Tangled, a loose adaptation of the Grimm’s fairy tale Rapunzel, was a significant milestone in the second Disney renaissance. Enchanted had been largely live-action and The Princess and the Frog a traditional hand-drawn animated film; this is the film that took the genre into the realm of modern computer animation. As such, its innovations were largely in the field of animation technique, figuring out a way to recapture the characteristic look of the first Disney renaissance with the new technology. As such, the overall look of the film emphasizes the 3-D quality of CGI animation much less than previous films in that style, and the characters have more realistic proportions and generally look more human than their counterparts in most of Pixar and Dreamworks’ movies.
Tangled came out at a time when Disney was still partly convinced that it needed to imitate Dreamworks to succeed, and as such there is a good bit more slapstick and influences drawn from the Shrek template than in such later films as Frozen and Moana. Still, this mostly made itself felt in the film’s often deliberately misleading marketing, and the overall feel of the film is more like a Disney Renaissance animated fantasy than a Shrek-style burlesque on fairy tales.
The thing that really stole the show, so to speak, in this movie was the voice acting, particularly Mandy Moore as Rapunzel and Donna Murphy as Mother Gothel. Moore is makes for an irresistibly spunky and spirited heroine, which does a lot to draw the audience into the action. She also sings with a wonderfully warm and characterful tone…she’s come a long way as a singer since those early albums of terrible Teen Pop that first made her famous.
Murphy gives a beautifully subtle and menacing performance that deliberately leaves much of the character’s motivation shrouded in ambiguity. She’s not the first Disney villain to operate primarily through manipulation rather than raw power, but she’s probably the first to ever seem convincing while she’s doing it, foreshadowing such later Disney villains as Prince Hans from Frozen.
Zachary Levi does a capable, if somewhat mannered, job as dashing thief Eugene, who goes by the moniker “Flynn Ryder” (we don’t find out his real name until well into the movie). The device of the bandit hero with two names representing his dual natures is straight out of Belasco’s The Girl of the Golden West, which was musicalized both as a Puccini opera and a Jeanette McDonald—Nelson Eddy film vehicle. I’m not sure why they chose to draw on this device, or even whether it was intentional (though I strongly suspect they were familiar with Belasco’s play through at least one of its musicalizations), but it works quite well here.
Alan Menken was already “back on top” by this point, having had two unqualified hits with Enchanted and the stage musical of Sister Act (even if one could debate how much that success was merited in the latter case). However, Tangled did play a major role in launching the massive career resurgence he is enjoying now. He earned it: this was one of his most melodic collections of songs in years at that point, and even his collaborator Glenn Slater, admittedly a notoriously uneven lyricist, does very fine work here. The endearing Wanting Song for Rapunzel, “When Will My Life Begin?”, Mother Gothel’s masterfully manipulative villain song “Mother Knows Best”, and “I Saw the Light” (an ecstatic love duet every bit the equal of “A Whole New World”) will no doubt be considered among the Disney auditory classics for generations to come.
The only real flaw in the movie is how simplistic the fallout between Rapunzel and Gothel is after the former finds out her “mother” was using her. Gothel may have kidnapped Rapunzel as a baby and be holding her for primarily selfish reasons, but she did raise the girl from infancy, and early in the movie the audience senses a genuine, if somewhat dysfunctional and twisted, love between them. After Rapunzel finds out the truth about her origins, all that goes out the window with startling suddenness, which seems at odds with what we saw of their relationship earlier in the film. If Tangled is ever adapted into a stage musical (which, given current trends, seems entirely possible), I hope this issue is given more examination and comes to a more satisfying resolution.