Altered story helps film’s old-school feel

Like its famously unshorn heroine, Disney’s soon-to-be-released Tangled is long on heart and charm, just as you might expect. Unlike Rapunzel, however, Tangled is definitely not in need of a cut: Every minute of the movie delivers on the promise of fast-paced entertainment made early on by the film’s ad campaign.

Hairy · Tangled is a revision of the classic Rapunzel fairy tale. - Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

Disney took considerable liberties with its source material when adapting Tangled, which was given an exclusive advance screening Sunday at Norris Cinema Theatre, and the final product is all the more engaging for its deviations from the well-trodden plot of the original fairy tale.

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s names might follow screenwriter Dan Fogelman’s in the writing credits for the movie, but true responsibility for the film’s liveliness and undeniable charm lies not with the fairy-tale-writing Brothers Grimm, but with the well-oiled hit machine that is Walt Disney Animation Studios.

Rakish bandit Flynn Ryder (voice by Zachary Levi of NBC’s Chuck) opens the movie with a revisionist backstory to the familiar tale of Rapunzel. In co-directors Nathan Greno and Byron Howard’s version, an old hag with a serious magic flower habit abducts the newborn Rapunzel from her parents, the king and queen, after discovering that strands of the baby’s uncut hair had become the only place she could get her age-defying fix (much to said hag’s dismay, the magic flower was uprooted to save the queen’s life during childbirth, which gives Rapunzel’s hair the flower power).

Bent on protecting her newly acquired source of eternal youth, the wicked Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy) sequesters young Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) in a tall tower and tends to her as one would with a home garden but without the pruning — cutting her hair, it turns out, nullifies its magic restorative properties.

Flynn’s and Rapunzel’s paths cross when the thief seeks refuge from pursuing authorities in Rapunzel’s tower, and the cooped-up one-time princess convinces him to be her guide on a “forbidden road trip” to the kingdom.

Although Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm would have been very low-hassle collaborators in any case — you can only be so protective of your story after having been dead for more than a century — they likely would have been particularly at ease putting one of their most familiar folk tales in such capable hands as those of executive producer John Lasseter and composer Alan Menken, two established Disney veterans.

Lasseter, a longtime Pixar producer dating back to some of the company’s earliest shorts, and Menken, the man behind the Academy Award-winning scores from The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and Pocahontas, have time and again proved their Midas touch on every Disney project with which they’ve been involved.

Their influence is strongly felt and consistent with earlier work.

Menken’s songs often hark back to his earlier work, especially The Little Mermaid — Rapunzel’s opening tune, a pining-for-freedom pop number called “When Will My Life Begin?” clearly evokes Ariel’s lamentation of her leglessness, “Part of Your World,” just as Mother Gothel’s menacing “Mother Knows Best” is an almost perfect match for sea witch Ursula’s unforgettable “Poor Unfortunate Souls.”

And Lasseter brings his Pixar-ian sensibilities to the Disney movie, which somehow results in the world of Tangled resembling the land of Far, Far Away from Dreamworks’ Shrek franchise. The animation was definitely enhanced by the movie’s 3-D effects, which might represent the most tasteful and effective execution of 3-D to date in any movie.

All aesthetic similarities to those computer-animated Barbie movies aside, Tangled is replete with innovations all its own. Tangled represents Disney’s first all-out exploitation of the comedic potential of horses and chameleons; Maximus, the white stallion ridden by one of the palace guards, is a sleuth bloodhound trapped in a horse’s body, and Rapunzel’s lone companion in her tower is a chameleon named Pascal, whose quick-shifting color changes are good for more than a few laughs throughout the movie.

In the role of Mother Gothel, Murphy offers another innovation with her all-new take on the “evil stepmother” stock character. Admittedly, she’s more of an evil hostage-taking child-abductor than an evil stepmother, but her passive-aggressive brand of comedy is perhaps even more off-putting than the straight villain.

Those who might be holding out for a return to the two-dimensional animation that earned Disney its reputation for consistently terrific entertainment in the first place probably shouldn’t hold their breath: The Princess and the Frog’s less-than-stellar reception suggests that computer-generated 3-D fare such as Tangled might comprise the majority of Disney’s offerings from here on out.

But Tangled is a heavy-hitter in its own right: Engaging characters and fast-paced, all-ages comedy make for what’s sure to be part of the new batch of Disney classics.