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Movie Review: Disney Lets Its Hair Down

By Johnny M

November 24, 2010 at 3:05PM EST

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Film: Tangled
Starring: Mandy Moore, Zachary Levi, Donna Murphy, Ron Perlman
Written by: Dan Fogleman
Directed by: Nathan Greno and Bryon Howard
Rating: 8 out of 10 / B+

Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) lives in a tower, cut off from the world, with her only company being a feisty chameleon named Pascal and the manipulative Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy). Rapunzel believes Gothel to be her mother, and Gothel has convinced her that the outside world is full of treachery and malice with the only sure safety being the tower, which is accessible only through Rapunzel’s prodigiously long (and wickedly strong) hair. The truth, however, is that Gothel stole Rapunzel from her true parents, the King and Queen, when the King’s men stole from Gothel a magical flower that healed the sick Queen. The magic was transferred to Rapunzel’s hair, which Gothel uses to keep herself young and beautiful. Enter Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi), a roguish rogue who decides Rapunzel’s tower is the perfect place to hide after he steals the crown jewels. Rapunzel convinces him to help her escape the tower and see the world, but they are soon pursued by Gothel, Flynn’s double-crossed bandit associates and Maximus, a horse from the palace determined to bring Flynn back to serve justice.

Disney went through a kind of renaissance with the release of The Little Mermaid, Beauty And The Beast, and Aladdin, but starting with The Lion King, it slowly sank into mediocrity with bright points like Lilo & Stitch few and far between. Tangled is the 50th film in the Disney animated canon, and while it doesn’t reclaim the spotlight from Pixar’s output or recent animated films like How To Train Your Dragon, it’s a welcome reminder of some of Disney’s best works. The animation is exquisite, the script fantastic, and the leads all perform well.

The film is both highly stylized and realistic at once. The characters are designed in classic Disney style, but transferred to CGI. They move and express just as fluidly as any of Disney’s 2D animated characters did, but they are intentionally not photo-realistic. The backgrounds, however, are amazing in their detail and textures.  Everything from a rush of water to the detail on a wooden post pop out in vivid, crisp images. The 3D effects in the film are very well-integrated, seamlessly blending into the frame and heightening the already vibrant displays. Personally, I still think 3D is often a cheap gimmick, but Disney seems to be able to do it right (and if this is any indication, Tron: Legacy in 3D may just blow me away).

However, even the best-looking animation doesn’t necessarily guarantee an entertaining film. Thankfully, the film delivers not only impressive visuals but a script that’s witty without being smug, some well-done musical numbers and some truly excellent voice work. There are intense action and chase sequences, tender romantic interludes and genuinely funny moments that don’t aim for the lowest common denominator.

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Tangled has a much smaller voice cast than the standard Disney film, and the vast majority of the heavy lifting falls to the three leads, all of whom do a remarkable job. Zachary Levi is instantly likable as Flynn Rider, and his voice is the perfect compliment to the character’s rakish charms (and smoldering good looks). I think I may have a crush on a cartoon character. Mandy Moore is so pitch-perfect as Rapunzel that I kept wondering why they waited this long to cast her as a princess.  She’s simply wonderful. The true standout, though, is Donna Murphy as Mother Gothel. A Tony-award winner, she commands the frame every time she opens her mouth, a true diva in every sense of the word, both good and bad. Plus, she has one of the finest “villain” solos in Disney history, singing the bloody hell out of “Mother Knows Best.”

Mother Gothel isn’t the typical Disney villain, though. In truth, she’s highly sympathetic while also being a rather nasty person. Gothel’s passive-aggressive, manipulative hold on Rapunzel masks what may be some genuine feeling and emotion. In fact, genuine emotion is what separates Tangled from its obvious comparison: the undying Shrek franchise that seems to coast solely on a sense of self-satisfied banality and a wholly criminal abuse of sarcasm. Tangled doesn’t turn its nose up at its fairy tale heritage, nor does it try to force it into a “hip,” “modern” sensibility. The film does poke a little fun at fairy tale tropes, but it does so without pop culture shout-outs and without winking at the camera. 

That’s a very good thing. It allows the film to stand on its own, apart from the time it was created, just like the classic Disney films it emulates. It’s just genuine heart and genuine humor, not to mention a strange complexity not found in most “family” fare. All of the characters have a very definite moral ambiguity that makes them seem all the more realistic and compelling.

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Tangled does falter a little bit in the plotting and pace of the film. It often seems hurried, and while the lack of subplots are kind of welcome, it also makes the supporting cast seem rather superfluous. Not that I’m complaining about a pub full of brutes breaking out into a song about chasing your dreams, mind you, even if half of the song was lifted from The Great Muppet Caper‘s “Happiness Hotel.” It’s also a shame that Levi and Moore are only allowed a very brief duet when their voices form such perfect harmony, but that again is a minor quibble. After all, Tangled gets a whole lot more right than it does wrong, from its infectious energy to its (very wise) decision to make the animal sidekicks not speak. Pascal emotes more with a few pointed looks and croaks than most flesh-and-blood actors I’ve seen in recent films (*cough* Sam Worthington *cough*).

In the end, the film is a welcome addition to the Disney line and overall, simply a great film with a great cast, great music and great visual appeal. Plus, it looks like I just might have to brave the Mall of America to get my hands on a plush Pascal sometime soon. If only because I can’t get my hands on a life-size Flynn Rider.

Reviewed by JOHNNY M image