Saturday, November 27, 2010

Review: Tangled: the 2D 35mm Experience (2010)

100 minutes
Rated PG (for 'brief mild violence' - this one really should have been a G)

by Scott Mendelson

The most impressive thing about Walt Disney's Tangled is that it manages to incorporate nearly every standard element of the classic Disney fairy-tale/90s cartoon without being about any of those things. It is, at heart, a rollicking buddy picture. It works as a comedy because it never tries too hard for laughs. It works as an occasional action picture because it doesn't go out of its way to be 'action-packed'. And it works as a romance because it makes no effort to tell 'the greatest love story every told'. It is a clever and charming adventure that just happens to be the 50th animated feature from Walt Disney Studios. And, quite frankly, they make it look easy this time around, fashioned an genuine chick-flick fairy tale that effortlessly fixes many of the creepy gender undertones found in both the old films (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty) and the more recent animated fables (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast). It's a shame that this is allegedly to be Disney's final fairy tale adaptation
(we'll see...)
, because they've finally perfected the formula.

A token amount of plot: Young Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) is a kidnapped princess, having been snatched from the castle as an infant due to the healing and de-aging powers contained in her hair. The woman she calls mother is in fact her abductor and Gothel (Donna Murphy) keeps Rapunzel hidden from sight in her tower and uses Rapunzel's ever-flowing magic locks to keep her forever young. As Rapunzel's 18th birthday approaches and her desire to see the outside world increases evermore, fortune smiles as roguish thief Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi) takes refuge in the hidden tower. Rapunzel quickly gains the upper hand over the desperate criminal, and a deal is struck: Flynn will be Rapunzel's tour guide for her first journey to the outside world, and he will get back the precious crown that he had stolen. But what first appears to be a simple excursion turns into a life-changing journey for both of them, as secrets are revealed and destinies are forever altered.

First of all, whatever qualms you may have had in regards to the boy-friendly advertising campaign, it does not fairly represent the film. The picture is absolutely about Rapunzel and her quest to live a life beyond her tower doors. Yes Flynn narrates the story and he does engage in a token amount of swashbuckling, but he exists as a means to an end, a way to get Rapunzel out of her tower and a companion to give her someone to talk to. What's most refreshing is that this would-be couple does not spend the majority of the film sniping at each other, seething with sarcastic contempt that masks a mutual attraction. Once they enter the outside world, they basically get along for the entire film. Sure, they have disagreements and occasionally mock each other's flaws (he uses cocky arrogance to mask self-esteem issues, and she is far more world-weary than she realizes), but it is a friendly and sporting relationship is rooted in mutual cooperation for the sake of mutual reward.

Mandy Moore and Zachary Levi have a genuine and truly unforced chemistry that makes us truly care about how their relationship will end up. While it goes without saying that a romance between them eventually develops, it is held off for as long as possible, so when the sparks reveal themselves they feel like an organic byproduct of their unfolding friendship. It's also worth noting that said relationships is not particularly rooted in physical attraction. Yes, both Rapunzel and Flynn are drawn and animated as the beneficiary of good genes (IE - they are both hotties), but little is made of it and its never a driving force in their budding love story. They like each other (and we like them) because they are both funny and intelligent and inherently decent people at the core.

Of course, the rest of the classic Disney elements generally hold up as well. The computer animation is genuinely gorgeous, with stunningly bright colors and exquisite detail. Most intriguingly, the film is animated in a manner to suggest the style of classic hand-drawn animation. I cannot vouch for the film's 3D effects, because I chose 2D. The film indeed pops off the screen with three-dimensional splendor with or without the glasses and $4 surcharge. Like pretty much every respective Disney musical since, oh, The Little Mermaid, the songs are pretty weak and represent the low point of the film (let's be honest, most Disney musicals have a couple truly great songs amidst the filler). With the exception of one witty number involving a group of seemingly bloodthirsty ruffians confessing their hidden ambitions (itself a knowing riff on the first High School Musical's "I've Got a Secret"), the songs are needless character exposition and pretty bland and redundant to boot (an early number where Donna Murphy explains the dangers of the world is so similar to "Out There" that I expected the late Tony Jay to join the second verse). While the poor songs are not by themselves an issue, they succeeded in padding the film and turning a lean 85-minute adventure into a somewhat padded 100 minute picture.

The supporting characters are amusing per usual. Once again, the animals do not talk. But that does not mean that Rapunzel's lizard sidekick and the Inspector Javert-like horse who hunts Ryder lack personality. It never fails to astound me what animation can do with just the face, be it the comic reactions of annoyed animal sidekicks or Rapunzel's real parents, who deliver a performance a crippling grief and morning without a single line of dialogue. Donna Murphy makes a suitably loathsome antagonist, disguising her selfish desire as a form of exceptionally poor mothering. Murphy stands out just a bit as the only ham in the whole cast. It's fitting for the part, but it's worth noting that pretty much every character is played as relatively low-key. Ron Perlman is genuinely menacing as one of Ryder's less merciful partners in crime, while Brad Garrett, Jeffrey Tambor, Richard Keil, and Paul F. Thompkins score big laughs as the above-noted group of ruffians.

While the story is not terribly original, and the movie is pretty lightweight, Tangled succeeds as a genuine entertainment and a refreshing throwback. Coupled with The Princess and the Frog, Tangled represents a new course (should Disney decide to make more) for Disney's invaluable fairy tale franchise. Rather than go out of their way to present 'strong, independent, progressive' female heroines who none-the-less are all about finding true love, the last two animated films simply present compelling leads who just happen to be young women. While both characters (no spoilers) have the potential to find love and become princesses, that is completely beside the point for these characters and their respective journeys. Rapunzel is indeed a worthwhile addition to the Disney Princess line, and she in fact surpasses most of them because she cares so little about being a princess and/or finding a stereotypical happily ever after. And the film succeeds partially because it cares so little about pointing that out. Advertising campaign and altered title aside, Tangled is a pretty terrific 'chick flick'.

Grade: B+

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