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FILM REVIEW: Tangled by the Disney Animated Studios

Sunday, August 03, 2014

'Rapunzel', by Kevin Nichols

Many of you may not know I have spent the last few years working away steadfastly on a Doctor of Creative Arts. My novel Bitter Greens (a telling of the ‘Rapunzel’ fairy tale interwoven with the true life story of the woman who first wrote the tale) was written as the creative component of this doctorate. 

As my theoretical component, I also wrote a mythic biography of Rapunzel. I traced the story’s genealogy from its ancient mythological roots to contemporary reimaginings of the tale, including Disney’s recent animated musical fantasy Tangled.

I am always being asked what I think about Tangled, and so I thought I’d share some of my thinking with you all. 
Released on 24 November 2010, Tangled was Walt Disney Animation Studio’s 50th animated motion picture and their first to be shot in 3D. It cost the studio $260 million to create, making it the most expensive animated film ever to be made, but earned more than $590 million worldwide.  The studio promoted it with the tagline: ‘Tangled is the ultimate story of breaking free after being grounded for life.’ 

The story, the studio announced in its publicity material, ‘is based on the classic German fairy tale 'Rapunzel' by the Brothers Grimm.’ Most journalists added the adverb ‘loosely’. That is probably an understatement. There is little remaining of the original story except for a girl in a tower, a witch, and a whole lot of hair. 
The story is funny, light-hearted and visually rich. It features a girl who can use her magical hair as a lasso, and a wise-cracking thief as the hero. 

It seems clear to me that the screenwriter, Dan Fogelman, must have previously encountered the brilliantly witty graphic novel Rapunzel's Revenge, written by husband-and-wife team Dean and Shannon Hale, and illustrated by Nathan Hale (no relation). Shannon Hale certainly noticed the resemblances herself, tweeting in January 2011: ‘Just watched Tangled. Feeling slightly violated.’ (@haleshannon, twitter post, 9/1/11).


So what do I think about Tangled

I have to say that I think Disney Animation Studios adroitly sidestepped most of the key moral dilemmas in the tale. Their heroine is not a poor girl sold for a handful of lettuce, but a beloved princess kidnapped from her bed. The tower is not a prison, but a vast and luxurious palace. Most importantly, it is not difficult for Rapunzel to leave her tower – she can simply abseil her way out anytime she pleases, thanks to the magical properties of her glowing, golden hair. The only bar to her freedom is her duty to the woman she thinks is her mother. 

The film deliberately sets out to be light-hearted, fast-paced, and sentimental. It makes the occasional nod to its forebears, but always in as frivolous and amusing way as possible, as in the following dialogic exchange: 
Flynn Rider: Alright, blondie ... 
Rapunzel: Rapunzel.
Flynn Rider: Gesundheit!

The narrative purpose of the movie is not to recount Rapunzel’s escape from the tower – this occurs easily and joyously in a matter of seconds – but rather her journey towards the unmasking of her false mother and finding her true parents. 

Tangled has its moments of charm, despite its abandonment of many of the key motifemes of the plot, but the character of Mother Gothel is not one of them. She remains a cartoonish character, shallow and manipulative, with no moral ambiguity. As Mother Gothel says in Tangled, ‘You want me to be the bad guy? Fine, now I'm the bad guy.’

One consequence of changing Rapunzel from a surrendered child to a stolen child is the alteration of the whole power mechanics of the tale. It is no longer what Bottigheimer calls ‘a rise fairy tale’, but rather becomes ‘a restoration fairy tale’. The key difference, Bottigheimer explains in Fairy Tales: A New History is that in a restoration tale, the protagonist first loses, then - after a series of adventures and lessons - is returned to their proper social and economic status. However, in a ‘rise fairy tale’, the story begins with ‘a dirt-poor girl or boy who suffers the effects of grinding poverty and whose story continues with tests, tasks, and trials until magic brings about a marriage to royalty and a happy accession to great wealth’. The former upholds the socio-political status quo. The latter holds out the hope for social-political change. 

Jack Zipes said in an interview in 2013 that ‘the Disney promoters should have called the film Mangled because of the way it slaughtered and emptied the meaning of the Grimms’ and other ‘Rapunzel’ folk tales … The major conflict is between a pouting adolescent princess and a witch. The Disney films repeatedly tend to demonize older women and infantilize young women. Gone are any hints that ‘Rapunzel’ might reflect a deeper initiation ritual in which wise old women keep young girls in isolation to protect them’ (Interstitial Journal 2013, p3). 

Disney’s abandonment of the key motifemes of the ‘Rapunzel’ tale and its messages about growth, transformation, and the hard journey towards wisdom shows that there is no steady ‘evolution’ from conservative attitudes to less conservative ones with the passing of time. Each teller makes their own individual choices in what aspects of the tale are to be preserved or abandoned, and thus even a story as full of camouflaged mythic power as ‘Rapunzel’ has the potential to be drained of all meaning whatsoever.

That said, I did enjoy the movie and my daughter loved it. The character of Rapunzel is at least a little feistier than earlier Disney heroines, and the story was in turns funny, poignant, and romantic. I would have liked a greater sense of the horror of being locked away in a tower, and I certainly would have liked Rapunzel not to have been turned into a Disney princess but to have remained an ordinary girl in extraordinary circumstances. 

'Rapunzel, Forgotten' by Sarah Schloss

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