One had to wonder – I certainly did – how Disney came to be telling a Rapunzel story. The original girl with the fantastically long and strong golden hair of folklore was no kind of royalty, after all, and it’s inescapable that Disney’s fortunes these days lie in all things pink-and-princessy.
It also seemed odd that, from all the early marketing efforts of the film – first from the title change of Rapunzel to Tangled, later from the trailers that appeared to want us to believe that this is, in fact, a tale about a thief named Flynn Rider, and not so much about a girl with fantastically long and strong golden hair – Disney didn’t actually seem all that interested in telling, you know, a Rapunzel story. What the heck was going on, and wasn’t it all going to be yet another Hollywood disaster?
I should have trusted, because the other thing Disney has in spades – besides pink princesses – is a capability to transform simple cartoons into cinematic magic. And so it is with Tangled, too. And of course I’m delighted, because I’d much rather be sniffling my way through a lovely, charming, hugely entertaining movie and trying to swallow down that enormous lump in my throat than sitting there in the dark with my arms angrily crossed and thinking about how best to spin my bitter disappointment.
I admit it did take a while for me to be won over. As the story opens, Rapunzel is prisoner in the traditional tall tower in the woods, being raised by a woman she believes is her mother, Gothel (voiced by Donna Murphy), but who actually kidnapped her from the royal palace when she was an infant, the better to make use of her magic blond hair, which has the power to heal and to make the old – such as Gothel – young again. I’m not spoiling: We learn all this right from the get-go, and these major changes from the classic story work delightfully well, lending a fresh sort of folklorish import. Kudos to screenwriter Dan Fogelman. But Rapunzel herself (voiced by Mandy Moore), just about to turn 18, is more than a bit obvious, singing her frankly insipid showtune about how she’s waiting for her life to begin, and paired with Mother Gothel’s unambiguous song-and-dance about how she knows best lacks the genuine, if underlying, menace it should have.
Anyway: The handsome and roguish sneak-thief Flynn Rider (voiced by Zachary Levi) climbs Rapunzel’s tower one day when mama is out, hiding from the faux-medieval equivalent of the local cops chasing him. Meet-cute ensues, and she convinces him to take her along for her first real foray into the outside world. And that’s when Tangled starts to soar. For a bit, it’s all the hilarious secondary characters who entertain so deliciously, from Rapunzel’s companion, a sly and clever little chameleon named Pascal, to Maximus the horse of the palace guard who won’t let up on pursuing Flynn (neither of the animal characters speak), to the ruffians in a roadside tavern who bust unexpectedly into heartfelt song, quite like something out of Monty Python. And then there are the animated sequences, created under the guidance of directors Nathan Greno and Byron Howard, that are spectacular in their ambition and in how lusciously they illustrate reality in ways that are both realistic and magical.
The power of the animation here to wrap visual gorgeousness and authentic emotion does, at last, come together in Rapunzel and Flynn, who start to open up into people of unexpected depth – some of which is explored in moments that are both weirdly funny and surprisingly moving. By the time their quest – the nature of the quest I will not spoil for you – reaches its conclusion, we’ve taken a deeply affecting journey that is both unusual in its nature and grounded in the authority of folklore, one that slowly matures to a poignance that snuck up on me. I didn’t realize I’d been so won over by Tangled till I was sobbing with joy at it.