Friday, July 8, 2011

A Delightful Return to Form - "Tangled" Review

"All the adversity I've had in my life, all my troubles and obstacles, have strengthened me... You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you."
-Walt Disney
When Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs burst into theaters in 1937 it quickly became the most successful film of all time.  Film as a medium was young and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs offered something no one had seen before.  As the first animated feature film, it offered beautiful images and a riveting musical storyline, based on a famous fairytale by the brothers Grimm.

Over the past 73 years Disney has become a powerhouse in the animated world.  Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' use of a female protagonist continued for years throughout their films, eventually spawning a Disney princess label.  From Belle (Beauty and the Beast) to Mulan (Mulan,) Disney continued to rely on their female protagonists to draw in audiences.

However, something happened to Disney over the past 10 years.  Their animated films stopped relying on female protagonists, and they ditched their musical format altogether.  It was almost as if the story behind Mulan, in which a woman has to pretend to be a man to save her family, had transformed Disney in the same way.

Disney saw the money being made by studios that were directing all their marketing towards teenage boys and decided it was a market they would aim for as well.  The results of this decision were the financial disasters that were Atlantis – The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet.

Disney had been delivered its very own "kick in the teeth" and it seemed that the era of Disney creating classics had ended.  Does all that change with this year's release of Tangled, directed by Nathan Greno and Byron Howard, as Disney's 50th animated film?

In short, yes!  Under the direction of John Lasseter, the chief creative officer of both Pixar and Disney animation studios, Tangled represents a return to form for Disney.  Everything that is great about Tangled is exactly what you loved about classics like The Little Mermaid and Aladdin.  That's not to say that it is a perfect film, just an incredibly charming and entertaining one.

Tangled, like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, is an adapted version of a brothers Grimm fairytale, this one being the story of Rapunzel.  However, like all Disney films before it, this isn't your traditional story of Rapunzel.

Tangled begins with the story of a royal couple who are expecting their first child.  When the queen becomes sick she relies on the juice of a magic flower that can keep the user young and healthy.  With that, Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) is born and her hair contains magical restorative powers that would be much desired by those trying to stay young.

Overnight the old and vain Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy) kidnaps Rapunzel and hides her away, isolated in her famous tower.  As the girl grows to the age of 18 she is kept fearful of the outside world,  and since her hair is never trimmed Mother Gothel is able to remain young and beautiful.

Like any coming-of-age tale, Rapunzel yearns to see the world outside her tower, despite the wishes of her overprotective adopted mother.  It is only through Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi,) that Rapunzel is able to escape from her mother's overbearing grip.  The two begin a journey to witness the beautiful floating lanterns that the kingdom releases into the sky every year on the missing princess' birthday.

Despite a slow start, Tangled's story is a wonderful journey full of humor, adventure, charm, and romance.  Best of all, it takes its time to develop and bring the viewer into the world its characters inhabit.  Today, almost all CG-animated (computer generated) films run around like over-caffeinated children, full of meta-gags, pop-culture references, and unnecessary bad pop songs.  Tangled has none of these.

Instead, Tangled is sweet and contemplative.  It takes its time to explore the emotions involved with becoming an adult and exploring the new world that comes with those emotions.  There could have been more mini-stories along the journey to self-discovery that teach lessons about aging and finding oneself, but what is there is well told and very entertaining.

Donna Murphy's Mother Gothel is a brilliant Disney villainess that is sympathetic to a fault and is eerily familiar.  Gothel is incredibly well written as a narcissistic mother who insults her own daughter before quickly writing it off as a joke.  It is through these simple actions that we begin to not only understand Gothel as a character but why Rapunzel isn't very confident.

Gothel is balanced out by the hilarious chameleon Pascal and horse Maximus who are more than just throwaway comedic characters.  Last year's, The Princess and the Frog was a brilliantly animated hand-drawn film from Disney but it suffered from forgettable comedic characters and villains.  Tangled's comedic sidekicks steal the show every chance they get, but they don't scream, "look at me," while doing it.

Alan Menkin (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, etc.) is back as the composer of the score and musical numbers for Tangled.  While the score itself can a bit overly dramatic at times, the songs are all wonderfully witty and catchy.  Mother Gothel's "Mother Knows Best" is chilling and wonderfully performed by Donna Murphy, who injects just the right sensibilities from the character into the voice work.

The animation in the film is pure Disney.  Bright colors fill the screen and beautiful vistas are around every corner.  The characters are cartoonish and over exaggerated in the best of ways.  This is no Pixar film, and it doesn't try to be.  The characters look like they were ripped straight out of Aladdin.  A particular floating lantern scene later in the movie might be one of the most beautiful things on screen this year.

The CG-animation is great but it just begs the question as to how it would look if it were hand-drawn.  Last year's The Princess and the Frog proved that Disney could still produce beautiful hand-drawn animation.  The film wasn't successful and Disney quickly made the decision to animate Tangled with CG images.  As beautiful as Tangled is, it would probably have been even more striking as a classically hand-drawn feature.

Tangled is a film for everyone and represents a rebirth of the Disney classic.  After receiving a "kick in the teeth," Disney has been "strengthened" and comes back fighting with a film full of fun, beauty, and magical musical numbers.  Tangled isn't the most groundbreaking animated film of the year but it contains a long lost Disney magic that hasn't been in theaters in a long, long, time. 

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