Walt Disney’s Century: Tangled

Determined to step into the 3D arena, Disney made a $260 million template

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Walt Disney’s Century: Tangled

This year, The Walt Disney Company turns 100 years old. For good or ill, no other company has been more influential in the history of film. Walt Disney’s Century is a monthly feature in which Ken Lowe revisits the landmark entries in Disney’s filmography to reflect on what they meant for the Mouse House—and how they changed cinema. You can read all the entries here.

I’ve written a lot over the years here at Paste about how animation is the truest form of movie magic, because it’s an actual illusion: Your brain is shown static images at so rapid a speed that your mind is fooled into thinking they are moving. To animate is to give life to the unliving, a fundamental theme in some of Disney’s most fondly remembered works. It’s instructive, then, that the times when Disney has gotten into a funk in the past have been revived when it pivoted back to animation.

Once-and-again Disney CEO Bob Iger reportedly approached Pixar after seeing a parade in which all the Disney floats were older characters, while all the newer ones were Pixar characters. So of course, the story goes, Iger entered negotiations to buy out these competitors, and did in 2006.

The relationship between the two companies is more complicated than can be gone into here in one article, but to the outside observer, the inescapable impression is that the acquisition has benefited Disney far more than it has Pixar, whose ratio of original to sequel films has stayed just on the right side of new stories in the years since. Pixar has, it must also be said, been dicked around with: Turning Red was an incredible film that feels as if it was shunted off to streaming only because it dared to portray teen girls as cringe and horny in a way that doesn’t end with them married, like in most Disney movies.

Disney, meanwhile, has had an incredible run of animated movies now that it has relegated 2D animation to the bins of history following its post-Renaissance slump: Frozen, Zootopia, Moana, Encanto.

Before all of them, though—and as I’ll argue, foundational to almost all of them—there was 2010’s Tangled, a movie that reportedly took $260 million and six whole years to make and is… okay.

From the marketing to the casting, Tangled is gloriously aughts: Mandy Moore and Zachary Levi step into the roles of Rapunzel and the “prince” of this telling, the rogue Flynn Rider (if that is his real name). Like the last time the studio dragged itself back from a slump, they turned to European folklore: This time The Brothers Grimm’s “Rapunzel,” with the usual liberties taken. What stands out here is the wink-wink-nudge-nudge of the tone: Levi’s character narrates the backstory in a snarky and genre-savvy way, and it smacks of a lack of confidence in the source material, as if they felt embarrassed at telling another story about a princess. It’s grating, since Disney’s best exposition is always its most earnest: Compare Tangled’s opening to Beauty and the Beast’s or The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s (incredibly dark) openings and tell me which is best.

It’s a frustrating decision, because Tangled mostly works otherwise: It manages to recast a story in which the eponymous character originally sits around waiting to be rescued and turns it into a feature-length story where she is trying to slip out from the toxic, abusive relationship she has with a mother figure (Donna Murphy’s Mother Gothel—honestly one of the most contemptible Disney villainesses in a while). Flynn is a ne’er-do-well with identity issues of his own (his real name is “Eugene”) and on the run from the law after having made off with a tiara from the kingdom that had its princess mysteriously kidnapped 18 years prior.

We know that the reason Mother Gothel made off with the girl is that she is magical—her hair holds some power of the sun that can heal and halt aging, a power Mother Gothel has been using to unnaturally prolong her life for hundreds of years and which she now leaches from the girl, whom she keeps locked in a tower with bullshit stories about the horrors of the outside world. All the choices here make sense, and the writers and animators understand why the choices make sense and reinforce them in ways that are not stupid. Gothel gets dusted vampire-style, a Disney villain death that belongs in the top 15 if not the top 10.

But Tangled feels rough because it looks like the team is working some of the kinks out in basically every aspect of production. The animation looks good because it’s sticking very closely to Disney’s original principles, more than 10 years on, even considering computer-generated animation ages somewhat worse than 2D ever has or ever will. The songs are pretty weak, which is honestly bizarre considering that Alan Menken wrote the music and score (though not the lyrics). Even that, I wonder about: One of the shakiest numbers is Mother Gothel’s villain song, which has a lot of sing-song talking in it, doesn’t work at all, and honestly looks staged like it was debuting off Broadway. You have to wonder if part of the 10-year roadmap was to have Julie Taymor direct a stage version. (I kid, but this might actually be happening.)

Tangled reviewed better than okay and doubled its budget just in North America, even after how exorbitantly much it cost to make. While it’s fondly remembered, it seems less an ongoing phenomenon, even as it is unquestionably the new template for Disney’s movie musicals—which, interestingly, are becoming fewer and further between. The formula is there in the handful of films about their princesses, though you’ll recognize some of it from before: A young woman in a stifling home life she yearns to go beyond, the male lead generally a dopey guy who is at best well-meaning and harmless, or at worst a real stinker. It even feels as if they decided Tangled’s villain worked so poorly that they should just write villains to be less important. The villains in this latest crop of princess movies certainly couldn’t go more than a couple rounds with Ursula or Scar—they may not even get an I’m A Bad Guy song, or they may not really be the real villain at all. Frozen II doesn’t really have a villain, just a crime that must be atoned for and a disaster that must be averted.

Tangled didn’t herald a decline of the Disney Princess—Frozen annihilated the box office—but it proved the limits of the form in the 21st century. Encanto, the latest big musical from the Mouse House’s animation division, doesn’t entirely tread new territory, but it felt substantially different, and the non- or not-really-musical stuff like Wreck-It Ralph, Raya and the Last Dragon, Big Hero 6 and Zootopia have all lighted out for different story structures entirely, most to pretty wide success.

But man, those princesses still make paper. It’s a formula that’s worked in one way or another for Disney since its very first feature-length film, and 100 years on from its founding, I wonder how long we’ll still be hearing songs that hum that same tune.

Kenneth Lowe walked with you once upon a dream. You can follow him on Twitter @IllusiveKen until it collapses, on Bluesky @illusiveken.bsky.social, and read more at his blog.

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