24 December 2012

Disney Daze: Week 50: Tangled

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

Fifty films in, it is a bit of surprise that Disney had not already co-opted the Brothers Grimm tale of Rapunzel for their abundant animated arsenal. One would expect the Grimm reserves, as well as those of Hans Christian Andersen, to be pilfered completely by now. What, pray tell, will the studio do when these sources of inspiration are all dried up? Certainly, this is a crisis for another day. 2010's Tangled opens with some glib narration by dashing rogue and flashy scoundrel Flynn Rider, who tells the tale of how a centuries-old woman stole the only child of benevolent royalty to harness the girl's magical hair, which has the power to restore youth and heal all wounds. The smarminess of Flynn at the outset is a little off-putting as he plays the cad and cracks wise underneath a calculated "smolder". Luckily, his cockiness doesn't reach the levels of sleaze emanated from say, Kuzco, in The Emperor's New Groove, and it soon falls by the wayside as he falls for Rapunzel and her long locks. He meets her after stealing the crown from the castle and falling upon her tower while looking for a place to hide.

The beautiful Rapunzel is fairly well-adjusted considering she has been locked inside a single room for all eighteen years of her life by an evil, manipulative woman who claims to be her mother and swears that the imprisonment is strictly for Rapunzel's safety. Sure, Rapunzel's best friend is a chameleon with whom she confides and consults at every opportunity, and she is paranoid, scared and woefully timid. Not to mention her hermit-like hairstyle, grown out to a full seventy feet and the surest sign that she has never seen another human being, let alone studied any sort of fashion. But other than all of that, Rapunzel is a sweet, smart, artistically gifted child who daydreams of innocuous pleasures like touching grass and watching a light show.

The film has a tendency to rely on slapstick humor a bit too much, particularly at the outset, where we watch as Rapunzel hits the gate-crashing Flynn over the head with a frying pan several times, repeatedly knocking him unconscious. This is followed by a sustained sequence of her attempting to hoist his limp body into a closet, which leads to more pratfalls and faceplants. It is a minor quibble and mostly tolerable, especially considering how the filmmakers could have easily resorted to the lower forms of humor practiced by their contemporaries, namely being manic, grotesque, or referential.

The animation throughout Tangled is opulent and breathtaking. The design of Rapunzel's tower is inspired, nestled in an idyllic valley and imbued with a gorgeous pastel palette. The logistics of working with Rapunzel's voluminous tresses is handled with complete aplomb. Her hair is a character unto itself in the film. Meanwhile, the action set pieces are all excellently choreographed, aided by some very deft camera work. A series of well conceived tracking and crane shots add a sense of awe to a handful of epic escapes. The one design choice that does not work however, is the decision to give the female characters, Rapunzel in particular, grossly oversized eyes. At times she looks like a Bratz doll and the mammoth pupils frequently distract, particularly in scenes of emotional turmoil as she wells up and can't help but look like some sort of bug-eyed alien. The animators took the tendency to play cute and crossed a threshold that nullified their desired achievement. Let us hope the pendulum swings backwards in future films.

The one department that deserves to be singled out above all for their expert contributions to the film is the lighting crew. The film credits eight people as lighting supervisors and it is apparent from the finished product how essential those people and their staff were. It is hard to overstate just how stunning the various lighting effects in the film are. From early scenes set in Rapunzel's tower where a golden shaft of light peaks through a skylight or open window, and on to a later scene of dire peril wherein Rapunzel and Flynn are fated to drown until Rapunzel uses her magical hair to light a path through the clouded water. The highlight of the picture, and the scene where the lighting depatment truly earns their paychecks, is a pivotal sequence wherein Rapunzel finally gets to watch as the kingdom releases thousands of floating lanterns into the sky in honor of their missing princess. The scene recalls the majesty of both the "Kiss the Girl" sequence in The Little Mermaid as well as the beautiful firefly-lighted bayou in The Princess and the Frog, while managing to top them both. It is a stunning section that alone cements the film's worth.

The score by Alan Menken is his most theatrical in two decades. Besides an opening number written in a more contemporary style, replete with strident acoustic guitar, presumably tailored to star Mandy Moore's abilities, the remainder of the songs would not be out of place in the inevitable Broadway adaptation. These tunes, with decent lyrics by Glenn Slater, offer up golden opportunities for some great staging. The villainously vampy "Mother Knows Best" is sung in the darkened tower with just candlelight illuminating the scene. It is a creepy and fittingly claustrophobic moment. Later at the wonderfully named tavern, The Snuggly Duckling, Rapunzel meets a rogue's gallery of thugs and lowlifes who reveal their softer side in a rousing, rollicking number called "I've Got a Dream". These scenes are reminscent of some of Menken's best work in Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin.

Tangled opens with a special version of the Walt Disney Animated Feature logo, with Mickey Mouse whistling "Steamboat Bill" from inside a zero commemorating the fiftieth production released by the studio. In many ways, Tangled is the right film to receive this designation. Being a princess story, it calls back all the way to the first, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, while being a contemporary update that shows how far the studio and society has gone since then. The star of this princess story--created by ones and zeroes instead of ink and paint, but just as delicately and lovingly crafted--breaks out of her repressive prison and learns to assert herself in a great, big, wonderful world. Tangled may not be remembered seventy years hence as a magnificent achievement but it is a gorgeous, entertaining picture with the DNA of Disney's best coursing through its frames.

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