“Great, now I’m the bad guy,” sighs Mother Gothel, the frizzy-haired, sharp-featured enchantress with the inimitable voice of Donna Murphy. Tangled’s wicked witch is Disney’s first villainess whose chief crime is being an underminer, with the heroine its first co-dependent princess. Tween girls may have some tough questions for their moms on the way out of the funny, brassy CG-animated spin on the Rapunzel story: “Hey, how come Mother Gothel said the same things about Rapunzel’s weight that you say to me?”
Those moms might answer as Murphy does in her finest number, “Mother Knows Best,” a Mama Rose-worthy tune (by famed Disney composer Alan Menken, with lyrics by Glenn Slater) in which the witch—who kidnapped the magical Rapunzel as a toddler so that her long blond hair might keep Gothel forever young—explains all the reasons why Rapunzel doesn’t want to leave the tower on her 18th birthday. Sure, there are “ruffians, thugs, poison ivy, quicksand”—but the real problem, Gothel tells the girl, is that she is too silly, too uneducated, too unsophisticated to survive the trip.
Of course, when Rapunzel finally does get out—in the company of good-hearted thief Flynn—she’s a mess. The film’s wittiest sequence cuts between Rapunzel’s emotional highs and lows to great comic effect. Tangled is unusually attuned to the emotional frequencies of mothers and daughters, considering that, like basically every Disney/Pixar feature, its writer and directors are a bunch of dudes.
When it strays from its filial drama, Tangled is mostly unsurprising, though not without its charms. Where Beauty and the Beast’sBelle wanted more than her provincial life, Rapunzel doesn’t even know what life is yet. And Flynn’s all pratfalls and wisecracks—“I don’t do backstory,” he advises when asked about his childhood.
The movie’s real accomplishments are in its look, which was generated inside a computer but is as warm and rich as a painting. Rapunzel’s endless blond locks must have been a nightmare to program—the credits cite a Hair Animation Lead, who earned every penny—but the movie uses that hair to great effect in its lively action sequences. Rapunzel and Flynn’s romantic interlude is lit by a thousand floating lanterns; while Tangled’s 3-D is mostly unobtrusive, the lights swooping over the audience might be the most crowd-pleasing three-dimensional filigree I’ve yet seen.
Sadly, though, Disney’s been undercutting poor Tangled just as badly as Mother Gothel does her charge. Stung by the middling box office of last year’s The Princess and the Frog, the Mouse scotched this picture’s original title, Rapunzel, and launched a lousy ad campaign stressing the movie’s rugged leading man. It won’t work, of course; boys will smell the movie’s princess-y perfume a mile away and stay away in droves.
With its fairy-tale origins and Menken score, Tangled reaches for the heights of the company’s early-’90s masterpieces. But it’s a shame that Disney can’t embrace Tangled’s charms—and that an audience full of appreciative girls may not be enough anymore.
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Tangled was directed by Nathan Greno and Byron Howard; written by Dan Fogelman, based on the fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm; and features the voices of Mandy Moore, Zachary Levi and Donna Murphy. Rated PG. Countywide.
This review appeared in print as "Rapunzel Takes a Haircut: Disney’s latest looks and feels great, so why is the studio selling Tangled short?"