Disney Hall of Fame: Tangled
After the Disney Renaissance ended with Tarzan in 1999, Disney took a turn away from princesses and struggled to find its footing. The studio started to play with computer animation instead of hand-drawn animation. But, finally, the princesses made a comeback in 2009 with The Princess and the Frog, a hand-drawn animated film with the first black princess, which was a moderate success. After that in 2010, Disney released Tangled to better reviews and greater box office success. Then, in 2013 Frozen came along and set the world on fire. And, in 2016, Moana gave an underserved culture some representation on the screen and changed the game with animation technology.
Between those four films, two were major victories for inclusive storytelling, and one was a worldwide phenomenon no one saw coming. Tangled often gets buried in the discussion, probably because it’s the most traditional Disney princess film we’ve had. The design recalls French and Italian Renaissance art, and the story is a basic hero’s journey with some laughs, a terrific villain, some beautiful visuals, and colorful characters to give it life. Tangled feels like it could have been released in 1995, even though its humor is mostly modern.
Tangled is based on the well-known fairy tale of Rapunzel, but it adds in its own flavor. Rapunzel, whose very, very long hair has magical healing powers, is locked in a tower by the scheming witch Mother Gothel. Rapunzel longs to leave and to see the flying lanterns that appear on her birthday. Flynn Rider, a notorious thief, comes across the tower while trying to escape his former cohorts after running off with the crown they just stole. Rapunzel knocks him out and takes the crown, convincing Flynn to escort her to the lanterns in exchange for the crown.
In development since 2002, Tangled was initially meant to be a 2D animated film, but the film was greenlit on the condition that it would be CGI. The animators then tried to combine the CGI and hand-drawn animation techniques, taking artistic inspiration while trying to create a different sort of aesthetic. As a result, Tangled does have a very unique look compared to other animated films. The animators used a new process called multi-rigging. This process entails using multiple cameras for each element of the scene, with each element broken down by distance from the camera. Each element gets blended together during the compositing stage, thus creating a very appealing and painterly look. Also, the film developed new technology to make Rapunzel’s long hair look realistic, even while underwater. I’m not quite sure exactly what makes Tangled such a visually sumptuous film because I have little knowledge of animation beyond the basic research I did on this film. However, this movie does have a distinct look even from its fellow princess films within the same period.
For me, Tangled is such a wonderfully layered movie. Mother Gothel makes for a menacing villain, using borderline emotional abuse to keep Rapunzel in the tower. And, when Rapunzel finally does leave the tower, she’s conflicted about rebelling, afraid of breaking free. Rapunzel and Flynn have a quippy, screwball courtship with funny banter and cute slapstick. The animal characters, the chameleon, Pascal, and Maximus, the horse who acts like a dog, add to the humor. There is an overarching sense of longing in the film—not overly pronounced, but present—as Rapunzel longs to find her belonging. While she only knows her life in the tower, she also has a feeling that something isn’t right. That’s why the lanterns call to her. Something inside her tells her that she has a home somewhere else, even if she cannot quite articulate that.
Back in 2010, there was some controversy about the film changing its name from Rapunzel to Tangled (and the same controversy occurred when The Snow Queen became Frozen). Many people thought the name change was a direct result of The Princess and the Frog underperforming at the box office. Disney might have believed having a gender-neutral name would appeal to wider audience (i.e. little boys who wouldn’t go see a girly movie). The decision to have Flynn narrate the film also fueled the controversy. While there is some merit to the controversy, both the title and Flynn’s narration do work for the movie because they give this very traditional film a more modern edge. Disney seems to have learned its lesson with Moana, which could have had a more generic title.
Tangled boasts some nice songs, especially the sweet “I See the Light,” the very charming “When Will My Life Begin?” and the villainous “Mother Knows Best.” The weakest song is probably “I’ve Got a Dream,” where a bunch of thugs talk about their unconventional passions. The voice cast is also pretty great. I really like Mandy Moore’s performance, as her girl next-door charm and grounded sensibility to gives weight to Rapunzel’s fantastical story. Zachary Levi, at the time a hot young thing with his series Chuck, does great work here. Broadway veteran Donna Murphy gives so many shades to Mother Gothel, who is evil but vulnerable and scared of growing old.
I saw Tangled with my older sister at the Times Square Regal Theater in New York City. Instantly it became a major favorite for me. I’ve watched it many times on Blu-ray. I distinctly remember being enraged when it did not receive an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature (“I See the Light” was nominated for Best Original Song, though). While the film does have a solid reputation, being sandwiched between a “disappointment,” like The Princess and the Frog, and the blindingly popular Frozen hurt the film. It was seen at the time as “pretty good but not as good as Disney Renaissance movies.” Then Frozen came along and changed the world, leaving the previous two Princess movies behind. But Tangled will always hold a very special place for me, an adult male, because it's a stunning, modernist take on the traditional Disney Princess template.