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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Years before<i> </i>Elsa and Anna, <i>Tangled </i>reinvigorated the Disney princess tradition

Years before Elsa and Anna, Tangled reinvigorated the Disney princess tradition

Graphic: Libby McGuire, Screenshot: Walt Disney Pictures

Ten years ago, Walt Disney Animation was in crisis. The studio had lost its identity in the years since its 1990s renaissance, churning out generic computer-animated fare like Chicken Little and Meet The Robinsons. The hand-drawn Princess And The Frog was meant to serve as a glorious return to form, but it underperformed at the box office. Even worse, the company’s hopes now lay with another princess film at a time when internal marketing suggested that anything with a “girly” title lacked four-quadrant appeal. So in a desperate Hail Mary play, Disney changed the title from Rapunzel to Tangled and released a trailer that highlighted the male love interest and made the movie seem like an action comedy rather than a romantic musical. Instead of tying its 50th animated feature to a storied legacy dating back to Snow White, Disney did everything it could to distance Tangled from the studio’s princess past.

Given what we now know about the massive cultural behemoth that is Frozen, it’s funny to think that Disney ever doubted the power of its princess line. And rewatching Tangled, it’s silly that the company ever doubted the strength of the movie itself. Though it’s been somewhat overshadowed by the legacies of Frozen and Moana, Tangled is a true gem of Disney animation—a quirky, original film that lightly upends princess traditions while embracing the best of what the genre can do. It swings gracefully from laugh-out-loud comedy to deeply moving pathos and back again. And it balances its charming romantic comedy aims with a surprisingly nuanced look at the difficulties of escaping an emotionally abusive parental relationship.

Versions of Tangled had been in the works since the mid 1990s, when character animator Glen Keane—the man who’d helped create Ariel, the Beast, and Aladdin—started thinking about Rapunzel as a potential project to direct. He got the green light in the early 2000s, right around the time Disney Animation decided to throw out its hand-drawn tradition and switch to the computer-animated style popularized by Pixar and DreamWorks. Disney was desperately playing catch-up with its competitors, and studio execs reworked Keane’s original idea into an irreverent Shrek-like comedy called Rapunzel Unbraided.

Keane wasn’t thrilled with the change or with the idea of working in CG. As he half-jokingly told the computer animation department, “You guys work so hard just to come up with something that looks bad!” But after a little experimentation, Keane became excited about the potential to revolutionize computer animation, to make it look less stiff and plastic. Keane had spent his early days at Disney under the tutelage of the famed “Nine Old Men,” the original animators who had shaped the studio’s aesthetic. He thought there might be a way to blend the softer, more romantic look of traditional hand-drawn animation with the CG format, to create a “best of both worlds” hybrid.

It was no small task. It took six years of software development just to figure out how to make the 140,000 individual strands of Rapunzel’s hair behave believably across all sorts of different environments. (At one point, animators attached 70 feet of fishing line to a football helmet and wandered the halls to see how it moved.) In addition to “solving artistic problems with mathematics,” Keane also emphasized the importance of “golden poses”: moments that capture a character’s essence in just one image. The animation principle had fallen by the wayside in the early days of CG, and Keane felt it was crucial to recapturing Disney’s signature style. His mentor Ollie Johnston had taught him, “Don’t draw what the character is doing, draw what the character is thinking.” Keane was determined to bring that philosophy back to Disney.

Though Tangled’s lengthy production was upended several times—including when Keane stepped back into a producer role following a heart attack—it stuck to the guiding principle at the core of what he was trying to do with his animation style: bring the princess film into the 21st century without losing its connection to the past. Following Disney’s merger with Pixar and some behind-the-scenes creative shakeups, Tangled was even allowed to be retooled as the classic princess musical that Keane had originally wanted it to be.

In Disney’s retelling, Princess Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) is born with magical hair that can heal injuries and stop aging. Obsessed with maintaining a youthful appearance, the evil Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy) kidnaps the enchanted baby and raises her as her daughter. Rapunzel spends the first 18 years of her life locked away in a tower, entertaining herself with endless hours of puzzles, books, and baking—all of which made her something of a quarantine icon when lockdowns first began.

