Five Torches (Out of Five)
Imagine an animated Disney movie about a girl who learns that it’s important to disobey the woman she believes is her mother.
And yet, that’s basically the plot of Disney’s latest animated movie, Tangled, a (wildly rewritten) retelling of the Rapunzel story.
Walt Disney himself was a notorious right-winger, and it’s hard for me to imagine that he’d be all that pleased to see his movie studio’s latest offering, a paean to defying authority.
But it’s an indication of the risks that the current company was willing to take to reclaim the mantle of industry leader in the movie animation business — a mantle they’d long since lost to their competitors Dreamworks and Pixar (which Disney has since purchased).
The risk paid off. Tangled is one of the best animated movies of all time.
Yes, I said it, and I think it’s true.
The movie’s brilliance is that it is simultaneously both classic and contemporary. The film is done in CGI, but it has an interesting look meant to resemble oil on canvas.
And it has a hummable, Broadway-ready score by master Disney composer Alan Menken (who helped spark the current animation renaissance with his work on The Little Mermaid and Beauty & the Beast), although the arrangements are looser than you’re used to in a Menken score, with plenty of acoustic guitars.
Mostly, though, the movie is smart and sophisticated with a script befitting a know-it-all ironic era, but one that also ultimately manages takes itself seriously, telling an old-fashioned morality tale.
Tangled tells the story of a princess with magic hair who is kidnapped by a woman seeking to stay young forever. To make sure she continues to have access to the magic, the woman locks the girl in a high tower and never lets her out. But when the girl becomes a teenager, she starts to rebel, eager to see the sights she can only glimpse from the window at the top of the tower.
Clever touches abound. When Rapunzel gets out of the tower for the first time, she has an existential crisis that is both hilarious and remarkable for a would-be kids’ movie. When Rapunzel has an encounter at a tavern called the Snuggly Bunny, the movie plays with our expectations twice, and ends up with an audacious musical number that plays with gender roles like nothing ever seen in a Disney movie.
And the movie’s complicated — er, tangled — central conflict between Rapunzel and her mother, Mother Gothel (gloriously played by Broadway actress Donna Murphy, creating one of the best Disney villains ever) is like every parent-teen stuggle: a battle of wills. But Mother Gothel doesn’t play fair. It’s not enough for her to trap Rapunzel in that tower: she also wants to destroy Rapunzel’s spirit — a chilling fact that requires her to be simultaneously very smart, very charming, and very, very evil. (My favorite line in the whole movie is when Mother Gothel says, with about a thousand layers of irony, “Oh, sure, now I’m the bad guy!”)
Disney wisely didn’t go the quippy, wise-cracking, pop-culture-reference-spouting route popularized by Dreamworks with Shrek. I can’t say they play it “straight” exactly, but the movie has an internal consistency, and a tone that probably won’t seem dated in five years.
Basically, the movie fits perfectly in the long tradition of Disney’s classic animated storytelling, and yet it also seems completely fresh and contemporary. There’s not a false note in it.
The phrase “instant classic” gets tossed around far, far too often these days. I even used it earlier this year on Toy Story 3 (which I still believe was an instant classic).
Who knew there’d be two instant classics in one year? Earlier, I thought Toy Story 3 was a shoe-in for the Best Animated Feature Oscar. I still think Toy Story 3 will win, because if Hollywood ever has to pick between a “girls’ movie” and a “guys’ movie,” they’re sure to pick the guys’ movie.
But personally, I’m not sure which movie I’d pick. They’re both just about as entertaining as movies, animated or otherwise, ever get.