How do you tell the traditional fairy tale – princess locked away in a tower only to be rescued by dashing hero – in a CGI format for modern audiences? The answer is…Tangled.
The staples are all here: the adorably wide-eyed princess Rapunzel (Mandy Moore), the handsome rogue Flynn (as in Errol) Rider (Zachary Levi), the villainous stepmother Gothel (Donna Murphy), and two heroic critters – Maximus the lawful good warhorse and Pascal the chameleon (voice by Frank Welker, master of the entire animal-voiced kingdom). A magical flower falls to earth that has restorative powers that heals the wounded and promise eternal youth, but when the queen’s childbirth becomes…difficult, the flower is turned into a poultice, bestowing its curative effects on the young princess. The problem is that Mother Gothel was using the flower to keep her eternally youthful and, upon realizing that Rapunzel’s hair now has the same powers, kidnaps the girl and raises the child as her own.
Whew. Got all that? Early on, it becomes clear Gothel is blessed with superhuman abilities to do evil things. She is basically an old lady who really, really likes being youthful. We never get any insight as to why this is – she never flirts with anybody, so it’s surely not for the obvious reasons – and so Gothel becomes a cipher helped conveniently by the plot. She gets the drop on two huge thugs! Tangled was obviously uncomfortable turning Gothel into another witch, but I kept hoping she had some magical tricks up her sleeve.
Speaking of Gothel, she acts like Faye Dunaway from Mommy Dearest and looks like Cher. She is manipulative, loving, protective, and saps her daughter’s self-esteem at every turn. Gothel is, in other words, a post-modern villain palatable to audiences who are unlikely to accept a stepmother that managed to keep her daughter in a tower for nearly two decades. And yet, once Gothel’s secret is out she transforms into an unrepentant harpy.
Gothel’s manipulative skills are at their peak when she sings “Mother Knows Best.” Given the breathtaking old-school style of animation the film invokes, it’s a shame that the music simply can’t keep up. The actors rarely launch into full-throated song, preferring instead to half-talk, half-sing their way into and out of what should be true theatrics. In fact, Tangled at times feels like a Broadway play, unwilling to go all-out because the director fears his cast can’t hit the high notes. There’s not a single memorable song in Tangled’s hairnet.
Flynn Rider has his own problems. His age is indecipherable, but it’s certainly older than eighteen-year-old Rapunzel. He’s been around long enough to have a reputation as a lady’s man and an accomplished thief, which makes him old enough to know better, but never mind that. Rider narrates the tale but rarely hasn’t much of interest to say– his narration could have been removed completely without affecting the story. Also, Rider’s a world class jerk, backstabbing his partners in crime for no other reason than greed. Even the other characters point out that his dream (to have a private island with piles of money) is terrible. Rider eventually gets it knocked into his head (literally) that Rapunzel is his dream…which is a bit of an uncomfortable message (you’re either greedy or utterly devoted to your spouse), but not unexpected for a Disney film.
Just about every character in Tangled has a surprising dark streak that saps their fairy-tale qualities. Maximus is willing to slit Rider’s throat, Pascal gleefully defenestrates an old lady, and even Rapunzel turns on her formerly beloved stepmother in the blink of an eye. The most lovable characters are the self-confessed rogues at the Snugly Duckling.
Tangled wants to have it both ways – edgy and innocent, fairy-tale and girl power – but ends up somewhere in between. It’s got all the right ingredients, but they don’t quite (hair?) gel.