I knew I had this backed up somewhere. Pretend it's early January.
Disney's marketing campaign for "Tangled" has been so adamant that the film is not one of their typical "princess" films, that it came as a surprise to discover that was exactly what it was - an animated musical about a princess that follows the old Disney formula to the letter. You have the sheltered young girl yearning for for adventure, in this case Rapunzel (Mandy Moore), who has spent her whole life locked away in her famous tower. You have the witchy Gothel (Donna Murphy), who stole Rapunzel from her royal parents for her magical, youth-giving hair, and has become a manipulative surrogate mother. A thief named Flynn (Zachary Levi) breaks from formula slightly, as a dashing rogue who thinks Rapunzel's tower would make a great hiding spot while he's on the lam, but ends up getting more than he bargained for. And what Disney movie would be complete with out the cute animal sidekicks? Rapunzel has a pet chameleon, Pascal, and Flynn finds himself on the wrong side of an antagonistic horse named Maximus.
And the real surprise is that it works. All of it. "Tangled" does a great job of reminding us why the Disney formula was so successful and has endured for as long as it has. For the most part "Tangled" plays it straight, with very little cynical humor, no major stars lending their vocal talents, and not a pop culture reference in sight. And yet it doesn't feel out of date in the slightest. Instead, it's kind of a relief to find an animated film that knows how to get laughs with good characters, solid visual gags, and squash-and-stretch caricature. Even the songs are catchy, with the exception of a syrupy love ballad you'll hardly even notice, because it's paired with some absolutely jaw-dropping eye candy. The only major difference between "Tangled" and the Disney Renaissance films of the early 90s is the fact that "Tangled" is CGI animation, and some of the best I've ever seen. There's a wonderful painterly look to the backgrounds, and something about the floral motifs and the brightness of the colors that pings as ineffably Disney.
There was a lot of press about the studio making changes during production so the film would be more appealing to boys. The changes boil down to the character of Flynn, who narrates the film and shares the spotlight about equally with Rapunzel. He introduces a more worldly, cynical view on the fairy-tale romance, but not nearly to the degree of something like "Shrek." Eventually he has to soften up enough to become a romantic hero. Rapunzel herself is naive but no pushover, and a fun heroine to root for. Her yards and yards of golden hair are fully exploited for their comic potential, and her complicated relationship with Gothel introduces some real tensions of a kind we haven't seen in Disney films before. When Flynn convinces Rapunzel to leave the tower for a quick trip to the neighboring kingdom, she's estatic to be outside, but also wracked with guilt at the thought of deceiving her mother, resulting in severe teenage mood swings.
However, of all the characters, I think the villain of the piece is the most memorable. Gothel is a unique villain in the Disney universe, as there's evidence to suggest that she may really care about Rapunzel, and initially it's not clear how evil she really is. Gothel is bullying and critical, but in that way that mothers sometimes are as their children get older, and they become overprotective or scared of letting go. Donna Murphy, a Broadway vet, does a great job of playing up this ambiguity. Sure, she could be genuinely worried for Rapunzel when the girl sneaks off with a wanted thief, but then Gothel's the one who kidnapped her in the first place. Murphy also supplies Gothel with the sultry pipes for a showstopper of a villain song.
It's a relief to find that Disney resisted the temptation to turn out more CGI films following the Dreamworks model, like the disastrous "Chicken Little," and didn't recoil from fairy-tale romances after the underperformance of "The Princess and the Frog." There are some concession to a 21st century audience in "Tangled," in the form of more lively humor and action sequences, but they're done in very Disney style, and don't overwhelm the rest of the story. Instead, everything we loved and hated about the classic Disney films, from the Broadway-style musical numbers to the wide-eyed heroines to the heartfelt sentiment to the moments of heartbreak are all still here.