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Friday Family Movie Night: Tangled

When Tangled was coming out into movie theatres, I was reading (in a late-night rush) the sassy, beautifully-drawn graphic novel Rapunzel's Revenge. In a fit of hopefulness, I decided the Disney movie must be based on the graphic novel -- it, set in the old West, gave Rapunzel a whole different mien. No naive and helpless girl wasting away in a tower, Shannon Hale's Rapunzel is fantastic with rope work (using her hair, naturally) and as handy as MacGyver. She's a cowgirl, and Jack, the male "lead," is an amalgam of the Jacks of fairy tale lore -- and not nearly so fearless and skilled as the heroine.

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Disney

While there are similarities in the two -- Disney's Rapunzel also uses her hair like a lasso, and both handsome rescuing types are thieves seeking to get enormous chips off their shoulders -- this is no competent, fearless, feminist heroine. Nope: this is classic Disney, with the Grimm storyline shook up a lot so that we can make her a princess. Most of the Rapunzel origin stories have the girl's parents cast as poor, ordinary folk (although her savior is typically a prince), and her father, not a king, but a thief, forced by his wife's terrible cravings for greens (variously, rapunzel, rampion radishes, and lamb's lettuce, which grows wild in my garden, mama!) to climb Mother Gothel's wall and steal them. He is found out and the baby, surrendered as punishment.

This Mother Gothel is more foraging naturalist than enchantress, and the mom's pregnant craving is not for spinach-like leaves, but for healing from a terrible illness. The only substance that can heal her is a magic flower, one Gothel has been keeping under wraps in order to remain forever young. (Young-ish -- the transformed Gothel reminds me of Cher in her late fifties.) When the flower is accidentally left uncovered, the good people of Rapunzel's nation find it, healing her mother and embuing the child with the flower's magical powers.

Gothel, learning that Rapunzel's hair is her power as long as it remains uncut, steals her and secrets her away in the fairy tale tower. In order to maintain her evil aura despite depriving her of magic powers, Disney makes Mother Gothel passive-aggressive, controlling and emotionally manipulative. She is the ultimate bad mom. (And, honestly, this makes her much creepier than some simple cackling, potions and curses might.)

Rapunzel is Disney Princess through-and-through. She's got it all: progenic, creative talent (painting and star-charting); enormous oft-blinking eyes; bouncy pastel wardrobe; cute, supportive and intelligent small animal sidekick (Pascal, a chameleon who sounds like a squeaky toy); uncannily winning ways; clever, spunky dialogue.

Once the altered backstory is set up, an even moderately-experienced Disney movie watcher could write this screenplay, neatly brushing aside the bits for which one must suspend disbelief. How, for instance, does a 17-year-old girl raised in a tower in a kingdom far far away develop such confident use of American colloquialisms? How can she move around -- nay, dance, jump, twirl, mope -- with all that hair? (There must be 80 or 100 feet of it, all shiny and sparkly and glowing and, one would think, requiring more than the annual therapeutic brushing.) Why is it so easy to climb the tower without Rapunzel's hair? Everyone's doing it!

The plot devices are pat and predictable. In one scene where Flynn/Eugene, the thief/handsome prince character, is trying to manipulate Rapunzel into giving up her quest to see the floating lanterns (released by her real parents on her birthday each year as either a symbol or a signal), he takes her to a scary bar full of ruffians. In two minutes flat, she's got them all singing about their dreams. Ooooh-kay then. Her little two-sentence musical inspiration is so effective, it has them saving Flynn from prison later -- though there's been no other reason established for them to revolt against the palace guards. The regime, such as it is, seems well-loved, and Flynn isn't, he's just a rogue they're all too happy to give up to the authorities before the musical number.

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There's another that could have come straight from The Little Mermaid -- there's a boat in the water, the two romantic leads are there mooning over each other and their lives, they almost kiss -- but are interrupted by the evil mother figure, who then uses subterfuge to convince the princess that her lover has given her up. And the reunion/celebration scene at the end, while convincingly animated, is perhaps the repeat of two dozen such scenes in popular culture. They hug, tears in their eyes, and order a feast; before you can say "tiara," a wedding's been announced.

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Disney

All this said, the movie's sweet and breaks at least a little new ground. Casting the prince as a poor thief is a nice touch, and gives those weary of the strong-man-rescuing-the-helpless-girl storyline at least a little reprieve. The floating lights are a lovely device that enchanted my boys all together. There is enough action and comedy to keep older boys and girls watching, along with their younger siblings. While I didn't care for most of the songs, the theme song is catchy and worth watching the credits all the way to the end. There's some truly realistic family dynamics that I wonder if the writers even knew they were creating; for instance, Rapunzel is just as emotionally manipulative as her evil mother ("did I mention, it's my birthday?"). And finally: the frying pan as a weapon is kind of adorable.

I won't be listening to the soundtrack of this movie as I did with The Little Mermaid; and I'll roll my eyes every time someone calls Rapunzels one of the "princesses." But this was charming enough to watch it twice when Monroe asked to do a repeat on Saturday night. I guess that'll do.

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