Tangled, Part 1

I didn’t get around to watching Disney’s Tangled until a few days ago. Though I missed it in theaters, it came up in a Facebook discussion about Pixar’s upcoming Brave. Reminded of it, I got my hands on it and watched it.

Watching the movie, I found myself conflicted. The parts I liked I really liked. The parts I didn’t like, I really didn’t like. There was very little in between. At the end of the movie I simply felt disappointed. So much was done well, but the parts that were done poorly left me with no desire to watch the movie again. Frustration prompted me to write a long consideration of its pros and cons. So long, in fact, that I’m breaking it up into multiple posts. (Hopefully the others will be shorter than this one.)

That said, I would like to point out up front that I do think the movie is worth watching.

The Tale

Traditionally, the story of Rapunzel starts with a pregnant, common-born woman having cravings for her neighbor’s vegetables. When the neighbor catches her husband sneaking into her garden to steal some for a third time, the neighbor demands the unborn child as payment for the stolen vegetables. Since this neighbor is supposedly a witch, the couple complies out of fear. The girl grows up to be beautiful and eventually the witch locks her in a tower, where she stays until a prince hears her singing and starts to court her when the witch isn’t around. When the witch finds out, she cuts off Rapunzel’s long hair, which is the only way into the tower, and casts her out. When next the prince comes by, the witch blinds him. Though there are several variations on the ending, typically Rapunzel and the prince eventually get lucky and find each other again.

Tangled sets itself up with a modified origin story, adding a magic element to Rapunzel herself and setting up for a very different tale. I won’t summarize the whole movie (though there are spoilers ahead), but for my purposes here I do need to tell you about the five-minute back story with which the movie begins:

The sun sends a drop of sunlight down to the world. When it reaches the earth it grows into a flower with magical healing properties. The woman who discovers it also discovers that if she sings to the flower it will restore her youth. She selfishly keeps the flower hidden and hoards its power for herself, using it to stay young for hundreds of years. Well, when the local queen comes down horribly sick while pregnant, the king orders his men to search for the flower. They find it, uproot it, and take it back to the king, who dissolves it in water and gives the resulting broth to his queen to save her. When their daughter, Rapunzel, is born, she has golden hair — obviously the flower has had an effect on the baby, for the king and queen are both dark brunettes. The old woman who had previously been keeping the flower for herself sneaks into the palace at night, sings to the baby girl to see if she still has the same power the flower did, and finds that the flower’s powers now reside in the girl’s golden hair. Cutting off a lock of the hair to take away with her doesn’t work… the magic fades not just from the lock she now holds in her hand, but all the way to the roots of the cut hair. So she steals the child, puts her in a tower, pretends to be her mother, and teaches Rapunzel that she must stay hidden in the tower because the outside world is dangerous. Everyone is greedy and selfish, the old woman claims, and would try to hurt Rapunzel because of her magical hair.

This effectively makes it the best five-minute back story intro going into a movie that I’ve seen since I watched Up. (It doesn’t come close to being as good as the first five minutes of Up, mind you, but it still means something to be second-best when the best is so far above everything else.) The traditional fairy tale was tweaked in a way that left the core elements of the story intact while still leaving the filmmakers room to maneuver. In some ways, the core elements were strengthened, even; Rapunzel’s hair can’t be cut or its magic will be lost. The old woman who stole Rapunzel has a believable and visible motivation which drives her actions throughout the entire movie. Yet by turning Rapunzel into a stolen princess, they also establish a goal that must draw her from the tower eventually. A little cliché, perhaps, but not out-of-place for the genre and the intended audience. Nor out of character for a company so famous for its princess characters. My hopes were high.

Then the first song played and I knew in the tiniest corner of my small intestines that the movie would not live up to the intro.

The Music

I’m starting with the music because that was the first thing to set off klaxons in the critical half of my brain. I will be discussing the songs and how they serve to enhance the story — or fail to.

Let me first explain what I mean about a song enhancing the story. The songs in a musical should serve as emotional exclamation points, of a sort; a character in a scene talks until his or her emotions thicken so much that the character can only truly express him or herself in song. A song can be used to establish a character or setting, too, early in the movie or play. It doesn’t really matter who sings the songs as long as they further the story. However, it is typical for the main character to be involved in most if not all of the songs in a musical. In general, if a song does not serve the exposition of the story then it should not be included.

Now, before getting into the first song’s part in telling the story, I just want to say that I dislike it. It’s a pop song, which is a little out if place for the genre, but I have no problem with that. I like A Knight’s Tale, which is nothing but a generic fantasy love story set to pop music. I adore Ladyhawke, which is a much-less-generic fantasy love story with an 80s rock soundtrack. So I don’t believe the genre disjunction is the cause of its failure to satisfy. I do have a basic aesthetic problem with the song, in that it is a soulless, empty, generic pop song that sounds like it belongs in High School Musical. While that must surely have an effect on my lack of respect for it, I tried to acknowledge that while watching the movie and  pay more attention to lyrical content than music genre.

