Old-fashioned storytelling barely prevails over sassy contempo attitude in “Tangled.” Updating its toon-princess line for the era of CG and 3D, the Disney team has infused this revisionist “Rapunzel” with the broad, catchphrase-ready humor that seems to dominate much of studio animation these days. But while its banter can be off-putting, the long-gestating fairy tale does demonstrate the sturdy narrative carpentry and musical pizzazz that have always been the studio’s stock-in-trade, boding well for its prospects with a primarily but not exclusively girl-centric audience. Ancillary biz looks healthy, especially if merchandising opportunities extend to hair products.
After last year’s “The Princess and the Frog” grossed an underwhelming $104 million domestically, Disney execs opted to change the title of the new film from “Rapunzel” to the more gender-neutral “Tangled.” If that suggests a vote of no confidence in traditional princess fare (imagine if “The Little Mermaid” had been called “Beached”), the hipper moniker does underscore the film’s odd, somewhat perplexing mix of sensibilities — pitched somewhere between Disney classicism and the self-conscious storybook quality of DreamWorks’ “Shrek” movies or, at best, Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods.”
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The script by Dan Fogelman (“Bolt,” “Cars”) kicks off with a sly, self-referencing narrator who tells the story of a good king and his pregnant, ailing queen, who is saved from certain death by a magical flower. The plant’s restorative properties are transferred to the queen’s infant daughter, Rapunzel, who is soon kidnapped by Mother Gothel (voiced by Donna Murphy), an evil crone bent on using the princess’ powers to remain eternally young and beautiful.
Mother Gothel raises Rapunzel as her own daughter, keeping her locked in a tower in the forest and never cutting the girl’s long, golden hair, the source of her extraordinary gift; as in the original Brothers Grimm yarn, the witch uses those surprisingly clean and manageable 70-foot tresses to gain entry to the tower each day. Clearly, not all blondes have more fun, and the teenage Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) is more than ready to escape her confines.
An opportunity presents itself when Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi), a handsome thief on the run, sneaks into the tower one day. Like any good post-feminist Disney heroine, Rapunzel defies the witch’s orders (expressed in the authoritarian anthem “Mother Knows Best”) and strikes a deal with the dashing fugitive, who agrees to be her guide to the outside world she’s always longed to see for herself. And see it she does, running afoul of a band of merry ruffians and, inevitably, Mother Gothel, who schemes to recapture Rapunzel and squelch her blossoming romance with Flynn.
The brainchild of veteran Disney animator Glen Keane, once slated to direct before helmers Byron Howard (“Bolt”) and Nathan Greno stepped in, “Tangled” is snappily paced and easy enough to get wrapped up in, propelled by a set of jaunty, serviceable songs from venerable composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater. If the film is hardly one for the pantheon, that’s because it seems more interested in tossing off one-liners than in tapping into its heroine’s deepest desires in the tradition of the best fairy tales.
It doesn’t help that Rapunzel has the bland, plastic beauty of a Barbie doll, and Moore’s spirited vocal turn lends her plenty of spunk but little in the way of personality. With Levi’s Flynn saddled with the clunkiest dialogue, it’s up to Murphy to steal the show in a full-throated diva role one can easily imagine Bernadette Peters knocking out of the park in some future stage version. And given the script’s abundant chatter, it was a shrewd decision to have the animal sidekicks (Rapunzel’s pet chameleon, an ill-tempered steed) express themselves without the benefit of speech.
“Tangled” becomes less grating and more emotionally attuned to its material as it goes on, remaining mostly faithful to the Grimm yarn with a few clever elaborations (the climax, though nowhere near as grisly, contains a splash of blood that merited a PG rating). The helmers really find their groove in a soaring sequence — in which Rapunzel and Flynn watch as hundreds of lanterns float in the sky above, glowing like so many toasting marshmallows — that’s as sincere as it is lovely to behold.
Such moments aside, there’s room for visual improvement, particularly a garish, unattractive underwater scene involving Rapunzel’s hair (which often resembles a very long coil of spaghetti, extra al dente). The dimming effect of the 3D eye-wear seemed especially detrimental at the screening attended, draining too much color and light from the image and causing skin tones to appear weirdly pixelated; the 3D engine is otherwise well deployed, bringing a crisp, vibrant definition to the film’s painterly forest landscapes.