Friday, 10 December 2010
The last decade hasn't been especially kind to the Disney animation fan. The annual triumphs of the folks at PIXAR aside, the in-house output of Walt Disney Animation Studios has been lacklustre as the once dominant studio have struggled to remain relevant in the 'Toy Story' inspired age of computer animation. Prior to this year, the 2002 film 'Lilo & Stitch' was probably their last genuinely good feature. Then, after the commercial disasters of 'Treasure Planet' and 'Home on the Range', Disney began making their own forgettable computer animations: 'Chicken Little', 'Meet the Robinsons' and 'Bolt'. Things seemed bleak until, earlier this year, Disney restored a lot of faith with 'The Princess and the Frog' - a return to the type of hand-drawn animated musical which defined the 90s renaissance - which did well with critics and at the box office. Given this success, it seemed a shame that their next film 'Tangled', an adaptation of the Rapunzel Grimm fairy tale and the studios 50th feature, would be yet another computer animation... and in 3D.
But as with buses, you wait for ages only for two to show up at once. 'Tangled' is brilliant, possibly better even than 'The Princess and the Frog' and certainly one the best Disney animations of the last ten years. Unlike the studio's other computer animations, which lacked any real character and seemed to bear little relation to the Disney style of old, 'Tangled' feels exactly like a 1990s classic in the mold of 'Beauty and the Beast' or 'The Hunchback of Notre Damme': in terms of the film's design, the quality of the animation, the timeless appeal of the source story and with the songs composed by Alan Menkin. Like all classic Disney the pacing is exactly right too with action, gags, musical numbers and romantic sequences all balanced well, leaving the whole thing feeling like an example of perfect story telling economy. Uncle Walt himself would approve.
This telling of the Rapunzel story has it that the titular girl's long, blonde locks possess magical healing properties. It is for this reason that she is stolen from her parents (here a king and queen) as a baby and spirited away to an isolated tower by a vain old hag named Gothel, who wishes to use Rapunzel's hair to keep herself forever youthful. Running parallel to this story is that of Flynn Rider, a scoundrel who has stolen a valuable crown from the palace in his latest daring heist. On the run from the guards - and from a couple of gangmates whom he betrayed - Flynn stumbles upon the tower and is soon a bewildered Rapunzel's prisoner. Rapunzel, who has been told that the outside world is far too dangerous for her, hides Flynn's valuable prize and forces him to escort her safely out of her tower so she can see the world outside. Gothel comes back to find she has gone and pursues, whilst Flynn continues to evade the law.
If I was surprised to find a computer animated in-house Disney film of this high quality, then I was even more surprised to find that it was in many ways technically the most advanced computer animation I've yet seen - dare I say it, even surpassing PIXAR. The lighting, water and fabric effects are staggeringly well done in 'Tangled' as is, perhaps unsurprisingly, hair. Though the charm of character animation is what really sets this film apart, so in keeping is it with the studio's traditions: a transformative melding of the old with the new. Generally human people look best in animated films if they are heavily stylised, whilst realistic people, such as those seen in the ugly rotoscope animations of Robert Zemeckis ('The Polar Express', 'Beowulf' and 'A Christmas Carol'), suffer from the uncanny valley effect and look unsettling and unappealing.
PIXAR have had their own trouble with this in the past: when we see people in the original 'Toy Story', they are stiff looking and unconvincing. It took almost ten years before they felt confident to make their first feature length film about recognisably human characters, 'The Incredibles' in 2004, and then they were highly stylised caricatures. Tellingly for 'Wall-E' PIXAR chose not to animate the film's recognisably "human" character at all, and instead used a live-action actor, only using computer animation to bring to life the devolved, more cartoonish, future humans. Similarly, for 'Tangled' the approach has been to create cartoon characters rather than humans, but even better than that: unlike those present in 'Meet the Robinsons' (who could sit comfortably in a Nickelodeon TV series) these are recognisably Disney creations. These characters go well with the bright and lush world in which they are placed, with its blue skies and green grass and the design of the whole picture manages to create a vibrant fantasy kingdom that feels as though it has burst from the pages of a Grimm fairy tale, very Disney whilst definitely retaining something Gothic at its core.
