This review of Tangled is for Disney's 2D version of the film and, happily, comes courtesy of this region-free US disc.
It's been an incredibly ripe and expensive time for those with animation-loving kids lately. We've had the good – Toy Story 3, Megamind, and now Rango – the bad, Despicable Me, and the downright ugly – Luke and Lucy Texas Rangers, Alpha and Omega – not to mention the raft of classic Disney titles that have made the transition to Blu-ray. Even the classic and vastly underrated The Secret of Nimh has been dusted-down and spruced-up in hi-definition for a new generation to adore. But Uncle Walt and the House of Mouse keep on adding gorgeously animated new adventures to their not inconsiderable list of achievements. Having only freshly done the theatrical rounds in the UK, their latest production, Tangled, now seeks to capture hearts and imaginations in this blisteringly beautiful Blu-ray incarnation.
“Rapunzel! Let down you hair!!!!”
Taking its cue from the follicular fairytale of Rapunzel, courtesy of those Brothers Grimm, this is a story of cruel incarceration and erstwhile ambition, of the dogged manipulation of certain corrupted souls and the noble pursuit of innocent happiness and, hey, that old chestnut of the course of true love. No-one does it better than Disney, though the tall tale of Rapunzel was always going to need some intensive pampering to get it to feature-length status. Let's face it, when this lady tells you that she can't come out because she's washing her hair, you ain't gonna see for a month, Romeo. Directed by Nathan Greno and Byron Howard (who also allow themselves to voice a couple of thugs), the story sees to it that a tiny chunk of sunlight falls to Earth (nice little Neil Gaiman nod, that) and irradiates a flower into a mystical glowing beacon of golden, health-administering virtue. It has the power to heal wounds, and, if cultivated with selfish cunning, to prolong life for, well, eternity. Located by a wizened old crone, Mother Gothel, upon its cliff-top sanctuary, the star-flower becomes the secret of her brooding, dark MILF-like allure, and she guards it with spiteful determination. Centuries pass, and the benevolent King and Queen of the realm announce the imminent arrival of their baby princess. But the Queen falls sick, and the power of the flower is sought to help both her and the baby survive. With all of its cosmic magic used-up during the successful birth of baby Rapunzel, Mother Gothel, in her desperation to retain her stolen youth, does the unthinkable and steals the infant, who now holds the star-power in her radiant and golden, ever-growing locks, and whisks her off to a gothic tower hidden away in a forgotten glen. Here, she keeps the abducted princess locked away from the world for eighteen years whilst pretending to be her “real” mother, and continually feeding off the youthful power harnessed in her trailing coils of hair, now seventy feet in length! But Rapunzel harbours dreams of seeing what lies beyond the confines of the isolated tower and, intrigued and enchanted by the beautiful glowing lanterns that drift across the night sky every year on her birthday, hatches a plan to find their source.
Meanwhile, the egotistical and incredibly vain thief, Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi) has fallen-in with two Stallone-shouldered thugs, known as the Stabbington Brothers, and stolen the Princess's crown from its sacred resting place within the well-guarded castle walls. Making good their escape, the distrust of the sibling-rogues for their acrobatic accomplice comes to a head when Flynn manages to outwit them and make off with the treasure. With the Castle Guard in hot pursuit, spurred-on by the indefatigable super-stallion, Maximus, who is part horse, part bloodhound, but all heroic avenger, Flynn contrives to wind-up in the secret tower of Mother Gothel to rest until the heat dies down. A couple of swift bashes to the noggin with a frying-pan later, and Flynn finds himself well and truly tangled-up with the strange and beautiful resident of the tower. Rapunzel seizes the opportunity that this surprise visitor from the outside world represents and strikes a bargain with him. If he can safely escort her out of the tower and show her where the magic lanterns come from, and get her back home before Mother Gothel returns in three days time, then she will give back the crown that she has hidden from him. Flynn finds he has no choice … and the odd couple venture out into the big wide world, with adventure and danger lurking around every corner, most notably Mother Gothel who has smelled a rat and come home early, not to mention a fair few revelations that will rock them to their very core, and a growing bond that will … well, I'm pretty sure that you can guess the outcome of that one for yourselves.
