Thursday, September 29, 2011

Disney All Tangled Up In Wanting to Repeat Pixar's Success

Pixar is the undisputed king of animated features, and has had an iron grip on the crown since the original Toy Story. It is a lofty position that was once proudly held by Disney. Now, I realize that Pixar is owned by Disney, and most people see them as essentially the same entity. Even though Pixar is part of the Disney umbrella, it is better seen as a company owned by Disney rather than actually being Disney. Pixar has its own animation studio and own group of staff that produce its pictures. Plus as long as Disney keeps making animated films under the Disney banner, I'm going to see them as separate animation studios.

You look at the films produced under the Disney name over the past ten years, and you'd see rather different films than those produced as Pixar during the same period. Both are animated films that are trying to appeal to children and families, but Pixar has created the type of cred that will draw in teens and adults not accompanying children. Pixar films are always considered possible nominees for Best Picture. They're essentially the type of film that grown-ups have no problem discussing or admitting they like. Disney animated films typically don't get that same leeway (or at least, among most adult males).

Tangled was clearly Disney's attempt to gain Pixar like success. Their prior film Princess and the Frog didn't do as well as hoped in the box office, and so Tangled was going to be the film that propelled Disney back on top. The strategy was to make a film that looked and felt like a Pixar film as much as possible. It was computer animated just like all Pixar films, and the characters and scenery's style resembled what you'd expect from Pixar. It was full of pop culture references and 'winks' to current events/culture. It had humour that appeals to children, but also throws a few bones to amuse the adults. It eschewed standard children storytelling and adopted atypical heroes (a hallmark of Pixar if you look at most of their main stars). It leaned more to a liberal mindset with the characters employed and how genders were portrayed, unlike most of Disney's more conservative depictions (though Princess and the Frog was an attempt to be more culturally open by having the main character be an African American). You wrap all those different elements into one package, and you have a film that resembles something by Pixar rather than Disney.

But did Tangled really measure up to the powerhouse animated spectaculars by Pixar?

Tangled
is a retelling of the fairy tale Rapunzel, but adds a few twists and spins on the classic tale. Instead of a dashing prince, the man to meet Rapunzel at the tower is a rogue thief. This shows a different type of Disney film right there, as there isn't really a lot that is honest or good about Flynn Rider. He is more of your Han Solo type character who is charming and charismatic, but maybe not someone you want to trust right away. I know Disney has cast a thief as a main star before in Aladdin, but at least Aladdin was doing it in order to feed himself. Ryder does it because it beats getting a real job. It is a very different direction for Disney to cast an antihero in the leading position, and it does allow for a more refreshing take on the Rapunzel story. We've already had our fill of several Disney dashing princes.

The other big twist on the classic tale is that Rapunzel's hair is magical rather than just really long. It has the power to heal and even keep certain people young. This allows for a clear reason as to why Gothel keeps her up in the tower. Gothel also believes Rapunzel is her possession due to the fact Rapunzel's powers came about by a flower ingested by her mother, which Gothel had been using to remain young. This story point also allows for an interesting ambiguous relationship.

Unlike the fairy tale, Rapunzel doesn't know she is being held captive. She believes Gothel is her mother. She’s just a really over protective mother that won't allow her to go out of the house. Gothel seems kind to her for the most part, and at the beginning of the story they seem to have a decent relationship. Or at least, as decent as a relationship one can have with a parent who shelters her daughter. Rapunzel seems to love who she believes is her mother, and Gothel seems to have real feelings for Rapunzel. It isn't your obvious evil witch capturing helpless maiden scenario. If anything Ryder starts off as the clearer villain, but the characters and relationship develop as the story progresses.

Tangled has made a valiant effort at presenting a different type of animated fairy tale. The humour appeals to both kids and adults. The characters aren't cookie cutter, but rather deeply layered. The film is progressively minded and doesn't fit into the type of conservative or sexism Disney has been accused of in the past. But it is still just a really good Disney film rather than in the league of Pixar.

I felt the storyline wasn't deep or complex as some Pixar films. The resolution at the end was a little too quick and neat. For a film that had layered and deep characters, it was sort of disappointing that the climax was your more traditional good versus evil Disney fare. The humour is strong and will appeal to adults, but it isn't as witty or snappy as it is with Pixar. Of course, this isn't Pixar and it's Disney. In the end, you are reminded by that fact by storytelling and scripting that isn't as tight and fresh.

I do want to add that there is one things about this film that I really loved. Disney has a habit of casting a female lead that is often in desperate need of a male to come to her rescue. Even if she is strong and independent, in the end it is the male who ends up being the hero. Not this time. Rapunzel is the true hero of this film. She is smart, independent, resourceful and strong willed. She has the ability and skills to protect herself. Actually, she ends up protecting Rider too. It's still refreshing when the female ends up being the stronger character and also the protector of the male. It is great that young girls actually have a strong fictional character to look up to. Rapunzel is the type of person that has the potential to run her own company or be more than happy living on her own. She is one of the rare female princesses in the Disney universe that I'd want my potential daughter to aspire to be like.

Tangled is entertaining. . . for a children's animated film. This is different than most Pixar films, which can stand up to any adult fare when it comes to strong storytelling and writing. It is a different type of Disney film and one that shows the company is growing. They're willing to do a few things different. They've made a more progressive and unique film that doesn't fit the mold they established decades ago. Tangled may not measure up to some of the animated Pixar juggernauts of the past few years, but it still is an absolutely magical way to spend a few hours with the whole family.

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