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November 24, 2010


Disney has a certain history to overcome with their princess movies. There’s always been a certain amount of adaptation to go from a fairy tale to a Disney story, but around the late ’80s they started to diverge pretty wildly. Whole storylines and characters were spun out of whole cloth, and while they sold wonderfully to children the stories suffered in the translation. Eventually Disney decided to just make up the whole story from scratch, which seemed to be better all around.

With Tangled, Disney returns to their adaptations, this time taking on Rapunzel. Again, the story bears only a superficial resemblance to the Brothers Grimm version, and yet this time they actually pull it off. Part of it may have to do with the fact that the Rapunzel story isn’t exactly the most familiar. Sure, we remember the hair and the tower, but what else comes to mind?

In the original, a poor couple are expecting the birth of their child. The mother has an overwhelming craving for a certain plant in a neighboring garden, which the husband steals. Unfortunately, it’s the property of a witch, who demands repayment in the form of their new baby daughter. She locks the daughter up in a tower and grows her hair out extremely long, until a prince came along, finding and (after some events) rescuing her.

In the Disney version, the couple are a king and queen, and the queen’s craving is now a serious illness (absolving them of moral responsibility). The plant is a magic golden flower, with power to heal and rejuvenate when a spell is sung to it. The flower jealously guarded by a crone (Donna Murphy), using it to keep herself young, but it’s found and used to save the queen’s life. Her daughter — Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) — is born with golden blonde hair. The crone sneaks into the castle, finds the girl, realizes that her hair now has the healing magic of the flower, and kidnaps the baby to raise as her own daughter, shut away from the world.

Rapunzel, as might be expected, grows tired of her single-room life, and wants to get out to see the world — especially the mysterious floating lanterns she sees in the distance every year on her birthday. She gets her change when swashbuckling thief Flynn (Zachary Levi) finds her tower while on the run from the palace guards and his former partners (Ron Perlman) after stealing the long-lost princess’ tiara.

Now, setting aside the fact that the new storyline veers dangerously close to blood libel, what follows is actually really fun. Neither the characters nor the storyline are particularly original, but they’re endearing nonetheless. Flynn’s braggadocio is nicely balanced against Rapunzel’s earnest naïvete. Mother Gothel is charming in the tradition of the best Disney villains. And though the script treads no real new ground, it never feels dull and lifeless the way too many children’s movies do. It doesn’t even matter that it’s utterly devoid of Pixar’s and Deamworks’ expected winks towards the parents in the audience

But the key ingredient of a Disney princess movie is its songs, and here’s where Tangled really shines. In recent memory, these songs seem thrown together as set pieces separate from the narrative, and written more as standalone pop numbers. But Alan Menken brings some of his best work since Little Shop of Horrors, and crafts music for Glenn Slater’s lyrics that braid themselves into the rest of the score. The effect is an organic whole, like a Broadway show, rather than a movie that happens to have some musical numbers.

And, of course, the 3D. The film is computer-animated, and so they could render it stereoscopically from the outset and make it look decent. They were relatively good about using the effect as a diorama and not going for cheap thrills, but there’s really no place where it’s essential. If you have the option, see a 2D print and save the surcharge.

Worth it: yes.
Bechdel test: pass.

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