Sunday, November 28, 2010

My Wish for Rapunzel -- Reflections on "Tangled" (2010)

All that hair and not a single split-end.
Does she use Pantene? Herbal Essence? Paul Mitchell?
There are two ways to tell if a children's movie is a good one. First: if kids don't start acting like they have ADD as they watch. Second: if grown-ups aren't groaning, rolling their eyes, or falling asleep.

Tangled passed both tests.

While this film is not without its flaws -- and there are a couple glaring ones -- it is an enjoyable movie made with real heart by the folks at Disney. I can't imagine kids, especially young girls, not falling in love with it; most adults, too. It's charming, exciting, and visually masterful.

The story is a retelling of the classic Grimm's tale of Rapunzel (Mandy Moore), the girl with the really really really long, magical hair. She is the daughter of a royal family, kidnapped by an evil woman named Gothel (Donna Murphy) who needs Rapunzel's hair to work as a fountain of youth. Rapunzel believes this woman is her mother, and has bought into the lie that she remain trapped in a tower, separated from a society that longs to steal her hair and destroy her.

In keeping with the long line of Disney princesses, though, Rapunzel longs for a better life. She paints beautiful images on the walls of her tower room, and wants very much to see the festival of the floating lights for her 18th birthday. Gothel won't allow it, though, and therein lies Rapunzel's great conflict, and the conflict of all teen girls: to rebel or not to rebel.

Not rebelling would be dull, so on the scene arrives a handsome rogue named Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi), who's on the lam after stealing the valuable princess' crown from the King's castle, and attempts to take sanctuary in Rapunzel's secluded tower. He gets more than he bargains for, though, and as Rapunzel gets the upper hand, she offers him a deal: take her to the floating lights and he can get his crown.

The adventure they embark on is quite traditional, filled with fun supporting characters, the requisite action sequences, and romance. Along the way, people change, learn something, and live happily ever after. It's well-made, fun, and hits all the right notes.

Yet, for as good as Tangled is, I feel as though it could have been better. I mentioned earlier that there are a couple major flaws, and there are. The biggest involves the motivation for Mother Gothel. When she re-enters the story after Rapunzel's escape, she understandably wants the girl back. After all, this girl is her ticket to seemingly everlasting life. Yet, when she corners Rapunzel, she lets her go and stages an elaborate con to get the girl to return home. While this makes for good drama, it makes little sense on the character front. Gothel kidnapped this girl, and the longer she allows her to roam free, the more likely she is to learn clues as to her origins, to be recognized, or for danger to befall her. It doesn't make sense, and becomes quite distracting as the film goes on.

It's this distraction that reveals the second major flaw: there is simply not enough danger in this story. Grimm's tales always had that cynical edge to them that made their stories seem dangerous, as if reading them was a risk-taking act in and of itself. Even the great Disney films, like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, had a real sense of danger in them -- you really did feel afraid for Belle and Simba on their journeys. Their villains were legitimately frightening, and even though you knew everything would end happily, there was always a feeling that it could go the other way.

Never during Tangled did I feel a real sense of danger or concern for Rapunzel or Flynn. The moment Mother Gothel backs away from Rapunzel, all the tension from the story's removed. She, and the threat she represents, become less scary. The tone of the film is too breezy, making the darker scenes feel of lesser consequence.

Not that this matters much. Tangled is still great fun, and will be appreciated for its artistry. Like I said, it's a beautiful film to look at. Kids won't think about the movie's weaknesses, instead enjoying the funny supporting characters, like Pascual, the sarcastic chameleon and Maximus, the pissy horse with a soft spot for damsels in distress. In the end, that's all that matters -- the joy of watching a fun, family film.

I just wish it could have been more.

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