Saturday 21 May 2011

On DVD: "Tangled"

Four years ago, Disney had one of their biggest (and most unexpected) live-action hits of recent years with Enchanted, a contemporary fairytale that - like rivals DreamWorks' animated Shrek features - threatened to do something subversive within a very familiar storybook framework. Enchanted arrived at a point when Disney's animated output had withered to practically naught; following the recruitment of Pixar chief John Lasseter, the company then churned out the OK-ish 3D effort Bolt and the very middling The Princess and the Frog, which suggested the Mouse House was now more interested in looking backwards than forward.

Tangled, their Rapunzel rewrite (and the company's fiftieth animated feature, a landmark announced with great fanfare in the opening credits), is itself a throwback to those Disney movies we all went to see in the days before silly 3D glasses, yet it's the first of the films produced under the Lasseter regime to have taken on some of the lessons gained from Enchanted about reconnecting with your core audience. The medium is the now-standard computer animation, complete with the textural novelty (in this instance, the heroine's lustrous, flowing hair) Pixar movies used to boast, but Tangled's essence is broadly traditional. It has a dashing, romantic anti-hero in the thief Flynn Rider, who gets lots of adventure business evading the authorities on horseback, and a self-improving heroine (voiced by Mandy Moore) who both talks with the animals and converses with her wicked-stepmother keeper (Donna Murphy) in the kind of showtunes that have re-entered our cultural discourse thanks to TV's Glee. (I'm guessing someone at the production meetings, presumably with a PhD in synergy, had an eye to turning this into a stage musical at some point in the very near future.)

In this, Tangled gets off to a good start with "When Will My Life Begin?", set to become an anthem for frustrated tweenies everywhere, and the very funny "Mother Knows Best" ("Skip the drama/Come to mama"), before tailing off into sub-Celine syrup. Still, the songs remain the film's best expression of character - in part because these aren't characters you'll likely remember after the next fifty Disney animations, or even after the next ten Disney animations, in the way we still do Dumbo or Baloo or the Seven Dwarfs. This Rapunzel is a fairer, softer, milder redraw of Shrek's ass-kicking Fiona - all hair, she actually looks like Mandy Moore, whether blonde or brunette, which doesn't help her claims for permanency. Flynn Rider has the name of a past screen rake - or a contemporary adult film star - but not very much of the potency. (It's entirely fitting he should eventually reveal his true name as being Eugene Fitzherbert: he very much has the potency of a Eugene Fitzherbert.)

Even Murphy's stepmother comes at the end of a long Disney tradition of vain, bony-fingered crones, with only a little more Broadway razzle-dazzle to distinguish herself from her predecessors. As Flynn's line "Sorry lady, I don't do backstory" suggests, Tangled is brisk enough to keep you watching, but also cursory and throwaway-seeming, designed merely to catch the eye before the next 3D product breaks on our screens: even the Chinese lanterns Rapunzel so badly wants to see, though beautiful, flicker and disperse as the film hares onto its next distraction. You could see it as illustrative of the way the industry has changed over the course of these fifty animations. When Uncle Walt first sketched Steamboat Willie, he was doing so for keeps and for fun; Tangled, by contrast, has necessarily to keep one eye on opening-weekend grosses and DVD residuals. To say a certain innocence has been lost scarcely covers it.

Tangled is available on DVD from Monday.

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