Oh What A Tangled Web We Weave

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When you think about all the changes in Disney animation in the last 25 years, you probably start to get a bit numb to it all.  One day the studio is reviving itself with a line up of some of the best animated movies ever made with features like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King.  Then this upstart studio, Pixar, changes the game with something that although it had been tried before, had never been done so well in Toy Story.  Months later Disney buys Pixar and the whole of Animated movies switches in this direction for years to come.

Every animated theater out there wanted their Toy Story.  And while they all chased this dream, and some even succeeded, this push toward heavy completely computerized animation started to kill off the classic hand drawn Disney animation that we had grown up loving.  Last year Disney tried to revive the “lost art” with the movie The Princess and the Frog.  In a lot of ways this movie was successful, but in many ways it failed too.  Disney played it way too safe, like a child wading into the pool for the first time.  They forgot that it wasn’t their first time, and the movie suffered for it.

This year however they got smarter with the release of Tangled.  If you’ve not yet seen the movie I’m sure you’re doubtful and skeptical.  But when people are rushing home from the movies to record their views and posting their love for the movie all over Twitter and Facebook, you have to start to think that maybe something has changed, a corner has been turned.  Many are after all the same people who love Belle, Ariel, Jasmine, Cinderella, and Snow White.  So just what is it that makes this movie so different.

Well for starters lets look at the animation of the movie.  Years back Glen Keane realized something needed to change.  That in order to save hand drawn animation, there had to be a partnership made between it and computer animation.  He wanted to see hand drawn art begin to be the driving force behind the computer graphics, instead of just creating 3D models and letting the computers drive the look and feel of the movie.  Have it become a canvas for the pencil rather than the pencil itself.

One place where this was most evident was the ceilings in Rapunzel’s tower.  Ordinarily when you see paintings or walls in animation or otherwise, the wall appears mostly flat.  However, here you’ll see walls that aren’t just flat surfaces of color depicting a pattern.  These walls have life and a touch of reality built in that was amazing.  A porous, uneven surface, colors that showed differing brushstrokes with varying layers of paint.  Rapunzel’s artwork was brought to life by Glen Keane’s daughter Claire and the effort showed.

After cutting her deal with Flynn Rider, it’s time for Rapunzel to leave the tower where she’s been locked away since she was a child.  In doing this she slides down her hair, and in that moment I realized how truly magical that hair is.  And I don’t just mean in the sense that it glows, can heal people, and can make people young again.  No, I mean pure computer graphics magic.  Hair is a tricky thing to make look real when it’s drawn – whether by a person or a computer.  Several years ago, because of Tangled, Keane set out to have his group tackle this problem.  What you’re seeing is the result, and that result is amazing – the hair looks real.

Moments later, Rapunzel sets her foot down on the ground and the attention to detail is amazing.  There are blades of grass that are distinct and different from one another, moving an reacting appropriately as her feet wriggle in the ground for the first time.  Wildflowers are all over as well.  It looks real enough that if you couldn’t tell Rapunzel herself was an animated character you might otherwise think it was.  This attention to detail and realism show how far along computer graphics has come since Toy Story.

The characters themselves also look fantastic. A happy medium has finally been found between the world of 2D hand drawn animation and the 3D animation we see in the Pixar films.  Sure you could have watched this movie in 3D, but you don’t really need to.  The benefits are small because the animation itself is that good – it doesn’t need a gimmicky and currently overused crutch of 3D.  I seriously think that Disney has reached a point in computerized animation where they’ve achieved Keane’s goal.  Don’t get me wrong, I’d seriously miss hand drawn animated Disney movies if they went away, but animation like this is something I could live with as an alternative.

Of course, how the movie looks isn’t all there is to it.  The story is fantastic adaptation of the Grimm version of the Rapunzel fairy tale (it bears mentioning that there are several).  Aspects of it are woven throughout the story told in the movie, but in very subtle ways.  The flower and the tear are two examples, both are there and very similar to the original tale, but changed enough that you might not recognize them. This is, like many Disney animated classics, a character piece.  It’s also a story about a girl becoming a woman and meeting her boy who thinks he’s a man, but becomes one instead.

