Reeling it in: Not your mother's wicked step-mother

Posted: Thursday, December 02, 2010


Ap Photo/Disney
Ap Photo/Disney
In this film publicity image released by Disney, Mother Gothel, voiced by Donna Murphy, left, and Rapunzel, voiced by Mandy Moore, are shown in a scene from the anmated film, "Tangled."

Walt Disney Animation Studios

1 hour, 40 minutes

After seeing trailers for this week's latest Disney princess adventure, "Tangled," I have to admit I wasn't all that enthused. "Tangled" is the story of Rapunzel, but the teaser ad shows our tough little heroine doing a lot more with her hair than just letting it down. It's flying this way and that, wrapping people up, knocking them off their feet.

I didn't really get it. Is the hair supposed to prehensile, or something? Is it alive? It just looked weird and forced, much of the same problem I had with the could've-been-really-cute "Ratatouille." Why does the chef kid in that movie move when the rat pulls his hair? That makes no sense, and don't give me the old "it's a cartoon with rats that talk and know how to cook, so what's the big deal" argument.

The big deal is that, even in a silly cartoon, you establish rules and you stick by them. You tell me at the outset that the rat can talk or the pig can fly or whatever, and that's fine. You don't just suddenly throw in a corollary to the rule saying that human beings can be controlled, puppet-like, via their hair. Are all people subject to this? If that's the case, why are the rats wasting their time cooking? Why not take over all of France? How about the world?

Anyway, that's a rant about "Ratatouille," not "Tangled," and in any case, my fears were allayed. The flying hair gag is a merely a small set piece, sparingly used, and makes at least a little sense in a larger story that, while cute and funny on the surface, is noteworthy for a surprisingly honest and modern look at the whole concept of the wicked step-mother archetype.

The story begins, as most of the "princess" genre do, with a magical wonder that is cruelly tainted by a devious crone. In this case, the magic is in the form of a beautiful and mystical flower that, when sung to, offers forth healing powers and eternal youth. Having discovered this miracle, the crone has, for hundreds of years, used the flower to keep herself in a perpetual state of youth and beauty.

She is thwarted, however, when the King, in an effort to save his wife, dying in childbirth, sends riders out to find and bring back the magical flower, which is boiled into a tea and administered to the Queen, who naturally makes a complete recovery. The child, named Rapunzel, is born with beautiful golden hair; hair, it turns out, that has same beneficial tendencies as did the flower before it. Stealing into the infant's nursery one night, the crone, Gothel, snatches the baby, stealing her away to a high tower where she can raise young Rapunzel as her own.

Flash-forward 18 or so years, and Rapunzel is -- surprising, considering she's been locked in a tower her entire life -- a beautiful, intelligent, vivacious young lady, ready to take on the world, if only someone would let her. Enter Flynn Rider, a roguish bandit who stumbles across the tower while on the lam after stealing the crown jewels. Girl meets boy, girl gets one over on boy, girl blackmails boy into taking girl on a road-trip to see the castle. Wackiness ensues. There's never any real question as to where this film is going, but it's a cute trip all the same.

What makes "Tangled" special is not the computer graphics, which are very good but not Pixar-worthy. Nor is it the 3-D which, seeing the film in good old fashioned 2-D, I found the obvious moments things would fly at the screen a little distracting.

What makes this movie different is the thoroughly updated relationship between Mother Gothel and Rapunzel. Gone is the age-old blatant wickedness of "Sleeping Beauty" or "Cinderella." Gothel is almost a real person -- not a good person, but real. She's selfish, but still wants Rapunzel to be happy, so long as Mother comes first. Rather than threats or violence, she uses tactics that generations of daughters can actually relate to. She employs guilt, she's passive aggressive, and her rare scary outbursts seem to surprise herself as much as her daughter.

Rapunzel, on the other hand, is no shrinking violet. She doesn't meekly sweep out the cinders -- she paints, she reads, she expresses herself -- and she experiences serious self-doubt and internal conflict. Sounds like a lot of teenagers I know.

Sure, as the story goes on and turns more into a typical chase film, the characterizations become more conventional, but I was struck by just how good both Mandy Moore, as Rapunzel, and Donna Murphy, as Mother Gothel, are in their roles. Certainly it's the writing, but, in the realm of Disney fantasy, this relationship seemed as real as any dysfunctional modern mother/daughter I've seen in a long while.

Zachary Levi, TV's "Chuck," is fine as Flynn, and there are some cute animals and clever cameos, but it's the two female leads who steal the show.

Grade: B+

"Tangled" is rated PG for some mild scares.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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