'Tangled': Disney Magic
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Hollywood insiders, particularly animation mavens, will tell you that the title of "Tangled," ostensibly the 50th animated feature film produced by Walt Disney Studios, could also serve just as well as a title for its own production history. This somewhat radical rethink of "Rapunzel," one of the few fairy tales not heretofore given the Disney treatment, was conceived and announced several years ago at a fraught moment in the history of the company's animation division. Onetime Disney animation megamind Jeffrey Katzenberg had gone off to DreamWorks and concocted the monstrously successful "Shrek," creating a template for a "hip" children's animated feature that was more knowing and cynical than what the once tried-and-true Disney formula called for. And some time after that, the creative geniuses of Pixar pulled out of their association with the Mouse House -- business, nothing personal -- leaving the company bereft of yet another vital creative force. In its wake came bold plans for the likes of ... well, remember "Chicken Little"? "Meet the Robinsons"? Yeah. Sorry for reminding you.
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In any event, the earliest preproduction hype on this was intensely dispiriting, making the film sound like it was going to piggyback on the already opportunistic DreamWorks formula, and do so proudly, a prospect that only the members of Smash Mouth might have found genuinely exciting. But in the interim, a few things happened, not least of them a rapprochement between Pixar and Disney, leading to a cozy arrangement wherein Pixar creative majordomo John Lasseter -- who, unlike Katzenberg, is an actual artistic force, rather than a particularly cunning marketing one -- has oversight over all Disney animated product. One supposes that a sense of rising to an occasion, of wanting/trying to make the 50th animated feature in its way as exciting and engaging and groundbreaking as its first (that would have been a little thing called "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" back in 1937) also occurred to the production team at one point.
None of these considerations are likely to matter to the average consumers of Disney animated fare, who will merely be pleased to be told that "Tangled," beginning from a somewhat compromised and, yes, derivative premise and "sassy" attitude, settles into a strong and surprisingly dark story line. It eventually establishes itself as not just a fleet and engaging cartoon entertainment, but something of a latter-day classic, what Jean-Luc Godard would call "un vrai Disney film," worthy of consideration alongside such beloved post-Walt fare as, yes, "Beauty and the Beast."
It doesn't look as if it's going to get there at first. The opening of the picture, in which cocky male hero Flynn Ryder (voiced by Zachary Levi) announces that he's about to tell the story of his death, teeters on the brink of DreamWorks-y snark, as does the pronouncedly modern proto-feminist attitude of the teen Rapunzel (Mandy Moore), whose long blond tresses here have the power to heal and give life. But the story line, which makes Rapunzel a kidnapped princess whose captor Gothel (Donna Murphy) uses the girl's hair to keep young -- and who actually pretends to be the girl's mother, eww -- is intriguingly dark in a way that even the most traumatic vintage Disney fare didn't dare to be. This adds a peculiar emotional pull to the hijinks and romance and frivolity. When Rapunzel's fervent request to leave her tower and visit the outside world cues Gothel to sing "Mother Knows Best," a rather twisted variant on "Rose's Turn" from "Gypsy," one is assured, for good, that one is in the best of hands (the songs were in fact composed by Alan Menken, of "Beauty and the Beast" fame, with lyrics by Glenn Slater, who collaborated with Menken on "The Little Mermaid").
The picture goes from strength to strength from there, with nifty funny-animal comic bits courtesy of a law-enforcement-freak of a horse and a droll chameleon, antics from lovable supporting roughnecks, and some amazing animation set pieces, culminating in a love ballad set against a backdrop of floating lanterns that's among the most dazzling pieces of moving artwork executed in any animated movie, Disney or otherwise, ever. And as a bonus, when we do get to the thrilling finale, Smash Mouth is nowhere to be seen or heard. Well done, and happy 50th, Disney; looking forward to what you'll scheme up for number 100.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.