I was hesitant to give Tangled a chance. I’ve always been bored by Rapunzel, who had little to recommend her but strong hair. Sure, she had beauty—yawn—and a pretty voice (What heroine doesn’t?) But she always seemed so idiotic to me. She had two tasks in her life—let down her hair, and conceal the prince’s visits, and she botched one of them, setting her love up for the witch’s wrath. And however her looks might have grown in all that tower time, isolation surely didn’t do much for the fair one’s people skills.
Disney’s 2010 version was much more entertaining than I thought it would be. Rapunzel is savvier and spunkier than in the original tale. And Tangled has some amusing theories on what she did all day, and how her upbringing by a witch might have affected her. Some wonderful side characters add to the energy, and the witch is a hoot. But there are some disappointments too.
First, the improvements on the fairy tale:
A Heroine Who Isn’t a Snooze
I’ve always pictured Rapunzel as a less interesting version of Lady Bertram, napping until the prince arrived and slowly making her way to the window, yawning as she helped him climb. Disney’s version (voiced by Mandy Moore) is full of projects: reading, painting murals, baking, doing papier-mâché and otherwise trying to fill the hours. She is obsessed with the lights unleashed on her birthday, actually lanterns from the queen and king to call her (their daughter) back from the witch, who stole Rapunzel to retain the Fountain-of-Youth properties of her magical long hair.
The unbelievable strength of Rapunzel’s hair in the fairy tale always puzzled me, so I was relieved to find the hair was magical, and Disney made it much more fun by turning it into an all-in-one lever-rope-weapon.
Rapunzel is also pretty handy with a frying pan, which she wields to defend herself against the thief (a prince replacement) who escapes into her tower. She bribes him to help her to the lighting ceremony, after which she plans to return meekly to her mother (aka, the witch). (I was concerned about the amount of head-pan contact though, convinced she’d kill/maim him sooner or later; the pan surely must have been made of weaker stuff than my iron skillet.)
An Equal Partnership
In most ways, the thief (Flynn Rider, voiced by Zachary Levi) is an everyday Disney hero, handsome and arrogant, proud of his “smolder” look. His backstory—an orphan craving riches—explains both his law-breaking ways and duplicitous behavior toward his partners. While he will obviously be reformed by the love of such a sweet, naïve girl, à la Lady and the Tramp, she will pick up his daring and inventiveness, needed qualities for a girl who is dangerously set in her ways thanks to eighteen years in a tower. Of course, she does have one advantage over him, with that magic, glowing hair.
I can’t say I was terribly interested, moved by, or invested in their union, but thought his altruism near the end was a nice touch. But no worries—I didn’t have to care much about them. Not with the mama witch to keep me interested.
A Worthy Villain
Now, I’m not going to claim this witch is as fearsome or powerful as Cruella de Vil. But it’s fascinating to watch Mother Gothel, perfectly voiced by Donna Murphy, manipulate her supposed daughter Rapunzel. This mother has Bette Davis flair as she pronounces the evils outside that Rapunzel must avoid. My favorite of the dangers she lists: men with pointy teeth.
Mother Gothel transitions from worldly dangers to a litany of Rapunzel’s weaknesses: her clumsiness, her naïveté, etc., which will supposedly make her easily fall prey to others.
Of course, Mother Gothel pretends love, not fear of loss, is what prompts her tower hiding of Rapunzel.
In terms of models, Mother Gothel is a twin of the monstrous parents in Like Water for Chocolate and Now, Voyager, mothers who think a daughter should exist solely to serve, and enjoy doing so.
I’d always considered the father of the original tale weak for giving his child to the witch’s care (to avoid paying for stealing food for his pregnant wife with his life). But I’d never reflected on just how cruel it was to leave his child in such hands. The ill effects are briefly seen when Rapunzel escapes, as she veers between bursts of joy and energy…
…and periods of debilitating guilt:
While this back-and-forth moodiness is funny to watch due to Disney’s deft portrayal, I kept thinking of Davis’s twitchy, insecurity-infused performance in Now, Voyager, and just how much therapy it would cost Rapunzel before she attained the exuberance and lightheartedness she displayed in the very next scene. Truly, a witch who just threatens physical harm would be sweet by comparison.
