As Printed in The Lumberjack on Dec. 2, 2010
by Gary Sundt
In my four years as movie critic, I have never actually reviewed an animated children’s film with children in tow. This past Thanksgiving break afforded me this previously unattained experience, the children in being my two cousins, Sydney and Ellie, who are 3 and 2 respectively. On the way to the theater, my uncle asked the girls what we were going to see, and they excitedly screamed, “Rapunzel!”
We were actually going to see Tangled, the latest (and apparently last for a while) princess film from Walt Disney Animation. As is customary when the Mouse House goes about creating a new princess, the story is not exactly as the Brothers Grimm originally wrote. Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) is a princess born with some pretty spectacular hair – so long as you don’t cut it, it can turn back the effects of time for an individual, including reversing the aging process and healing all wounds. Gothel (Donna Murphy), a greedy old woman, swipes the baby for her powers and hides her away in a tall tower. The king and queen, devastated by the loss of their daughter, declare an annual event where floating lanterns are lit and cast into the sky in hopes the lights will lead the princess home. This tradition, held every year on Rapunzel’s birthday, becomes an obsession for the home-ridden girl as she grows up.
This is the status quo until the eve of Rapunzel’s 18th birthday, when she decides that she is ready to go the castle and see these lanterns up close. Her stepmother, now known as Mother Gothel, insists that she not go because the outside world is far too dangerous. But when an on-the-run criminal known as Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi) unfortunately hides in the tall tower of the more-than-capable princess (she does kung fu with her hair), Rapunzel cons the con into taking her to see the lights, with Gothel, the royal army, a crown-sniffing horse named Maximus, and Rider’s disgruntled former partners on their tail.
The experience of Tangled, and I imagine any child’s movie with a remotely engaging narrative structure, is a bit of a rollercoaster from what I can tell. The girls loved Rapunzel for no other reason than she is a beautiful princess with wonderfully long hair that they would just looooooove to brush. When the story (and consequently the color palette) became darker, the girls were scared, and therefore needed to be cuddled. When the horse showed up, they were pleased. The climax was confusing because the story has multiple mommies – an anomaly to a little girl’s mind. Regardless, when the inevitable happy ending arrives, both girls were thrilled, and they only had good things to say when the theater lights came up.
Making an engaging film for adults is far more challenging, having more to do with a solid yarn and good character development than pretty princesses. While Tangled has the kind of plot holes you can run a train, it is an entertaining flick with an undeniably Disneyesque feel. This is Disney’s 50th animated film, and the colors, the castles, and the general trappings of the land where “Happily Ever After” is certain is more than a little familiar to us.
But there is certainly a difference in the spirit of Tangled, due in large part to the nature of the villain. Mother Gothel is apparently a sorceress, but wields no magic after the first scenes, and her cruelty is substantially subtler than the previous Disney baddies. She has a song (as all Disney villains do) titled “Mother Knows Best,” and it combines maternal tones with toxic lyrics that cross into the realm of psychological domestic child abuse. As a connoisseur of the Walt Disney, I have seen my fair share of evil stepmothers, but this one’s modernized and realistic sadism dissects with a knife rather than the blunt force of Snow White or even Cinderella. I’m currently laying in wait for a Youtube video to appear that hilariously combines the catchy tunes of Tangled with images from last year’s Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire. Maybe I’ll even make it myself.
As we left the theater, Sydney and Ellie were both utterly exhausted and in need of a nap. Such is the way children most often digest cinema. I am told that when the same two little girls saw the far smarter but less hip Toy Story 3, the emotional ups-and-downs were even more engaging, and the now-infamous incinerator sequence and its implications was apparently more than a little difficult to fully explain. Perhaps the more challenging we make children’s movies, the more pertinent the questions in need of answers, and therefore the better the movies themselves inherently become.
Tangled is a film nowhere near the musical and intellectual merits of the great Disney princesses like Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora, or even Tiana from last year’s excellent Princess and the Frog. This one warms the heart without remotely enlightening the mind. Not great, but merely good enough.