Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Movie Review: Tangled (2011)

Directed by Nathan Greno and Byron Howard. 2010.

I came kicking and screaming to the Wonderful World of Disney™. I had regarded Disney movies as fuzzy infantilizations of the traditional tales, but spurred by my wife and kids, movie-by-movie I was won over. All of a sudden I was the one sneaking the DVDs into the cart and declaring movie days to see the next feature.

Still by the time I sat down to watch Tangled I was still cocky enough—even after watching nearly all the landmark movies from Show White onward—to be certain I'd spotted a dud. How could it not be? It was CG, it was after the Disney Renaissance headed by The Little Mermaid and helmed by Ron Clements  & John Musker, and it was on the heels of the yet most brilliant, rich, and satisfying of them all: The Princess and the Frog. What could Tangled possibly be except the first step on the slippery slope of focus-group-tested CG crapola? It could, in fact, be perfect.

And it had me from the opening sequence, where we meet not the cliché of the youth pining away for a new life, but a flesh-and-blood girl, vigorously pushing against the limits of her small world in every way she can: reading every book, learning every skill, mastering every game, and perfecting every skill. Even up to covering the walls of her tower with a vibrant art that recreates the world beyond from the frustrated fragments she knows, half-remembers, and imagines, Rapunzel is a real girl yearning for the real world beyond her confines, and her opening solo, "When Will My Life Begin?" perfectly captures her predicament and eagerness.

Any young girl, and any parent, can see Rapunzel is ready for life and adventure and independence, that she has maxed out her stay at home and learned all she can there, but like the Disney heroines before her—Snow White, Cinderella, Ariel, Jasmine, Mulan, Tiana—she's taught and told to stay at home and accept her role and the life she's given. Taught by who is effectively her step-mother, we should add. Oh if only we parents, for all the kids movies we sit though, would more readily see ourselves as the villains we can be!

And Mother Gothel is quite the villain, a brilliant embellishment of the archetype of the devouring mother. She is no magic-wielding witch, though, just a centuries-old hag that kidnaps baby princess  Rapunzel so she can continue making exclusive use of a magic herb's youth-restoring powers, powers that were transferred to Rapunzel's hair when her mother consumed the herb to save her life.

Thus Gothel keeps Rapunzel safely tucked away in her tower, ignorant of her royal lineage. She also lets the princess' hair grow and grow without so much as a snip, for if it is cut its magic is lost. And so Mother Gothel's eternal youth comes at the cost of Rapunzel's eternal childhood and imprisonment. Not that Rapunzel is kept under lock-and-key per se. Mother Gothel keeps Rapunzel down, or up, by a rich variety of undermining, aspersions, and fear mongering that nurture the budding girl's need to be protected.

For example, by her golden tresses Rapunzel every day lifts dear mommy up the tower, for which filial devotion Mother Gothel first praises Rapunzel at length, only to follow with the complaint, couched in joke, that she takes too long. It's passive aggression so pitch-perfect it's painful to watch, and worse so because Rapunzel doesn't see it. Rapunzel just laughs because she has no idea of anything other than this vicious control. 

The most devious of Mother Gothel's cruel manipulations, however, is adding "I love you most" to Rapunzel's submissive devotional "I love you." The brilliant psychological insight of the exchange is that you can tell it's a little routine they do: Mother says I love you to prompt Rapunzel to say it, but after she says it Mother tops it. She's conditioning her daughter's submission and Rapunzel thinks the abuse is an affectionate routine. 

The routine is also a grand gesture from Mother Gothel, for in addition to playing mother, keeping 17-year-old Rapunzel dependent and wrapped up in maternal caretaking like a child, Gothel is playing God—the source of all good and the greatest love—to Rapunzel. And mothers are Godlike, but to infants, to whom mother is inconceivably large, omniscient, omnipotent, and the source of all things. To keep a growing child under this pretense of her mother is a terrible violence against her need to thrive, and Mother Gothel's sinister conceit bursts out in a brilliant show stopping solo, "Mother Knows Best," which has a savage irony worthy of Sondheim even if it sounds like Master of the House from Les Miserables.