While the original fairy tale emphasizes Rapunzel’s physical confinement, Tangled is more about her mental prison. Rapunzel could actually escape her tower pretty easily thanks to the hair she’s learned to use as the ultimate multi-tool. But manipulative Gothel has raised Rapunzel to think the outside world is a deadly, dangerous place full of thugs who are out to get her. She’s also gaslit her daughter into believing she’s too weak to take care of herself, creating a toxic dynamic where Rapunzel is totally dependent on her mother for physical and emotional safety. Gothel’s big Broadway-style musical number, “Mother Knows Best,” is both a hilarious send-up of parental passive aggression and a deeply unnerving look at psychological manipulation.

And yet, for as much as Rapunzel accepts Gothel’s worldview, there’s a small, subconscious flicker of doubt inside her too. It manifests in her urge to see the faraway lights that fill the sky on her birthday each year. Rapunzel doesn’t know they are paper lanterns meant to honor her, the long-lost princess. But she feels drawn to them with a mixture of a scientist’s interest and a poet’s curiosity. “I have to know what they are,” she pleads. The lights become a metaphor for Rapunzel’s gut instinct that despite how much she loves her mother, there’s something wrong about the way she was raised.

Rapunzel’s simple wish reflects both how limited her world is and how self-possessed she is within in. Her first taste of the outside comes when charming rogue Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi) climbs into her tower to escape a troop of angry palace guards. The Tangled team decided to upend the traditional Brothers Grimm story by making Rapunzel’s love interest a thief, rather than a prince. Flynn’s criminal ways and playboy attitude initially seem to confirm everything Gothel told Rapunzel about the outside world. Yet Flynn’s arrival also gives Rapunzel her first chance to prove she isn’t too weak to handle herself—she handily knocks him out with a frying pan and then talks him into taking her to see the lanterns.

While most Disney princess films feature some sort of romance, Tangled is the most overtly rom-com-y of the bunch, with equal focus given to both of its leads and a certain effervescence to their dynamic. Co-directors Nathan Greno and Bryon Howard wanted to make Flynn “the most handsome, most attractive male lead Disney has ever had.” They assembled a “Hot Man” focus group of women from throughout the studio, who critiqued the best and worst features of famous male celebrities. Flynn became a hodge-podge creation of “the ultimate man,” with Levi’s vocal performance providing both sly wit and “bad boy with a heart of gold” earnestness. That’s paid off in a deeply loyal Flynn Rider fanbase.

Yet Rapunzel and Flynn’s connection doesn’t follow the standard princess tropes of either “love-at-first-sight” or “enemies-to-lovers.” Instead, her mix of naive, neurotic weirdness and openhearted kindness makes their romance unique in the Disney canon. It’s a sort of mutual suspicion that blossoms into affection over shared vulnerabilities—much more When Harry Met Sally than Cinderella. They’re a good rom-com couple because they help each other grow. While Rapunzel’s arc is about uncovering the truth of her past, Flynn’s is about peeling away the cocksure identity he’s adopted as a coping mechanism after his orphaned childhood as “Eugene Fitzherbert.” People-pleasing Rapunzel learns to stand up for herself, while self-centered Flynn learns the value of selflessness.

As Greno explained, “Rapunzel was so interesting and such a great character that we had to keep making Flynn more interesting to keep up with her. And then at times, he would become more interesting than she was, so we’d have to bump her up. But in doing that, in elevating both characters, they both became these really strong characters.” That’s the power of a good onscreen romance, and in making Tangled more of a two-hander than most princess films, Greno and Howard were able to tap into it.

