Thursday, December 9, 2010

Getting TANGLED: A Look at Disney's Latest!


- Despite its slick, computer-generated animation and modern-sounding title, make no mistake: Tangled is a classic piece of Disney animation through and through. Although the company's mainline animated features have been overshadowed by those of Pixar in recent years, I think that after the double-whammy of The Princess and the Frog and now Tangled, it's safe to say that Disney animation is back. For all its modernized trappings, Tangled feels very much like an old-school Disney fairytale musical - in the tradition of Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. And what that means is that Tangled has a hefty dose of that old Disney magic. Hard to quantify, exactly, but it's there.

Tangled is, of course, a retelling of the classic Rapunzel story. In this version, Rapunzel (voiced by former teen pop princess Mandy Moore) is a long-lost daughter of royalty who was kidnapped as a baby by a youth-seeking witch - Mother Gothel (stupendously voiced by broadway actress Donna Murphy) - looking to harness the magical properties of Rapunzel's glowing golden locks. For years, Rapunzel is locked away in Gothel's tower, never allowed to venture out into the world. Now, she's an eighteen-year-old young woman, still locked away, but getting increasingly restless. Afterall, other than her controlling ans somewhat sinister "mother," she has no one to talk to except her pet chamelion (who happens to be a great source of comic relief). Enter the roguish Flynn Ryder (voiced by Zachary Levi, of CHUCK fame). Flynn, who seems to have modeled himself more than a little on his namesake Erol, is a thief who fancies himself a great adventurer. After stealing a crown from the royal castle, Flynn is on the run from the law, and from his duplicitous (and brutish) partners in crime, who tried their best to double-cross him. Flynn takes refuge in Rapunzel's tower, and together, the two seek escape and stumble into adventure - even if, in classic Disney fashion, it takes them a while to warm up to each other.

It's funny, because going into Tangled I was worried about the animation. From the previews, it was just hard to imagine that the movie could recapture the feel of classic Disney storytelling via CGI-rendering. Well, I was wrong. The animation in Tangled is absolutely phenomenal, some of the best CGI I've ever seen in film. It really did feel like a near-seamless melding of cutting-edge computer animation with the traditional Disney house style that characterized their 90's-era animation renaissance. I mean, man, the animation in Tangled is just bursting with style. So much CGI animation nowadays has a certain sort of simplistic, clean, uncluttered style to it. It's cool to finally see a 3D animated film that emulates the fluidity and dynamism and chaotic feeling of hand-drawn 2D. Also, rarely have CGI animated characters felt this expressive. The animation on the characters' facial expressions is probably the best I've ever seen in a movie of this sort - a clear throwback, in a way, to the expressiveness and almost eerily-human quality that characterized Disney's 2D animated features. In short, Tangled proves the naysayers wrong by very effectively transferring the uber-recognizable Disney animation style to 3D.

In addition, the direction of the movie is pretty breathtaking as well. If you think back to the sweeping camera work and thrilling action scenes in movies like Aladdin, that same sort of directorial prowess is on display here. Tangled has some action sequences that are just plain awesome - including a great chase sequence that is a real showstopper. There are a number of other sequences that are also just pure eye-candy, from a montage set in a crowded village to Rapunzel and Flynn's moonlit boat-ride. By the way, the use of 3D in Tangled was excellent - adding yet another dimension to the movie's eye-popping visuals.

Meanwhile, the voice acting in Tangled is also top-notch. It was funny to hear Zachary Levi, so distinctive as Chuck, sort of bring a variation on that theme to his animated alter ego of Flynn. But he does a great job with the material, and creates one of the more likable and personality-rich male Disney characters in a while. Mandy Moore also does a really nice job as Rapunzel. Again, she gives the character a ton of personality that makes her feel a little more endearingly quirky, and in turn a little more relatable and grounded, than your typical Disney princess. And man, Donna Murphy knocks it out of the park as Mother Gothel, at once snooty and scary. She also absolutely nails her big song, "Mother Knows Best," and helps make it one of the movie's big standout. Also, there are a number of fairly kickass character-actor types who provide some of the supporting role voices. Can you say Ron Perlman as one of the imposing thiefs out for revenge on Flynn? How about Lost and Justified's MC Gainey as the captain of the Royal Guard? Not to mention Jeffrey Tambor and Bradd Garrett as two of the comical thugs that Flynn and Rapunzel encounter on their travels.

As for the music ... I think that overall, the soundtrack to Tangled is not quite at the level of some of the other Disney classics. There just isn't the breadth of great musical numbers that you'd get in a Little Mermaid, Lion King, or Beauty and the Beast. That said, there are at least a couple of really great, memorable songs in Tangled. My favorite was, by far, the funny and oddly inspiring bar-room number "I've Got a Dream," in which all manner of brutes, thugs, and rogues sing about their big dreams and desires. It's a great, instant-classic tune. And as mentioned, Donna Murphy's rendition of "Mother Knows Best" is a great villain song - it's not so much scary as it is a chilling reminder of every overbearing parent out there in the world. Again though, those two are the highlights, but other than that, there wasn't a lot of music in the film that really stuck with me.

I guess my only other quibble is that Tangled never really gives us a great villain on par with other Disney favorites. Mother Gothel is sinister, sure, but she's more overbearing Jewish mother than epically evil (and it's funny, you can't help but wonder whether the whole movie is some sort of reflection of typical Jewish anxieties / hang-ups - I know, it sounds weird, but I got that vibe from the script - anyone else?). In any case, I kept expecting Gothel's controlling presence to be a mere warm-up before we got to a bigger, badder badguy of some sort, but no dice. It does kind of mesh with the movie's less epic, more personal style of fairy-tale, but still.

In the end though, Tangled really won me over. Like I said, it just seemed to possess that intangible quality that makes Disney animation so often feel a cut above the rest. The magic was back, no question. The movie looks amazing, and the voicework is great. Tangled - Disney's 50th animated feature - is, I think, a worthy addition to the Disney cannon.

My Grade: A-

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