Directed by Nathan Greno and Byron Howard
Screenplay by Dan Fogelman
Mandy Moore as Princess Rapunzel
Zachary Levi as Flynn Rider
Donna Murphy as Mother Gothel
Brad Garrett as Hook-Hand Thug
Ron Perlman as Stabbington Brother
Jeffrey Tambor as Big Nose Thug
Richard Kiel as Vladamir
M.C. Gainey as Captain of the Guard
Paul F. Tompkins as Shorty Thug
Running time: 100 minutes
Motion Picture Rating: Rated PG for brief mild violence.
Get tangled up in the funniest horse of the year. Oh, and the funniest movie too…
The time has come at last to present an Oscar to an animated horse. I am of course speaking of Maximus, the exceptionally charismatic and award-worthy equine from Tangled, Disney’s new animated adaptation of Rapunzel. This spectacular stallion is half horse, half guard dog and half Javert from Les Miserables. He’s highly motivated, supremely confident and a master of comedic timing. In a lesser film we would have looked to supporting characters like Maximus to rescue us from the drudgery of the usual family movie nonsense, but Tangled is not a lesser film. It’s the funniest film of the year, full of rich characters and romantic worlds that will transport your children to a magical realm that never insults their intelligence. Here at last is a family comedy with nary a fart joke to be found. Heck, that’s worth practically four stars right there.
Tangled stars Zachary Levi (of TV’s “Chuck”) as the implausibly named Flynn Ryder, a charismatic thief who takes refuge in an isolated tower in the middle of the forest after a heist goes wrong. Inside that tower dwells Rapunzel (Mandy Moore), a girl whose hair possesses magical healing properties. Rapunzel was kidnapped as a child by the evil Gothel (Spider-Man 2’s Donna Murphy), who relies on Rapunzel’s magic to keep her young forever. But like many Disney princesses, Rapunzel has been kept in isolation her entire life, and soon she blackmails Flynn into being her guide into the great wide world outside, where everyone either wants Rapunzel’s hair for their own nefarious purposes or just wants Flynn arrested (or dead).
The heroine is pluckier than usual, but otherwise Tangled isn’t all that different from any other Disney princess movie on paper. On screen, the contrast is unmistakable. First the obvious: Tangled is the first CG-animated Disney princess movie (theatrically released, at any rate), and although the world is lush and colorful and the animated performances are pitch-perfect there’s always a niggling tickle in the back of your head that reminds you that the heroine looks uncannily like Barbie’s nauseating cousin Skipper. That said, all the other differences are surprisingly canny: complicated protagonists, distinctive animal sidekicks and the most memorable Disney villain since the heyday of the 1990’s.
Donna Murphy, along with a fleet of highly trained animators, plays Mother Gothel as a wicked hodgepodge of Norma Desmond and Bernadette Peters. Her evil extends beyond kidnapping a small child and raising her as her own to use as a steady supply of magical narcotics. Gothel knows that Rapunzel is old enough to rebel and that, being neither witch nor wicked queen, she lacks the means to keep her “daughter” locked up by force. Instead, she employs a series of cruel passive-aggressive mindgames to make Rapunzel dependent on the (very limited) love Gothel can provide, and more to the point keep her terrified that the world outside could be much, much worse. Gothel’s musical numbers – the best in the film – are wickedness personified, and probably the best any villain has mustered since the practically Shakespearean “Hellfire” in Disney’s underrated Hunchback of Notre Dame.
The effect these Machiavellian mindgames have on our protagonist appear, at first, implausibly muted. Unaware of her actual heritage, she makes the most of her gilded cage and merely bemoans her inability to attend the light show her long-lost kingdom puts on in honor of her birthdays. Only when she breaks free of her chains do we see the toll Gothel has taken on this impressionable young girl who at turns prances gaily about a leafy glade celebrating her independence and weeps uncontrollably at the thought of disappointed her dear sainted “mother.”
But most unexpected of all is that Rapunzel herself is merely the subject of the film, not the protagonist. Flynn’s journey from self-absorbed swashbuckling gadabout to a soulful love interest thanks to his proximity to a strong-willed heroine feels carefully calculated, as if Disney was afraid of turning off any little boys who might be in the audience. As clear as the intentions may be, the chemistry between our two heroes – or perhaps alchemy would be a better word – is as remarkable as any we’ve seen on screen in years. Their conflict comes not from trite misunderstandings but from entire lifetimes that made them who they are: powerful, hilarious and even loving, but rarely at the right times. Sure, the romance is inevitable, but at least it’s plausibly impeded.
But most importantly, there’s that horse. Maximus is nothing short of the breakout character of the year. Barking whinnies to his horse underlings in pursuit of the wanted criminal Flynn, pursuing his prey beyond even the limits of his own rider, dueling our hero in pursuit of justice for justice’s own sake. He may be the most excitingly motivated lawman since Jimmy McNulty, and yes, you read that right: a Disney character worthy of comparison to “The Wire.” Maximus is a mighty animal, a great hero, and the perfect dramatic foil in a nearly perfect comedy.
“Nearly” perfect. Tangled occasionally gets tripped up in largely uninspired musical numbers, and Flynn’s opening narration is a little too ironically detached for its own good. Tangled isn’t too cool for school, it’s just really cool, and once the film stops apologizing for being a fairy tale and gets down to the task of just being a fairy tale it reveals itself to be one of the best (non-Pixar) Disney animated films in over a decade. Smart entertainment, sidesplittingly funny and never condescending to the little children making up the target demographic. Tangled is classic Disney.