Monday, December 6, 2010

An Overbearing Mother's Wildest Dreams (With Music): Tangled Is Simple And Direct!

The Good: Interesting characters, Fun (visually and musically), Decent voice acting.
The Bad: Musically unmemorable, 3-D effects are unimpressive, Plot/Moral messages trend too far toward the safe and conservative.
The Basics: Disney's latest animated feature, Tangled is pleasantly direct, delightfully goofy and annoyingly predictable at moments when it could stretch toward the audacious.

As one who loathes some of the business practices of the company, I've given a disturbing amount of money to Disney this year. I'm not talking about the subtle takeovers of the company like Lost or Iron Man 2, but rather the straight, unabashed Disney products that I usually wouldn't spend money on. I felt I had to see the 3-D versions of Alice In Wonderland (reviewed here!) and Toy Story 3 (reviewed here!) after seeing preview screenings in 2-D and I knew the company was going to end the year well with Tron: Legacy. I forgot, strangely because I had seen so very many previews of it, that they still had Tangled coming out. Last night, after making a new addition to our family (more about that very soon!), my wife took me out to the movies for Tangled.

Here I feel it behooves me to mention some things about my reviews and the way I rate. While a ten point scale might be pretty clear to most, and my index page where those numbers illustrate comparatively what I think about movies makes my pantheon a whole lot clearer, the nuance of it is sometimes less clear. Obviously, the extreme ends of the scale 9-10, 1 - 0 are for the absolute best and absolute worst films. But "average" is a wider number than I think most people consider and in my scale it probably ranges from 4 - 6.5. In other words, 6.5 is not bad, it is the best of works which might dazzle in one way shape or form, but might be a bit more predictable or pedestrian in other ways. With Tangled, it had a lot to overcome with this viewer to get to a 6.5 and yet, it made it there and the truth is, I enjoyed the movie quite a bit. But it is not flawless and the flaws actually reminded me far too much of why I don't usually like Disney movies.

In a magical kingdom, the daughter of a benevolent king and queen - Rapunzel - is bestowed with magical healing powers. Gothel, who is terrified of losing her youth and yet is feeling the effects of her age, steals the baby Rapunzel away and hides her in a remote tower. There, she raises her as a daughter and uses Rapunzel's healing hair (activated through song) to keep the girl emotionally enslaved and physically isolated from the world. But, as her eighteenth birthday approaches, Rapunzel becomes obsessed with an annual display of lights which is launched from nearby in the kingdom which she knows happens each year on her birthday. When Mother Gothel refuses to let her out of the castle for that, Rapunzel is distraught.

Enter Flynn Rider, rogue and thief, who has stolen the jeweled crown of the kingdom. As he flees the law, a bloodhound-like horse Maximus, and the two thugs with whom he did the operation, he discovers Rapunzel's tower and enters it. There he is captured by Rapunzel - who knocks him unconscious - and his satchel with the crown is taken. Rapunzel offers him a simple deal; he will get his crown back after he takes her to the lantern festival. With no other options, Flynn sets out with Rapunzel, though he tries to scare her out of the whole adventure. But Mother Gothel is hot on their trail and she sees an opportunity to get Rapunzel back into the tower through force, guile and emotional manipulation. As Rapunzel grows more confident, Flynn finds there is more to like about the young woman.

Tangled is, in many ways, a very obvious hero story. The heroine, Rapunzel, is instantly likable and easy to empathize with. Whether she knows it or not, she is a victim of emotional abuse (the song "Mother Knows Best" adequately explores Gothel's campaign of fear used to keep Rapunzel in line) and her confidence is undermined at the outset. Despite her friendship with her pet chameleon, Rapunzel has a lonely life as Gothel comes and goes (using Rapunzel's 70 ft. long hair) while she is kept a prisoner. But even from the outset, Rapunzel has strong goals of her own and she is very expressive about them. So, it is easy to see her as a young woman who is not the stereotypical milquetoast Disney princess who is simply waiting for a man to come along to rescue her.