Rapunzel is a bit timid, and a bit shy, but knows what she wants in the world.  Or at least she thinks she does.  For sure she wants out, she’s been locked up in her tower since she was a child.  Each year, on her birthday these magical lights appear, and she’s decided she wants to go see them.  She asks her “mother”, Mother Gothel, if she can go.  And with a very dark and eerie musical number titled “Mother Knows Best” Mother Gothel explains why Rapunzel can’t go.  And naturally she’s upset.

By contrast, Flynn “Eugene” Rider is an outspoken individual who also happens to be a wanted felon.  He thinks he’s well on his way to getting what he wants.  After all if you can’t earn you way to the top, you steal it instead, right?  (wrong kids, completely wrong)  Eventually he crosses paths with Rapunzel, and she blackmails him into helping her go see the lights.  And from there the movie happens (sorry trying not to spoil too much).

The simple fact of the matter is that both these characters only think they know what they want.  What they don’t realize, much like a certain Princess Tiana, usually what you want in life is not always what you need.  And throughout much of the story they both spend so much time focused on what they think they want, they don’t realize until a very key point in the movie that right there, before them, they’ve both found what they need.  Each other.  And compared to that, what they wanted before no longer really matters.

Our story would not be complete without their supporting characters.  This movie has two animal sidekicks, a chameleon named Pascal, and a horse named Maximus.  Neither character has a single piece of dialog in the entire movie, they both rely on anthropomorphism, pantomime, and facial expressions to tell you everything you need to know about them.  Pascal, who is Rapunzel’s pet, is the strong sure of himself sort, much like Flynn, who you can infer has been Rapunzel’s confidant for some time.  Maximus is the leader of the horses of the palace guard.  He is part bloodhound, brave, and sure.  And for me, the most enjoyable character of the movie.  The time and effort the animators put into Maximus is amazing, and he shines for it.

And lest we forget the rogues gallery found at that fine establishment the Snuggly Duckling.  This group of villainy shows it’s true side when Rapunzel asks them if any of them have ever had a dream.  Then, in what is my favorite musical piece in the movie, they break into the song “I’ve Got A Dream” where we learn, in a way very similar to the song “Stick to the Status Quo” from High School Musical, that things are not always what they appear.  If Maximus wasn’t such an amazingly strong character, these guys would have completely stolen the show.

I loved this movie.  It was really a turning point for Disney’s completely computer animated movies.  They’ve really set the standard high with this one.  I can only hope that they will exceed it every time and continue to wow us, and I look forward to what Disney has in store for us in the future.

What about you? Have you seen Tangled?  What did you think?  Who was your favorite character?  What was your favorite musical piece?  Don’t any of you have a dream?

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Posted on December 2, 2010

24 Responses to “Oh What A Tangled Web We Weave”

  • I agree with you completely. It’s rare that the end credits to a movie roll and I automatically want to see it again, but this one got me. The animation is gorgeous. For me, it was rapunzel’s dress that did it — so beautiful and well-detailed. And I loved how strong Rapunzel was, without it being pounded over our heads. She was a girl, and shy and sheltered, but every time the situation demanded it, she was able to think of a solution and save herself ( and often Flynn, to).

    This movie deserves to be a huge hit. I am hoping it is, anyway, so that Disney can see that it doesn’t have to forsake female characters to win a broad audience.

    • Thanks! And yes, the dress is also another great thing. Another place for the textures is the costumes of the rogues at the Snuggly Duckling. I completely agree that Rapunzel is a mix of naive and smart that helps the movie along.

  • I´ve heard a lot of people claim that there are some hand-painted backgrounds mixed into the CG-images. Does anybody have some info about that? Is it true, or are those people just confusing the (abondoned) initial concept of “moving oil paintings” with the released movie?

    • That might be. As I mentioned above the key goal that they went with was to create CG that was drawn by a person rather than completely through modeling and ray tracing. The paintings that we do see are hand drawn, just in CG not on paper first (or a 2D computer drawing tool)

  • We saw this movie a month ago in 3-D, as a sneak preview – 2 adults, 2 children. We all LOVED it. I am not a fan of 3-D, either – thinking it is too gimmicky; but it did work for this film. My favorite scene was the ‘escape’ and ensuing schizophrenia. I just laughed non stop. The script was well written and the characters were quite good. THUMBS UP!

