It's astonishing to think that Tangled is Disney's first traditional fairy tale since 1991's Beauty and the Beast. Who would have thought, when The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King were winning over critics and audiences alike that the tradition of hand-drawn animation was in its death throes and would be all but nonexistent a scant decade later? Of course, as it was in the waning days of other lost arts like silent film or radio theater, hand-drawn animation produced some of its most dazzling achievements near its end, even if they were often denigrated by puritanical critics on the left and right who foolishly chose to identify Disney films as the ultimate battlegrounds for discourses on race, sexuality, consumerism, and, I suppose in the case of Aladdin, American foreign policy.
Now comes Tangled. It's a CGI-animated film in the style of Pixar and DreamWorks Animation's productions, though Disney has said that they deliberately designed it to look like hand-drawn animation. This begs the question: Why didn't they just create a hand-drawn film? Disney's probably thankful they didn't, coming off the relative financial disappointment of The Princess and the Frog. That film's failure also shifted the marketing for Tangled, as Disney has tried to emphasize the action components of the film over the more girl-oriented fairy tale stuff.
Despite these compromises, Tangled is a remarkably sincere film. (No, sincerity did not die with the advent of Shrek.) Tangled is a faithful adaptation of the Rapunzel story—yes, of the girl with the epic hair—and, like Disney's films stretching from The Little Mermaid to Mulan, an allegory for growing up, for the ever difficult choice between staying in the place of comfort that is home and venturing forth into the world. For Rapunzel, kidnapped as a baby by an old crone who keeps her locked away in a tower so she can have easy access to her flowing hair and its healing and rejuvenating properties, the world has been demonized as evil and corrupt. An early song performed by Broadway diva Donna Murphy, "Mother Knows Best," calls to mind Frollo's lyrics in Disney's greatest achievement, The Hunchback of Notre Dame: "The world is cruel/the world is wicked/it's I alone whom you can trust in this whole city/I am your only friend…"
Like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Tangled's music is written by Disney veteran Alan Menken (with lyrics by Glenn Slater), and it does feel of a piece with his earlier work. There's an "I want!" ballad belted out by a doe-eyed girl, full of yearning; a villain's scenery-chewing showstopper; an oom-pah-pah saloon waltz. There's something progressive and forward-looking about Menken's body of work, unlike the wishy-washy nostalgia of Randy Newman or the other songwriters who've composed songs for, say, Pixar. For that matter, is there a female character in the Pixar canon developed enough, empowered enough, to sing an "I want!" ballad like "Part of Your World," "Belle," or "Just Around the River Bend"? (Actually, are there any meaningful female characters in Pixar at all? Let me know if you find one.) If a couple of Menken's songs feel less than soaring, it's due only to the limited pop-star vocals of Mandy Moore as Rapunzel. Believe me, when Broadway vet Murphy takes to scaling Menken's octave-climbing melodies like a vocal escalator, it's a different story.
As always, the computer animation here provides a photorealist sheen to the characters and landscapes that, oddly, makes it all look more artificial. Still, there are a few moments of otherworldly beauty, as when Rapunzel witnesses the release of hundreds of floating lanterns on her birthday. And Disney's use of 3D is particularly impressive. When Rapunzel finally leaves her tower, and, for the first time, feels the wind in her hair, the grass beneath her feet, the play of a cool, rushing brook on her outstretched hand, it's a moment of sensual awakening greatly enhanced by 3D's additional planes. This is what that moment in Avatar, when Sam Worthington's character finds that he can walk again should have felt like. By the way, Tangled is also the first CGI animated film to solve the problem of how to animate human hair, which is fitting considering that this is about, you know, Rapunzel.
Even if Tangled is not one of Disney's greatest achievements, it's at least a heartfelt rendering of a classic fairy tale, a deliberate rejection of the sarcastic, pop-culture-referencing smirkfests that constitute much of animation today. Take that, Shrek.