Cut It Out
The pressure on Walt Disney Animation Studios has to be enormous. After enjoying decades of dominance in the animated feature field, despite inevitable peaks and valleys in the quality of their output, they've been challenged in recent years by Pixar and DreamWorks Animation. Despite first partnering in a distribution deal with Pixar before merging outright, Disney's name is not the one that springs to mind when people think of Woody, Nemo, or Mr. Incredible, and though DreamWorks' films have mostly been several levels below Pixar's in terms of quality, there's no denying the cultural impact of Shrek or the Kung-Fu Panda. The point is that Disney must feel besieged, set upon by newcomers that win audiences without thinking and wow critics every time out of the gate. There must be not merely pressure to produce a good film but an innate desire to conjure up the old magics from the studio's last modern renaissance, the 1989-1994 run that saw The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. I'm only speculating about that desire, but it's the only thing I can think of to explain Tangled, a well-intentioned but ultimately cold film that messily attempts to mash up moments from those earlier films while also mimicking the output from other studios that have had financial and artistic success in CG animation. The mostly forgettable songs are composed by Alan Menken, who also did Mermaid, Beast, and Aladdin, but here they feel like reheated copies of better songs he's already done. Similarly, not even the presence of animator Glen Keane can give the story a boost, and his once impressive character work comes across as half-hearted, drowning the soft beauty he brought to Ariel and the Beast in choppy, birdlike movements that feel cribbed from the scatter-brained output of DreamWorks. But worst of all, the story, songs, and characters feel ported over from Disney's modern golden age and assembled haphazardly in the hopes that something will feel familiar enough into tricking people into thinking they're seeing something good. Yet adults are bound to scoff at such shameless begging, and their children will eventually find out that the studio already plowed this ground 20 years ago. Tangled is a lame attempt to revive the past, when the only way to survive is to look to the future.
That's not to say that Disney's earlier films were narratively groundbreaking: they were based on fairy tales, after all, and even the loose reworkings hewed to a recognizable template. Yet Tangled never feels like its own film, merely a cut-and-paste job from earlier ones. Rapunzel (Mandy Moore), who looks vaguely like a Bratz doll, lives alone in a tower where she's kept by Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy), who stole the girl away from her royal parents when Rapunzel was only an infant. Gothel wants Rapunzel all to herself, since the girl has been blessed with the power of the sun and her hair, so long as it remains uncut, has the power to heal people. Rapunzel is understandably less than pleased with this arrangement, and manages to secure a brief prison break when Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi), a local thief, happens upon her tower after stealing the crown that's rightfully Rapunzel's and fleeing from royal guards. (If this all sounds a bit chunky, just imagine the ups and downs of seeing it played out on screen in all its flat expositional glory.) She hides his loot and promises to return it if he takes her on a three-day round trip to the kingdom to see the celebration of lanterns released into the air every year on Rapunzel's birthday, lanterns that she thinks are just a pleasing coincidence but that are actually symbolic lights ignited by the king and queen to show they're still looking for their daughter.
What has the potential to be a sweet and engaging road movie turns into a bland adventure that apes earlier Disney work at every turn, and shamelessly so. Flynn and Rapunzel share a love song in a canoe surrounded by floating lights as the camera tracks a lazy circle around them, recalling the "Kiss the Girl" sequence from Mermaid. At one point the duo come across a pub full of brawny warriors who sing of their own manly ways, a cute enough number that feels far too close to Beast's "Gaston." Flynn himself even skates sideways down a watery track with moves lifted from Aladdin and Tarzan. Mother Gothel's "Mother Knows Best" is the best number, a tightly written song that lets the older woman put her adopted daughter in her place, yet it bears an uncomfortable auditory resemblance to Mermaid's "Poor Unfortunate Souls." It's flat wrong to say that the presence of creators from those earlier films excuses such copying; if anything, big guns like these should be expected to come up with something bracing and new. Yet the major beats of the film do nothing but stir in the viewer a desire to see the movies that inspired them instead of sitting through this slippery retread. The only song that doesn't feel lifted is Rapunzel's "When Will My Life Begin?", and that's because the guitar and rhythm instantly date it as a circa 2010 pop song performed by Mandy Moore.
The animation doesn't fare much better. There's a cheesy quickness to the character movements, particularly Flynn and the horse he acquires, that trades grace for speed and power for hyperactivity. For some inexplicable reason, the film has also been released in 3-D, a process that turns the few beautiful moments into muddy blurs and cheapens the impact of every image. Why anyone thought it was worth it to offer a dim, ugly version of a brightly animated film is beyond me, but here's hoping this is the last Disney is dumb enough to dull an already weak product. For the voice cast, Levi and Moore are cute, if uninspired: Levi plays the role like a lighter Nathan Fillion, while Moore was cast mainly because she's got a decent singing range. Murphy's voice outclasses them both, though she's a two-time Tony winner, so it feels almost illegal to attempt to compare her to them. They bravely make the most of the situation, but no amount of fervent hoping can turn this film into a better or braver one. It lacks the courage of conviction that separated its better forerunners from the studio's pack, and rather than honestly commit to a story, it trucks in irony and derivatives. An original film would at least have had the distinction of being an interesting failure. This one's merely boring.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He's also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.