  • Don’t kill me. I like the computer-animated films – in fact “Toy Story 3″ was one of my favorite movies this year – but as much as I wanted to love it, I just wasn’t bowled over by “Rapunzel.” I realize “Princess and the Frog” has its detractors, but at the end of that movie my kids were dancing, I bought a few of the songs off of iTunes and I bought the DVD the first day it was out. I just didn’t feel like “Rapunzel” had as much heart to it, and while I still thought it was good (and the computer animation was beautiful) I felt like there was something missing. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it just didn’t do it for me the way I had hoped it would. The voice actors make a huge difference to me, and while I think Mandy Moore, etc. did a fine job, I just don’t think they had the heft (talent?) of more veteran actors like Anika Non Rose and Keith David, as just two examples.

    • I think that Rapunzel is a win in both story and visual appeal. But I completely agree that Princess and the Frog was a better musical movie – it simply had better songs. Not that Rapunzel has bad songs, they’re just not as good.

  • I always love the animated movies of Disney… and my kids love it too. That is what is so amazing with Disney films it is for all ages. Just lately I have seen the Toy Story 3 and the story is so amazing and I did cry. I am so excited to see this Tangled Movie.

    • You will enjoy it. It’s not a tearjerker though. It’s just a ton of fun.

      • Yes, it´s not a tearjerker – but there are some scenes that could very well bring some women to tears (of course not a grown up man like me, never, no way, not a chance in the world… :-)

        • Nope, not at all… /me passes out tissues

          • Hi Todd! I am back and I have seen the movie already. The story is just fine but I feel something is missing. I don’t know maybe I expected to much, what do you think? I am actually comparing it with the past Disney movies that I have seen and yah there is really something missing or lacking.

          • Hi again Alicia, it really had a lot for me, but at the same time I do see that it’s not for everyone. The romance is there, but it’s not Beauty and the Beast or Lady and the Tramp level romance. It’s something a bit different. In fact, it’s much more akin to movies like Enchanted or Ella Enchanted in terms of story and romance presentation.

  • Against all odds, I managed to escape the black hole my job has become and see Tangled on Sunday night. I absolutely loved it. There was nothing I thought was half-done–the story, the art work, the character development, and the music. It was glorious. I cannot imagine watching the lantern scene in 2D. Has anyone seen both the 2D and 3D who could comment on how it translates?

    • Hi Janet (a.k.a. she who shares my birthday) – I’m glad you got out to see it, and I’m even more glad that you liked it.

    • I have seen the 2D version,and I did like it a lot – 3D is, IMO, just an unnecessary distraction, and I also don´t like the darkening effect of the glasses. I admit that sometimes, nice effects can be achieved, and I´m sure the lantern scene is nice in 3D – but generally, I avoid 3D versions whenever possible (plus my girlfriend gets a terrible headache from 3D, so whenever we see a movie together, it´s always the 2D version).

      • Right… I think there’s too much “3D for the sake of 3D” stuff out there. OTOH you do have movies like Avatar where the story is completely not worth it, but it’s all 3D eye candy.

        Then I consider that Tron Legacy will be a must in 3D because we’ve already been told that the real world in the movie will be 2D but the Grid will be 3D. Which is a great idea.

  • Todd,
    We finally got around to seeing Tangled last night and I have to agree–it’s incredible. My favorite bit was the “I have Dreams” scene–over the top! What really struck me about the animation was the water when the dam burst. That was when I stopped and thought, “Wow!”
    Has anyone else noticed subtle references to earlier princesses, or was it just my wife and me? There’s a spinning wheel in the tower (Sleeping Beauty), at one point, Mother Gothel picks up an apple from a basket and sets it back (Snow White), and there’s a mannequin for a dress in the tower (Cinderella). All of these things seemed to random to have been by accident. We looked for references to Beauty and the Beast, Little Mermaid, Mulan, and Princess and the Frog, but didn’t catch them if they’re there.

  • when rapunzel sings the finale of her leaving the tower, a bunch of birds fly out by her hands into the sun, much like jasmine in aladdin

  • Our family loved the movie, even our 3 year old boy. My wife and I both agreed that the best part of the movie was the ending which is truly Disney – they were together in a castle and lived happily ever after.