When John Lasseter took over as Chief Creative Officer of Disney Animation in 2006, I looked forward mostly to seeing Lasseter return the Disney Animation division to its former glory days of the early 1990s when the Mouse House was putting out such classics as THE LITTLE MERMAID, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, ALADDIN, and THE LION KING. If anyone possessed the imagination and drive to once again steer Disney Animation along the right course, it would be Lasseter. A few years ago, we saw the fruits of Lasseter’s efforts with MEET THE ROBINSONS, an ok effort that failed to generate any box office success. A year later, Disney released BOLT, another decent effort with middling box office results. Last year, Disney finally struck gold with the delightful THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG, a triumphant return to hand drawn animation that unfortunately went largely ignored by American audiences. Appropriately with Disney’s 50th feature-length animated film, TANGLED, the studio is dipping back into the fairy tale genre that has served as the foundation stone of Walt Disney Animation. It is an entertaining romp that is sure to please aspiring little princesses, boys seeking a fun adventure tale, parents looking for a pleasant diversion from rampaging holiday shoppers, and animation and Disneyana buffs.

TANGLED tells the classic Brothers Grimm tale of Rapunzel. A princess, Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) was born with magical hair that restores and maintains the youth of anyone who touches it. An elderly and frail woman discovers the power of Rapunzel’s hair, kidnaps the baby princess, and locks her high up in a tower. For 18 years Rapunzel remains inside the tower, forbidden to ever set foot outside. Upon her 18th birthday, Rapunzel asks her adopted mother if she can temporarily leave the tower on her birthday to see the lanterns the kingdom floats up into the sky every year (unbeknownst to Rapunzel, the annual lantern event was created by her parents to mark her birthday). Rapunzel’s mother refuses, warning her that the world is too dangerous for her to venture out on her own. We also get introduced to Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi), a thief who along with his twin compadres, are hunted down by the kingdom’s royal guards for stealing Rapunzel’s tiara from the royal castle. Avoiding the royal guards, Rider discovers and seeks refuge in Rapunzel’s tower. However, upon entering the tower, he is knocked unconscious and taken hostage by Rapunzel. She takes Rider’s stolen tiara (she doesn’t know it actually belongs to her) and strikes a deal with him: He will take Rapunzel to the annual lantern event and in exchange she will return the tiara to him. In the meantime, Rapunzel’s mother has left the tower to run an errand and has informed the princess that she will return in 3 days. Rider and Rapunzel embark towards the kingdom and you can kind of figure out the rest.

From 1989-1994, Disney enjoyed huge success with the successive releases of THE LITTLE MERMAID, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, ALADDIN, and THE LION KING. This success was due to the much-copied and effective formula Disney used in telling its stories. Although Disney continued to employ this formula after THE LION KING, the formula grew stale, which by its nature was bound to occur. This problem was compounded by the fact that the famous Howard Ashman/Alan Menken musical team no longer existed due to Ashman’s passing in 1991. With a few exceptions here and there (like LILO & STITCH), the studio lost its spark and began churning out mediocre and unmemorable films for the next 12 years. However, like last year’s THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG, TANGLED reminds me of the effective use of the formula Disney used with great success from 89-94. Much like MERMAID, BEAST, and ALADDIN, you have a fairy tale-like fantasy setting with an independent and modern hero/heroine who has a cute animal sidekick and he/she meets his/her soon-to-be lover and they embark together upon an adventure to defeat a villain who also has a not-necessarily cute animal sidekick. Pepper in some musical numbers and modern humor and you end up with a movie that is accessible to both the young and old.

TANGLED is as straightforward of a classic Disney film as you can possibly get. The studio set out to create a fairy tale and tell it as best it could with as much originality and humor as the formula will possibly allow. It doesn’t try to break any sort of mold or convention like its sister studio, Pixar, tries to do with its films. Lasseter recognizes what made the old Disney classics and the studio’s modern classics into classics and he tries his damnedest to replicate that. Happily, TANGLED mostly succeeds.

