Walt Disney has finally done it again and this time they’ve done it without the aid of Pixar (sort of). You have to go quite a ways back to find a Disney animated film hitting on all cylinders. Personally I enjoyed both Tarzan and Mulan, but not since 1994’s The Lion King has Disney made an animated film as entertaining, funny and musically inclined as Tangled. An understated villain, a dashing hero, no talking animals and most importantly, a heroine that doesn’t play the damsel in distress role as if she were incapable of accomplishing anything on her own, all make this film an absolute joy.
Perhaps it’s because Disney is returning to the world of the fairy tale, which made the animation house loved so many years ago, but whatever it is it worked as the studio’s fresh take on the Brothers Grimm’s “Rapunzel” feels just that… fresh. What’s most surprising about this is the fact the script was penned by Cars and Bolt screenwriter Dan Fogelman — one film considered by most to be Pixar’s least impressive and the other was a rather uninspired Disney CG-feature that fell well below studio expectations. However, Fogelman’s script for Tangled is inspired, some of which may be due to the involvement of Pixar’s chief creative officer John Lasseter (Toy Story) serving as executive producer, which probably makes my statement saying this film was made “without the aid of Pixar” a bit of a stretch. No problem, I’m willing to cut corners when doling out kudos.
The story centers on Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) who’s been locked away by the villainous Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy) in a tower for several years after being kidnapped from her parents when she was only a baby. Longing to venture outside, but frequently frightened into staying locked away, it isn’t until the wanted bandit Flynn Ryder (Zachary Levi) shows up that Rapunzel musters up the guts to strike a deal and have him escort her out of the tower. Thus the adventure begins featuring a pub filled with crooning thugs, exploding dams, beautiful animation and an overall self-awareness making this film endlessly entertaining.
Adding to the laughter, Rapunzel has a pet chameleon she’s named Pascal and Flynn ends up with a reluctant sidekick of his own in Maximus, the Captain of the Guard’s horse. Maximus hunts Flynn like a bloodhound and crosses blades with him like he’s one of the Three Musketeers, a scene in which the film and Flynn both recognize as “one of the weirdest things he’s ever done.” The animals in the film have personalities all their own, making use of techniques harkening back to the silent era, a time in film that may be dead on its own, but the techniques inspired by the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton still live on and keep audiences (that would never give silent black-and-whites a chance) laughing out loud.
Bolt co-director Byron Howard and Disney story artist Nathan Greno co-directed Tangled and bring a wonderful life to the animation and story. Of course, with films such as Bolt and The Princess and the Frog, animation has never been the issue, it’s been a matter of freshness and exuberance. Disney animated films have either been lacking, such as Princess and the Frog, or too interested in one-liners, such as Bolt, Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons. This time they got back to story-telling and simplicity. What’s more simple than watching Flynn and Maximus jump from rooftop to rooftop while a wide-eyed child looks on in silent awe? The scene I just described lands with perfect timing and the audience loved it. No need for dialogue or sound of any kind, just the imagery and the implied suspense and excitement with a touch of humor.
The voice cast is perfect as well. Levi and Murphy stand-out in particular as the charismatic Flynn and the evil villain Gothel respectively. Gothel is one of the most understated villains Disney has used in a long time. She harkens back to the wicked step mother idea in Cinderella rather than the spindly and sinister Dr. Facilier from Princess and the Frog. She proves it’s possible to be evil without all the theatrics. Gothel is one for the ages with a bit of darkly comedic timing and the overall greed and menace a villain needs to be disdained.
There wasn’t an aspect of Tangled I disliked and while it won’t have the chart-topping tunes Elton John supplied The Lion King, it certainly reminds me of a day where Disney was the studio you could count on to deliver at least one top quality animated film a year. Is this just a one-time thing for an animation house that seemed to be on the slide, or can we again count on them in the years to come? Disney has been lucky to be able to hitch themselves to the freight train that is Pixar, but it would be nice if they still had some steam left in their own engine.