One of the joys of having done the Disney 52 project is seeing how the studio has changed throughout the decades but has remained essentially a group dedicated to entertaining people, children and adults alike, and enchanting them with magical, wondrous tales. Each generation has had a new clutch of Disney films to enjoy and nostalgia plays a huge role in the fact that almost every Disney film has someone who claims it is their favourite. The people leaping to the defense of Robin Hood, for instance, would admit to nostalgia playing a huge part in why they like it so much. The Lion King will probably remain my favourite even having seen all 52 of them because of the personal attachment I have to it. What’s nice about seeing Tangled is that you get the impression that Disney are still doing this for new generations of viewers. Tangled, despite using bleeding edge technology, is full of the charm and heart that runs through the best films the studio have made, ensuring that people in future will be citing it as their favourite Disney because they saw it at a time and place that will always be special for them.
Not any old film can earn this accolade, however. It’s unlikely that people will still be talking about Bolt, Atlantis or Saludos Amigos in 30 years time because they aren’t especially Disney. There’s an elusive quality to some films that just makes them undeniably Disney, where you know they couldn’t come from any other studio. This doesn’t mean they tick all the boxes in my arbitrary checklist; it’s something more ephemeral than that. If you think about it, the Disney films of the 60s and 70s don’t really fit the mould of the Golden Age films, while the 50s are a different beast altogether. No, what makes something inherently Disney is not if it follows a certain structure or has stock characters, it’s more about an ineffable mixture of charm, heart and wonder, where animation is used to explain whatever the mind can conceive. Tangled achieves this, even if at first glance it seems entirely different to, say, the Aristocats, Cinderella or Bambi.
Initially, the signs aren’t especially promising. The film opens with a witty voiceover that, while rather funny, represents a modern aversion to sincerity that has plagued post-Pixar animations. After a nice bit of scene-setting exposition to establish the main plot – girl with magical hair is trapped in a tower by a woman who pretends to be her mum – it then breaks into a song about how this lady of shallot wants to leave her tower. It’s a forgettable song, doing the bare essentials of revealing character motivation. She plays with a chameleon, Pascal, who is clearly there to sell toys (Pascal reaction shots are rather overused in the film as a shortcut to cuteness/humour that quickly becomes wearying). It all feels a little perfunctory, and it isn’t until she actually leaves her tower, accompanied by the caddish rogue Flynn Rider, that the film kicks off and becomes interesting.
The banter between the two companions is not only genuinely funny, but at times hints a thematic depth that Disney only achieves at their best. The comic highlight of the film is when Rapunzel first leaves the tower and it cuts between her having the best day of her life and wracked with guilt at what she has done to her mother. Mother Gothel, like Scar, get into the psyche of the victim, making Rapunzel blame herself even when the older woman is the kidnapper, manipulator and jailor. Like Elsa in Frozen, Tangled‘s heroine has a moment of breaking free of the rules, but unlike Elsa, Rapunzel feels conflicted about it. Her restoration to her proper family is not just about becoming a princess but is a process of self-actualisation, where she works out who she is as a person separate from the controlling influences of an older generation. In short, when Rapunzel leaves her tower, Tangled actually becomes about something, as opposed to just another princess story.
(As a side note, I think that’s why I didn’t like Cinderella as much as other princess films, because it wasn’t about anything. The best princess movies use the age old structure to explore a broad theme: Beauty and the Beast is about sacrifice; Mulan is about gender roles (broadly); Tangled is about freedom. Cinderella is just about a ball and dresses and half-talking mice.)
Having explored such weighty themes in the first act, the film transforms when the young princess enters her home town and enjoys life among normal people for the first time. There’s a montage after her hair has been tied up where she starts a dance in the town square, paints, reads books and just enjoys freedom – it’s where the film stops being good and becomes great. What makes this scene so special is that actually, you’ve seen similar sequences several times before, because the film makers are tapping into an age old tradition of falling-in-love montages. Such is the exuberance and unabashed enthusiasm of the scene that there is maybe something there that wasn’t there before. Rapunzel has the (frankly unbelievable) infectious happiness that can get a whole town dancing, twirling and laughing together, and it’s a joy to watch. It’s the culmination of her gradual emancipation, a scene that combines romance with personal freedom. I know I’m prone to hyperbole, but to me personally this scene touches the transcendent.
The film then segues into the breathtaking sight of a thousand lanterns floating through the sky to a generic ballad which, song aside, is beautiful. Neither the romantic lanterns scene nor the dance in the town are especially new or groundbreaking, but fitting into a grand Disney tradition of heartfelt romance and gorgeous animation. Yes, the film ends with the exact ending that you are expecting, but that’s the appeal of Tangled and, indeed, most of the Disneys: it’s escapism in its purest form, a tale of magic, royalty and once-upon-a-times. It’s a fairy tale.
Tangled revels in royalty and romance and is perhaps even more old-school than the traditionally animated Princess and the Frog. It follows a familiar narrative but the familiarity is warm and happy as opposed to cliché-bordering boredom. As such, Tangled could be described as run-of-the-mill for Disney, but only if the mill is a gorgeous, riverside waterwheel and cottage that happens to produce the finest flour in the country; It’s par for the course, but the course is a stunning mountain highway. It’s Disney through and through, which is why children and adults are bound to fall for its immense charm and will still be watching it in twenty or thirty years time.