No matter how innovative the story, how hilarious the humor, or how beautiful the animation and artwork, no animated film will work unless a.) The protagonists connect with the audience and have chemistry and b.) The antagonist poses a genuine threat that the audience can believe in. Although, I wasn’t altogether won over by the characters of Rapunzel and Flynn Rider, they were also not offensive enough to detract from my enjoyment of the film. I appreciated the naivety and spunkiness of Rapunzel, but I kept imagining her as a teenage mallrat. I think much of this has to do with the decision to cast Mandy Moore as the voice of the heroine. I figure Moore’s voice is best suited to the character, given Rapunzel’s age. However, by not using an older-sounding voice, you sacrifice an air of maturity and intelligence that distinguishes characters such as Belle from BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, Ariel from THE LITTLE MERMAID, and Jasmine from ALADDIN. As a result, I empathized less with Rapunzel than I otherwise would have. I wasn’t nowhere as annoyed with Rapunzel as I was with the Flynn Rider character. Rider spends more time during the film being concerned about himself and saying witty things than displaying compassion, bravery, and heart. That is not to say that these qualities are entirely missing from Rider, but the filmmakers seemed more focused on having him entertain the audience with charm and humor than with connecting him emotionally with the audience. Being a thief, Rider is not meant to be honorable, but considering he is supposed to be one of the main protagonists of the film, it was important to imbue the character with a few redeeming qualities so that the audience can make that initial emotional connection that will eventually carry the audience through that character’s transformation into an honorable person. As he ended up being portrayed, Rider came off as a sort of douchebag, which made me care less about the Rapunzel and Rider getting together at the end.

The strongest character in the film is the antagonist, Gothel. She is reminiscent of the Queen in SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS in both physical appearance and personality traits. The perfect villain is one who doesn’t portray an all-evil persona, but rather has some redeemable attributes that conflicts the audience as to whether or not to condemn the character. Gothel’s motives to lock up Rapunzel in the tower are completely selfish (not to mention the fact that she kidnapped the princess from her parents), but at the same time you can’t help but empathize a little with her considering that she protects Rapunzel and provides her with anything she wants so long as it doesn’t involve going outside the tower. Gothel is a more complex, three-dimensional villain than past Disney villains such as THE LITTLE MERMAID’S Ursula or ALADDIN’S Jafar and consequently, is one of the most memorable Disney villains in quite some time.

The success of the 89-94 Disney films were in no small part helped by arguably the best Disney musical soundtracks in the studio’s filmography. The winning team of Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman produced one classic after another and Menken continued his streak with Tim Rice and Elton John on THE LION KING. The musical format continued for awhile in Disney’s subsequent films, but they lacked the catchiness that made past soundtracks so memorable. Disney eventually dropped the musical element from its films and finally returned to it with last year’s THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG. This time, the talented skills of Pixar-favorite Randy Newman were used to compose the soundtrack. The results were hit or miss with more hits than misses. TANGLED continues the musical tradition with Alan Menken once again aboard for the musical numbers. Aside from a few memorable tracks, the soundtrack was hit or miss with more misses this time than bona fide hits. As stand-alone songs, the numbers sung by Gothel are the best written songs in the film. However, if you take the dance sequences into account, the tavern scene is the most entertaining piece in the film.

To the surprise and delight of animation fans everywhere, when Lasseter took over Disney, he announced that the studio would once again return to producing hand drawn animated films, beginning with THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG. The film was lauded by critics and fans for its beautiful artwork and animation, with many reminiscing that the film recaptured a human essence that has yet to be replicated by CG animation. To my disappointment, the studio reverted back to CG for TANGLED. Now, I’m not at all saying the look of the movie is bad in any way. In fact, the film’s look resembles a hand-drawn aesthetic, which I hope inspires future animated features. The colors are vibrant and gorgeous and the world appears just as a Disney fairy-tale environment should appear. However, despite its hand drawn style, I wish Disney had actually employed hand drawn animation to make the film. Given the strength of its story, characters, and general appeal to moviegoers, I seriously doubt the film’s box office would have been hurt if the studio had resorted to hand drawn animation.

Overall, TANGLED is a worthy effort from the Mouse House and provides further hope that Disney has fallen back on the right track towards producing quality animation. No longer does it have to exclusively rely on Pixar to fill its stable of classics as it seems to be developing two animation powerhouses instead of just one. I have my slight issues with TANGLED, but they are minor and outweighed by the strengths of the movie. Don’t hesitate to check this film out.

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