Moreover, Rapunzel has more strength than Gothel knows and while her naivete allows her to survive an encounter with the worst ruffians in the land, she actually has a force of character that is enviable. Rapunzel, not a simple hero, not a complete victim, takes charge of her own destiny by taking Flynn Rider and making demands of him. In this way, she is expressive about her wants and needs and the moment she takes control of her life, she becomes an exceptional role model.

Rapunzel is also presented with a realism that is decent for her emotions as well. While it is presented in a laughable way, when Rapunzel leaves the tower with Flynn, she has an exceptional feeling of conflict. She is terrified she has ruined her relationship with her "mother," but she is elated by the sudden freedom and the strength that comes with being a self-determined individual. That plays well and is a positive message.

Unfortunately, what might be argued to be a decent feminist message from a Disney film is all undermined in the final five minutes of the movie. While I shall not spoil the classic tale ending, I will state that the movie makes a move toward the surprisingly audacious both in terms of what is shown and what the final voiceover states. But then, writer Dan Fogelman takes a huge leap back to pre-Sexual Revolution politics and with the final voiceover undermines the real strength of Rapunzel's character. The most annoying thing about it is there seems to be no actual reason why Fogelman guts a fairly liberal (or what should have been liberal fifty years ago) idea. It's no funnier, it's no more clever and it's no more character-building with the final change and thus, it just seems like shallow Disney propaganda.

That said, the only other serious problems with Tangled are that it seems to want to be a musical, though characters seldom break into song, and the film is entirely predictable. Tangled does not have a ton of songs in them and while the ode to abusive matriarchs is catchy, it is hardly the popular hit Disney was known for in my teen years. The musical numbers are fun, but they seem a stretch in some places more than organic to the story or even musical. Similarly, the plot is very predictable and surprisingly linear. Beyond being a simple fairy tale, Tangled makes effort not to stray into the surprising. Indeed, the most surprising aspect of Tangled is arguably that the ruffians all want to be artists and lovers of one form or another. I suppose Tangled could actually be seen as a subtle argument for the importance of the National Endowment Of The Arts, but I suspect that is giving too much credit to a gag.

The 3-D effects in Tangled are minimal and are not nearly as impressive as some of the other films I've seen using that technology this year (or in prior years). So, those considering shelling out for the big ticket, I'd recommend save the few extra bucks. Nothing will be lost seeing this in 2-D.

Tangled is brought alive through vibrant colors and some truly wonderful voice acting. Zachary Levi, whose work I was almost entirely unfamiliar with before seeing this movie, has a great voice to embody the suave Flynn Rider and he plays the role well. His deliveries are good and the animation that accompanies it is appropriately gallant. The more adult performers - Donna Murphy (Gothel), Ron Perlman (one of the thugs Flynn pulls off the initial heist with), M.C. Gainey (the guard who is tracking Flynn), Jeffrey Tambor, Brad Garrett, and Richard Kiel - all perform well within what is expected of them, especially for supporting roles. They embody their characters through voice acting well and directors Nathan Greno and Byron Howard get performances out of them that are unsurprising.

As well, lead Mandy Moore is unsurprising as Rapunzel. I write "unsurprising" because as far as I'm concerned, Moore has already cut her acting chops on American Dreamz and Saved! In other words, she is no longer fighting for legitimacy as an actress, so when she makes the wide-eyed, longhaired Rapunzel come to life through the power of her voice, we are not surprised. We are pleased she has continued to confound expectations of anyone who popped up as a pop star during the same rise as Britney Spears. Mandy Moore is fabulous and Tangled is just another notch on what will undoubtedly be a long resume.

Tangled might not be indispensable to see on the big screen, but it is certainly worth seeing. It is fun and while it is annoyingly predictable, it does it well. Very child-safe, Tangled is arguably the family movie of this holiday season.

For other films currently in theaters, please check out my reviews of:
Love And Other Drugs
Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, Part 1
The Next Three Days


For other film reviews, please be sure to visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010 W.L. Swarts.  May not be reprinted without permission.

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