The Disney Princess franchise trundles out a king's ransom of DVDs, dolls, tea sets, toddler-sized ball gowns and other froufrou products. Disney World even has a "Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique" to give little girls royal makeovers. Disney's female-themed, traditionally animated cartoon features, including Cinderella, Mulan and Beauty and the Beast, provide the foundation for the merchandising kingdom, yet may be deposed at the box office. Last year, The Princess and the Frog barely earned back its production budget, despite its lively New Orleans music and first African-American princess.
The studio makes some major cosmetic changes to its latest princess feature. Rather than risk alienating the boys in the audience, the studio changed the name from Rapunzel to Tangled. The marketing campaign emphasizes the swashbuckling antics of the wisecracking, larcenous love interest, Flynn Ryder, and scarcely mentions that Tangled is another musical. It's also Disney's first CGI princess movie, departing from the two-dimensional style that seems quaint by comparison. Tangled recounts a charming tale, but seems destined to be the forgotten kid sister to its cinematic siblings.
In an expansion of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, Tangled reveals how a witch-woman called Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy) kidnaps infant Rapunzel from her royal parents. Mother Gothel raises the imprisoned Rapunzel as her own daughter and uses her magic, life-restoring blonde hair to forestall old age. When long-locked Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) turns 18, she longs to leave the tower and discover the outside world, but Mother Gothel refuses to risk the loss of the magic. Murphy sings with plenty of dramatic force and sinister implication, but Mother Gothel never makes a very compelling or formidable villainess.
Rapunzel finds an unlikely savior in Flynn ("Chuck's" Zachary Levi), a cheerful thief who seeks refuge in Rapunzel's tower. After clobbering the intruder and bundling him into a wardrobe, Rapunzel makes a deal for Flynn to guide her to the big city and back before Mother Gothel notices her absence. As in any screwball romance, the mismatched twosome bicker and fall in love, but Mother Gothel and Flynn's former partners, the Stabbington Brothers, plot against them.
Tangled features music from longtime Disney composer Alan Menken, whose collaborations with late lyricist Howard Ashman on films such as The Little Mermaid delivered some of the most beloved musical numbers in movie history. Here, Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater craft bland ballads that sound like generic "American Idol" solos. The exception is "I've Got a Dream," in which a band of ruffians hilariously reveal their sensitive side while rhyming words like "bruises" and "oozes."
Most of Tangled's other jokes succeed brilliantly, particularly those involving Maximus, a white stallion who doesn't speak but becomes obsessed with capturing Flynn. For a horse, he's so hard-charging and macho, he resembles the bull from the old Bugs Bunny matador cartoon. At one point Maximus picks up a sword in his teeth and duels — that's how tough he is. Tangled director Byron Howard was a director and writer of 2008's Hollywood satire Bolt, which proved equally amusing but comparably inconsistent. Unfortunately Flynn, whose ironic banter could be described as "Shrek Lite," provides a clichéd romantic lead.
One suspects the Disney Princess films have a mandate to ensure the female characters serve as good role models, as opposed to passive ninnies like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. Having been raised to believe the outside world is dangerous, Rapunzel begins as nearly agoraphobic, but faces her fears when she leaves. The film includes a funny montage of her early mood swings as she alternates between delight at the outside world and guilt over disobeying her "mother." She's also a talented, intuitive visual artist, giving her some specific character traits beyond being a shut-in and providing some pretty set pieces.
Tangled inventively comes up with uses for Rapunzel's 50-foot hairdo, which provides whips, lassos and rope for daring escapes. Rather than simply imply that blondes have more fun, Rapunzel suggests her tresses serve as both blessing and curse by attracting admirers and exploiters alike. Plus, the upkeep's a bitch. The movie's ambivalence probably won't stop Disney Princess from marketing lines of combs, brushes and hair-based accessories, though.