Caught Up in Tangled

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Every so often I see a movie that so far exceeds my expectations, I can hardly wait to see it again, in part to confirm that it was really that special. Just when I thought the year would close without such a surprise, Disney’s 50th animated feature, the winning Tangled would ensnare my admiration, pulling me back to the theater the following weekend. It did not disappoint.

Tangled, a major reworking of the Rapunzel story, is more than a piece of hilarious, exciting cracker-jack family entertainment, it’s a film that reinvigorates Disney and Hollywood’s formulas for fairy tale magic & rollicking adventure with fresh layers of emotional complexity, mythical symbolism, and spiritual resonance. Although it is not under Pixar’s umbrella, thanks to the production influence of John Lasseter and other division personnel, it easily stands up to the Pixar standard of quality and charm.
As a revisionist fairy tale, Tangled is an equally playful, but more sophisticated genre twister than the Shrek films. Whereas the latter are littered with anachronistic language, references, and sometimes grating pop songs, Tangled merely reflects certain modern character attitudes to heighten the humor and relevance. In several ways, the closest analogue to this digital wonder is the live-action classic, The Princess Bride, with its potent mix of thrills, laughs, and romance.

The songs by Alan Menken recall the show tune traditionalism of his and Disney’s own Beauty and the Beast. Though they are not as catchy overall, they are more contextualized, with an emotional intensity bearing the apparent influence of Stephen Sondheim’s often dark (and sexually informed) fairy tale masterwork Into The Woods. There will be no pop covers of these tunes by Celine Dion or Rhianna (thankfully.)
The new premise finds Rapunzel as the estranged daughter of royalty, while her famed blonde tresses have been imbued by a magical flower with special powers. Her caretaker, Mother Gothel, sequesters her into the storied tower where she, as creepily as a vampire drawing blood, feeds on Rapunzel’s supernatural energy to stay eternally youthful.

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This parent figure, who could have been a character marked solely by boilerplate cliches of evil, is instead a dimensionalized heavy whose narcissism affords her the belief she is doing what is best for Rapunzel in shielding her from the dangerous world outside. It’s a complex villain who has clearly encouraged her daughter’s imagination and creativity to a degree (Rapunzel is unusually good at entertaining herself,) even while passive-aggressively stifling her esteem and curiosity with underhanded compliments and hurtful digs thinly disguised as guidance or jest.

This dynamic, in contrast to say, Cinderella’s with her (purely) wicked stepmother, is far more relevant to typical real family dysfunction, such that when this daughter starts to recognize the mother’s suffocating degree of control, then consciously choses to deceive her, there is a genuine sense of emotional risk in Rapunzel’s first rebellion. These personal stakes aren’t conveniently swept away, either; as the plucky damsel gets her first taste of freedom, she fluctuates adorably between pure exuberance and consuming guilt & fear. Only the hardest of hearts could resist rooting her on in her struggle for independence.

The catalyst for Rapunzel’s rite of passage comes in the muscular form of a comically gallant scoundrel, Flynn Ryder, who haphazardly intrudes on Rapunzel’s cloistered existence after evading a pair of fellow thieves, in a sneaky reversal of Indiana Jones’ first betrayal by a partner during his first screen appearance (the partner Sapito: “You throw me the idol, I’ll throw you the whip!”) But while Flynn echoes traits and fates of Indy and his movie blood brother Han Solo, Rapunzel proves herself equally crafty in a tight spot, using her hair more inventively than Indiana with his bull whip.

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As Rapunzel and Flynn’s destinies intertwine, the title takes on new meanings, beyond the psychological enmeshment with her needy mother, to the entanglements of her and Flynn’s tentative alliance, despite seemingly conflicting quests, and of course, their potential romantic involvement. In the early going Flynn, not just Mother Gothel, is willing to use emotional manipulation to discourage Rapunzel’s quest of learning the origin of the lanterns she sees floating over the landscape from her window every year on her birthday, lest she deter his pursuit of personal fortune.

Which makes it all the more affecting as our ingenues discover their mutual power for bringing out the most integral of each other’s qualities while forming bonds of trust. It’s the kind of love story movies so seldom now even hint at, as endless so-called romantic setups butcher the very idea of love going any deeper than infatuation over good looks and a shared sense of surviving potential peril. The dialogue, while as clever as a classic screwball comedy, paints an uncanny portrait of two souls trading the gift of affording each other to be their truest selves.

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The film’s lush animation, reportedly inspired by “The Swing” by French painter Jean-Honore Fragonard compliments the character chemistry with a breathtaking visual poetry suggesting true love as a higher state of spiritual being. Among the motifs is the repeated use of floral imagery, particularly the lotus, a Buddhist symbol of enlightenment. (On a more personal note, I was often reminded of the forward to one of my favorite books, Eckhart Tolle’s “A New Earth,” which indicates the world’s first flowers as making a quantum leap in evolution, presumably the first plants assuming “enlightened” form by bearing elaborate features of great beauty that were superfluous to its survival.)

Enlightenment is also illustrated with the purest of ethereal imagery, light itself, mentioned ubiquitously in religious texts as representing God or the spirit beneath our Earthly forms. Naturally the magical properties of Rapunzel’s hair and the mythic flower from which they derive are illustrated with various glowing effects, in keeping with the sparkle-intensive Disney universe. The story elements of floating lanterns sent aloft from the story’s royal castle, and a painting of the constellations on Rapunzel’s domed ceiling, make for a literally brilliant through line. Indeed, several of the film’s most powerful moments employ such images with divine simplicity.

Although thankfully absent of the cheap pop culture riffing and snarky celeb-voiced wisecracks (the two hilarious animal sidekicks, a royal guard horse and Rapunzel’s pet chameleon, earn their laughs without speech) of so many contemporary animated features, the film is no less culture savvy than Pixar’s best. Action and drama sequences are packed with filmic homages to The Abyss, Spielberg/Lucas, The Mask of Zorro, Rushmore, The Matrix & Evil Dead trilogies, numerous Westerns, Mission Impossible, Field of Dreams, etc.

I can’t wait until this gorgeous little movie comes out on Blu-Ray. But if you haven’t already, try to see it first in the theater, and in 3-D, it adds yet another delightful dimension to a film with depth to spare. A few more movies like this one and I might even consider shelling out for a 3-D television. It’s my favorite use of the technology to date, by far. But however you can, just see it.

SUPER COOL BONUS CLIP

Check out this crazy promotional clip from Disney, which mimics the style of their own instructional films of the 50′s. It’s a gas!