As a kid I was raised on two very crucial symbols of pop culture: “Star Wars” and Disney movies (with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles following close behind). My family didn’t really watch network TV, I was musically retarded until college, and sports didn’t take over my life until later on, so for a long time I knew a great deal about only two things and you certainly didn’t want to question my authority on those two subjects. We didn’t go to the movies that often so it was a big deal when a Disney movie debuted and subsequently when it came out on VHS. (VHS was a precursor to DVD. It was way bigger and much lower in quality and now I try to pretend they never existed.) I don’t think we ever missed a Disney movie between 1985 and 1995. My little brother’s first theater experience was a re-release of “Snow White.” We watched “The Sorcerer’s Stone,” “The Lion King,” and “Robin Hood” (still my all-time favorite animated feature) over and over again until our tapes were worn out. In short, a Disney movie used to mean something; its debut was significant. I’m not sure exactly when that allure disappeared but I think Pixar is more than partially to blame. Who cares about standard animation when Pixar can make a cartoon cowboy look so real and lifelike? The last Disney cartoon that made any sort of impact on me (and the rest of the world) was 2000’s “Emperor’s New Groove” and even that wavered at the Box Office. “Treasure Planet,” “Home on the Range,” “Meet the Robinsons,” etc. all came and went with little fanfare, leaving an entire generation that doesn’t know that a Disney animated feature used to be an important event. That all ends, however, with “Tangled.”
The re-imagining of the classic “Rapunzel” story, “Tangled” centers as much around the outlaw Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi) as it does the princess (Mandy Moore). On the run after a high-priced theft, Rider climbs into a hidden tower where he is ambushed by Rapunzel. Locked away in the tower for 18 years by Gothel (Donna Murphy), the woman she believes to be her mother, Rapunzel is eager to get out and explore the world she has been denied access to. The two strike a deal in which Rider will take Rapunzel to see the thousands of floating lantern the king and queen release on the birthday of their missing princess and Rapunzel will return Rider’s stolen property. Needing Rapunzel to stay young/alive, Mother Gothel sets out to reclaim her prize resulting in a twist-and-turn sequence of events that brings the lost princess ever closer to her family.
From its first moments, you can tell that “Tangled” is a different kind of Disney movie, a return to the old ways that made the company what it is today. It isn’t just in the stronger-than-expected dialogue, the fitting musical numbers, or the much more meticulously crafted plot than their recent animated features. There’s a sort of confidence on display here and try as I might, I can’t think of a better way to term that. It’s like watching a basketball player who’s on fire and seeing him nail shot after shot when he knows he can’t miss. Recent Disney offerings have come across as a bit desperate, begging the audience to remember the good times when “Aladdin” was rocking their faces off and give the studio a pass on “Chicken Little.” In contrast, “Tangled” has a full-on swagger, with every detail controlled and passionately crafted. It’s a fast paced ride that contains a great deal of fun and an extra dose of heart without venturing into cheesy or cliché territory.
Levi and Moore work seamlessly together and if there’s one thing Disney has done right over the last decade it’s allowing their big name voices to work within the framework of the film instead of overshadowing it (unlike Dreamworks). Rider is the classic cartoon hero, the “outlaw with a heart of gold” whose makeup balances his suave outward appearance with a host of internal insecurities. Rapunzel is wide eyed and naïve but her unbridled enthusiasm and sunshiny outlook on the world is endearing to everyone, including the audience. These two carry the film but they are provided with outstanding work from a lesser-known-but-no-less-talented supporting cast including Murphy, Ron Pearlman, and Jeffrey Tambor. Mother Gothel takes a page out of Ursula’s (“The Little Mermaid”) villainous handbook and provides a strong antagonist to bind the story together. Add to this some of that classic Disney magic (such as the flight of the lanterns) and a few of the old standbys, including a witty and unexpected stop for a tough-guys-sing-a-song moment that was truly a nostalgic touch, and you have an inspired animated feature.
You would never guess that “Tangled” underwent an extreme makeover in the last two years as almost every aspect was shifted and recut to focus more on the male-friendly Rider. Perhaps that forced rethinking made “Tangled” what it is but regardless, it is a magnificent departure from what Disney has done lately and a reminder of how great these movies once were. In a year that featured “Toy Story 3” and Dreamworks’ breakthrough “How to Train Your Dragon,” “Tangled” is likely to get lost in the animated shuffle but its ability to regain the allure of Disney is a serious achievement in my book.
Hollywood needs more Zachary Levi,