With such fierce competition from Dreamworks, Disney upped the ante with their first bonafide in-house 3D production, but Tangled is, thankfully, not a movie that totally relies on such a gimmick. Although peppered with some alternative humour, a sly streak that acknowledges the advances made in mood and style with Shrek and How To Train Your Dragon, Greno and Howard's film inhabits a scintillating medieval milieu that is pure fairytale but bent with anarchic and unapologetically anachronistic embellishments. Majestic glens and spectral forests vie for the sensory attention with a glorious kingdom and a palace that could just as well be home to Mickey Mouse, himself. A delightfully rendered tavern for ruffians and brutes secreted in the woods has a sort of Middle Earth quality about it. And the action is kinetic, fast and aggressive. We have a hyper-realised chase through the woods, a death-defying plunge down the side of a mountain, a tumultuous flood, and more. But the film never loses sight of the more intimate story of a young girl, robbed of a full childhood, who is bursting to discover, to experience and to live. Yet, as a morality-play, Tangled refuses to play ball. And that is possibly the ace up its sleeve.
The revamped Rapunzel is not exactly all that original a character – animated heroines, these days, tend to be cut from pretty much the same cloth, but Mandy Moore imbues the veritable prisoner/slave with an easily-adored vibrancy that mingles playful naivete with the more commonplace sass that we have come to expect. She may have been kept locked-away for all of her life and fed a strict diet of lies and falsehoods, but she is still your typical go-getter who knows her own mind – well, at least she does after her first schizophrenic taste of the fresh air down at ground level. She's pretty handy with a frying-pan too. And all that hair! Well, this could have been seen as much as a handicap as anything else. You can almost the artists wincing when they realised how much of the screen this stuff was going to occupy. But, to their credit, Rapunzel manages to heft it around with all the finesse of a ballerina … and the fact that it has a sinuous and mystical life of its own helps a great deal too. Although the girl is a sympathetic character, we never really worry all that much for her, which is actually a benefit, considering the darker, meaner aspects of what such false imprisonment could imply. She is pretty hands-on, and this puts her on a level-footing with her apparent hero and saviour.
For his part, Flynn is also immensely charismatic, with that initial devil-may-care cavalier attitude that we all know will soon turn to smitten loyalty. But he displays just the right amount of chauvinism and arrogant smarts before that turning-point occurs. Zachary Levi plays him shrewd and impetuous. His vanity is happily conveyed – those Wanted posters never seem to do him justice – and that animated smugness never treads on the wrong side of charming. There is a degree of unwanted Prince of Persia derring-do about his early antics, however. I cannot help but groan at his preference and aptitude for free-running, and the Mission Impossible gag during the crown-heist felt forced. But this is a guy who is then turned upside-down, outwitted and foxed at almost every turn … so it is easy to forgive such clichéd attributes. Donna Murphy, though, is excellent as the conniving, plotting and resolutely self-centred Mother Gothel. In fact, her all-out obsession with vanity is the perfect antidote to Flynn's slightly coy self-infatuation, and there is a dasdardly darkness to the mania of her matriarchal mockery that seems to mask a multitude of sins. The Broadway performer is also excellent at shovelling her tonsils this way and that, infiltrating some simpering fake platitudes with a delicious undercurrent of deep-down malevolence. And regular Disney song-scribe Alan Menken makes sure that he plays to her strengths with the barnstorming early croonfest of “Mother Knows Best” in which we, if not Rapunzel, totally see through her charade of cupboard love to a ditty that broadsides us with a cloak of the most insidious “Mommy Dearest” poison.
There is some brawn-encased mischief and menace from the Stabbington twins – both voiced by Ron Perlman – who can only be told apart because one of them has an eye-patch, and the land surrounding the kingdom does appear to be populated by a right old hodgepodge of ne'er-do-wells, incorporating barbarians, Vikings and Visigoths. I had hoped that these guys would play a much larger part in the proceedings … but then you can't have it all.
One great plus that the film throws into the mix, is the inclusion of the noble white steed, Maximus. Now, once again, no-one is going to be surprised when this steadfast and valiant, maned detective ultimately joins forces with our fugitives, but he is such a great character, with some truly brilliant and often highly amusing traits – such as his abilities at camouflage, his sniffer-dog skills, and his terrific array of supremely stoic expressions – that we can blissfully overlook his pandering to convention. And, if you look, it is cool to see that when Maximus takes up arms he is actually wielding (in his teeth!) a short Roman-style gladius – surely some sort of reference to his arena-battling namesake.
It is also great to find that the cute-sidekick annoyance-factor is kept to a blessed minimum. Rapunzel's chameleon chum, Pascal, makes only very fleeting appearances, and never outstays his welcome. Having been forced to endure Pocohontas 1 and 2, as well as Aladdin over this particular weekend (all with more screen-time devoted to such critters than is healthy), as well as Tangled, this comes as an immense relief. The downside of Disney for me has always been the inclusion of these irritating little animal cohorts, who have no reason to exist other than to provide unnecessary comic asides, and to ensure even more merchandise with which to fleece parental pockets.
