Move over, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," "Sleeping Beauty," "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast," and "The Lion King." Within the annals of the non-Pixar Disney canon, "Tangled" is utterly fantastic, good enough to stand head and shoulders alongside those aforementioned animated classics. One would never have expected such a rich, fulfilling experience based on the trailers and television ads, which falsely position the male love interest of long-maned heroine Rapunzel (voiced by Mandy Moore) as the lead character and hide the fact that this is a full-blown musical. Blending impeccably gorgeous traditional animation with its more current CG counterpart, the film is a beauty to behold (albeit with one downside: the theatrical 3D version slightly dulls the colors and brightness and, in some scenes, layers the image with an almost gauzy sheen). This deficiency, however, will no doubt be corrected by the two-dimensional version and in the glory of high-def, so it's difficult to fault the movie itself, which is a splendid entertainment encompassing all age groups and audience members. Without a showy, cynical pop-culture reference in sight, "Tangled" is free to tells its lovely, involving story with a purity that proves as refreshing as a tall glass of cool water in an arid desert.
With long, unsheathed golden hair that holds the power to heal the sick and make those who touch it while she sings appear more youthful, Rapunzel has lived her entire life in the confines of a high stone tower, taken care of by mother Gothel (Donna Murphy) and forbidden to ever step foot outside. Every year on her birthday, Rapunzel is awed by a parade of floating lights in the yonder sky and can't help but feel like they are meant just for her. With her 18th birthday approaching, she wants nothing more than to see them up close, but Gothel won't have any of it. When a handsome supposed thief named Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi) decides to hide from authorities in Rapunzel's tower one day, it is the catalyst for her journey out into the world. What Rapunzel does not yet realize is that Gothel is not her real mother, but an old, conniving hag who stole her as an infant from her real parents, the reigning king and queen of the land, as a means of ensuring she stay young and never die.
"Tangled" goes to prove that, when all the pieces fall into place and you get right down to it, nobody does animated family features as well as Walt Disney Pictures. The formula is faithful to their animated pictures of old, pitting a plucky, downtrodden princess against an evil witch of a villain as she gradually comes into her own skin, discovers her destiny, and falls in love. All of these narrative tropes work like gangbusters here. Rapunzel is a lovable protagonist, tough yet vulnerable, with such an honest heart that she can't help but feel guilty for disobeying her mother even as she is overjoyed to finally feel the grass between her toes and the sunlight in her hair. Flynn Rider is a well-developed suitor, smoldering yet misunderstood, who hides his true self (and name) until Rapunzel tears his defenses down. Their relationship runs a bit deeper than the norm for this kind of movie, and grows to mean more to the viewer because of the added care directors Nathan Greno and Byron Howard bring to it. Animal sidekicks with human characteristics (but who blessedly don't talk) come in the form of Rapunzel's pet chameleon Pascal, his color frequently changing to blend into his surroundings, and diligent guard horse Maximus, who begrudgingly agrees to try and get along with Flynn in order to help with Rapunzel's plight.
Every tried-and-true fairy tale is only as strong as its villain, and screenwriter Dan Fogelman (2008's "Bolt
") has created a doozy out of Gothel, a petulant, egotistical woman who loves Rapunzel for selfish reasons and is not above turning against her. Gothel is expertly visualized from an aesthetic standpoint, becoming darker and more threatening as the story proceeds, but what is especially appreciated is how she is written with far more shades than a bad guy usually gets. Yes, Gothel is for all intents and purposes a kidnapper, but she has taken care of Rapunzel for the better part of two decades. She's also capable of being passive-aggressive and, finally, downright malicious. Donna Murphy (2007's "The Nanny Diaries
") is fabulous in her voicing work as Gothel, bringing to life one of the great villains in Disney's illustrious history. Her main song, "Mother Knows Best," later reprised in indelible fashion, is a show-stopper.
In another nostalgic return to the way animated features used to be made, the actors have been chosen for their talent and appropriateness to the characters they are playing, not because they are famous A-listers who might be able to pull in bigger weekend grosses. In addition to Donna Murphy's sterling turn, Mandy Moore (2007's "License to Wed
") is an irresistible Rapunzel whose singing voice is as exquisite as usual, while Zachary Levi (2009's "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel
") sounds as handsome, dashing and warm as his Flynn Rider looks. All the performers' vocals are on-target, doing full service to the fun, melodic original music and songs composed by Alan Menken.
Exciting, funny, scary at times, and emotionally resounding, "Tangled" is a timeless joy with a ridiculous wealth of standout moments and very few debits (two bumbling sidekicks whom Gothel takes under her wing, known as the Stabbington brothers, could have been done without, but are used sparingly). By far the most enchanting set-piece is Rapunzel's and Flynn's nighttime viewing of the luminescent procession of lanterns lifted into the sky around the royal castle, Rapunzel not yet aware of their significance to her but feeling nonetheless connected to them. It's truly a sight to behold. Meanwhile, the climax, with Rapunzel sacrificing her freedom for Flynn's safety and his subsequent one-upping of Gothel's devious plans, is both thrilling and touching, sending out the worthwhile message that who a person is on the inside is worth far more than their physical image and attributes (no pitiable makeover scene here, thank you very much). With imagination, bold animation that joins the old with the new, memorable characters, fine songs, and a story worth caring about, "Tangled" is one of this year's happiest surprises.