Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Dan Fogelman, Nathan Greno, and Byron Howard, 2010

I have to take in a lot of media for work that I don't write up here because (a) sometimes it's confidential and (b) writing up the media I choose is enough of a time suck as it is. But this adaptation of the story of Rapunzel was so much better than I was expecting that it seemed to merit at least a quick shout-out.

First, let me quickly run through the elements that didn't work for me. A big part of the reason I was supposed to watch this was to see how the filmmakers dealt with the same situation that we were in on our project, viz., material that skews female and a large enough budget that the studio can't afford to appeal to only one sex and still make a profit. Tangled's answer is to intersperse "boy scenes" (a jewel thief on the run, a gang of thugs engaging in hijinks that are intended to be coarsely amusing, etc.) among the Rapunzel material. These are a chore to sit through. The romance doesn't really work either — the filmmakers provide Rapunzel with little reason to fall for the male lead other than the fact that he's the male lead. The songs are generally forgettable. The monarchical underpinnings of the story are offensive. But on to the good stuff, which can basically be summed up in one word:

Rapunzel! She's wonderful, and Tangled is a clinic in building an appealing heroine. How do the filmmakers do it? Let's see:

First, they start with a prologue that sets up the story, then jump ahead several years, raising the question of what she's going to look like now — and then she gets a big entrance, throwing open her window shutters, and she's really cute! Obviously this is about as surfacey a reason to like someone as you can get, but it's a great first impression and it came as a surprise to me because I'd never seen anyone cute in a CGI movie before. I knew that these films had moved beyond the early days when they stuck to toys and bugs and things because the filmmakers knew that they couldn't do people... but the people I'd seen in CGI movies since then had been grotesque or at least very cartoony. Rapunzel isn't exactly what you'd call photorealistic, but she's stylized in a different way from these other characters — I don't have a lot of reference points here, so the closest thing I can think of are the leaders in Civilization IV. (The landscapes also reminded me of Civ IV — I kept wanting to click on things and send in my Mechanized Infantry.) Though now that I think about it, I can come up with another comparison: it was almost like watching a movie about one of Elizabeth's Limhwa dolls come to life — and "life" is the word, for Rapunzel is wonderfully expressive. Would that some of my webcomic artists could do in one panel what these animators do for 24 frames every second.

Then we see what Rapunzel does in her tower all day, a litany of two dozen activities ranging from rockin' out to terrifying her pet chameleon with a giant papier-maché head. This sequence does a lot of things at once. Most obviously, it establishes Rapunzel's isolation. But it also shows that she's making the best of her situation and is interested in a lot of different things, which are appealing qualities. And as she is doing all these things in isolation, with no one to share them with but a non-threatening lizard, the fact that we are privy to them means that in a way she's sharing them with us — that by the end of the sequence we've spent a whole day playing with Rapunzel and she's our bff now. It also does two other things, both of which become very important:

One, it establishes how all these activities can be made easier (or, occasionally, harder) by having magical hair a hundred feet long. I loved the way Tangled handled Rapunzel's hair throughout: the way we see how managing it has become second nature to her, the way that she treats its healing powers not just as an asset but almost as a type of sacrament... and the way it comes into play as the plot develops is a model both for superhero writers who want to see how to deploy the hero's powers and for game designers who want to see how to build a puzzle. Make the hero or player character have to use the power's secondary characteristics to accomplish goals... use the character's supposed weaknesses as solutions... it's great stuff.

Two, it shows not just the wacky animal sidekick but Rapunzel herself taking a pratfall. I don't watch a lot of these kinds of movies, so I'll ask: has this ever been done before? I.e., has the girl ever been allowed to be funny? I guess I should say what I mean by funny here. One element of comedy is the writing, and yes, I was pretty impressed by how genuinely amusing the banter between the two leads was. I kept thinking that not only is this the kind of back-and-forth I would try to get into the script if I were working on a property like this, but it's probably not too far removed from what I would write even if it were my own project. But that's actually the easy part. Delivery is a lot harder  — and Mandy Moore's line readings are great! There are several lines that might well have lain flat on the page but which Moore turns into big laughs through intonation. But even she isn't the big star here — those would be the animators. Because Rapunzel has not only the great facial expressions I mentioned earlier but also great body language. The way she jumps when she gets startled, the way she tosses her frying pan around, the way she slips and falls... there's a set piece in which Rapunzel is trying to shove a guy she's knocked out into a closet that really is all about the way she moves (plus a few well-executed yelps from Mandy Moore) and it's a really fun piece of physical comedy. And they give that physical comedy to the girl!

Whether this in itself is a first or not, one of the things I was told when this was screened for me was that Tangled marked the first time that Disney had dared to depict a "neurotic" heroine. Though she calms down by the 35-minute mark, Rapunzel initially behaves in ways that are neither normal nor aspirational: she jumps at mild provocations, and even has another little montage in which she veers back and forth in amusingly bipolar fashion between ecstasy at her freedom and torrents of tears at having abandoned the woman she thinks is her mother... which, I was cautioned, was not the aspect we were trying to emulate on our project. I wondered why not, and was asked whether I seriously wanted to make our heroine neurotic. And I was like, not when you put it that way — but "neurotic" isn't the word I would use to describe Rapunzel's behavior. I would go with something more like "lovable."

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