Greno and Howard were similarly committed to elevating the film’s comedy. They reanimated scenes a dozen times, recognizing that the tiniest adjusts to movement and timing could turn a small laugh into a big one. Beat for beat, Tangled is one of the funniest films in the Disney animated canon, with particularly scene-stealing roles for protective chameleon Pascal and dogged police horse Maximus. Rapunzel herself falls into the great comedic tradition of characters like Elle Woods, Paddington, and Ted Lasso, who improbably improve the world around them by sheer virtue of their sunny optimism. Faced with a pub full of angry ruffians, Rapunzel’s impassioned conviction gets them to stop fighting and reveal their secret dreams instead.

Dreams are actually a central theme of Tangled and fuel the finest segment in the movie, when Rapunzel finally gets to see the lanterns. While Tangled’s folk music-inspired musical numbers aren’t among Disney’s all-time best, composer Alan Menken delivers one of his most compelling pieces of score as Rapunzel and Flynn first arrive at the kingdom. As the duo join in the local festivities, the music builds to a frenetic crescendo that captures both the excitement and the anxiety that Rapunzel feels leading up to the biggest moment of her life. “What if it’s not everything that I dreamed it would be?” she asks Flynn as they row out onto the water for a front row seat. Even scarier is the idea that maybe it will be: What will Rapunzel do with her life then? “That’s the good part, I guess,” Flynn replies. “You get to go find a new dream.”

The lantern sequence itself is one of the most gorgeous scenes in Disney animation history, up there with the Beast’s transformation in Beauty And The Beast and “Bella Notte” in Lady And The Tramp. It achieves everything Keane set out to do with his blend of computer-animated dimensionality and old-fashioned character-centric animation. As the light show grows, air and water meld into one endless constellation of glowing lanterns. Yet the sequence is just as much about emotion as spectacle. A complex inner journey plays out on Rapunzel’s silent, expressive face as she sees the lanterns fill the sky and then slowly comes to realize that she may have already found her “new dream” in Flynn.

Disney princess empowerment usually comes from the heroine achieving her lifelong goal: Snow White finding her prince, Ariel becoming human, Moana traveling the ocean. But in Tangled, Rapunzel learns that it’s okay for her dreams and ambitions to change as she does. At the beginning of the film, she’s too trapped in her captive mindset to wish for anything more than a brief road trip. (“It’s complicated,” she sighs after explaining her plan to return to her tower.) Yet her small, irrepressible dream of seeing the lanterns eventually leads to a much bigger realization about her place in the world and the degree to which her mother has mistreated her. A tiny seed of doubt slowly blossoms into a fiery rebellion.

Tangled is ultimately about the importance of trusting your instincts, which is a welcome message for young audiences—particularly young girls, who are often taught to squash their feelings for the comfort of others. For all its fantasy trappings, Tangled is really just a three-person domestic drama with Gothel’s twisted relationship with Rapunzel as one of the most complex hero/villain dynamics in any piece of children’s media. And like Stephen Sondheim’s iconic musical Into The Woods, Tangled uses its fairy tale setting to remind its audience that things aren’t always what they seem. Mothers can be bad and thieves can reform: “You decide what’s right, you decide what’s good.”

Though Tangled wasn’t a cultural sensation, it doubled The Princess And The Frog’s box office and proved there was still a market for princess films. While Disney had halted its plans for a 2D adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” Tangled’s success inspired the Mouse House to retool the project as a computer-animated movie that eventually became Frozen. By 2016, Disney was even comfortable naming Moana after its female lead instead of a gender-neutral adjective.

Just as Tangled clearly took creative inspiration from the likes of Aladdin, Enchanted, and The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, its storytelling went on to influence the Disney films that followed. Frozen, especially, owes it a huge debt of gratitude. The icy princess flick essentially just splits the dualities of Rapunzel’s personality into its two heroines, repressed Elsa and naively optimistic Anna. For as much praise as Frozen received for its sister-centric approach, Tangled is the far more thematically complex film. Though it doesn’t winkingly deconstruct princess tropes, Tangled elevates them into a visually and emotionally rich masterpiece of modern animation—and a pretty great romantic comedy too.

Next time: Palm Springs inadvertently captured the entire 2020 experience in one sci-fi rom-com.