Being the 50th animated feature in the Mouse House's storied and unmatched run should be pressure enough. However, coming after the very good yet only partially satisfying The Princess and the Frog, the first film in Disney's revived and refocused animated unit under Pixar's John Lasseter, the expectations for Tangled were never going to be higher.
Would Tangled finally be the film that would recapture the magic that resulted in films like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King? Or would it would be a sign that maybe Disney, even under Lasseter, was a long way from its former glory days?
Featuring possibly Disney's most relatable Princess, one of the strongest cast of secondary Disney characters in years, and the studios most naunced villain, Tangled is definitely the former.
In this re-imaging of the classic German fairytale, Rapunzel's mother the queen, while pregnant with Rapunzel, falls deathly ill and only a legendary flower that grew from a drop of sunlight can save her. However, this same plant has been keeping the elderly Gothel eternally young. Unfortunately for Gothel, it's hard to hide even a single magical flower when an entire kingdom is searching for it.
Reduced to an elixer and given to the queen, the plant's powers are transfered to Rapunzel, resulting in a golden mane of hair that can never be cut lest she loses the ability to heal others forever. Unwilling to give up her own personal fountain of youth, Gothel kidnaps the baby Rapunzel, and as it is in the original fairytale, hides her in a tower. And for 17 years the child grows up believing that Gothel is her real mother.
On the verge of her 18th year, having never been outside, having never even set foot on terra firma, all Rapunzel wants to do is to see the strange, beautiful floating lights that appear in the sky every year on her birthday. Unbeknownst to Rapunzel, those lights are the kingdom mourning her disappearance.
But Mother Gothel, as she's now known, has convinced the young girl that the outside world is so dangerous, full of thugs with "sharp teeth" as Mother Gothel describes it, Rapunzel reluctantly resigns herself to a obeying her "Mother" and will remain in the tower. That is until the thief Flynn Rider appears.
With the strategic use of a frying pan and leveraging Flynn's overwhelming desire to get back the crown he's stolen, and Rapunzel has hidden, the young girl convinces the rogue to be her guide. He's to take her and Pascal, her pet chameleon, to see the lights with the goal of returning home long before Mother Gothel realizes she ever left.
From keeping Rapunzel dependent on her, to telling Rapunzel that she's getting chubby, Mother Gothel really is one bad mama. Channeling Mommie Dearest, her emotional manipulation of Rapunzel catapults Mother Gothel into the top 5 of all time cruel and truly evil Disney Villains.
When Rapunzel schizophrenically alternates between exhilaration at being outside for the first time and guilt for disobeying her mother, it's a humorous moment that even children from happy homes will recognize. Anyone who has broken a few of their parents rules to get just a little taste of freedom will flashback to the first time they made their own "escape".
As Rapunzel, Mandy Moore not only exudes quite a bit of vulnerability and strength, she creates a character that girls at six, twelve and eighteen will be able to identify with. A rare feat.
Although he's been upgraded to a full fledged spy for the past two seasons on NBC's Chuck, Zachery Levi isn't exactly the name that comes to mind when you use the word suave. If his Flynn Ryder is an indication of what he can do, than Levi seriously needs to consider finding a few more properties that allow him to better showcase his full range of leading man chops.
And Mother Gothel? Like Moore, Donna Murphy creates a character who not only could exist, she unfortunately does for too many. Murphy's rendering of Mother Gothel results in a vain, egotistical, self-absorbed woman. Yet you always sense she genuinely has some affection for the child she's been exploiting for her own means. Because of Murphy you understand how and why Rapunzel could be so conflicted. It's a shame that voice actors aren't nominated for Best Supporting Actress, because Murphy definitely deserves a nod.
Where Tangled really shines though, involves two characters who have no voice actors. Pascal and Maximus. Disney's secondary characters have always been one its strongest points over the last 70 years. They've left just as much of an impression on the movies they were in as the main characters, and at times, more so. Wisely, Pascal is used to punctuate jokes and isn't a joke himself, and as a foil for Flynn, Maximus, a palace guard horse who shares the same intense tenacity and sense of purpose Tommy Lee Jones's Marshall demonstrated in The Fugitive, adds a sense of fun that using a human wouldn't have.
If Tangled has a few faults it's largest would be the lackluster songs.
The strongest of Alan Menken and Glenn Slater's efforts is possibly Mother Knows Best. Beyond that, one would be hard pressed to pull out any memorable lyrics, or find many hum worthy passages. Fortuitously aiding them though, is some of the most expressive animation and well thought out comic staging you can bring to an animated feature. It's classic Disney that helps bring songs like When Will My Life Begin and I've Got a Dream, complete with dancing singing Thugs--although none seem to have sharp teeth, vividly alive.
One might be able to find a few more things to nitpick with. However, Tangled is most definitely a true return to form for a studio that has arguably created more classic animated films than any other studio on the planet...at least till Pixar releases it's own 50th animated film.