I've been following the production of Tangled for quite some time. From its initial conception six years ago when it was simply "Rapunzel", to the promising news that it was being helmed by the same collaborative team behind the all around excellent Bolt, and finally word that the indispensable Alan Menken was retained for composing duties, my expectations for the film couldn't be higher. Anything less than stellar would have been crushing -- and with a whopping $260 million sunk into its production, I'm sure the studio heads at Disney are saying the exact same thing.
Financial success or not, I'm happy to report that the movie delivers on just about every front. Tangled takes the structure of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, and gives it a Disney Princess makeover. The result is a contemporary adaptation that coasts along to a coming of age narrative and journey of self discovery. The tone is spirited and adventurous, but still conveys just enough of the fairy tale's dark underpinnings. While the plot and its twists aren't wholly inventive, Tangled is vigorously paced and told with such sincerity that it manages to be as thoroughly entertaining as it is genuinely moving.
That's a real testament to the talent involved. Directors Byron Howard and Nathan Greno are joined by producers John Lasseter and Disney animator veteran Glen Keane. Keane's role was especially pivotal; responsible for jump-starting the project in the first place, his belief to imbue as much of the company's old-school sensibilities into the film was a smart decision. The lack of pop culture and satirical references will undoubtedly make for a more timeless piece, but what's most striking about Tangled is just how palpable the look and feel of the 2D animated classics of yesteryear have translated over to the computer animated realm. The intended painterly art style gives off a warm, lush color scheme, which really comes across in the beautiful environments and locations. The character designs have a clean, appealing look to them; Rapunzel is adorably pretty, and they did a fantastic job getting the movements and physicality of her long, flowing locks just right. Flynn encapsulates rogue and dashing with just the right amount of derring-do swagger. And then there's Maximus, who's pretty much the quintessential Disney horse, both in looks and mannerisms.
The cast themselves all share a great dynamic with one another. The mother-daughter relationship between Gothel and Rapunzel lies at the heart of the story, and it's extremely well developed. Donna Murphy chews up the scenery as a prima donna antagonist that lives for the theatrics. Her Gothel is a devious, passive-aggressive mother figure who prefers psychological tactics over physical confrontation. Mandy Moore is pitch perfect as the perky, plucky Rapunzel, who, to my great surprise, also manages to nail the gravitas of many an emotional moment throughout. And then there's Zachary Levi who brings just the right amount of rakish and rascal to the Flynn Rider role. (Plus, the guy can carry a pretty good tune, as evidenced by the obligatory love duet song, "I See the Light".) Though largely present for comic relief, the silent but expression-filled animal sidekicks are well utilized. Rapunzel's best friend Pascal gives the sheltered girl someone to confide in when no other confidants are available, while the adversarial conflict between Maximus and Flynn is a blast to watch. Finally, there's the romance that blossoms between Flynn and Rapunzel. It's an organic build up that eventually ties into the latter's initial goal, and once the flames begin to spark, the emotional payoff is richly satisfying.
And now we come to the music, which is an essential part of any Disney animated musical. Counting the short but often repeated "Healing Incantation", Menken graces us with five new vocal tracks - eight, if you count the reprisals. On first blush, these pieces may not have the same instant appeal as an Ashman or a Rice, but it's reasonably close to his last collaborative effort with Stephen Schwartz. Time will tell if Glenn Slater's work will have the same lasting appeal as Enchanted, but I admit Tangled is growing on me at an exponential rate. Mandy Moore belts out one heck of a feel-good tune with "When Will My Life Begin", which culminates into a bravado-induced finale by the second reprise. "Mother Knows Best", like the character of Gothel herself, is a very different type of villain's song. Its malevolence is sneakily veiled behind capricious overtones, and Donna Murphy brings her full theatrical range to the table; once she hits us with the Reprise, the listener is fully aware that, yes, this is undeniably a "bad guy" piece. "I've Got A Dream" is the big 'Under the Sea/Be Our Guest/That's How You Know' celebratory number, and it's as fun and jovial to listen to out of context as it is in. Finally, one can't help but draw comparisons to 'A Whole New World' in the aforementioned "I See the Light". Familiarity notwithstanding, it's a wonderfully performed duet by Levi and Moore that heightens the tenderness of the scene.
The instrumental score is functional, but never quite reaches the thematic highs that Menken is usually known for. There are a couple of standout reprisals of 'I See the Light', but I wish more arrangements were culled from 'When Will My Life Begin' and 'Mother Knows Best'. That would have gone a long way toward strengthening the musical identities of Rapunzel and Gothel respectively. I'm also disappointed that Menken chose not to do a concert style suite for the end credits, a la Enchanted. It would've been far more preferred than the inoffensive but forgettable Grace Potter contributed "Something That I Want".
All in all, I loved Tangled. It's sweet, funny, sentimental, and genuinely sincere. It's deftly told, and looks and sounds terrific. It serves as a great example at how old-fashioned cinematic values can harmoniously co-exist with the advent of modern technology. And if this truly is to be Disney's swan song for the princess fairy tale genre, then I'd say it went out on a high note.