Disney Will Stop Making Princess Movies Because Boys Think They’re Icky
Walt Disney’s modernizing of the Grimm fairy tale is thorough enough that even the original title, “Rapunzel,” has been swapped for “Tangled.” One can’t help but wonder if in today’s Hollywood, we might look forward to other contempo fairy tales like “Heeled” (“Cinderella”), “Ambiened” (“Sleeping Beauty”) and “Twilight 5” (“Little Red Riding Hood”).
“Tangled,” which is in 3-D, gives ample opportunity to grimace at its blatant updating. Describing her situation (trapped for all her life in a tower), Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) explains herself like a Facebook page: “It’s complicated.”
Since the 1940s, Disney has toyed with the story of Rapunzel. “Tangled,” directed by “Bolt” helmer Byron Howard and Nathan Greno (head of story on “Bolt”), finally arrives as the much ballyhooed 50th animated feature from Disney, and the last animated fairy tale currently planned by the studio.
The Brothers Grimm have been very good to Disney over the years and returning to one of their tales has very much the feel of “go with what you know.” While “Tangled” is not in the league of Disney’s best, it’s still a sturdy, pleasant execution by the animation machine, retooled slightly for digital times.
The film is digitally animated (though with some hand-drawn aspects) and was one of the first projects led by Pixar chief John Lasseter once he became head of Disney animation. Thus “Tangled” is the first Pixar-ish Disney film, though it still contains all the familiar Disney hallmarks: song-and-dance numbers, amusing sidekicks and a frightfully cruel villain.
That villain is Mother Gothel (Broadway veteran Donna Murphy), who steals Rapunzel as a baby, locking her away in a remote tower where Rapunzel’s magical hair preserves her youth.
Rapunzel, with big green eyes and 70-feet of blonde hair, is turning 18 and her birthday wish is to see the kingdom’s annual floating lantern festival. Her only friend is Pascal, a loyal chameleon who doesn’t speak, but manages to convey himself with eye-rolls and changes of color.
At first, Mother Gothel acts as though she might take Rapunzel out into the world, but she quickly reneges, insisting Rapunzel isn’t ready yet. Darkly manipulative and passive-aggressive, she’s a classic villain and one of Disney’s best.
When Rapunzel is hurt after Mother Gothel tells her she won’t ever leave the tower, she sighs: “Oh, great. Now, I’m the bad guy.”
Instead of the prince of the Grimm fairy tale, we get Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi), a rogue on the run who seeks a hiding place in the tower. Though resistant at first, Rapunzel takes to him and let’s him lead her, for the first time, on to solid ground. Finally out of the tower, she’s wonderfully bipolar: a montage switches between her utter glee at freedom, and dramatic swoons of shame in disobeying who she thinks is her mother.
Rapunzel and Flynn set out on a journey that will include a tavern full of theatrical thugs, chase scenes and moments of budding romance. The screenplay by Dan Fogelman (“Bolt,” “Cars”) gets the tale out of the tower, bounding across cartoon woodlands.
Rapunzel takes it all in with the curiosity of a wide-eyed innocent. Gamely totting around her long trail of hair, she uses it inventively â€” like an Indiana Jones with a built-in whip.
Flynn is less memorable. He’s uncertain of himself, but he’s slowly pulled in by Rapunzel’s goodness. It is, of course, a predictable arc, but it’s managed without much feeling. Flynn is flip and rather obnoxious. When he tells Rapunzel, “Sorry blondie, I don’t do back story,” we think: She can do better.
His slacker nature works better when he, without much fanfare, tells Rapunzel that famous line, “Let down your hair” â€” the fairy tale equivalent of “Release the Kraken!”
Both Rapunzel and Flynn too much resemble Barbie and Ken, lacking both superficial and emotional individuality. Moore and Levi are flat. And we can’t help but wonder how Rapunzel’s lifetime locked-away didn’t produce a disorder or two.
The animation, overseen by Glen Keane (“Beauty and the Beast,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin”), reaches its apogee in a row boat scene, reminiscent of “Kiss the Girl” from “Mermaid.” Flynn and Rapunzel are surrounded by countless floating lanterns in the nighttime sky and reflected in the water.
