In a recent L.A. Times article, Walt Disney/Pixar Animation Studios president Ed Catmull confirmed that Tangled—Disney’s 50th animated feature—is the studio’s last fairy tale for the foreseeable future. The media is billing it as the end of an era bookended by the studio’s first animated feature, Snow White, and filled with many other conceptually similar musical retellings of traditional tales, all centering on a princess, a romantic interest, and an adventure that leads them to love. But in spite of its pedigree, Tangled doesn’t come across as a traditional Disney film, certainly not in the spirit of 2009’s conscious old-school throwback The Princess And The Frog. It’s a rambunctious, modern story full of chases, smart banter, big emotions, and palpable darkness. It feels like a Pixar product—no great wonder, since Catmull and Disney/Pixar creative director John Lasseter restarted the film almost from scratch in 2008, to fit their proven sensibilities. The only hints of old Disney come in the tropes, the striking Alan Menken-composed songs, and some noticeable borrowing from past hits.
Pop star Mandy Moore voices Rapunzel, the long-haired girl trapped in the familiar tower. But in this retelling, her overprotective mother (magnificently voiced by Tony-winning Broadway star Donna Murphy) has a new set of motivations: Rapunzel’s hair has magical properties, which Murphy’s character jealously guards by manipulating Rapunzel into a state of confused, frightened dependence. Nonetheless, like so many Disney heroines past, Rapunzel wants to see the great outside world—really, to escape mom and come of age—so she sneaks off, enlisting the help of a smug, rakish thief (voiced by Chuck star Zachary Levi) to escort and protect her on her journey. The story should be a standard mismatched-couple-falls-in-love tale, but the script (by Bolt co-writer Dan Fogelman) and the sprightly directing (by Bolt’s co-director Byron Howard and its story head Nathan Greno) give the story plenty of snap and humor, and the animation is so luminously beautiful that even a falling-in-love sequence cribbed in part from The Little Mermaid is overwhelmingly magical.
Even the 3-D is exceptional, a rarity in an increasingly crowded 3-D field. The characters appear rounded, shadowed, and clearly removed from the backgrounds; in 3-D, they almost pop off the screen, giving every frame a startling depth. But as with Pixar features, the impressive draw of the animation still comes second to winning, nuanced characters and to well-developed characters and relationships. Everything here is a too-familiar Disney formula, but one done right. If it does turn out to be Disney’s last fairy-tale film (though if this one makes money, there’s no reason to believe the studio won’t eventually return to the formula that made its name), it’s certainly a respectable coda.