Wednesday, February 23, 2011


So, it's another princess story from Disney. And why not? It's sort of what they do, and (for the most part) they do it pretty well. Granted, it was a little less wearing when Uncle Walt was doing one every ten years or so, then during the '90s when they turned out five of 'em (Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan), but still, there's nothing like stalwart heroes rescuing damsels in distress—and it doesn't hurt that they're not entirely helpless.

And how does Tangled, their take on Rapunzel, hold up?

Glad you asked.

As it turns out, it's one of the best.

It's always tempting to embrace the newer over the older. This is why new films tend to hit IMDB's top 100 and bottom 250 all the time: There are always a bunch of kids whose repertoire is limited and who are just sure everything is just so extreme.

It's always tempting to embrace the newer over the older, that is, unless you're a film critic, in which you probably give weight to old stuff, and the less accessible the better.

The filmmakers are in their own conundrum, of course. They have the awareness of the film critic with an even more acute awareness that their jobs rest on appealing to the more excitable crowd, and that merely being good (like the previous year's The Princess and the Frog) or evengreat is no guarantee of success.

This can lead to paralysis, or over-caution, or desperation, or worst of all a bad movie.

Tangled is the story of a young princess who is born with magical hair. Her hair has the property of healing and restoring of youth. The latter power is particularly appealing to an aging old woman—who looks like she's had a few two many lifts and botoxes—who kidnaps the baby and takes her to a tall tower.

The catch is that if her hair is cut, it loses its power. And because it has such utility (serving to make the princess less helpless than she might traditionally be) the story has the old hag imprisoning the princess by pretending to be her mother and telling her the world outside is so dangerous, she would die if she set foot outside the tower.

This creates some amusing angst as the princess wants to leave but doesn't want to hurt her "mother".

The catalyst of the story is in the form of a roguish bandit who stumbles upon the tower by accident.

From there, it's a road picture.

What makes the narrative work is a tone right at the sweet spot, like Despicable Me. It's not square, like a traditional Disney princess pic, but it doesn't go into total hipsterism like Shrek.It's sort of a musical, but after the first couple of numbers, kind of gives it up in favor of moving the story quickly. Threats are presented, but then quickly defused with humor, making this suitable for the younger ones.

The animation is, fair to say, breathtaking. They took the traditional Disney look and managed to translate that to CGI (one of my dream jobs would be doing that sort of thing), such that along with the expectedly beautiful landscapes, the characters themselves have a kind of warmth and subtlety actors often don't achieve.

With advances in CGI, animation in kids' movies has been bumping up against the uncanny valley in kind of uncanny ways. For instance, in the (under-rated) Monsters vs. Aliens, Susan's oversized eyes look a little freaky given her otherwise realistic presentation. But here, again, Disney hits the sweet spot—perhaps because the characters themselves are very much modeled after traditional Disney characters, and shaded in a way that really invokes hand-drawn animation.

Whatever the reason: There's a distinct warmth to the final product that works.

And the voice actors seem to have been chosen less for their star power and more for their vocal talent. Mandy Moore, Zachary Levi and the exquisite Donna Murphy are not exactly, say, Amy Adams, James Marsden and Susan Sarandon—who were in this movie's putative prequel,Enchanted. Not taking away from the latter three talents, but it's nice to see a movie where the voice actors probably weren't being considered primarily their live-action drawing power.

It makes a huge difference. Consider the supporting cast: Ron Perlman, M.C. Gainey, Brad Garrett, Richard Kiel, Jeffrey Tambor and (comedian) Paul Tompkins. You'd recognize their faces, sure, but even in live-action, their voices tend to stand out.

I don't know, but it just seems like a lot of care went into this. I mean, obviously, nobody makesany animated feature and doesn't give a damn, but this one thrashed around at Disney for years (running up a reputed $260M cost) and they might have just kicked something out to save somebody's ass.

Instead, it's chock full of little touches that take it out of the Disney comfort zone unlike, say, the perfectly serviceable Princess and the Frog. For example, the hero is being pursued by the captain of the guard and his trusty horse—but the Captain gets knocked off his horse by an errant tree branch, and it turns out to be the horse who doggedly pursues the hero.

The movie's almost uneven, which has its perils, but I'm reminded (perhaps because of the horse) of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow", which juggles romance, scares and laughs with a similar light touch.

Thumbs up from both The Flower and The Barb. The Boy opted not to see this, but later regretted his decision.

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