What is especially nice to find is how well the songs have been integrated into the action. It would have been too easy have such interludes act as a lull in the action, taking us out of the dilemma for a whimsical moment or two, but the handful of ballads that punctuate Dan Fogelman's screenplay act as finely crafted narrative tools that both sound cute and catchy and propel the plot and the characterisation. Okay, so there is some ho-hum extravagance in the music-hall free-for-all that the colourful thugs and pillagers frequenting the tavern, ironically named “The Snuggly Duckling”, indulge in, but the songs, by and large, don't hamper the fun.
There is always the emotional bit, isn't there? And Tangled, hardly one to break with such a time-honoured tradition, gathers itself for that little threat of tear-jerking that, to be honest, doesn't even seem to fool the kids any more. They all know exactly how these things are going to end. Instead, the device is more likely to be something that Disney puts in there to wrong-foot the parents and, to this end, even I found myself unavoidably swept along on a mini-tsunami of saccharine build-up. But, rest assured, it is a short-lived moment that only succeeds in ushering-in that heart-warming finale that we all deserve in a movie, once in a while.
But there is something unavoidably bitter-sweet about sitting down to watch the film with the kids at home.
Now, when I saw Tangled at the flicks with my daughter, I loved it. I found it much fresher and far more amusing than I had anticipated. The songs weren't that bad, with the epic “Mother Knows Best” taking most of the accolades, and the characters were engagingly crafted. Now, however, when I watched it again on disc – several times now, because my four-year-old daughter adores it - the grown-up in me became quite critical of it. Having enjoyed it immensely on the big screen – and the 3D effect, by the way, had nothing to do with it – I had been looking forward to a return trip in the company of Rapunzel and Flynn Rider, but I was amazed at how flimsy the whole shebang now seemed. The set-up is shaky to say the least, cashing-in far too loosely on the original fairytale. Whilst I still see something quite unique about the villainous Mother Gothel – she isn't your typical baddie, after all - I have now found that it is actually a little difficult to explain her motivations to a young child. And not just to my youngest child, either. My daughter's squirming, yap-happy little crew of buddies came round to watch the film with her – now there's a true test of a Disney movie's worth (and a fine statement of the things I have to put up with in order to get a fair appreciation for a review from the target market) – and I found myself having to stop the film to explain this scenario on more than one occasion. They kept getting hung-up on the “false mother” angle … and, I'll tell you, once you start trying to, ahem, unTangle such a plot device, you open up a veritable can of worms. With all the Disney and Pixar films that I've sat through to date – and that is almost certainly all of them, I believe – I have never encountered this sort of narrative dilemma before. Wicked witches, evil stepmothers, scheming lion relations, Mallen-streaked dog-snatchers, lonely robots, toy-torturing boy neighbours, et al – no problem. There's a clear delineation between the good and the bad. Tangled, perhaps living up to its title, weaves something different and altogether less obvious – which should be applauded, of course, and I do appreciate its originality in this respect – but, in my experience so far, it has also made for a very confusing Q & A session with some of those hideously inquisitive younger minds who demand to know the whys and wherefores of everything.
I would also say that Tangled now feels like much less satisfying as an overall film. There is a definite lack of memorable set-pieces, and the story could certainly have coped with some more action. As it stands, the film is merely pleasantly paced. Nothing more. Now this may be something that the 3D version has going for it – a sort of visual glamour that distracts you from what is, in truth, a rather pedestrian adventure – but you watch this again, and you should see what I mean. We could have done with at least one more chase, or rescue, or confrontation before that Happy Ever-after ending that we all know is coming.
Disney rarely put a foot wrong, in my opinion, and Tangled is certainly no exception to that rule. Fun, entertaining and certainly charming enough to please even the grumpiest of grownups, this is gloriously animated and a very welcome addition to the Studio's ever-growing cannon of family fantasies. I have some misgivings about the story, itself, and about what could be a production decision to paper-over some of the narrative shortcomings with 3D gloss, but this is still a hugely enjoyable fairytale romp that has a likeable sprinkling of Shrek-style magic about it, ensuring that the film feels appropriately next generation, even though it will ultimately remind fans more of The Little Mermaid and Beauty And The Beast, particularly in the resonance of the songs and how they are executed. It won't, however, be remembered as being a classic – in fact, it is very likely to become overshadowed by the next thing that comes along – but, having said that, it ticks all the right boxes and, most importantly, keeps the young'uns happy.
So go on … let your hair down!