The song, titled “When Will My Life Begin”, is the first thing we see in the movie after the five-minute intro. As the first song in the movie and the first song sung by the main character, it should establish her situation and personality. In a sense it successfully fulfills that purpose. We as an audience are introduced to Rapunzel’s average day and the initial source of conflict to be resolved: even taking advantage of all the amusements available to her — and boy, does she make good use of that tower — she feels like there should be more to life. Yet I question how well the song establishes Rapunzel’s personality.

Let’s first consider the effectiveness of comparable songs from other Disney films. In Beauty and the Beast, “Belle” clearly shows the audience what life is like in Belle’s town and what she thinks of it. Belle’s opinions and the way she expresses them give you an insight into how she thinks. Furthermore, Belle spends chunks of the song with her nose buried in a book while you find out what the townsfolk think of her. Gaston is also established as an annoying antagonist right off the bat. By the end of the song, tension has built and Belle passionately proclaims her desire to get the hell out of that town. Aladdin’s establishing song, “One Jump Ahead”, both is and isn’t quite as multi-talented as “Belle”. Someone listening to “Belle” by itself is still likely catch most of the nuances that he or she would get from watching it with the animation. “One Jump Ahead” relies far more heavily on the support of the animation to get a similar wealth of information across. Both songs impart a great deal of information about the main character in only a few minutes using a combination of song and visuals.

Going back to Tangled, the first song does a pretty good job of establishing Rapunzel’s environment and everyday life, especially considering that the movie starts from a disadvantaged position. How much can you do with a girl living in a tower removed from the rest of society? In terms of animation they did quite a bit; Rapunzel bustles about like mad in her quest not to get too bored. And we do get to see her alternately swinging around by her hair and using it to grab things from a distance like Indiana Jones does with that whip of his. We learn that she has many talents, too, honed by lots of practice with few distractions. But this song and its accompanying animation leaves some questions unanswered.

For instance, how often does her “mother”, the selfish old woman, come by? The animation that accompanies “When Will My Life Begin” implies that Rapunzel spends most of her time alone with her chameleon friend. We see near the end of the song that the old woman slept in the tower when Rapunzel was younger, but there is nothing to indicate whether or not that is still true. She clearly doesn’t spend all day, every day at the tower. When Rapunzel asks the old woman to get her some shells for her birthday, the old woman complains that it would keep her away from Rapunzel for three days as if that were a very long time. How often Rapunzel is alone should be relatively clear by the end of the establishing song and backed up by later events, but the audience receives mixed signals for the first quarter of the film. Since humans are social animals, the old woman’s frequency of visitation should be considered an important part of Rapunzel’s character development and established early.

Then there’s the matter of Rapunzel’s personality. Let’s examine the song’s lyrics by themselves:

And so I’ll read a book
Or maybe two or three
I’ll add a few new paintings to my gallery
I’ll play guitar and knit
And cook and basically
Just wonder when will my life begin?

Then after lunch it’s puzzles and darts and baking
Paper mache, a bit of ballet and chess
Pottery and ventriloquy, candle making
Then I’ll stretch, maybe sketch, take a climb,
Sew a dress!

And I’ll reread the books
If I have time to spare
I’ll paint the walls some more,
I’m sure there’s room somewhere.
And then I’ll brush and brush,
and brush and brush my hair
Stuck in the same place I’ve always been.

And I’ll keep wonderin’ and wonderin’
And wonderin’ and wonderin’
When will my life begin?

And tomorrow night,
Lights will appear
Just like they do on my birthday each year.
What is it like
Out there where they glow?
Now that I’m older,
Mother might just
Let me go

The picture these lyrics paint in my mind is that of a girl with the internal motivation to keep herself occupied 24/7 but who somehow lacks any kind of ambition. She has a seemingly vague desire, mentioned only once, to find out more about the floating lights that appear on her birthday every year, but otherwise seems willing to accept the status quo even though she is dissatisfied with it. It seems incongruous to me that Rapunzel, so adept at keeping herself occupied, would be only mildly inclined to find out more about the floating lights. Supposedly they have captured her attention for as long as she can remember, yet in the establishing song there is no evidence of passionate interest in them. Her seeming lack of ambition to find out more about the lights is doubly disturbing since that desire is supposed to be what motivates her to leave the tower and start her quest in the first place.

