Having spent her whole life in a secluded tower, Rapunzel (voiced by Mandy Moore), a beautiful and spirited teenager with seventy feet of magical golden hair, is fascinated with strange stars she sees glowing in the night sky. What Rapunzel does not know is that she was kidnapped as a baby by Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy), the woman she thinks is her mother, who uses the magic in her hair to stay eternally young. Those stars are actually lanterns lit by Rapunzel’s real parents, a king and queen searching desperately for the stolen daughter who is forbidden to set foot outside. Until the day handsome but self-centred bandit, Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi), on the run from the king’s men led by wonder horse Maximus, stumbles into her tower. Rapunzel bribes Flynn into leading her into the outside world where danger, adventure and romance await.
Disney’s fiftieth animated feature film was at one point intended to feature an all-squirrel cast (?!) and had its title changed when studio executives worried another princess movie would alienate young boys. Nevertheless, Tangled is nothing less than a triumph for the House of Mouse. Seemingly taking their cue from the William Goldman-scripted modern classic The Princess Bride (1987), screenwriter Dan Fogelman and co-directors Nathan Greno and Byron Howard have concocted a delightfully witty plot that ingeniously updates Disney’s old-fashioned values and weds them with twenty-first century teen dilemmas.
Our freakishly follicled, fair heroine finds herself torn between the need to grow up and the fear that by making herself vulnerable she will hurt not only herself but those she loves. And interestingly, that includes her wicked stepmother. As in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), the villain is a bad mother who puts her selfish desires above the wellbeing of her daughter. Mother Gothel brings to mind those contemporary, passive aggressive parents who wreak psychological havoc with their children just to feel better about themselves, and the script wrings extra mileage by cleverly subverting the kind of arguments shared between real-life mothers and daughters (“You want me to be the bad guy? Then I’m the bad guy”).
The hand of executive producer John Lassetter is well evident throughout the film which is by turns action-packed, laugh-out-loud funny, romantic enough to enchant young girls but savvy enough to keep the banter flowing and savour real emotion rather than sappy sentiment. Composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glen Slater supply a score full of gleefully, intelligently silly so much better than the pop covers plaguing family film soundtracks since Shrek (2001). My personal favourite being the rough, tough bandits’ song about pursuing their secret dreams of being mime artists or concert pianists.
Brilliant character animation make Flynn and Rapunzel Disney’s most likeable fairytale couple in years, appealingly voiced by Zachary Levi, star of television spy spoof Chuck, and an especially ebullient Mandy Moore. Formerly Disney’s most underrated teen star, Moore finds the perfect role to showcase her singing and comedic skills in the adorable Rapunzel. Her up-and-down emotional state upon first leaving the tower is especially hilarious because it rings so true about teenage girls. In Rapunzel, Disney’s animators eclipse even Ariel in The Little Mermaid (1989) by drawing a heroine who is by turns bubbly and brave, intelligent yet awkward, vulnerable yet gutsy. She is the closest Disney has yet come to portraying a believable teenager beyond just a fairytale princess.
As usual, Tangled also includes its share of funny animal sidekicks who are all the more engaging because they forego obnoxious wisecracks in favour of smart, well observed, pantomime. Pascal the Chameleon does a neat line in exasperated facial expressions while, in an especially neat gag, Maximus the horse embodies all the dynamic qualities we usually associate with a human hero. He almost steals the movie. Meanwhile, sharp-eared viewers should listen out for the vocal talents of Ron Perlman, Jeffrey Tambor and one-time Bond villain, Richard Kiel as a hulking outlaw. The climax weaves in a lesson in female self-empowerment, but not in a heavy-handed way. It is a rare revisionist fairytale that respects its family audience.