Disney Animation has, these past few years, found itself in an odd place. In the shadow of Pixar, and with DreamWorks looking to seize the mainstream middle ground, it’s found it hard to find an identity of its own. For where does it fit in?
Films such as Chicken Little and Bolt had tried, to differing levels of success, to find a role for the studio in the midst of one of the most golden of golden eras for animation, but Disney has nonetheless struggled to get a foothold.
But perhaps that’s changing. Enchanted offered the first clues as to where Disney excelled, channelling the guts of a fairy story setup into something both timeless and modern, while The Princess And The Frog and, to an extent, Meet The Robinsons, built on that.
Yet, it’s with Tangled where Disney might just have found its way forward. On the one hand, it takes the story of Rapunzel, one that even Walt Disney himself couldn’t crack, and marries it up to some stunning computer animation. And on the other, it finds a way to tell a fairy story, but in a thoroughly modern way.
In the past, for instance, Disney had macho princes and passive princesses. Then, in the late 80s and 90s, the roles changed, with the male lead often portrayed as a weaker character. Here, in the central partnership of Rapunzel and leading man Flynn, Disney has found two strong characters, both keen to play with stereotypes and wisely sidestep others.
On top of that, Tangled brings in a collection of supporting characters that can’t help but impress. On the comedy side, it’s Maximus who’s the scene-stealer, voicelessly generating sizeable laughs and guaranteeing himself a hefty shelf life at the Disney Store.
But credit, too, for the treatment of lead villain, Mother Gothel, one of the most under-the-skin animation movie antagonists in some time. She’s utterly believable, and again, demonstrates that Disney is finding its place in the world once more. She’s backed, too, by some genuinely sinister pub dwellers, who might just put the frights up the very youngest members of the audience.
Wisely, the voice talent is appropriate to the material, rather than a hunt for big names to put on the poster. Thus, you have Chuck‘s Zachary Levi and Mandy Moore as Flynn and Rapunzel, but they’re backed with the best voice talent supporting cast this side of Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs. Whoever decided to call up Brad Garrett, Ron Perlman, Richard Kiel and the wonderful Donna Murphy to lend their vocal talents deserves a strong handshake and a nice drink.
But the lasting memory of Tangled will come from the striking visuals. Just as with The Princess And The Frog, there’s an outstanding, film-stealing sequence near the end of the film that demands to be seen on the biggest screen that you can find.
What Tangled also has is a real action-movie pace to many of its scenes (something Disney perfected in Bolt), and it’s genuinely an exciting film to watch. Plus, it looks absolutely glorious. The animation, the design, the colour. It’s a stunning visual treat.
Inevitably, for a film that does an awful lot right, there are one or two very minor niggles. Alan Menken’s music is strong, but the songs can’t quite match his outstanding work on Enchanted, for instance. Plus, there’s an element of halfway house about how much to commit to the full-on Disney musical extravaganzas of old. It’s not often said of animated movies, but I could have happily enjoyed another song or two in the mix here.
But here’s the thing: directors Nathan Greno and Byron Howard have delivered on what must have been a massive challenge. To take a project that Disney has failed to crack for decades before this, and to turn it into an exciting, funny, at times brilliant animated treat. One that crosses generations in its appeal, taking a loved fairy story and turning it into a modern animated treat.
Vintage Disney? Not quite. But this is the surest sign yet that the studio is very much on the right track, and very much on form, too.
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