What's happened to heroines in animated features? For 60 years of the Walt Disney Company's domination of the format, girls were the focal characters who could be expected to come of age, triumph over adversity and, in general, man up. But the current animation zeitgeist at Pixar, DreamWorks and Fox's Blue Sky (the Ice Age series) concentrates on buddy movies and has all but abolished female-centered stories. It can't be simply that the Cartoon Directors' Club is almost exclusively a male preserve, since the classic Disney films, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to Mulan, were also men-made. It may be that their bosses think girls will go to boys' movies but boys won't go to girls'. Feature animation is an expensive business, and gynocentric films are seen as a niche too small to be worth the cost.
At the Disney animation unit, now supervised by Pixar's John Lasseter, there's still a belief in girl power as shown, with spectacular élan and artistry, in last year's The Princess and the Frog and today in the pleasing, warming Tangled. It's the Brothers Grimm story of Rapunzel, imprisoned in a high tower by a witch, with the girl's long hair the witch's only means of access and egress. Under house arrest for years, agitating for her freedom, mourned by the kingdom that misses her, she's the Aung San Suu Kyi of fairy-tale heroines. Just a few differences: Rapunzel (voiced by Mandy Moore) has 70-ft.-long (21 m) tresses that can serve as a rope ladder; her jailer is not the Burmese government but the crone Gothel (Donna Murphy); and whereas Suu Kyi remained in confinement while her husband died of cancer in London, our princess finds a dashing thief, known as Flynn Ryder (Zachary Levi), to facilitate her escape.
Ever since Walt's day, Disney animators have thought that a musical film could be made from the Grimm brothers' story. It has the skeletal plot yearning heroine, wicked overseer and male savior of Disney cartoon epics in the studio's early years (Snow White, Cinderella) and its '90s renaissance (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast). As of 2005, Rapunzel Unbraided, as it was known, was to be the first feature directed by honored Disney animator Glen Keane. Five years later, in a history as long and twisted as its heroine's hair, there's finally a movie, with Byron Howard and Nathan Greno directing and Keane back in his customary role as character animator supreme.
The title was changed to Tangled because The Princess and the Frog was no great shakes at the box office and because Disney wanted to make the project seem less ... girlish. The trailers suggest that the movie is an action comedy about a roguish guy (Flynn) whose mission is to storm the tower and free the girl inside. But no: this is your basic, and very enjoyable, Disney princess musical, an empowerment tale to teach bright, dreamy girls how to grow to maturity and outgrow the adults in charge.
In the Grimm version, the husband in a childless couple sneaks into the garden of Gothel the witch to steal a flower that guarantees fertility; the witch catches him and demands the couple's firstborn, whom she raises as her captive daughter until a prince shows up, etc. (Ignored in all versions is this question: If Rapunzel can secure her tresses to a hook to allow the witch to climb up and down, why can't she hook the end of her coiffure and climb down it?) Here Gothel discovers that the girl's hair somehow brings eternal youth, or at least chic middle age, to an old witch. She can swan around as long as her victim stays locked up. Gothel knows the secret that many American parents act out but are slow to acknowledge: that confining their teens in enforced preadolescence helps them feel younger too.
As if uneasy at being left behind by the competition, this Disney near classic wades into the DreamWorks style of sitcom gags and anachronistic sass. ("Sorry, Blondie," Flynn tells Rapunzel at one point, "I don't do backstory.") But the visual palette is more sophisticated, especially in the scenes where sparkling nocturnal lanterns illuminate Rapunzel's birthday, and the film gradually achieves the complex mix of romance, comedy, adventure and heart that defines the best Disney features. The inevitable animal friends a horse for Flynn and a chameleon for Rapunzel radiate plenty of personality without speaking. Moore does well by her slightly underwritten role, while Murphy, a treasured musical-theater diva for a quarter-century (The Human Comedy, Song of Singapore, Passion, The King and I)) makes Gothel one of the most potent schemers in the Disney canon. Visually, the character suggests Bebe Neuwirth in her Morticia Addams get-up, but no one can summon the malice in humor, and the fun in pain, like this prima Donna.
Tangled is the first Disney animated feature since 1997 with music by Alan Menken, who scored most of the studio's renaissance films back when numbers from cartoon musicals not only monopolized the Academy Awards' Best Original Song category but also broke out as top-of-the-pops hits and instant standards. His The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, along with Elton John's The Lion King, became long-running Broadway shows. Tangled should be even easier to adapt to the stage, since for once the main characters are all human no singing teapots, monsters or meerkats required.
The songs, with lyrics by Glenn Slater, don't sound on first hearing like top-drawer Menken, but they smoothly fill their functions. The opener, "When Will My Life Begin," is the heroine's "I wanna" song, a Disney tradition that stretches back to Snow White's "Some Day My Prince Will Come." The witch's "Mother Knows Best" is a pot of poisoned honey from the killer queen bee. Menken and Slater also contribute a generically tuneful love ballad, "I See the Light," which is sure to be nominated for a Best Song Oscar, and a criminals' chorus called "I've Got a Dream." Proclaiming that every scurvy brigand is at heart just a Broadway gypsy between shows, it's the score's main example of roistering wit. The song will play superbly as the second-act opener in the stage version we're imagining, for which we can also award Murphy a just slightly premature Tony as Best Actress in a Musical.
First, though, the movie version has to be a hit. So give the kids a break from mopey Harry and the dawdling Hallows give yourself a break too and get caught up in Tangled.