For several years now, the good folks at Disney animation have been racking their brains trying to figure out how exactly Pixar is continually able to capture that elusive lightning in their box office-busting bottle. Obviously strong storytelling and exceptional artistry are significant factors, but whereas Pixar can reinvent itself with each new adventure, Disney is forever anchored to a near century-old heritage. As a result, the manner in which it must evolve in order to remain relevant with modern audiences is a delicately orchestrated balancing act; should the changes be too great, they’re accused of abandoning tradition to make a quick buck; change too little and you’re branded a one trick pony. It’s an unwinnable feat and one in which the cynics take great pleasure. Yet even the most sceptical of viewers would find difficulty in lambasting Tangled, a film that marries the old with the new in a manner which hasn’t been explored since Toy Story (1995).
Ok, I admit this isn’t the first time I’ve proclaimed the glorious return of Disney. Not that The Princess and the Frog (2009) was a disappointment, but it was slightly safe. For all of it's 2D charm, the film lacked gusto, choosing instead to nestle in the comfort of it's (more successful) 90’s forebears. It's successor, however, is far more daring, with one eye on the past and one set firmly on the future. Even with every conceivable superlative at hand, adjectives simply don’t do justice to how astonishingly good this film really is and if it doesn’t quite surpass Pixar’s Ratatouille (2007) – repeat viewings may be in order – it’s certainly the finest thing from the Mouse since 2000’s The Emperor’s New Groove (and I do not say that lightly!)
If you’ve been unfortunate enough to see the marketing material, you’d be forgiven for mistaking Tangled as a Shrek-lite, pop culture laden mismatch of anachronistic gaggery and capricious pastiche which ten years from now will be about as timeless as an episode of Baywatch – or a Dreamworks cartoon. Thankfully, aside from a slapstick musical set-piece and the one (frankly hilarious) instance of breaking the fourth wall, there’s not a shred of post-modernism in sight. This is the real deal; a classic fairytale, albeit with a shiny new coat of CG paint, but one which nevertheless flaunts its old school charms with such pride as to make even Enchanted (2006) look mean-spirited. Sure, the naysayers will condemn Tangled for being more of the same, but Disney will always be damned if they do, damned if they don’t and for the first time in years, here’s a studio that no longer cares what you think.
Rapunzel, easily one of the most three dimensional (har har) heroines in the Disney canon, is simply one of the most satisfying female leads in history. Period. Like Megara and Mulan (2008) et al, Rapunzel is more than just a damsel in distress, but she’s also captivatingly sweet, echoing Ariel’s youthful curiosity without the neediness and naivety that often made that particular protagonist so frustrating. Clumsy but self-mocking, strong-willed but independent, there’s a real endearing quality to the way in which she suffers her plight and this is in no small part thanks to the casting of Mandy Moore whose whole American teen vibe gives us the first genuinely hilarious Disney Princess. Of course we also have an hilarious Prince in the form of Flynn, the devilishly handsome thief who steals Rapunzel’s heart along with the film’s funniest lines. And then there’s the villain, Mother Gothel; a wicked blend of Scar’s faux affection and Lady Tremaine’s overbearing dominance, best exemplified in the musical number “Mother Knows Best”, a sequence filled with such sinister undertones as to out-bitch Cruella De Vil.
But what’s this I hear you cry? Aren’t all these just tired conventions of the Disney ‘toon? Perhaps, although even that argument would be an over-simplification. No, the real wonder of Tangled is the nostalgia it stirs in viewers old enough to remember with fondness a time when animation was more than just the moving joke book it’s now become. Even Pixar, for all their memorable moments, have failed to impinge on the emotional extremes of The Lion King (1994), Pocahontas (1995) and countless others. Tangled represents the first real attempt to recapture the maturity of traditional animation and the result is magical; yes it’s deliriously funny, but it’s equally as moving. Admittedly the tunes are a bit of a disappointment, coming as they do from legendary composer Alan Menken, but the shock of seeing CG characters break into song is such a delight you’re unlikely to care.
And I haven’t even mentioned the visuals! Subsurface scattering for realistic lighting and those painterly patents first put to use in Bolt (2008) are here milked for all their worth; every shot is bathed in such soft iridescence that it resembles less a collection of pixels than a painting in motion. The animation itself is breathtakingly beautiful, the real standout being Maximus the horse whose canine sensibilities and stern demeanour are infused with the type of overt theatricality rarely seen outside of a Goofy cartoon. High praise must also be given for the technical pioneers behind Rapunzel’s luscious locks; hair is notoriously difficult to pull off in CGI but the way in which our hero parades it around screen is almost a dare, an invitation for rival studios to try and do better – an intimidating provocation indeed, as this is inarguably the prettiest film thus far to have emanated from a hard-drive.
It’s ironic that after so many years of chasing the equation for box-office success, Disney should feel most comfortable doing what it does best; fairytale romance, dastardly villains, loveable sidekicks, singing, dancing... or as Walt himself so cleanly put it, for every laugh there should be a tear. It’s a mantra which serves Tangled well, a film which makes no apologies for being sweet or sentimental. The sign of a studio which has finally learnt to let down it’s hair.
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Aladdin (1992) *****
The Little Mermaid (1989) ****
The Princess and the Frog (2009) ****