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Tangled turns 11: Revisiting Disney’s charming and nuanced 50th animated feature

Tangled, which hit screens in 2010, may have been groundbreaking in many ways, but the movie found its share of detractors. 

Pratishruti Ganguly
Nov 24, 2021
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Released 11 years ago on this day, Tangled was the 50th animated feature to come out of the Disney stable. The film was loosely inspired from Brothers Grimm’s German fairytale Rapunzel. Before the film’s premiere in 2010, there were nine female characters that constituted Disney Princess franchise — Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora, Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, and Tiana. Most of these characters, one may notice, undertake journeys that almost always revolve around being reunited with their beloved princes. Both Snow White and Sleeping Beauty are resurrected by the kiss of love, and are whisked away by their Prince Charming into a land of gardens and bird songs; Cinderella escapes the clutches of her evil stepmother and stepsisters and marries into royalty; Ariel, on the other hand, transforms herself into a different species in order to gain Eric’s favours.

In Tangled, the protagonist (voiced by Mandy Moore) is a woman of many passions — she creates murals on the ceiling of the tower she lives in, plays chess, creates pottery, reads, cooks and cleans, and tracks stars in the sky. Her keen interest in astronomy backed by the extensive knowledge she’s gained about the subject, fuels her insatiable desire to see the floating stars on the evening of her eighteenth birthday. She does not particularly want to flee from her captor, Mother Gothel (voiced by Donna Murphy), than want to experience something magical. She is oblivious of her birth status as a princess, and has grown up alone inside the confines of a cloistered life. A heroine on the cusp of adulthood, she is scrappy, fiercely independent and is capable of defending herself. When Flynn infiltrates the tower, Rapunzel confronts and defeats him with a humble frying pan.

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Interestingly, Tangled was also fairly impartial in its creation of both its hero and the heroine. Flynn Rider (voiced by Zachary Levi) is an embodiment of infinite charm and goofiness. He is not a warrior brandishing his blades, but a swashbuckling thief with a bag of tricks. Unlike previous heroes with ironclad moral centres, Flynn Rider begins as a cocky antihero who abandons his partner to be captured to flee with the crown he had so ably stolen. But he is not a hardened criminal. Unlike Rapunzel, who has a direction and a journey that she wants to undertake, Flynn’s motives are dictated by his circumstances. He does not steal for pleasure, he does it to survive. He is the precursor to the beloved bumbling hero figure that Disney would later go on to feature in Frozen as the rugged ice harvester Kristoff.

This shift in Disney’s approach towards its male protagonist was not arbitrary. Directors Byron Howard and Nathan Greno conducted a research, simply dubbed Hot Man Meeting, with the women employees at Disney in order to sketch out the “most handsome and attractive male lead” Disney had ever had. After countless discussions on real-life men, the directors collated all the positive traits listed out by these women to create Flynn Rider, the epitome of a modern, attractive man.

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The directors indeed wanted to flip audience expectations on their heads with Tangled. Therefore, instead of having a horse play a noble steed to a prince, it tails Flynn like a cop. This pantomime acting where a disgruntled, frustrated animal keeps chasing a human down was inspired by silent era films. As fans of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, the directors wanted the film to reflect the gags and physical humour of silent films.

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Unlike the cookie cutter fairytale films that preceded Tangled, the villain figure in the 2010 film is nuanced and layered. Mother Gothel is both greedy for eternal beauty and power, but she is also caring for her adoptive daughter. She revolutionised the antagonist of Disney movies, where she used passive aggression instead of witchcraft to keep Rapunzel in control. She is essentially a helicopter parent figure, keeping moment for moment tabs on her daughter’s every move. Her superpower is that she manipulates her daughter into believing that she is "too silly, too uneducated, too unsophisticated," undermining her self worth. While evil stepmothers are a common trope in fairytales, Mother Gothel was sinister in her sly humour and her sugar-coated undermining.

Themes and characterisation aside, what made Tangled effective as an animation film was the use of both traditional animation using CGI as well as using non-photorealistic animation. This technique allowed for the characters’ faces to be much more expressive than in traditional animation films.

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Despite the film’s many positives, Tangled had its fair share of detractors too. Many felt that rechristening the film’s name from Rapunzel to Tangled, in order to make the film more ‘gender-neutral’, was apologist. Still others claimed the film lacked Disney’s signature catchy soundtrack. Notwithstanding, Tangled, with its holistic characters, striking animation, and a beating heart, was a cinematic trailblazer that continued to redirect Disney animation films towards updating their formulaic, oft-problematic source materials.


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