Rapunzel herself (voiced by a disarming Mandy Moore) is wonderful to watch, the picture of girlish "cuteness", with her disproportionate eyes in her huge head. She is an incredibly expressive and entirely likable creation, and one of the most fun Disney princess characters. She is sharp, funny and, as is typical of the modern heroine, extremely feisty. Her "prince" is equally good to watch. Voiced by Zachary Levi, Flynn Rider narrates the tale and is our post-modern anti-hero. He refuses to sing and dance and isn't taken in by all the warmth and sentimentality. If Rapunzel is a less helpless version of Belle or Ariel, then Flynn is Aladdin combined with the more recent Prince Naveen. He is quick-witted and agile, stealing to survive (and for sport), but he is also extremely narcissistic. With Naveen in 'The Princess and the Frog' and Flynn in 'Tangled', Disney have successfully rejuvenated the once dull "prince" character, so long considered a thankless task among animators.
The obligatory, toyetic animal sidekick characters - a violent, yet cowardly chameleon and a determined and moralistic white horse - are likewise superbly well animated. Particularly the horse, who is terrifically funny with his proud stride and his vendetta against Flynn, whom he hunts prodigiously. 'Tangled' allows itself some truly silly moments no longer really seen in animation as things have become more sophisticated and less exaggerated. In one scene Flynn has a sword fight with the horse, turning to Rapunzel and saying proudly, "You should know that this is the strangest thing I've ever done!" Whilst another very funny sequence sees a group of murderous ruffians burst into a brilliant song called "I've Got a Dream", in which they all state that they'd rather become interior decorators or concert pianists than tough fighters. It is a song that recalls Howard Ashman's lyrics for "Gaston" in 'Beauty and the Beast' as much as the animated sequence channels Monty Python and Mel Brooks.
Then there is the evil Gothel, who Rapunzel believes to be her mother for the majority of the film which leads to an interesting dynamic between them - one that seems to be of very genuine love between the hero and villain. Gothel is one of the most properly horrifying Disney villains. After all, she abducts a child whom she keeps locked in a tower for eighteen years. Also the fact that her power is derived from years of manipulation and brainwashing is far scarier a concept than magic or violence.
'Tangled' shares one of its co-directors, Byron Howard, with Disney's last computer animated, 3D film 'Bolt' and, like 'Bolt', the use of 3D in 'Tangled' is restrained and tasteful rather than eye-popping. With the exception of some floating lanterns, things are rarely made to fly out of the screen at you and instead the extra dimension is employed to allow depth. As with 'Bolt' 3D is also occasionally used to make self-referential jokes (it is harder for a chameleon to hide in a 3D cartoon than a 2D one after all) but this is still not done so overtly as to be distracting. Does this film need to be in 3D? Of course not. Nothing needs to be in 3D - or at least nothing worth watching. But the 3D does add depth and, for the moment at least, is still a fun gimmick when used with animated films (live action 3D tends to give me a headache and the motion blur is awful during action).
For years I've been a hand-drawn snob who felt that by going over to computer animation Disney had lost their way - along with all of their charm. 'Tangled' has won me over wholeheartedly, putting a recognisably Disney style into computer animation for the first time. If they keep this up, the studios identity crisis might finally be over and the problem of differentiating Walt Disney Animation Studios from their more lauded cousins PIXAR might finally be solved. I'm still glad to see that Disney have hand drawn projects in the works, as next April sees the release of the beautiful looking 'Winnie the Pooh', for instance. But now I don't think the studio's future depends on taking that old fashioned route. In fact alternating between computer animation and hand-drawn (hopefully as material warrants) might keep both art forms from out staying their welcome a second time on Disney's watch.
'Tangled' is released in the UK on January 28th 2011 and has been rated 'PG' by the BBFC.