Friday, March 4, 2011

Tangled Movie Review: Hardly a Disney Classic

Say what you want about Disney, and I could say plenty, but their classic animated films provide wonderful entertainment based on centuries-old classic tales. Even if they instill backward, “some day my prince will come” attitudes, they touch something in children that draws them into the stories. Throw in some great musical numbers and audiences walk out humming songs that will eventually be counted among the great movie songs of all time.

Their latest animated musical, Tangled, eschews the hand drawn look popularized during Disney’s heyday in favor of computer animation. It’s rather surprising that it took more than 80 years and 50 animated feature films for Disney to get around to the Grimm Brothers’ story of Rapunzel. It’s one of the classic princess stories along with Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, all of which were canonized by the Mouse House more than 50 years ago. Of course this isn’t the studio’s first computer animated feature, but it is the first done in the narrative style (complete with musical numbers) of their most memorable films.


In 2009 Disney made a return to that style with The Princess and the Frog complete with several big show-stoppers that gave that film the feel of a Broadway musical. Short of maybe one sequence – “Mother Knows Best,” performed by the Broadway star Donna Murphy and unfortunately the only number she performs – Tangled offers very little in the way of great songs, the Oscar nominated “I See the Light” notwithstanding. The music of Alan Menken, long an important participant in the creative process that brings Disney films to life, has the sound and feel of some of his best work, but there’s an element missing – a story element – to make me feel involved.

There’s a pervasive feeling in the film that makes it come across as slightly self-aware. It isn’t as earnest as those earlier classics. When we’re dealing with enchanted princesses and anthropomorphic animals, the screenplay has to go full tilt either toward the serious end or to the snarky side a la Shrek. Maybe the culprit is the character Flynn Rider – Rapunzel’s love interest voiced by Zach Levi. He’s smug and conceited much like Aladdin was (they even bear a certain physical resemblance to one another).

I suppose it’s something of a necessary element to compete with the youth entertainment culture. Shrek was a game changer by giving audiences a taste of a story and characters they could get behind, but that they could also feel comfortable poking fun at those conventions. Tangled feels caught in the middle.

The story is a loose adaptation (as usual) of the Grimm tale. The princess Rapunzel, born with magical golden hair, is stolen in infancy by Gothel to help her retain the beauty of youth. Gothel locks her away in a tower and raises her as her own daughter, insisting she never leave lest the terrible people in the world try to cut her hair and rob her of her precious gift. Flynn is a rapscallion thief (much like Aladdin) who comes across Rapunzel’s tower. Already curious about the thousands of floating lanterns she sees in the sky every year on her birthday (ironically they are actually set aloft in her honor by the people of the kingdom) she makes a deal with him to take her to see them.

Rapunzel is voiced, in both speaking and song, by Mandy Moore, who lends a surprisingly mature set of vocl chords to the musical numbers. She sings well and provides a solid, if plain and indistinct voice characterization to Rapunzel. But isn’t that always the problem with Disney princesses? They all sound the same while the supporting characters are given the most interesting vocal actors – Robin Williams as the genie in Aladdin, or Ursula in The Little Mermaid, or Jeremy Irons’ Scar in The Lion King. This time, supporting roles in addition to Murphy include Jeffrey Tambor, Brad Garrett, and Ron Perlman as a pair of jilted thieves Flynn left for dead.

Disney has a long history of anthropomorphizing and cutesifying members of the animal kingdom. It’s most successful when they talk, like the mice in Cinderella, or Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio. But a pet chameleon Rapunzel keeps b her side is more distracting and annoying than he is interesting or fun, likewise a horse that doesn’t exactly see eye to eye with Flynn, and anyway behaves much more like a dog than a horse. The horse could have easily been made into a human without too many big changes in the script and it would have felt more natural, less forced to elicit the appreciation of 5 year olds.

Even when Disney had a monopoly on the genre, they went through a two decade dry spell of animated film you may have heard of, but probably haven’t seen: Robin Hood; The Rescuers; The Aristocats. From The Little Mermaid through The Lion King it looked like they were back in fine form, but Pocahontas sank their ship and they’ve never quite recovered. Part of the reason is that feature animation has become a crowded market as evidenced by the Academy’s creation of an Oscar category ten years ago – an Award that has yet to be won by Disney and for which Tangled failed to get any recognition outside of simple eligibility. Pixar ha simply dominated the market in terms of critical praise, awards recognition, and box office success. While Disney has a partnership with Pixar, that brand survives on its own and they retain total creative control over their product, which is why their films don’t often feel Disneyfied.

SPOILER WARNING

Tangled is 100 percent Disneyfied. It is at times insipid, particularly in the craven way it simply rips off the formula established by Snow White in 1937. The villain, who bears a slight resemblance to The Queen, even falls to her death at the end.

The bottom line is kids will probably enjoy it with the cute animal antics and beautiful princess with long blonde hair and impossibly gigantic green eyes. But this is unlikely to join the pantheon of Disney Classics.

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