Sunday, July 28, 2013

2010 - Tangled

At the end of the Princess and the Frog review, I mentioned that the underperformance of that film had led to an unusual change in this one, but the more I think about it, it was really just the most visible aspect of a major tonal shift in the marketing. See, the big and clear thing was that the movie was originally called “Rapunzel”, but after the sarcastic quotes failure sarcastic quotes of The Princess and the Frog, they changed the name to Tangled, and gave the male character far more prominence in the advertising. On the one hand, I can see that this is as much his story as it is hers, but still, can you imagine a studio changing the title and marketing of their big release to de-emphasize a male character? Yeah, didn’t think so. They also shifted Glen Keane from director back down to character animator, and with that, changed the design of the movie from his planned and innovative approach to more typical CGI. In addition, the entire tone of the advertising switched to being very action-oriented and Dreamworks-ish, with the posters even featuring the smug, much-maligned “Dreamworks face”. So was this a case of Disney following the lead of the once-surprise dark hose studio? Or did they have a secret plan up their sleeve? Splitting at the ends? So am I. So legally obtain some apples, and let’s talk about Tangled.

Before we begin, I do need to address the Dreamworks question, which has been in the back of my mind for a while. Dreamworks Animation came onto the scene in 1998, and for the most part, engaged in the usual Disney ripoff stuff that studios had been making for years in futile attempts to compete with Disney. There was a bit of a rush of them at the time, with Warner Bros, Fox, and other studios trying to leap on the limping gazelle that was Disney at the time. Dreamworks’ early efforts ranged from excellent (The Prince of Egypt) to pretty good (The Road to El Dorado) to dire (Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas). But in 2001, they made a little movie called Shrek.

Shrek was a very good movie, and more to the point, it was a smashing success. In its irreverent, sarcastic attitude, Dreamworks had finally found its brand. While Fox and WB’s feature animation studios floundered, Dreamworks found itself racing to the top on a chariot built of smirks and reference jokes. But what they were making was basically garbage. Shark Tale, Over The Hedge, Flushed Away, Bee Movie - This stuff is Meet the Robinsons bad at best, and often approached or reached Chicken Little levels of horribleness. But they were making massive amounts of money. All of them. Even Bee Movie. And that’s a movie where Jerry Seinfeld plays a bee named Barry B. Benson, who’s upset that Ray Liotta is stealing his honey.

That is not some sort of joke I told, that's an actual thing that happened.

This, along with their already discussed Pixar envy, was among the contributors to the fear that led Disney to go all-CGI for a time. And in the mid-late 2000s, something changed: Dreamworks got good. No longer coasting on the snarky Shrek style, they were making real high-quality work. Kung-Fu Panda, How To Train Your Dragon, Monsters vs. Aliens, this was really good stuff. And as Dreamworks became an artistic competitor to Disney as well as a financial one, we get a Disney movie with a trailer of nothing but slapstick, a cynical title, and ohhhhh, the smirks on the poster. I was sure this was just Disney responding to the Dreamworks threat.

Well, to my surprise, this is not that kind of movie. In fact, I’d say this is an even better return to form for the company that The Princess and the Frog was. While TPATF modernized  the story and played with the themes and structure of it, Tangled is just a straight-up traditional fairy tale. There’s some annoying stuff that comes with that  - predictable story structure, all-white cast, elevated relevance of royalty - but the story is so well-done, it doesn’t really matter.

Rapunzel is one of those thinly-plotted fairy tales that requires a lot of work to stretch to feature length, but the Disney machine has gotten so good at plot generation that I barely even notice any more. The days of relentless padding like we saw in Cinderella are long behind us. The agent of plot expansion in this film is one Flynn Rider, a dashing thief who agrees to be Rapunzel’s guide through the world outside her tower. Since he’s not a prince, he doesn’t climb her hair, and his total in-tower time is maybe a couple of hours (most of which he spends unconscious), that means pretty much the entire original plot of Rapunzel has been jettisoned in favor of an out-of-tower adventure.

Though not one as good as this would have been.

Really, I mean it. I didn’t realize until I was writing this, but they really dumped the whole plot. In the original Grimm story, a poor forester is caught stealing rapunzel from a witch’s garden, and agrees to give up his firstborn daughter to her. The witch keeps the girl in a tower, accessed by means of climbing her long hair. She is eventually discovered by a prince, who falls in love with her and gets her pregnant, causing the witch to find out about them. The witch cuts off the girl’s hair and casts her into the wilderness, then blinds the prince and casts him out as well. At least nine months later, as a convenient biological reminder lets us know, they find each other, and her tears regrow his eyes, why the hell not.

Literally all they took from that is “tower” and “hair”. Mother Gothel is not a witch, Rapunzel’s parents are a king and queen, she is kidnapped as opposed to traded for a plant, her hair is magic and has healing properties, Flynn is not a prince, no one gets blinded, and there is no pre-marital hanky-panky. Most of all, Grimm’s Rapunzel was… Well, she was kind of dumb, and had no real desire to leave the tower until a man turned up. Disney’s Rapunzel is a rapacious reader, and has longed all her life to leave the tower.

