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"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Tangled up & new

I saw Tangled this weekend, courtesy of the strong-arming of two friends of mine. Though I like Disney, and I'm crazy about Pixar, somehow I don't always do a good job of getting to the Disney animated films when they open (case in point: still have not seen Princess & the frog).

But I am glad I saw Tangled, especially since I very recently taught two pieces of Disney criticism to a class, and so had my Disney-critic brain finely tuned. A lot of people in the children's lit academic community are passionately opposed to Disney, for a variety of reasons (many of them pretty good reasons, too). I do not share this wholehearted opposition to Disney, though I am pretty much on board with the skepticism and disapproval of the "princess" films and attendant marketing, etc.

Tangled does the Rapunzel story with some nice twists. The original story, collected by the Grimms, is not particularly charming nor enlightened. It seems that Disney's collaboration with Pixar, and perhaps, response to criticism, has created a more serious effort at remedying the outdated princess formula.

We get the backstory in an opening sequence: the magic golden flower of the sun takes the place of the rapunzel-lettuce; the generic man & woman are replaced with the king and queen - but essentially, we get the gist. Gothel steals the baby to use the magical powers of her golden hair, which is how Gothel stays young (youthfulness and healing are its powers, incidentally). Rapunzel is raised in a tower in valley enclosed by cliffs and a waterfall.

But what Disney does is give this princess an actual personality, with some real psychology. We see Rapunzel going about her daily activities (accompanied by a forgettable song) - she bakes, cooks, reads books, sews, brushes her hair, looks out her window, dances - and paints. Rapunzel's paintings are one of the most charming effects in the film - soft washes done on the walls of her tower. They tend to imagine scenes featuring Rapunzel and her immense quantity of hair, but they have a very charming style, especially the van gogh-esqu central piece picturing the floating night lanterns released by the kingdom annually, in honor of the lost princess.

Gothel, the villain of the piece, is a masterful and terrifying piece of psychological abuse. She is sickeningly sweetly passive-aggressive, wearing down Rapunzel's natural curiosity, playing on her emotions, telling her she is getting "chubby," telling her she is too weak to handle the world outside. Gothel & Rapunzel have a truly disturbing dysfunctional psychology between them, and it's the most realistic thing in the film. It's scary. Gothel's big number is titled "Mother knows best," and its manipulative force makes it perhaps the most frightening villain song of them all (though Scar's nazi-esque "Be Prepared" in The Lion King is pretty creepy). This psychology is continued consistently throughout the film - we get a number of scenes of Rapunzel alternating between joy at freedom and weeping and wringing her hands in anxious self-loathing and self-reproach at leaving her poor mother.

Having just taught June Cummins' essay on Beauty and the Beast ("Romancing the Beast"), I was especially aware of Rapunzel's dream or motivation. Cummins points out, accurately, that Belle initially wants to travel, explore, see new places - but jettisons all of that for life in the castle which (oddly) creeps ever-closer to the village as the film progresses.
Rapunzel's dream, her one goal and desire for a large part of the film, is to go in person to see the night lanterns.
That's it.
That's her goal, and she sticks to it.

Enter Flinn Rider, our erstwhile Hero, who is a bad guy (more like an arrogant guy) at first but eventually, of course, softens into a sweet romantic hero.
I don't expect, in a huge and hugely mainstream movie, to see the heterosexual romance plot disappear. I'd LIKE to see that, but I don't expect it. I don't expect it in Tangled, in Love and other drugs, in any of those comic-book-movies. Feeling angry, disappointed or frustrated in the presence of this plot, in this kind of film, is truly counterproductive. The Disney princess films - and this one especially - operate as fairy-tale romantic comedies, and those follow a very set formula. Even the really great ones (Bringing Up Baby) follow the formula. We can criticize the heteronormativity of this love plot - and we should - but to react as if Disney is doing something unusual and/or unusually bad in continuing to follow this pattern is simply unfair and unrealistic.

But Rapunzel is - despite her creepy appearance, which is a cross of Precious Moments figurine and Bratz Baby doll - a truly spunky heroine. The movie isn't paying lip service to the spunky heroine, as I think it does in Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast. Rapunzel is in charge of her quest from minute one, when she clocks Flinn Rider with her cast-iron frying pan and locks him in her wardrobe. She keeps her hold on that frying pan for much of the movie, in fact. She bullies Flinn into guiding her to the city for the night lanterns, and emotional outbursts about her mother aside, keeps a pretty solid grip on things.
Look at this still: this is essentially a bondage scene, with a dominatrix. Rapunzel has the upper hand here, and not because she's captivatingly beautiful - it's because she's got some weapons (frying pan, and her hair, which she wields like a lasso, a rope, a whip), and she's got a whole lot of determination.
Even the moments of romance or sentimentality are cut with Rapunzel's almost-edgy sense of humor. In the Snuggly Duckling, the tavern to which Flinn guides her in an effort to get her to renounce her quest, the viking-esque thugs who threaten them all are disarmed when Rapunzel yells "Where is your HUMANITY? Don't you have a dream?"