I used to like the sidekicks in Disney flicks, but after one too many Sebastian types (of The Little Mermaid fame), I was relieved to find the most prominent sidekicks largely silent, including an Owl-like chameleon, Pascal, whose expressions and gestures provide sage advice (in tribute to his name, of course).
And there’s the glorious Maximus, a horse with amazing hunting skills and loyalty, who provides 90 percent of the comic relief of the film. As part of the royal guard, he tracks Flynn with Inspector Javert-like persistence after Flynn steals a crown from the palace.
Maximus falls for Rapunzel and reluctantly aids her beau, a reluctance that’s a joy to witness.
In fact, I was so enthralled by these animated allies that I found myself wishing the whole movie were silent, not just because these allies were the primary reward of watching the movie, but for the following additional reasons:
Utterly Forgettable Songs
Murphy (Mother Gothel) gets one good tune, and she’s a talented enough actress and singer to almost make the other songs worth hearing—almost. But with bland song after bland song, and the highly generic focus on dreams (seriously?), I was ready to return to the silent antics of Maximus. (If you can’t beat Kermit piping the lovely “Rainbow Connection” or the 1001 less compelling dreaming songs since, lay off of ’em.)
Scenery More Interesting than the Plot
A girl spends a lifetime in a tower, much of it reading, and the height of her ambition on escaping is to……see some lights. Umm, what? Couldn’t Disney have made her an artist—a writer or a painter (the murals!)? Or maybe an intellectual even? Surely Mother Gothel would have loved to provide the kinds of books that would turn Rapunzel into a scholar, as those might make her content to live a life of the mind, happy with her retreat. Turn the tower ivory, Mother Gothel! Come on! I’m not exactly talking about creativity here; I’m pronouncing the biggest cliché about towers ever. I know I’m supposed to believe Rapunzel has some spiritual connection with the lights, somehow understanding they’re for her, but if that’s the case, why didn’t Mother Gothel change the date of her birthday? The woman seems far too intelligent to have made such a dumb mistake.
The first big moment after Rapunzel’s re-entry to the world involves turning a bunch of thugs to her side because she asks if they have dreams, and they proceed to share them.
If I’d been in the theater, I’d have been tempted to throw popcorn at the screen. Even if this is a strange alternate universe where dreams aren’t discussed ad nauseam, neither this character, nor her own ambition, is at all inspiring. To see lights is not exactly the kind of dream to get criminals past their reluctance to open up. If the movie had played off her dream as comically stupid, what someone dozing in a tower would come up with, I’d have been all for it. But sigh. They played it as motivating.
In contrast to such clichéd scenes, all the details of the landscape sucked me in, especially the flood. In trying to get boys to watch the film, Disney really succeeded with the action shots.
How interesting it would have been, in contrast to that silly song about grass when the heroine hits the ground and the unnecessary (if occasionally amusing) scene with the tough types, to just witness Rapunzel quietly taking in the wonders around her, jumping at everyday noises, stumbling a bit at the unaccustomed exercise. What humor and pathos would have been possible! Disney gets this for a second, as Rapunzel is paralyzed after her tower retreat, unable to make the 12-inch drop to the ground.
In fact, the only truly moving scene in the film is the silent clip of the king and queen, hesitant to practice this lantern ritual yet again, to allow themselves to still hope.
I wish that Disney hadn’t been so cowed by Pixar successes into such a conventional retreat from what’s compelling about this movie. They give Rapunzel a Barbie-sized waist. They back off from the interesting mother-daughter dynamic.
They don’t realize Maximus is the star. They have this supposedly feminist heroine spend her time on indisputably female-associated crafts instead of developing some kind of true ambition. And at the end of the movie she’s—surprise! A bride.
Disney had the potential for some Fantasia creativity, with silence used to beautiful effect, and the glimpses of the story’s potential still make this a fun movie. But how great it could have been.
Don’t forget to check out the other entries in the blogathon!