REVIEW: Advances in Fairy-Tale Technology Finally Bring Rapunzel to Big Screen in Tangled
How do you solve a problem like Rapunzel? Cinematically, at least, she's one of the most neglected of the Grimm brothers' fairy-tale heroines; Disney-wise she's been positively snubbed. The story had great optics but not a lot of action, I suppose, though as a child who walked around in towel-fashioned headdresses to simulate the long hair my mother wouldn't let me have, Rapunzel's was the story I longed to thrill to on the big screen.
It's a couple of decades too late for me, but fairy-tale technology has finally advanced far enough to turn Rapunzel into a bona fide Disney brand. What a rout, though, that a girl can't get a little eponymy after all these years; the film has a title better suited to the next bitch-stole-my-man B-thriller: Tangled.
Skeptical of the original specs, writer Dan Fogelman (Cars) began by swapping the raw materials -- in this version Rapunzel is a princess, not a commoner, and the prince has been changed into a rogue -- and building out the narrative to suit the a la mode preference for princesses who can mix it up with the bad guys. Perhaps the biggest change -- and the source of several tweaked-out subtexts -- is that Rapunzel's golden river of hair is imbued with magical powers. When a certain, prayerful song is sung, it undulates and glows like lava -- or a really kick-ass lava lamp -- and has the capacity to heal the wounded, and make the old and unbelievably bitter young and credulously bitchy again.
A whirlwind setup establishes the provenance of this power -- something about a rare and precious flower -- and the agenda of one Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy), the old bag who hogs the flower until it is plucked to save the ailing queen, who passes its powers on to her newborn daughter. Gothel steals Rapunzel from her cradle and hoofs her off to a secluded tower, where she is raised as a happy helpmate who provides the best make-over service this side of Cinderella's fairy godmother. In her youthful state Gothel resembles a Berkeley diva: frizzy hair, long frocks, super-entitled demeanor. The dynamic between the two women -- we meet Rapunzel (voiced sweetly, no aftertaste, by Mandy Moore) as an 18-year-old, obliviously devoted to her "mother" -- is queer enough to make me wish it was queerer still. By reducing Mother Gothel to a vain woman who doesn't want immortality so much as she's determined to keep her profile taut, the film misses the chance to get seriously mythical, and as a result the narrative lacks dramatic impact.
Which is not to say there aren't plenty of neo-con homing signals built into the script like bricks in Bristol Palin's newly assembled abstinence wheelhouse. Flynn Ryder (Zachary Levi) is a rogue and a thief who discovers the tower after stealing a bejeweled crown that happens to belong to the disappeared princess. After he finds Rapunzel there, alone, she subdues him with a frying pan and strikes a deal: If he'll take her into the village for the floating lights festival, she'll give him back the crown -- you know, the precious gift whose worth she can't begin to understand. Just as Rapunzel is beginning to fall for her escort, the duo's picaresque journey through the forest is interrupted by Gothel and a couple of thugs. Some psycho-maternal jujitsu makes the theme clear: It's not love, Gothel warns Rapunzel, and he will drop you the second he gets what he wants. Just wait and see, my pretty!
Did I mention this is all in 3-D? Need I? Like the "crown," the effects themselves are a pretense; every once in a while a butterfly seems to have flown out of your nose and into a scene, but for the most part Tangled feels like another animated feature that puts a 3-D glasses-forged notch on that nose for no discernible reason, other than to boost ticket prices. If anything the transfer only darkens and dulls animation that features dazzling and agile work with light and expression; Rapunzel and one marvelously bothered horse in particular are given a nuanced fidelity and expressive agility so precise that it seems more human than human. There is no comparison, obviously, between real actors and figures with egg-sized eyes and lantern jaws, but there's something compelling in the perfection the animators are now capable of bringing to syncopated character work. A couple of the musical numbers are good fun, but in general the songs, by Alan Menken, are undistinguished, even from the dialogue from which they emerge. Too often the tunes sound more like conversation that has drifted into an affected, musical meter.
Lucky thing there's that virginity panic to keep mom on point. And yet in a climax that finds Rapunzel and Flynn battling Gothel for proprietorship of the fair one's golden gift, the question is implied: Who wants to be the Madonna when you can be Jesus? There's a sort of astonishing moment in which Rapunzel is tricked into sacrificing her hair -- it turns a mousy brown when cut, though she pulls off her choppy Meg Ryan number well -- and then a resurrection right out of the Book of John, by way of Snow White. "She was a princess worth waiting for," we are told, when order -- and that crown -- is restored. Aren't we all, sister. Aren't we all.