Monday, November 29, 2010


What a rare pleasure to see a big American corporation—a movie studio, no less—make a business decision so smart the whole company roars back from the brink of disaster. I’m talking about Walt Disney Animation Studios, which had the unusually good sense, back in 2006, not just to buy out Pixar but to put its brilliant chief executive, John Lasseter, in charge of all Disney animation. (As Fortune magazine wrote at the time, “It's as if Nemo swallowed the whale.”)

Since then, Lasseter has overseen the creation of WALL-E, Up, The Princess and the Frog, Toy Story 3, and now Tangled for his new bosses. All with richly detailed backgrounds and dramatic lighting and simulated camera anglesm all heartfelt yet light on their feet, the new Disney animations are uninfected by the easy irony and crippling self-awareness that ruins so many children’s movies these days.

Tangled simply offers an updated—and refreshingly girl-power-infused—take on the classic tale of Rapunzel, a girl imprisoned for years in a tower by an enchantress who took her from her parents. The original tale ends with a rescue by a passing prince, but this version is narrated, in a laidback voiceover, by Flynn Rider (voiced by Zachary Levi), an orphan turned thief who sweeps Rapunzel (voiced by Mandy Moore) off her feet—after she knocks him off his own two or three times, with the help of an iron skillet.

The business with the frying pan is part of a wide vein of slapstick humor that runs through the movie, most of it at the expense of the initially too-cocky Flynn. There is also plenty of subtler humor, like Rapunzel’s initial awkwardness when she first ventures out of the tower where she’s spent virtually her whole life.

Funny, action-packed, and as unpretentiously charming as its heroine, Tangled is packed with the Broadway-style songs that Disney used to excel at, which Lasseter brought back with The Princess and the Frog. One of them (“Mother Knows Best”) that would fit right into Gypsy.

The film also has some classic Disney-style funny-animal sidekicks—both Pascal, a chameleon who is Rapunzel’s only friend until she meets Flynn, and Maximus, a proud palace horse that first hounds and then befriends Flynn. More bloodhound than horse and more scornful big brother than either, Maximum doesn’t talk any more than Pascal does, but they both communicate loud and clear.

The relationship between Rapunzel and the “mother” who kidnapped her as an infant and keeps her locked up in the tower is unusually sophisticated for a Disney movie, which may be why Gothel (Donna Murphy), the false mother, announces heavily, on a couple occasions, that she’ll be the bad guy if that’s what Rapunzel wants…. Those asides are nicely handled, funny enough to entertain the adults and older kids and probably helpful to the little ones, who might otherwise get confused by how often Gothel hugs and kisses Rapunzel or says how much she loves her. Her displays of affection fool Rapunzel too, for a while, but they’re ultimately just part of a classic narcissist’s bid for total control.

That probably went right over the heads of the little kids who made up most of the audience I saw the movie with, like the floating lanterns they reached for when the magic of 3D made them seem to float right there—just in front of them and a little to the left. But if Rapunzel’s relationship with Gothel and the budding romance between Rapunzel and Flynn went over the little kids’ heads, neither kept them from getting lost in the movie, or from tumbling happily out of the theater afterward, still enfolded by invisible clouds of joy.

Tangled has the look and feel of Disney classics like Lady and the Tramp, thanks to its generally light, bright colors and the exaggerated, doll-like features and skin and physiques of its human and animal characters. I saw it in 3D, but I wouldn’t feel obligated to if I were you. Aside from those lanterns and one risky jump by Maximus, the added dimension was never essential—or even particularly important—to the enjoyment of the picture.

Tangled is pure, unadulterated, innocent fun, a return to the best of classic Disney--only better, since it’s free of the sexism and racism that you have to overlook in a lot of the old movies. No wonder these Disney animators did such a good job of showing us Rapunzel’s dizzy glee when she first got free of that tower: They must know just how she felt.

And now we just need to figure out what’s going on at Pixar. I mean, really guys: a sequel to Cars???

Written for TimeOFF

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