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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (12/19/11) 11:14pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  Tangled
TV:  <none>
Books:  <none>

Tangled is the Disney CGI musical loosely based on Rapunzel.

This film had a troubled production history.  Originally, it was to be the first film directed by Glen Keane, perhaps the best character animator Disney's had since the Nine Old Men  [1] -- then Keane stepped down and another team came in to direct.  The film kicked around for six years of development before it came out, and by then it had become, by some estimates, the second most expensive film of all time.  When it was released, I barely noticed.  By my reckoning, Disney hadn't made a solid musical since Lion King, and I felt like I could give their latest exercise in diminishing returns a miss.

But, to cut to the chase:  it's really good.

And what surprises me is, it's good because of very solid storytelling.  I find that surprising because even some of the best Disney musicals don't impress me much in that department -- they'll look gorgeous, they'll have amazing songs, but the story is kind of a patched-together excuse to wander from one musical number to the next.[2]

And yet Tangled is the opposite.  The general look of the film doesn't impress me much.  And I say this knowing full well that they tackled some brain-breaking problems with this movie.  They managed to make a CGI film that had the same 'look' as classic Disney cel animation, *and* they did it with a film that required lots and lots (and lots) of animated hair.  (Hair and fabric are the bane of computer animation's existence.  If the CGI animators had their way, every person in their features would be hairless and naked.)  But their efforts show through in how little I notice them -- I just feel like I'm watching a Disney movie, and apart from the arresting work with the sky lanterns, it just sort of does its job and stays out of the way.

The songs felt especially weak -- there was something almost apologetic, like, "Sorry, we have to include a few songs here.  Don't worry, they'll be kind of bland and unobtrusive."  What was interesting, to me, is that many of the movie's songs suffered from problems I often see in improvised songs.

See, when improvising lyrics, one's natural instinct is to just narrate what's going on.  ("And now I'm walking to the store / to buy a bunch of apricots / 'cos I'm making cobbler" or something like that.)  Or maybe you talk about your feelings, but only in a very detailed, logistical way.  ("I think if you go over there / the monster will attack you / and that frightens me / so you should stay here")

But what a song does -- and what, in my opinion, it *should* do -- is to become something *bigger* than the particulars of the situation.  Even if it covers specifics, those specifics should *illustrate* something larger -- look at the opening number of Beauty and the Beast, which rattles off a big list of townspeople, but it's about the town in general, and more specifically its stultifying sameness.  And if the song applies to one particular situation in the musical, it should still find a way to break free of that.  One of the simplest tricks to effect that is to have a song that's about something big, and a bit of dialog that bridges that 'big' topic to the particulars of the show.  Look at "Under the Sea" -- Sebastian explains that Ariel's specific desire to get away is silly, and *then* goes on to a more general number about how the ocean is freakin' awesome.

I felt like the songs in Tangled fell into both traps -- they got too dialog-y and too plot-y.  For instance, Mother Gothel gets a song where she explains to Rapunzel exactly what she should do:  return the crown to Flynn and see how he reacts.  This is a brilliant plot development, but it makes for a song that could be replaced with dialog.  The song isn't *about* anything beyond that specific situation.  How much better might it have been to have a huge rip-roaring song about how Men Are Not To Be Trusted, and *then* bridge it to the current situation:  a bit of dialog to the effect of "give him back the crown, and he will leave you".

That said, the story is remarkably solid.  They took something at the core of Rapunzel -- the overprotective parent who has to be rejected -- and made sure their story was about that.  And they did a great job of setting up situations where the next move was blindingly obvious -- oh no, they're trapped in a pitch-black cave, oh maybe THE GIRL WHO CAN MAKE HER HAIR GLOW can help them -- and just... biding their time.  You knew exactly what was coming next in the plot, but then they'd take a couple of minutes to do a few character beats.  The audience is certainly paying attention ("Crap, will they drown in this cavern?"), so you can get away with meandering a bit.  And it makes the show zig when you expect it to zag -- you're expecting the next plot point, but you're learning something new about the characters instead.[3]

That said, I felt like the characters were weak.  Rapunzel herself seemed to be the sort of blandly-virtuous type you usually associate with Disney heroines -- though viewpoint characters are usually a little underdeveloped.  Flynn is a pretty standard-order 'rogue' character, though casting Zachari Levi to voice the part gives it a little bit more personality.

Mother Gothel, on the other hand, is awesome.  I don't think I've seen a villain like this in the movies before -- and this is odd, because most of the assholery I deal with in the real world comes from people like Mother Gothel.  They aren't moustache-twirling villains; they clothe their insults and manipulations in smiling politeness.  If they get called on any of it, they affect petulant shock.  And yet I so rarely see these toxic types depicted on film.  When she does genuinely awful things towards the end of the film, it was all the more horrible to me because she seemed... well... grounded.

Mother Gothel even pulled off one of the few "elaborate deception" set-pieces that *didn't* make me roll my eyes:  when she knocks out the Stabbington Brothers, the whole plot makes sense.  I could see Gothel vaguely angling towards that scenario early on, taking advantage of the situation in the moment, and then giving a somewhat-rehearsed speech to Rapunzel when the time came.  (Also helpful:  that Rapunzel, having lived in a tower for eighteen years, would likely be gullible.)

There were other pleasant surprises along the way.  The action sequences were inventive and exciting.  I adored the montage where Flynn stands impassively while Rapunzel shouts that she's making the best, or the worst, decision of her life.  Again, it's an interaction I've had in real life that I've never seen in a movie.[4]  And their willingness to do the scenes with Rapunzel's parents as silent scenes was just wondeful.  The servant walks in, looks at the parents, gives them a quick nod, and the storytelling has been clear enough to that point that we know everything.

I know the film critics kind of shrugged when Tangled came out.  Hopefully this movie will have a good shelf life in spite of that.

For next time:  continuing to watch the original Star Trek series, again in preparation for the Hideout's Science Fiction Double Feature.  I promise I'll write about it Real Soon Now.

[1] Among other things, he created the Beast from Beauty and the Beast.

[2] I've seen The Lion King repeatedly, but I still have only vague ideas of what actually happens in that fustercluck of a story.

[3] It seems like this would be nigh-impossible for improvisors, as we all have a strong-and-perhaps-destructive instinct towards "crap, we have to get to the next plotty thing PLOTTY THING PLOTTY THING PLOTTY THING PLOT PLOT NOW NOW NOW".

[4] The answer to your most likely question is "Both of them."

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Mood: [mood icon] contemplative · Music: none
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