This lack of ambition may be considered explained later in the movie. You do find out that in her innocence she has completely bought into the old woman’s story about the need to protect her from evil people who would harm her for her magical hair. However, not only does she admit this late in the movie, the intended purpose for her admission seems to be solely to deepen her relationship with the male lead, Flynn. The way it’s presented indicates that the filmmakers had no intention of using this fact to address an apparent weakness of character in the heroine. Instead they gave Rapunzel an animal companion, a chameleon with no apparent origin and whose sole purpose in the movie seems to be providing Rapunzel with external motivation to carry out an act of rebellion she might otherwise have been incapable of on her own. If so, then it was a poor storytelling choice: they created an extra character who added nothing later in the story, yet couldn’t be abandoned and became a waste of screen time.

Now, to be fair… if you just look at the lyrics for “Belle” typed up, you could say that it doesn’t look very passionate, either. But that, I think, is why the generic Disney teen pop song doesn’t work here. A standard length, standard format pop song simply doesn’t have the expressiveness necessary to good storytelling.

This lack is especially apparent when you compare the first song in the movie to the second. “Mother Knows Best” is sung by the old woman to Rapunzel. The old woman’s purpose in singing it is clearly to scare the girl into staying locked away in the tower where only she has access to the power of Rapunzel’s hair. The song starts off slowly and builds to a climax, during which the old woman stops singing temporarily to issue a veiled threat. This proves a chilling and effective way to show her manipulative and ruthless nature to the audience. The song serves both the character’s purpose AND that of the storyteller.

“When Will My Life Begin” then gets a reprise… but the reprise steps away from the pop genre and is more of a traditional number for a musical. It has some of the emotional expressiveness which was lacking the first time, though the pop singer voicing the character did not pull it off to my satisfaction. This raises the question of why they decided to cross genres for the reprise. Did they do it because the pop song was incapable of expressing the character’s emotions well and they knew it? If so, then why not just use the appropriate genre in the first place? Changing genres without an obvious reason draws attention away from the story and onto the storytelling.

The song that follows it creates avenues by which the filmmakers could have explored the range of powers inherent in Rapunzel’s hair. Rapunzel sweeps into a tavern full of lowlifes and convinces them to let her monetarily-valuable companion go free just because she needs him to help make her dream come true. But why do the men react so favorably to her pleas? Have they all been just waiting for an invitation to divulge the secrets lurking in their hearts? Does it work just because she’s pretty? Or is it some previously unknown power of her magical sun hair? If Rapunzel’s influence comes from the sunny power of her hair, which seems quite possible given how the horse reacts to her on their first meeting later, then it would have been nice to have the influential power of her hair concretized later in the movie with more silly songs. One could argue that the dancing in the streets of the capital city is further evidence, but you don’t necessarily have to have magical hair to get people to dance on a holiday in an era/setting where dancing is by nature a big group activity. The influence of her hair on these events is unclear and later songs neither help to explain nor debunk the possibility.

When “Mother Knows Best” gets its reprise, the old woman’s motivation for singing the song is basically the same as before. She’s trying to get Rapunzel to go back into hiding. However, the audience gets to see more of the old woman’s ruthlessness and a cutting cruelty that comes out in her choice of manipulative tactics and the tone of her voice. She sings “Rapunzel knows best” mockingly to guilt trip the girl and plant some doubt saplings so that it will be easier to get her away from Flynn later. It works, of course, when the old woman’s machinations come to fruition later on, so the audience gets to see the old woman’s darker nature gradually become more apparent.

The love song in the lantern release scene doesn’t seem to do much to develop the story at first, but clever use of alternation between Rapunzel and Flynn (a tactic also used to good effect in Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King) makes it work. Rapunzel starts the song, but her lyrics seem obvious and again suffer from lack of expressiveness on the singer’s part. When Flynn comes into the song, however, the audience learns that he’s just had an epiphany. His repetition and modifications of some of Rapunzel’s lyrics tie the song neatly into the story and his character development in particular. It’s a turning point, the moment when the thief comes to realize that the girl has become more important to him than the comfortable life he dreamed of as an orphan. Rapunzel’s lack of a powerful, expressive voice is less damaging in this song, too; it meshes very well with Flynn’s, which can be taken symbolically to imply chemistry between them.

I can only conclude that the songs don’t always serve the storytelling admirably, though there are exceptions. Even when a song does serve expositional purposes, the fact that the heroine’s voice actor can’t seem to get emotion across very well when singing usually damages the impact. Sometimes the songs raise questions about the story that go unanswered. The songs complement each other poorly. And on top of all that, they stand in contrast to a score which has none of these problems. The general lack of cohesion from song to song and between song and story weakens the movie as a whole.

Stand by for part two, which will not be over 3,000 words long.

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