And so Rapunzel waits, drawing her past and future on the walls of her tower: the suns that come to her in dreams and visions, and the lights that appear in the distant skies every year on her birthday. Little does she know the suns of her dreams are the blazon of Corona, whose people every year release lanterns to the sky to remember their lost princess on her birthday. They're the Call of the Unknown, and although they're not the end-in-themselves Rapunzel thinks, they're her dream and the path to her destiny. No wonder why Mother Gothel fears Rapunzel ever seeing what they truly are.

So while Mother Gothel denies Rapunzel's earnest, eager request to see the lights, mommy dearest offers to make Rapunzel's favorite food for her birthday instead. It's a cutting line for parents, for whom it's so tempting to steer kids towards familiar, safe things that are easy for us to manage, that make us feel good, or that we simply prefer, when what they need is adventure. 

It's been easy for Mother Gothel to keep Rapunzel under wraps with prevarication, though, until in frustration at Rapunzel's insistence she accidentally tells the truth that she'll never let Rapunzel go. Realizing her error, Mother Gothel follows with, "Great. Now I'm the bad guy." This is not only an ominous foreshadowing, but psychologically apt: casting herself as having been made the villain by Rapunzel's insistence is a challenge to Rapunzel to back down and assume guilt. 

But when Rapunzel realizes she's being led on and will never be allowed to leave, her guilt wilts and her pluck and wit take flight. She not only tricks Mother Gothel into leaving for a few days, but brokers a deal with the thief Flynn Ryder, who having just stolen the royal crown in a daring heist has wandered into Rapunzel's tower to take refuge. But if Flynn wants to get his loot back, he's going to need to take Rapunzel to see the lights. 

Rapunzel's sudden temerity is exhilarating and a little bit scary for us and her alike, and as the pair make their way through the woods Rapunzel is alternately giddy with her newfound liberty and racked with guilt at having deceived her mother. The scene is also a beautiful display of animation, with all of the variety of emotion that I love in Glenn Keane's characters. Maybe it doesn't come through as strongly in CG, but I know it when I see it.

Anyway Flynn is still hoping to get his riches and be on his way, so he sidetracks to a raucous pub in the hopes its surly felons will scare Rapunzel to give up and go home. So what follows is a heartfelt saloon-swinging paean to human flourishing and progress, right? Naturally! Packed with just enough zany gags and clever rhymes to keep it lighthearted, this is nonetheless a touching number in which the gaggle of unsightly goons of the bar confess their aspirations for a better, more beautiful life. The tune—not so far from She'll Be Comin' 'Round the Mountain—is so simple we feel invited to jump in too and join the motley family. When Rapunzel joins the chorus, though, she's taking her place on life's stage. She's learning she's not wrong to have dreams and to want to grow and see and be more. She's learning she's human, and her first introduction to this fact is not a group of people like her or the person she was taught to love, but people who at first blush seem pretty unlovable. 

The only person, in fact, who hasn't come 'round yet and who is pretty unlovable is Flynn, whose loveless dream of money and sandy beaches is so cold it draws the scorn of the femur-cracking ruffians of the Snuggly Duckling, who though they stick at no offenses are nonetheless joyful and vital. 

Beauty will soon tame the beast, though, and when Rapunzel reveals her powers to save and then heal Flynn—in a scene so tender and honest any romcom writer would be jealous—we find out some about the despondent orphan Eugene Fitzherbert, who as a desperate child picked the dashing persona Flynn Ryder out of character in a book. We see then two orphans but distinctly: starved Eugene blindly chose to be anything other than the lonely boy he was, but stifled Rapunzel never had a choice and was only what she was told to be.

