Tangled posterWhen Walt Disney and his animators created Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, it was labelled “Walt’s Folly”. The idea that audiences would want to watch an entire feature length animated film was preposterous to pundits, yet its instant success led to the foundation of Walt Disney Studios and an empire that spans the cinema, television, theme parks and franchises worth billions of dollars. Over the past seven decades, the studios have produced some of the finest examples of animation in world, reaching dizzying heights in the early 1990s with a string of hits including The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast and of course, The Lion King. Now, over four decades since Walt shuffled off the mortal coil, Disney reaches its 50th animated feature with Tangled, a reworking of the Rapzunel tale.

When a single drop of sunlight hits the Earth, it creates a flower with magical powers. The elderly witch Gothel (Donna Murphy, Star Trek: Insurrection) witnesses this, and keeps the flower to herself to achieve a youthful immortality. However, when the Queen falls ill while pregnant, the kingdom searches for the flower to save her life. Despite Gothel’s best attempts to hide it, the flower is discovered and administered to the ailing monarch. However, the Queen’s newborn girl, Rapuzunel, is imbued with the power of the flower in her golden hair, and Gothel whisks her away so as to not lose her fountain of youth again. Keeping her in isolation and afraid of the outside world, with her hair growing to impossible lengths, Rapunzel (Mandy Moore, A Walk to Remember) yearns to see the outside world. She gets her chance when a dashing thief, Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi, TV’s Chuck) chances upon her tower and guides her through the kingdom. However, as Rapunzel experiences the wider world for the first time, Gothel is not willing to let her prize go.

After departing from the traditional animated musical after 2004’s disappointing Home on the Range, a string of non-musical computer generated films (Chicken Little, Meet the Robinsons, Bolt) followed. Easing their way back into the princess genre with the sublime The Princess and the Frog, Tangled is a conscious attempt at bringing the romantic musical comedy back in full force for a broad audience. In this quest, it succeeds on almost every level. On the surface, Disney seems to be answering the Dreamworks style of animated comedy, most notably the Shrek series, in which anachronistic objects are used in place of the more refined comedy routines of traditional animated features. Dan Fogelman’s (Bolt) screenplay and Alan Menken/Glenn Slater’s musical numbers are a joyful mix of all of those things that made Disney of old ‘classic’, along with some unique twists to update the formula for modern audiences. Indeed, the animation itself  – computer generated imagery based on oil painting on canvas – epitomises this attitude.

Despite a difficult journey to the cinema, including a title change from Rapunzel to Tangled (and Byron Howard and Nathan Greno replacing animator Glen Keane due to health reasons), the film feels simultaneously fresh and familiar. Disney has constructed a physical world that could have just as readily served as a backdrop to classics such as Sleeping Beauty, but populated it with such a terrific cast of characters that could only belong in this truly tangled world. There is the classic Disney witch character, single-minded in her goal of immortal beauty, but peeling off sadism and one-liners at a rate of knots. Flynn Rider has more in common with a character from The Princess Bride than a Prince Charming, and there is a horse that has some of the best comedic moments in the film without uttering a single line of dialogue. The familiarity and old-fashioned shop-front may give older viewers clues to where this is all headed, but this simply makes the journey – filled with over-the-top action sequences, comedy and bright songs – all the easier to sit back and enjoy.

Tangled is truly a new Disney classic, and it wouldn’t be one without a great new set of musical numbers. The songs, while not as instantly memorable as some of the previous Disney Oscar-winners, still manage to push the story along in a fun fashion but are used sparingly. “Mother Knows Best”, the repeated refrain of the wicked Gothel, is one of the creepiest tracks Disney has created to date, and while “When Will My Life Begin” is no “Part of Your World” (the aspirational song from The Little Mermaid), it is soulfully sung by singer/actress Mandy Moore. Similarly, “I See the Light” recalls Menken’s own “A Whole New World” from Aladdin, and while never really exceeding it, provides a beautifully romantic moment in the film, surrounded by floating lights on a lake. The real highlight is a rousing  barroom song “I Have a Dream”, in which a group of tough warriors profess their dreams of everything from becoming a concert pianist to finding true love.

A family friendly film that doesn’t overly cater to kids or adults, Tangled has found the perfect balance between the two. An off-beat sense of humour, some terrific set-piece action sequences (not least of which is the water-based chase smack-bang in the centre of the film) and a cast of genuinely likeable characters, the beautiful animation instantly recalls the hand-painted beauty of old while using all the depth that new digital 3D has to offer. Tangled is not so much a return to form for Disney animation, as that honour still goes to The Princess and the Frog, but is rather a stake planted in the ground declaring that they are still the kings of the animated musical comedy, and anybody who wants to try and climb the tower is welcome to try.

Tangled is released by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Australia on 6 January 2011.

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