Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Tangled: Misses by a hair

Tangled (2010) • View trailer for Tangled
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG, and quite unnecessarily, for cartoon violence
By Derrick Bang

Secretariat only won races. Maximus saves an entire movie.

Theatergoers will recognize that Tangled, Disney’s arch re-working of “Rapunzel,” suffers from a serious first act problem. The pacing is off, the characters are introduced somewhat haphazardly, and this animated musical’s first several songs – music by veteran hit-maker Alan Menken, lyrics by Glenn Slater – are rather underwhelming.
Flynn, accustomed to being in control of every situation, finds that he has his
hands full with Rapunzel and her impressively lifelike hair. And as if that
isn't enough to worry about, Flynn also must contend with Maximus, an
unusually intelligent horse, and an equally perceptive chameleon named Pascal.

Indeed, the early songs stop the show in the worst sense, as was the case with the weakest and most contrived movie musicals of the 1960s: the type where an otherwise dramatic scene pauses, the orchestra swells, and we all roll our eyes because we know some character is about to warble.

Then a fascinating thing happens in Tangled, right about the time our roguish good-bad-guy, Flynn Ryder (voiced by Zachary Levi, well recognized as TV’s Chuck), is pursued by the king’s guards after stealing a rather valuable – and plot-important – bauble from the palace. The Captain of the Guard (M.C. Gainey) leads the chase, astride a mighty white stallion named Maximus.

And within 15 seconds, the entire film turns around.

To say that this horse has more personality than any other three characters in this story would be an understatement. I know, from longtime experience, that different animators handle individual characters in a film of this sort; well, the team behind Maximus deserves an extra cookie after dinner for the next month.

Maximus is more dog than horse: ferociously intelligent, resourceful and shrewd; a master tracker, able to snuffle out any hidden sneak thief; and blessed with the split-second comic timing of Bugs Bunny, Wile E. Coyote and Aladdin’s blue genie.

Maximus introduces an energy that this film has been lacking, and the result is funny: It’s almost as if all the other characters in this bent fairy tale get jealous, and start to work harder. The music also picks up noticeably, with the next song – “I’ve Got a Dream,” a show-stopper in the truest Broadway tradition, sung by a motley crew of tavern thugs – bringing down the house.

Color me surprised, because I’d just about given up on this one.

A brief prologue outlines an intriguing back-story to explain the infant Rapunzel’s hair, which aside from its beauty possesses the magical power to heal and maintain one’s youth … indefinitely. The latter is prized by the evil Mother Gothel (Tony Award-winning stage and film actress Donna Murphy), who kidnaps the baby, locks her away in a distant tower, and “borrows” the girl’s hair at regular intervals, in order to retain her wicked beauty.

Rapunzel’s hair can’t be cut, lest its magical powers are destroyed; it therefore grows … and grows, and grows, until achieving a length of 70 feet (!) and an impressive level of control (much better than a prehensile tail!).

Years pass, during which Rapunzel – now voiced by Mandy Moore – becomes restless in her confinement. One day shy of her 18th birthday, as this film’s narrative proper begins, she hopes this will be the year that Mother Gothel allows her to leave the tower in order to learn more about the strange, beautiful lights that set the distant sky aglow once each year.

Rapunzel can’t know that these lights are luminaries set aloft on her birthday, by the grieving king and queen, and all the citizens of their kingdom.


Flynn and the vile Stabbington brothers (both voiced by Ron Perlman) have made off with the aforementioned bauble; Flynn betrays his comrades – a move destined to haunt him later – and makes good his escape. He accidentally stumbles upon Rapunzel’s tower, where he finds the young woman: both gorgeous and impressively skilled at self-defense with a frying pan. (Mother Gothel is conveniently away for a bit.)

Rapunzel and Flynn come to uneasy terms: She wants to see the mysterious lights in person; if he guides her to them, she’ll turn over the stolen bauble … which she has hidden while he was briefly unconscious (thank the aforementioned frying pan).

At the risk of succumbing to the obvious pun – out of the frying pan, into the fire – Rapunzel delightedly leaves the tower and luxuriates in the big, wide world. Cue all sorts of adventures, hair’s-breath escapes, interventions by Mother Gothel and the Stabbington brothers, and (happily!) numerous encounters with Maximus.

Although Tangled eventually builds up plenty of good will, thanks to its stronger second and third acts, Dan Fogelman’s screenplay too frequently feels like a pale shadow of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Indeed, some of Menken and Slater’s songs even echo tunes from that earlier classic; Rapunzel’s first tune, which details how she spends an average day in captivity, sounds – and is staged – very much like “Belle,” from Beauty and the Beast. Rapunzel even reads books, just as Belle did (albeit the same three books, repeatedly, since no others are available).

The aforementioned “thug song” takes place in a tavern setting very much like the song “Gaston,” in Beauty and the Beast, the difference being that these dastardly looking fellows actually have hearts of gold and “secret ambitions” (gotta love the warrior who dreams of being a mime). Both films begin with a narrated prologue, presented in a similar manner; both build to an almost identical climax, involving mortal peril for one of our heroes.

Fortunately, Tangled does have its own charms, starting with Maximus. Our heroine has her own little scene-stealer, as well: an adorable pet chameleon named Pascal, who adds well-placed comic emphasis to many scenes. Pascal’s color-changing talents also quite cleverly reflect the mood and tone of a given scene, sometimes subtly; directors Nathan Greno and Byron Howard wisely don’t overuse this little critter.

Moore delivers plenty of emotional oomph to her character, making Rapunzel a credibly rebellious teen with an itch to enter adulthood and experience True Love. Moore also has the vocal chops for her numerous songs; I only wish the lyrics gave her more to work with.

When it comes to singing, though, nobody can touch Murphy’s full-blooded delivery: no surprise, given the Tony Award-winning performance she gave as Anna, in the revival of The King and I. Again, though, Slater’s lyrics simply don’t give Murphy much to sink her teeth into, in her character’s ominous solo, “Mother Knows Best.”

Levi’s Flynn is suitably dashing, witty and debonair … and flummoxed when Rapunzel proves unimpressed by his charms. But as the icicles of mutual hostility and distrust thaw between these two, Levi also grants Flynn an unexpected measure of sensitivity.

This film does finally come alive as the story builds to its suspenseful conclusion, by which time you’ll be wholly invested in these characters. So I’ll call Tangled two-thirds of a very entertaining film; give it a chance to pick up steam, and you’ll eventually depart the theater with a smile.

And that’s a better outcome than we get from most things.

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