Now they're both free to choose, though, and the footloose pair's furtive arrival in the kingdom quickly unleashes a torrent of emotion: the sight of Rapunzel twirling free with her tresses braided up garlands sets Eugene's sights on a liberating new dream, and the freedom to move sets Rapunzel's creativity ablaze. In a childlike effusion of creative joy the lost princess—home, though she doesn't yet know it—seizes the tune of the band and pulls the reluctant onlookers at the town center into a spontaneous circle dance. Round and round she pulls everyone skipping over the sun emblazoned on the stony floor as the rhythm leaps and bounds into a montage of a courtship more mature and real than that of any other Disney movie. 

It's an effusion of serious, sensuous romance as Eugene and Rapunzel dodge guards, exchange sweets, curl up with a book, and come so close to dancing together. Flynn's heart has passed from a friendly feeling toward a stranger, to a simple-but-genuine desire to bring about the good for her, to a love of her inner and outer beauty. And so the scene intensifies with abandon as the two grow closer and closer, growing freer as they fall in love. They leap higher and higher to the pounding rhythm and as the golden day blushes into dusk, the music reaches a feverish pitch of blaring brass and the two finally swing into each other's arms. 

It's worth adding, though, that Rapunzel's inner growth is not overtaken by romance: when she free-hands a blazing sun with a sprawling violet corona across the floor of the town center, her bare hands drenched in purple paint, she proudly wipes her brow and smiles to see her work exploded from the confines of her little tower. In maintaining this development alongside the romance, Tangled surpasses both the pure archetypal mold of the classic Disney movies, whose heroines (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty) are not characters at all, but types, and the Disney Renaissance heroines like Ariel and Belle, who are more differentiated but still not full dramatic characters. Only Meg and Tiana are so full-blooded as Rapunzel and all three are at once types (youths coming of age) and real, unique characters.

When the romance blooms, though, Disney fans might balk that the scene is a simple throwback to earlier movies. Yes, Rapunzel and Eugene's nighttime boat ride to see the lights is visually similar to Ariel and Eric's famous  "Kiss the Girl" scene in The Little Mermaid. And yes, it's musically similar to Aladdin and Jasmine's, "A Whole New World." But it's so much better than both for three reasons.

First, Rapunzel and Eugene know each other well at this point. Second, Rapunzel and Eugene have both completed their quest and the quest has brought them together. Third, they've also undergone their own personal changes of heart. Rapunzel has seen the lights, but found a new and better dream, and Eugene has seen his love for Rapunzel replace his rich and sandy retirement. In short, they're ready to fall in love without all the plot games and confusions we see when other characters who only partially know each other and themselves fall in love halfway through the movie and then limp along trying to figure it all out.

Best of all, though, is that Tangled builds on this clarity and gives us a genuine fourth act that doesn't merely prolong the sweethearts' nuptials but elevates and intertwines both the drama and the archetypal arch. 

When Mother Gothel reappears and dupes Eugene's old cronies into sending him up the river to get hanged for stealing the crown, she sets the stage for herself to play savior once more to Rapunzel, whom she summarily returns to the safety of her tower. Yet truth outs, and ultimately it is not the crown or the lights that triggers the denouement, but Eugene's love token—a handkerchief bearing the royal symbol of the sun—that sets the torrent of memories, the suns she's painted all her life, ablaze. And then the movie gets really dark.

Rapunzel steps out of her room, still in shock at the revelation, and mutters, "I'm the lost princess." Comfortable again in her old authority and thinking things have gone back to normal, Mother Gothel flexes her maternal muscles a bit and scolds Rapunzel for mumbling, just like old times. But Rapunzel has changed, and when she repeats herself she adds impertinently, "Did I stumble, mother?" I tell you in truth my jaw dropped when I first saw it. What a throw-down! It's such a bold move for Rapunzel, and any kid is going to see such declarative, scornful, disobedience as both thrilling and fraught with danger. 

But Tangled ratchets up that danger again when Mother Gothel goes to mollify Rapunzel's anger with a little maternal pat on the head and Rapunzel grabs her by the wrist. Then Mother Gothel, in foreshadowing of her vanity-driven fate, stumbles backward and breaks her mirror. Outraged at the thought of her now inevitable decrepitude, the gloves come off and Mother replies with darkest and most brilliant line from this or any Disney movie, "You want me to be the bad guy? Fine. Now I'm the bad guy." It's not so good because it portents danger, though, but because it's psychologically spot on.

