'Tangled': Entertaining, at Times Inspired, Take on Rapunzel Tale

Disney brings another fairy tale to life.

We really do accept as normal whatever we’re raised with, don’t we? Like, say, you’ve lived all your life alone in a tower in a hidden valley and your golden hair is 70 feet long, and the only mother you’ve ever known — the only person you ever see — comes and goes using your hair as a rope ladder, and she has never let you so much as set one foot outside, and your hair does this magic trick when you sing that — well, not to give it away, but that would just be life to you, wouldn’t it?

And, yet, we aren’t blank slates. You’d accept your restrictions as normal, but you wouldn’t be satisfied. Mother might tell you every day since you were a tot that the world outside is too dangerous, but deep down you would still know that you have to confront it someday — and you would yearn to, even if it frightened you. And someday if a strange man unexpectedly burst into your tower, and in a panicked frenzy you conked him on the head with a frying pan, and then as he was lying there you saw that he was really cute — well, even though you had never seen a man before, you would know he was really cute, because we aren’t blank slates.

Dubiously reckoned as Disney’s 50th animated feature (dubiously because at some point they decided to count Dinosaur, which uses computer-animated characters on live-action backgrounds), Tangled is the studio’s long-deferred take on the Rapunzel story, which Uncle Walt looked at adapting as far back as the 1940s.

Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) is a rare Disney protagonist who has archetypally good and loving parents, a mother and father who are together and who love her very much. Alas, she doesn’t know they exist, and they don’t know whether she’s alive. Rapunzel was kidnapped as a baby by Mother Gothel (Broadway star Donna Murphy), who keeps her for the magical qualities of her hair. (These do not include the powers suggested by the misleading trailer, which make it look as if her hair is alive and able to move by itself. As with many Pixar movies, Tangled’s marketing strangely fails to capture the feel, or the appeal, of the film.)

Mother Gothel is part Cinderella’s stepmother, part Ursula the Sea Witch (though Gothel is not a witch in this version; the only magic in the story is connected with Rapunzel’s hair). Her relationship with Rapunzel is both unsettling and wincingly plausible.

C. S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves about the “maternal vampire” who consumes a daughter’s girlhood, youth and potentially adulthood, keeping her in a state of perpetual dependence rather than preparing her for independence. Listen for rueful adult chortles of recognition in the theater as Mother tosses off one cutting remark after another — only to laugh it off as a “joke.” Her big song, “Mother Knows Best,” is the standout among the mostly average tunes.

Tangled, then, is yet another animated tale of youthful rebellion against unreasonable authoritarian parenting. That Mother Gothel isn’t Rapunzel’s real mother is something of a technicality, particularly since her true parents are symbolic figureheads rather than developed characters. (I don’t think either of them gets a word of dialogue.)

In fairness, Tangled offers one of the more intriguing instances of the theme. Rapunzel is a dutiful daughter who regards Mother Gothel with real (if misplaced) filial piety, who hugs her and repeats a childhood ritual profession of mutual love. It’s monstrous and smothering (literally so; Mother’s puffy sleeves smother Rapunzel when they hug), but recognizable and human. When, on the verge of her 18th birthday, Rapunzel finally, tentatively, rebels against the long-standing taboo keeping her in her tower, she’s wildly conflicted, swinging back and forth between euphoria and weeping self-recrimination.

This is not, then, the typical parental authoritarianness or youthful defiance of, say, The Little Mermaid. Still, in the context of the widespread trope in animated films of unreasonable parents and heroic filial rebellion, parents may reasonably find it troubling. I wish the genre provided more images of positive parents (refreshing exceptions include The Princess and the Frog, Ponyo, Kung Fu Panda and The Incredibles), but I wouldn’t necessarily want animated films never to depict problematic parent-child relationships, and I like the take in Tangled better than most.

It should be noted that, while Rapunzel’s true parents aren’t developed as characters, they do effectively represent parental devotion in a touching ritual observed every year on Rapunzel’s birthday — a floating lantern ceremony that, unbeknownst to them, their daughter wonderingly observes every year from afar.

This custom leads to a visually poetic second-act emotional climax in which Rapunzel seems caught between heaven and earth in a cloud of light and magic. It’s a more emotionally potent echo of “A Whole New World” in Aladdin, combined with the flowers-on-water sequence from the “Nutcracker Suite” in Fantasia — a moment of visual transcendence almost unheard of in a non-Pixar computer-animated film.

In fact, the whole film is gorgeous in a way few non-Pixar computer-animated films are. (DreamWorks’ How to Train Your Dragon is a rare exception.) The soft, natural feel and luxurious pastel palette is alternately reminiscent of hand-drawn animation and children’s book illustration. (The press notes say they were going for oil painting; I can see that.)

Architecture and costumes are lovingly designed, and I love Rapunzel’s murals and the street art and mosaics that she encounters in the royal city — a world of art within art, as it were. Of course, the most spectacular effect is Rapunzel’s miles of hair, which is like no animated hair ever.

What about the love interest? Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi) is a dashing rogue, a charismatic bad boy with more than a bit in common with DreamWorks’ Sinbad, though Flynn turns out to be more complicated. He brings a swashbuckling energy to the film, and one action set piece in particular — a cliff-hanging chase sequence in a valley with a mine shaft, some wooden scaffolding and a dam — approaches Indiana Jones-level derring-do.

The movie’s biggest surprise is its best and funniest supporting character: a horse named Maximus who belongs to the royal guard. Maximus absolutely lives up to his name, delivering above and beyond the call of duty both as a horse of the royal guard and as a supporting character. His adamantine sense of duty and eloquent body language elevate every scene he’s in. Rapunzel also has a chameleon sidekick, Pascal, who’s fine.

For all that they do right, the filmmakers commit a couple of jaw-dropping climactic missteps. A fleeting shot of a completely gratuitous act by one of the “good guy” characters against the villain adds a sour, morally problematic note for no reason whatsoever. (It’s so gratuitous that you could cut the shot entirely and it wouldn’t change a thing.) And then, having written themselves into a corner, the filmmakers pull a flagrantly random deus ex machina to get the desired ending.

Although these missteps undercut the film’s success, Tangled remains, on balance, an entertaining, at times inspired, revisionist take on the Rapunzel tale. Disney’s post-Renaissance growing pains aren’t over yet, but they’re moving in the right direction.

Register film critic Steven D. Greydanus is editor and chief critic

at DecentFilms.com. He also blogs at NCRegister.com.

Content advisory: Animated swashbuckling violence; complex family issues; a fleeting climactic act against the life of a villainous character. Fine family viewing.