It is appropriate that “Tangled” is the 50th feature-length animated film from the Walt Disney Company, as it manages to look both back and forward at the same time, embodying where the studio has been and where it’s headed in the future. It is a lovely, funny movie, surprisingly modest in scale and ambition, and better for it. The focus is split between truly innovative animation that blends several different schools of thought and a screenplay that doesn’t innovate in the slightest, but that plays things at just the right pitch.
Put simply, “Tangled” is exactly what it should be.
It is an important time for Walt Disney Feature Animation. The studio as a whole is a robust, well-oiled machine that manages to course correct no matter what stumbles they make. They make a lot of money from their singles, their doubles, and their triples, and then every now and then, they make an “Alice In Wonderland” that makes a billion dollars, and then they all get naked and roll around in dollar bills inside that freaky building with the dwarves on it on the Burbank lot. Or at least, that’s what I heard.
Point is, the studio will be fine, but that’s not enough. All that other stuff, that’s what came after Walt Disney built the foundation for the studio on animation, and while they could just coast on the work that Pixar is doing, that’s not enough either. It’s a point of pride. Walt Disney Feature Animation needs to be doing good work. They need to be making movies that add to the tradition, that honor the name. It’s important.
And again, “Tangled” is exactly what it should be.
They’ve been trying to replicate the formula for a while now, and while I liked a lot of last year’s “The Princess and the Frog,” I didn’t think it totally connected the dots. That was an attempt to recall the glory of the hand-animated days, but “Tangled” embraces that aesthetic while undeniably pushing things in ways that could only be accomplished with CGI. The results are thrilling to watch, and there’s one sequence in particular that is one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in any film this year. The songs in the film are clever, charming, and they don’t overwhelm the movie. It is structured like a traditional musical, with all of the key characters getting at least one song that expresses their innermost feelings, and although the work by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater is solid, I wouldn’t call it inspired in the way the very best of the Disney musicals have been. It’s also structured like a traditional fairy tale, and it’s surprisingly faithful to the original details of “Rapunzel,” with basic rules of magic that the film observes without ever winking or trying any post-modern spin. And thank god for that, too.
Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) was gifted with magical properties at birth, and Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy), realizing that Rapunzel’s magic is the key to ongoing youth, kidnaps her from her royal parents, and then raises her far from anyone else, isolated in a tower, her hair growing perpetually, never cut because that would destroy its magic. She’s grown up yearning for contact with the outside world, which means she’s more than ready when Flynn Rider (Zach Levi) comes swooping into her life by accident. He’s a bandit running from both royal guards and from his partners in crime, and he spots the tower where Rapunzel is hidden. When he tries to take refuge there, the two of them are sent on an adventure that will right old wrongs, bring lovers together, and heal a family and a kingdom all at once. There’s a simplicity to it all that I admire, and you throw in a few anthropomorphized animals so everyone laughs a lot, and that’s the Disney recipe, and that familiarity should be an annoyance, except they pull it off so well.
I wouldn’t say you have to see the film in 3D, but it’s obvious that directors Nathan Greno and Byron Howard have put some real thought into how they use the process in key sequences. There’s a big escape involving Flynn and Rapunzel and a whooooole lot of water that is really well-staged, and the moment that I mentioned earlier involving a boat and a whoooole lot of lanterns is just dazzling, both in the way it was imagined and the in the way it’s executed. The film manages to earn a real emotional payoff by the time it ends, and I was surprised by how well the film wraps things up. “Tangled” may not be the new best Disney film, but it is a reminder of just how good the company can be when they bring everything together, and I suspect it’s going to be a monster holiday hit for families. And in this case, it’s a family hit people can feel good about seeing.
“Tangled” opens everywhere tomorrow.