Every parent wrestles with the growing tension of needing to nurture their children while setting limits on their behavior. It often feels like you have to choose between being kind and encouraging their independence. As they get older it feels like drawing a line is setting yourself up to be their villain. When they're teens and maintaining discipline risks the withdrawal of their kids' affection, parents are downright afraid. So when Mother Gothel says with such relish that she's ready to be the bad guy, we're genuinely scared. We feel for a moment, or we should, the danger of the child at the mercy of an adult whose passions, vices, fears, torments she can scarcely understand but who nonetheless holds virtually unlimited power over her. We don't know what the upper limit of Mother Gothel's pursuit of vanity is, if there is any at all.

We find out when Eugene, swiftly rescued in a light-hearted jailbreak perpetrated by the loyal ruffians of the Snuggly Duckling, shows up at Rapunzel's tower, is lured in, and is brutally shanked in the side by Mother Gothel. As if that's not graphic enough, Mother Gothel has Rapunzel gagged and chained in the tower. With the poor girl, who is now plainly Gothel's slave, struggling to get to her bleeding love, we feel the true stakes of Rapunzel and Eugene's story and of the archetype of coming into your own: life itself.

And with that the movie surpasses itself and twines together a perfect ending. Rapunzel willingly gives her life away, resigning herself to Gothel's servitude so she can save Eugene, who to his own death and to spare Rapunzel such a life, at last cuts free Rapunzel's golden locks with a shard of Gothel's mirror. And so the devouring mother by her own vanity shrivels up into her much overdue mortification and gasping at the sight of herself in the shattered mirror shrouds her desiccating, necrotizing face and stumbles shrieking out the window. It's graphic but as it should be, for there's something uniquely evil about an evil mother, that the one who protects and gives life ever should harm or take it. No one needs to learn that; it's in our bones and I tell you Mother Gothel's demise is the most satisfying and appropriate of all Disney villain deaths: what was day-by-day stolen from Rapunzel is suddenly and pitilessly paid back.

The finale is satisfying beyond justice, though, and I teared up myself a moment later when Rapunzel's tear brings Flynn back to life. It's so perfect because what devotion and life Mother Gothel had extracted from Rapunzel with lies and coercion, Rapunzel gives freely to Flynn who had given his love and sacrificed his life. What more is that this masterful finale of mutual sacrifice not only completes the love story and defeats the villain, but preserves to the very end and intertwines the independency of the characters' developments, for both Flynn and Rapunzel need to learn to love despite their loveless childhoods.

For the loner, that begins in trusting Rapunzel enough finally to drop the act of Flynn Ryder and to be Eugene Fitzherbert. He needs to have a faith in himself he's never had before and he needs to have a faith in Rapunzel he's never had in the world before. For the shut-in, learning to love begins in shunning what was formerly everything and everyone to her—a vain, manipulative mother—and having the faith to eschew that mother's familiar-but-shallow attention for Flynn's real, but incipient love. For both, love culminates in the embrace of sacrifice, the highest love, that leads to redemption.

Instead of succumbing to Mother Gothel's repeated attempts to drag her into cynicism, fear that Flynn will leave her and that she can only ever trust her mother, Rapunzel not only gives her love to Flynn but also sacrifices the new life that had just become possible rather than destroy him, and so is rewarded with that love and life back again. Moreover, for her virtue Rapunzel takes her place as princess, for although she always was a princess, technically, like Pinocchio and Hercules, she has to prove herself one by her virtue to truly be one. 

It's a parallelism and intertwining of character and archetype rarely equaled in adult dramas and matched in the Disney canon only by Hercules and The Princess in the Frog, but which are more powerful here because the story is simpler and the cast is smaller. In short, it's a masterpiece. An adult watching it comes out a bit younger, more on the side of youth, love, and freedom, and a child more trusting and spirited. You can't ask for more.