Despite its time-tested origins in the ever-fruitful Brothers Grimm storybook and the behemoth PR machine behind it (though that machine’s presence has been strangely low-key in the run-up to its release), Disney’s Tangled is the unlikeliest of success stories.
It comes from the previously groan-inducing makers of the instantly forgettable Bolt (directors Nathan Greno and Byron Howard) and from the fingers of Dan Fogelman, whose Cars for Pixar was lightweight and whose Fred Claus was downright execrable. Nothing in the team’s collective filmography suggests they were capable of what they produced in Tangled, a transcendentally magical fairy tale that bears a worthy resemblance to the classic Disney princess films of the studio’s best days.
It stars the voice of former poplet Mandy Moore as Rapunzel, whose famously lengthy mane is now imbued with sun-kissed magic – literally, her hair is magical because it was born from a drop of the sun – and the excellent vocal stylings Donna Murphy as Mother Gothel, who keeps Rapunzel locked tight in a confined, albeit nicely decorated tower prison, lest others rob Mother Gothel of Rapunzel’s youth-restoring hair power.
Chief among those seeking blondie are her royal parents, a seldom-seen king and queen from whom Mother Gothel stole Rapunzel when she was a baby. Every year on Rapunzel’s birthday, the kingdom sends up hundreds of sky lanterns as a beacon to their girl. Now that the girl is a teenager, she longs to seek out those lanterns and follow her destiny, but Mother Gothel will have none of it. She really does a number on Rapunzel, in the most modernly dysfunctional, hilariously effective passive-aggressive ways.
One day, a thief on the run, Flynn Ryder (Zachary Levi, Chuck’s Chuck), stumbles upon Rapunzel’s tower and sneaks into her room. He provides the means and persuasion to get Rapunzel out into the world. (An uproarious sequence involves her drawn-out indecision over leaving, alternating between guilty tears and exhilaration nearly simultaneously.) Only this means that now the pair are on the run from both Mother Gothel and Rapunzel’s own kingdom.
The journey is the thing in a setup like this, which is eerily reminiscent of DreamWorks’ excellent, supremely underrated The Road to El Dorado in both wit and the fluid animation, and Greno, Howard and Fogelman deliver at every turn. There are wild, imaginative action set pieces, comic relief in the form of a frog and an angry horse, keenly developed romance and, above all else, magic. Even the expected story beats – she discovers his rogue side, there’s a betrayal and a reunion, etc. – are handled with respect for the characters and with all eyes on forward momentum.
Yes, Tangled is in 3-D, but it’s delicately handled, only really cranking up when it’s absolutely necessary in one scene of breathtaking beauty: At a pivotal plot moment, Rapunzel and Flynn find themselves directly in the path of those sky lanterns and are able to pause and appreciate that the tender spectacle is meant for her. How the filmmakers paint the scene with grand emotion, technical wizardry and solemn wonderment is something of a cinematic miracle. The entire production is miraculous, in fact, and whereas last year’s The Princess and the Frog, while solid, felt forcibly placed in line with Disney royalty, Moore’s Rapunzel feels like she was there all along.