Saturday, November 27, 2010

The tale is old as time, as they say. Disney’s 50th full length feature is based on and originally named for the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, “Rapunzel”, which was first published in 1812. Their story was inspired by even older tales, including the french “Persinette”, published in 1698. The story is of a girl named Rapunzel who lives trapped in a tower and kept by a villainess named Mother Gothel. She is ultimately saved by her prince, or prince-like suitor, who climbs her long golden hair to get in the tower, calling “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair!”

With the history of Disney features thick with princesses and fairy tales, Tangled could have been safely constructed from their oft-used mold, but Disney’s chief creative officer and Pixar wizard John Lasseter wanted to blend the best of Disney, its heart, attention to visual artistry, and the heartstring tug the best of their features provide, with the action, humor, and depth of character Pixar has near perfected. This is quite a complicated feat to pull off. No wonder they changed the name to Tangled. WIth those kinds of hopes and expectations, the plot, characters, and visual look of this movie could have devolved into a matted mess. Happily for both the viewers and filmmakers, the team of artists he built was up to the challenge. They include directors Byron Howard and Nathan Greno, and voice actors Mandy Moore (Rapunzel), Zachary Levi (Flynn Ryder) and Donna Murphy (Mother Gothel).

The first thing that strikes the film goers is the consistent believability of the animated characters. Computer generated backgrounds have served films well for some time now, but it takes some of the best talents in the business to design and animate characters inside a computer who move fluidly and mimick real life. That is what 2D animation with its many years of experimentation has learned to do with great effect. The highest compliment I can give the animators is at times I forgot I was watching a computer animated 3D movie. The character animation in this movie has surpassed beyond the quality of anything ever seen before. The subtleties of micro-animations like eye shifts, shoulder moves, and the like, allow for a greater depth of expression, which allows for more connection between the viewer and the characters. For example, the animation of Rapunzel’s hair is an important key to our connection to that character. New software was developed called Dynamic Wires to give it life, almost like a character in its own right, with 140,000 individual strands of hair making up what we see as her 70 foot long magical mane.

Of course our connection to the characters and their challenges is what drives the movie and keep us invested. Mandy Moore is a spunky delight as the trapped young woman of 18 who has honed dozens of skills and talents in her years in the tower. Despite her circumstances she’s not only motivated, she’s inspired, as the first song reveals. Moore’s voice is angelic and sassy at the same time. It reminds me of The Little Mermaid’s Jodi Benson, but less Broadway and candy-laced.

Mother Gothel is possibly the worst villain ever, her brand of evil existing all too often in the real world. Broadway veteran Donna Murphy makes her manipulations believable enough to explain Rapunzel’s continued devotion and obedience. The song “Mother Knows Best” will make women with therapists on speed dial from deprecating and manipulative mothers cringe the way the puppy-coat wearing Cruella never would. To call the song edgy is an understatement. Anyone with mother issues be prepared for some uncomfortable recognition.

Zachary Levi has a significant personal arc as the male lead, and it is the interplay and verbal sparring between his character Flynn Rider and Rapunzel that makes the movie soar. For once the balance of emotional power and personal stake isn’t skewed to the female lead. Can you think of any male/princely character in a classic Disney fairy tale that feels well developed enough to remain memorable after the end credits roll? Both have much to lose in trusting badly and much to gain in discovering their own power. The decision to change the name from Rapunzel to Tangled so as to attract both little girls and boys finally makes sense. It’s like watching Aladdin if Tiana had been his counterpart. They are both strong and ultimately heroic characters with much good for children of both sexes to emulate.

For comic relief, two great supporting characters steal the show. The captain of the guard’s horse Maximus seems part bloodhound, part canadian mountie determined to always get his man. In this case that man is the bandit Flynn Rider. One of the many hardboiled characters Rapunzel melts with her compassion and sweetness, Max changes through the course of the story and his presence makes the movie far more fun and memorable. The same is true for the color changing chameleon named Pascal, who is Rapunzel’s one true friend. He lives with her and is a driving force in her leaving her tower in search of answers. Both my friend and I recognized our pets in them, and I’m sure many other animal lovers will do the same. Max and Pascal are likely to have their own fan base apart from the movie as a whole.

The beauty of the color palette and creative use of 3D is most evidenced in the lovely yet inevitable scene of romantic discovery, where the kingdom is lit up with thousands of lanterns at night. Flynn and Rapunzel experience the scene from a boat they share while singing together. It is a sweet scene, and truly visually stunning. I see how the rich color palette used by Jean Honore Fragonard, a French artist who’s work they used as inspiration, was integral to the lush finished look of this scene in particular, and the movie in general.

The popularity of the movie is bound to be greater with adults than with children. Although there is no doubt children will love it too, there is humor and wit in the songs and the nuance of interaction between characters, not to mention very adult challenges that will be appreciated by a more sophisticated bunch than just the younger set.

It remains to be seen if this movie is an instant classic. The characterization and plot line were so entertaining I got very wrapped up in those, but the film as a whole has not replayed in my mind like, say, The Lion King did… What stays with me is the memory of Max and Pascal, Moore’s beautiful voice, and the powerful dislike I had for the villainess. It’s a good sign that I’m curious enough to discover how a second viewing will effect my appreciation that I’m already planning when I can clear my crazy holiday schedule and go again.

I guess I’ll have to lather, rinse, and repeat.

To check out a great interview with animator Glen Keane on “Den of Geeks” click here.