for portraying Anij in Star Trek: Insurrection (1998) and Rosalie Octavius in Spider-Man 2 (2004). Her role as Mother Gothel in Tangled, a good showcase of her skills as a performer, is one she would later reprise in Rapunzel’s Tangled Adventure and Kingdom Hearts III.

The world of Tangled as depicted in Kingdom Hearts III.

As Tangled is a musical, the real meat of the film is, of course, the music. Of the four main songs, “When Will My Life Begin?” and “Mother Knows Best” are central to showing the audience the differences between Rapunzel and Mother Gothel; Rapunzel desperately wants to leave her tower and see the outside world, but Gothel wants to keep her locked up for her own protection, or so she claims. While both of these songs highlight the singing abilities of both actresses, helped by Mandy Moore’s background as a singer-songwriter and Donna Murphy’s background on Broadway, I would say that the real standouts are “I’ve Got a Dream” and “I See the Light,” the former for being really catchy and the latter for showcasing how well Mandy Moore and Zachary Levi work as a duet. It's also worth noting that "I See the Light" was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song and won the Grammy Award for Best Song Written For Visual Media.

While I didn’t particularly like Tangled in its original release, I found it to be one of the better Disney movies from the last decade after about nine years. The plot is an effective extension of the original story, the main characters are compelling thanks to top notch performances and the animation is still breathtaking and impressive to this day. If you’re looking for a good example of a modern Disney movie, Tangled is a good place to start.

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