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Disney is, apparently, scared to death that potential viewers might think Tangled is a musical fairy tale about a princess. First, there was the change of the title from Rapunzel to the current, less-obviously girly alternative. Then there was the message sent to press in advance of interviews with Tangled's voice star Mandy Moore asserting clearly that the film was not 1) a musical; 2) a fairy tale; or 3) about a princess.
I mean, sure, last year's Disney holiday feature The Princess and the Frog under-performed, but you'd think that movie was Jack Abramoff for all the vehement assertions of no thematic connection whatsoever.
Here are the facts: Disney movies with princesses, fairy-tale roots and music have made the studio about a kazillion dollars, racked up awards and audience adoration for decades, and established a formula that just plain works. At times, Tangled does feel like a greatest-hits medley meticulously constructed from Disney princess successes over the years. But it's still charming, funny and deliciously entertaining.
We all know, of course, that Rapunzel was a long-haired girl who dwelled in a tower, separated from her birth parents until rescued by a prince. Tangled makes more than a few tweaks to the Brothers Grimm version. Here, Rapunzel (Moore) is a princess who, through complex means, acquired in utero the power once held by a magical plant to stave off death; now it's centered in her golden hair, and she'll lose that power if it's cut.
The woman who had benefited from that plant for centuries, Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy), kidnaps Rapunzel and raises her in that tower as her own, away from the world — until the eve of Rapunzel's 18th birthday, when a thief named Flynn (Zachary Levi) stumbles upon the hidden glade and is convinced to help her venture out for the first time.
Screenwriter Dan Fogelman effectively creates a metaphor for teen rebellion and over-protective parenting, with Moore getting a terrific sequence swinging back and forth between elated freedom and deeply ingrained guilt. There's nothing particularly groundbreaking about the character, but the filmmakers are savvy enough to provide an emotional hook upon which to hang a familiar Disney format.
The original songs by company stalwart Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater hit the four required elements of every Disney musical: the hero/heroine's "I want" song ("When Will My Life Begin?"); the villain song ("Mother Knows Best"); the show-stopping production number ("I've Got a Dream"); and the love song ("I See the Light"). And the comic relief comes in large part from a pair of anthropomorphized animals: a determined, Inspector Javert-like horse named Maximus, and Rapunzel's pet chameleon Pascal.
So why is something with such familiar components so praiseworthy? Because it simply nails those components. The songs are Broadway-catchy, all three central voice performances are terrific, and the comic relief proves genuinely amusing. Ever since Disney's Mermaid renaissance of the late 1980s, the studio has demonstrated with few exceptions that it understands how to integrate smart storytelling and family-friendly characters with fun and feeling. It's a shame that marketing worries appear to have inspired the studio to disavow an approach that brings so much cinematic pleasure.
But that doesn't mean we have to pretend Tangled isn't what it is. Say it with me now: It's a musical fairy tale about a princess. When we're all humming our way through the happily-ever-afterward of watching, those silly words really shouldn't matter.
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