The romance doesn’t match the visual splendor, but no matter: The lushness is enough. The 3-D â€” which is fine by current standards but generally dims the images â€” is best here, immersing the audience among the glowing orbs.
For the songs, Disney turned to another stalwart, Alan Menken, who composed the scores to “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Little Mermaid” and a number of the less memorable Disney movies of the `00s. There’s no hit here â€” “I See the Light,” “When Will My Life Begin?” â€” but the songs (with lyrics by Glenn Slater) get the job done, particularly Mother Gothel’s big number, “Mother Knows Best.”
For a story about shrugging off suffocating parental security, it’s a good lesson: Sometimes, Mother doesn’t know best.
“Tangled,” a Walt Disney Studios release, is rated PG for brief mild violence. Running time: 104 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G â€” General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG â€” Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 â€” Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R â€” Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 â€” No one under 17 admitted.
On Wednesday, Disney will be releasing “Tangled,” the studio’s 50th animated film. You might think that this would be cause for celebration, but from recent stories in the Los Angeles Times and New York Times, it appears that Disney Animation is in the midst of a major freak-out/reinvention. The main takeaway from these articles was that Pixar guru (and Disney Animation bigwig) John Lasseter is in the midst of reviving Disney’s slumping non-Pixar animation projects. Oh, and he’s done making movies about fairy tales and princesses.
“They may come back later because someone has a fresh take on it,” Lasseter’s Disney Animation co-chief Ed Catmull told the L.A. Times, “but we don’t have any other musicals or fairy tales lined up.” One reason is because the studio is fearful of alienating young boys, who supposedly won’t see something like last year’s “The Princess and the Frog.” The other reason, frighteningly, is that young girls consider themselves too cool to want to be princesses.
Media critic Dafna Lemish, who has written about the influence of film and television on children, said in the same article, “By the time they’re 5 or 6, [girls are] not interested in being princesses. They’re interested in being hot, in being cool. Clearly, they see this is what society values.” (That’s right: A girl born in 2005 already is worrying about how “hot” she is. Have fun with that, moms and dads of the world.)
So, if “Tangled” (based on the Rapunzel story) will be the last fairy tale/princess movie Disney makes for a while, what will the studio be working on instead? Next year we’ll get a new Winnie the Pooh film, and there’s talk of “Reboot Ralph,” supposedly about an old-school videogame character who has to contend with life in the Xbox era. In other words, get ready for a bunch of animated movies for boys.
This is what the animated-movie world is going to be like for some time to come: “How to Train Your Dragon” producer Bonnie Arnold was quoted in the L.A. Times article as saying, “You see elementary school kids standing in line to see ‘Iron Man’ or ‘Transformers.’ To be honest, that’s who we’re all competing with on some level.” Disney has gotten the message, completely reworking “Tangled” two years ago so that it contained more action — some chase sequences in the movie are inspired by the “Bourne” franchise — and featured a wise-cracking prince. (We haven’t seen the film yet, but we agree with The New York Times’ Brooks Barnes’ assessment that “Tangled” now sounds like a DreamWorks animated movie, even changing the name from “Rapunzel” so that boys wouldn’t stay away.)
Lasseter insists that these changes at Disney are all for the good and that people should give him and his team time to work their wonders. But still it’s hard not to be completely depressed by these developments. It’s not that we’re clamoring for a slew of new “princess movies,” but it seems like Disney Animation is now trying to chase trends rather than focusing on just making good movies.
This is doubly ironic since a commitment to quality and a fresh approach is what made Lasseter’s Pixar so fantastic in the first place: It wasn’t just the animation but the storytelling and heart that give their films their special aura. You would have hoped that Lasseter would have remembered those lessons when he moved over to Disney in 2006, especially now that classic-style Disney animated movies are a rarity in today’s climate. Sure, “The Princess and the Frog” wasn’t a great film, but what made it fun was that it didn’t feel like anything else out there right now: It was a good-old-fashioned animated musical without the pumped-up action-adventure stories that Pixar and DreamWorks do now. Frankly, we’re more ready for a new “Beauty and the Beast” than we are for yet another ultra-hip kids movie. The positive reviews thus far for “Tangled” suggest that it’s a decent middle ground between Disney’s past and future — we just hope Lasseter doesn’t let Disney’s legacy disappear completely into that mysterious vault where they keep all their old films.