With last year's perfectly pleasant 'The Princess and the Frog,' Disney stuck to its traditional hand-drawn animation and fairy-tale formula in an effort to emulate the likes of 'Beauty and the Beast,' 'Aladdin,' 'The Lion King,' and so on. For the studio's 50th animated feature, 'Tangled,' the usual princess pattern has been treated to a visual and verbal polish, and while the end result may not be an instant classic worthy of ranking alongside the aforementioned films, it's certainly a more satisfying showcase of derring-do, sweet romance and musical numbers in-between than we've seen from the Mouse House in quite some time.
When the queen of the land was pregnant and ill, she was healed by a special flower renowned for its rejuvenating powers, and once young Rapunzel was born, her hair held the same strength. However she was snatched up by the evil witch Gothel (voiced by Donna Murphy) and locked away in a tower, where Gothel alone could reap the rewards of the child's golden locks. Now, nearing the age of eighteen, Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) would like to leave, but would hate to hurt her so-called mother's feelings. In drops Flynn (Zachary Levi), a local thief who has picked the wrong place to hide, and it isn't long before she's flown the coop with a pet chameleon on her shoulder, and he's stuck serving as chaperone with a police horse on his trail.
Directors Nathan Greno and Byron Howard ('Bolt') have taken great care to evoke a classic storybook look, from the design of the characters' faces and costumes to the idyllic environments, themselves made all the more immersive by a well-rendered 3-D presentation (although wearing those glasses does dim the lush color palette on display). The action beats -- your usual fights, escapes and close calls -- are executed with as much finesse as the musical moments, and once composer Alan Menken's biggest ballad plays out amidst countless lanterns on a serene lake, it proves equally lovely to the eyes and ears. The rest of 'Tangled''s tunes range from motherly fear-mongering (belted out perfectly by the Tony-winning Murphy) to the requisite declaration of dreams; they're all quite good, if not (and not to rub it in) 'Beauty'-'Aladdin'-'Lion King' good.
Moore's Rapunzel is alternately spunky and spazzy (her first moments outside the tower amusingly reflect her bi-polar reaction to newfound freedom), and with Gothel proving to be such a perpetually passive-aggressive mother figure, it's no wonder that our blond princess-in-denial has some trust issues. (She arms herself with a frying pan, a weapon that grows increasingly handy as the film progresses.) A minor fuss was made of Disney's decision to change the title from 'Rapunzel,' for fear of scaring off demographics that couldn't care less about princesses, so not only is she a decidedly more proactive protagonist than, say, Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, but the focus of the story is ostensibly the mucho macho Flynn.
Flynn may be named after old-school Errol Flynn, but he seems to be modeled on a modern-day Chris Evans/Pine type, and his glib narration -- combined with a hasty prologue -- almost makes it feel like writer Dan Fogelman is trying too hard to make this a boys' AND girls' club. The voice-over tapers off, though, and Levi proves to be a suitably cocky foil to the neurotic love interest. Ron Perlman, M.C. Gainey, Brad Garrett and others lend appropriately gruff support as any number of fearsome foes and surprising softies, but not a single one of them manages to be nearly as funny as Maximus, the silent horse who comes across as Tommy Lee Jones in 'The Fugitive' with hooves before becoming a reluctant sidekick. His antics may stick out as being more indebted to "Looney Tunes" than anything else here, but they're hilarious all the same.
Perhaps 'Tangled' seems so refreshing because it's not trying so hard to be post-modern in the age of 'Shrek' sequels. Its humor is contemporary in tone at times, and just clever in general, but everything else about its execution hearkens back to those cherished tales of empowerment and enchantment that made the Disney name in the first place.