The opportunity for treacly sentiment is huge, but the movie doesn't take it: Mandy Moore puts an edge in Rapunzel's voice, and she sounds more exasperated and impatient than saccharine. There's no soft focus here. The song that follows, sung by the thugs, reveals that all of them do in fact have dreams - and those dreams have a decidedly queer tone (one wants to do interior design, one wants to bake, one wants to be a concert pianist, another is a mime, and finally one is passionate about collecting tiny ceramic unicorns). But the number is staged as a kind of comic tavern-song, reminiscent of Gaston's big song in Beauty & the Beast (but much, much more positive and much, much more playful about gender norms). These same thugs reappear to aid Rapunzel and Flinn, and their arrival is signalled by the presence of a tiny ceramic unicorn placed strategically for Flinn to see.


Throughout the film, we see Rapunzel insist on her own dreams; we see Flinn agreeing to help, and then helping (but not taking over) along the way. Rapunzel rescues him more than once from various sticky situations - the Snuggly Duckling is just one of these - and it is only at the very end of the film that Flinn sacrifices his own life to rescue Rapunzel from Gothel.
The scene when Rapunzel realizes that she is the lost princess is done with psychological smartness; you do not feel like you're watching a Disney Princess soft-focus number. There are "camera tricks," which of course are animation tricks, there is horror registering in Rapunzel's (still disturbing) babyface. It's a moment with as much emotion as the scene of the Queen's transformation to the Witch in Snow White, a scene that was (and is) much heralded for its effectively. Rapunzel decides to confront Gothel with her new realization, and fight for her own life, her own self - unlike princesses of old, who usually attempt to flee when something goes kaput.


Visually, this movie is lovely - Rapunzel's hair is an absolute masterpiece of digital animation. The scenes with the night lanterns are beyond stunning - I want to live in that kingdom. I'm partial to floating lanterns anyway; ever since the millennial new year's celebrations and the glorious, gorgeous lanterns released from - Thailand? I think. But this is rendered beautifully, affectingly - it's the moment of Rapunzel getting her wish.


The movie also takes up what happens after your dream comes true, in a way that works really well. Flinn and Rapunzel discuss this more than once, coming to the conclusion that when you achieve your dream, you move on to a new dream. There are always more dreams to be had. It's uplifting in a matter-of-fact way.

This movie does not fix all of the problems with the romantic comedy and/or fairy-tale genre. It doesn't shatter fairy tales the way Angela Carter does in The Bloody Chamber. Like all romantic comedies, you know the outcome from the first moment you see the two main characters - you know before you get to the theater that Flinn and Rapunzel will live happily ever after. But Tangled does something different, for a Disney film: it gives us psychologically developed characters, with complications and personalities of their own. More than that, it places Rapunzel in the true center of the film - she is the sun around which the whole story orbits. It is her gravitational force directing this show, and none of the characters are allowed to forget it. Compared to Disney princess films of the past, this one has made some very big leaps forward. It isn't perfect, for sure; it's not a masterpiece of feminist rhetoric. But it creates a space in which that kind of progressive ideology can be glimpsed, and even achieved, in moments.

86 comments:

Jonathan Auxier said...

It's interesting hearing your response to the movie through a cultural criticism lens. As a writer, I spent most of the time looking at it like a mechanic might a new car -- trying to figure out how the different components fit together to tell a story.

I was struck by how much WORK the writer(s) had to do just to justify the initial premise of Rapunzel. They bent over backwards (giving her hair outer-space powers) to explain why some old lady would want to lock her up in the first place. And then more rules to explain why the witch can't just cut off her hair and let the baby go. And then more rules about how to trigger the hair's powers ...
This is pretty much all set up to answer one simple question: why would this old lady need to lock the girl up?

In the fairytale, none of this explanation was necessary. Who CARES why the witch wants the girl? It's interesting how the movie needs to add so much rationalization -- is that a reflection of modern sensibilities, or the unique realism-requirements of the medium?

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