Tangled was celebrated at its release as the fiftieth animated movie made by Disney. It’s appropriate that it should be a princess movie. Also appropriate is that it is based on a classic European fairy tale. Carrying yet another Disney torch, the writers took happy license with the fairy tale until only a few basic elements remained.
I don’t know that Tangled began with a Disney executive saying, “The next animated movie will be our fiftieth. Holy smokes – we need to make this special.” In fact, I doubt it. But if that had been the goal, Tangled would be a spectacular fulfillment. The movie is a wonderful mixing of the best of the old Disney with the best of the new.
The best of the new Disney is found mainly in two things. Humor is the more minor of them. In Old Disney there was humor, too – but not the sort that involves the hero doing battle with a frying pan. Still less would Old Disney have had the heroine repeatedly deck her Prince Charming with a frying pan. Of course, the old-time Prince Charming was never a smart-aleck thief who dismissively calls the princess “Blondie”. (“Rapunzel,” she corrects him. “Gesundehit,” he replies.)
The greatest contribution of New Disney is that the protagonists have actual personalities. Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella were all mild and rather predictable heroines. Prince Charming was generic, and entirely interchangeable with Cinderella’s prince. Their stories were frameworks on which less essential characters hung their colorful hats. The dwarves and the three fairies carried the liveliness and humor of their fairy tales.
But in Tangled Rapunzel and Flynn Rider are characters, not types. The movie has wonderful secondary characters; I am ready to accord Maximus the place of Disney’s best animal sidekick. But here the principal characters can keep up.
If the protagonists show the strength of the new Disney, the antagonist shows the excellence of the old. Gothel is one of the movie’s best elements, a villainess we haven’t seen the likes of in fifty years. New Disney’s villanesses are generally in the cast of Cruella de Vil, Eesma, and Urusla. They were always somehow over-the-top – Cruella with her enormous furs and enormous temper, her every facial feature seeming to come to a point; Ursula’s nastiness was as heavy and obvious as her tentacles; Eesma was, indeed, scary beyond all reason, but in a way that fit the half-sane humor of The Emperor’s New Groove.
But in the days of Old Disney, the villainesses were Maleficent, and the evil stepmothers of Cinderella and Snow White. Gothel belongs to their class. Watching Tangled, you can see in her the cold menace of the evil queen, the elegance of Maleficent, the intellectual sharpness and half-hidden malice of Cinderella’s stepmother. Gothel has a presence that – as much as anything she actually does – makes her frightening.
Tangled is, as Flynn assures us in his opening narration, a fun story. It also earns its PG rating with a surprisingly intense scene that culminates in one of the most clever, most satisfying ends Disney ever dealt out to a villain.
That same scene brings home the movie’s moral. Somewhere, in all the jokes and adventure, Tangled slips in what they call a Point. Now, most Disney lessons these days are like a Hallmark greeting card, only not as deep. We are constantly being instructed to Follow Our Hearts, Believe In Ourselves, and Make Our Dreams Come True. So it’s no surprise that a character in Tangled tells Flynn and Rapunzel, “Go, live your dream.” (Okay, it’s a little surprise that the character is a one-handed hooligan, but someone had to say it.)
Flynn answers, feelingly, “I will.”
And the hooligan says, “Your dream stinks. I was talking to her.”
It’s a great moment, all the more so because it comes off as self-parody. But here’s the thing: Flynn’s dream – to live alone on an island, “surrounded by enormous piles of money” – really did stink. Tangled may begin as another tale of following your dreams, but it ends as a more profound story of changing them.
Tangled is a triumph – comedy mixed with drama, captivating characters bringing home an excellent story. It’s worthy of Walt Disney himself, and more than fit to be the fiftieth animated film made by his studio.