And Rapunzel’s drive to get out of the tower is what really makes this work. While Flynn is the one who facilitates the expanded story, Rapunzel is the one who starts it, and this prevents it from being the male-centered story the title change made me wary of. The danger comes to both of them equally, from Rapunzel’s jailer/”mother” pursuing Rapunzel to get her back in the tower, the city guards pursuing Flynn for stealing Rapunzel’s crown from its place of honor in the palace, and Flynn’s former partners the Stabbington Brothers chasing Flynn for selling them out and escaping. Not until the very end of the movie do Flynn and Rapunzel learn of her true parentage, and their romantic relationship grows smoothly and naturally throughout the movie. Rather than one gooey scene between the two of them where Twoo Wuv instantly blossoms, we see a gradual progression and growing respect and admiration between “crazy girl in a tower” and “con artist boy with warrants”.

Admittedly, she doesn't impress early on.

Rapunzel and Flynn are very good characters. Rapunzel is inquisitive and adventurous in a way we’ve never seen in a Disney heroine. Belle can talk about books all she wants, but Rapunzel spends nearly every second out of the tower, learning and experiencing new things. Even when she’s stuck up there, she spends all her time studying and practicing various skills. Flynn’s entire persona was born of a feeling of inferiority from childhood, which is a great reversal of the typical confident male hero. This is carried over into a scene where a gang of thugs at a bar musically express their less-than-manly interests and hobbies. While it is somewhat annoying that there are only two female characters in the movie, I appreciated the rejection of societal norms and gender roles that were casually tossed in. It’s far from perfect on that front, but there’s something nice about a burly thug depicted as loving to bake cupcakes.

Acting is great, though after the grand slam of The Princess and the Frog, it was going to be hard to live up. And sure enough, none of the actors reach the amazing success of that movie’s cast, but they all do an excellent job. Mandy Moore plays Rapunzel, and is naturally adorable and a talented singer. Flynn is played by Zachary Levi, who brings a lot of his Charles Carmichael charm to the role, and also gives a surprisingly credible musical performance. Maybe he can sit in on Jeffster’s new album. Ron Perlman voices the Stabbington brothers -  well, voices one and grunts the other - and is perfect because of course he is, he’s Ron Perlman. Various supporting thugs and guards are played by character actors M.C. Gainey, Brad Garrett, and Jeffrey Tambor. But as is so often the case, the MVP goes to the villain. Broadway star Donna Murphy, best known to the general public as Dr. Octopus’s wife, strikes a great balance between her fake loving disposition and her true, ruthless nature. She knows just the right moments to drop a touch of menace into a sweet moment or a moment of pathos into a threat. Since her character’s biggest trait is her emotional abuse of Rapunzel, this is a necessary gift, and Murphy rocks it.  This trait is most visible in her villain song, “Mother Knows Best”, where she frames her blatant fearmongering and disrespect of Rapunzel as a mother’s love, complete with a darker reprise later.

The music in general is very good, though again, not Princess and the Frog good. Alan Menken is back, with Glenn Slater, a frequent partner of his, on lyrics. He’s good, but he’s no David Zippel, much less a Howard Ashman. Actually, my favorite musical piece in the film is lyricless, a number called “Kingdom Dance”, which accompanies Rapunzel and Flynn’s whirlwind tour through the city. It’s appropriately Ren-fair old-timey, but with wonderful folk-rock touches that make it fit the rest of the score. The song sung by Tambor and Garrett as the sensitive cutthroats is also a heck of a lot of fun. The only misstep is the stupid award-bait love song. I haven’t liked one of those since “Beauty and the Beast”.

Yeah, but don't worry about the freaking bookseller that has to clean that up. Jerks.

I referenced older films and films by other studios a lot in this, and that’s really the way I can’t help but look at it. I guess that’s the side effect of being the next-to-last movie I’m looking at here. This was Disney’s 50th animated movie, and the second of two attempts to recapture what they had done before. And I think I can say that though the Princess and the Frog was the superior movie, Tangled did “classic Disney” better, and was handsomely rewarded with the biggest box office receipts Disney had seen in a long, long time. This made what happened next… Just plain inexplicable. We’ve got one left folks, and it’s a good one.


* I barely mentioned the animation, which is quite good. It’s just good in a way that’s not too interesting to talk about. When Keane was signed on to direct, he wanted to develop a new form of CG animation inspired in part by paint-on-glass animation, that would give it the organic feel of traditional animation. In the end, they basically went the standard route. It looks good, though, and you can still feel the guiding hand of Keane and the other traditional animators. It basically looks like Beauty and the Beast with the scope of Bolt.

* Particularly good bits include a scene with tens of thousands of floating lanterns,  a scene with a bursting dam, and anything involving Rapunzel’s epic hair.

Epic glowing hair, no less.

* One result of the many, many, MANY changes to the classic fairy tale is that Rapunzel’s name no longer has any sort of explanation, and is now just a really weird name.

* You know, I suppose her parents named her something different before she was kidnapped? Huh. That’ll take some getting used to. I mean, they made a whole holiday in her honor, the kingdom probably knows her as, I don’t know, Princess Jessica or something.

* In early development, Rapunzel and Flynn were set to be played by Kristen Chenoweth and Dan Fogler. While they are fine performers, I hope the characters were extremely different then, because they would have been horrible for this script.

* It occurs to me that of all the fictional kingdoms I’ve seen in all of these fairy tale movies, this is the first one that has a flag.

* On the topic of the Dreamworks-ification of the advertising, the trailer actually contains several slapstick comedy scenes that aren’t in the final movie. This is not so much misleading as outright lying.

This is my favorite episode of Chuck ever.

No comments:

Post a Comment