High on the list of pleasant surprises is Tangled. Here we have a movie I was fully prepared to dislike—bad trailer, awful poster, even worse title—that turned out to be one of the better animated films of the year. And I say this as someone who is largely immune to the charms of big-eyed Disney-princess heroines, and also as someone who has burned out on Shrek snarkiness. Tangled looked to combine the worst of both worlds, but the reality is that Tangled is a mostly charming, often impressive-looking, generally entertaining story that keeps the snark to a minimum. It even boasts one standout song—“Mother Knows Best”—and a few passable ones.
In case you don’t know, Tangled is a reworking of the story of Rapunzel and her famous hair. In this version, Rapunzel (voiced by Mandy Moore) is stolen from her royal parents as an infant by Mother Gothel (voiced by stage and TV actress Donna Murphy) and imprisoned in the well-known tower because of the healing power of her hair. Mother Gothel had been using the power of a unique flower to keep herself young, but the flower was discovered by the King’s servants and used up to save the life of the Queen during her pregnancy. Its powers have passed into Rapunzel’s hair—so long as it’s not cut.
Raising the child as her own, Mother Gothel keeps Rapunzel in complete ignorance of the world beyond her tower. But after 18 or so years, Rapunzel has become bored—and is especially curious about the lights in the sky that appear every year on her birthday. In reality, these are paper lanterns set aloft by her parents and the citizens of the kingdom in remembrance of the kidnapped princess’ birth, though Mother Gothel tries to palm them off as stars.
The situation changes when a bandit, Flynn Ryder (voiced by Zachary Levi, TV’s Chuck), who has stolen the princess’ crown from the palace, chances upon Rapunzel’s tower and opts to scale it for use as a hideout. After subduing him—more than once—with a cast-iron skillet and hiding the crown, Rapunzel strikes a bargain with Flynn. She’ll reveal where she has hidden the crown, if he’ll take her to see the lights in the sky. He grudgingly undertakes this outing and their adventures make up a large chunk of the film.
Most of this works reasonably well—if it occasionally has a been-there-done-that feel to it—and the animation is very good throughout. But what works best is the interplay between the two leads. Sad to say, but these animated characters are frankly more believable and charismatic than the human ones in this week’s official romantic comedy release, Love and Other Drugs. By the time the film gets to its central romantic set piece—the absolutely stunning lantern scene—it’s hard not to realize that you’re watching a solid film with flashes of true inspiration in it.
Don’t get me wrong, Tangled is not without its problems. While keeping the pop-culture wisecrackery to a minimum, it does occasionally—especially in the earlier scenes—veer into that realm. That’s perhaps inescapable, because there’s no denying that we live in a post-Shrek world—and more to the point, a post-Enchanted (2007) world. In fact, early on in its genesis, Tangled was going to be a sequel to Enchanted. Asking audiences to take a fairy tale straight is a hard sell. Tangled proves this—not in a good way—when Rapunzel has her cheerful cleaning song. It doesn’t work because it looks preposterous after “Happy Working Song” spoofed the whole idea in Enchanted.
A few other points don’t work as well—or seem as original—as they ought to. The motley habitués of the Snuggly Duckling tavern feel like they were lifted from Robert De Niro’s pirate crew in Stardust (2007), for one example. Also, I can’t help it—even if it does turn out to be an alias—but the name Flynn Ryder sounds like it belongs on a porn star to me. But all this is fairly minor carping. I certainly came out of Tangled in a better frame of mind than I did Disney’s The Princess and the Frog last year at about this same time of year. And when you realize that the immediate future of “family entertainment” means Yogi Bear, this looks even better. Rated PG for brief mild violence.