Like many of us, I’m a huge fan of traditional cel animation for films. Disney is one of the many studios that seems to be almost completely abandoning cel animation for full CG, which makes sense considering how much control the animators have over their product. No painstaking drawing of frame by frame. Simple manipulation of wire frame characters and suddenly you’ve got a scene (obviously there’s more to it than that, but the point remains). What seems to have been somewhat lost in this transition to CG is the traditional Disney princess trope that has been around forever. There was a bit of a revival in the past few years thanks to Enchanted and The Princess and the Frog (both of which, interestingly enough, had traditional cel animation), but we hadn’t seen anything before that since 1998’s Mulan (which wasn’t exactly stellar). Tangled, which is the 50th official Disney animated film (with a title card at the beginning denoting it as such and everything) is the first CG Disney film to take on the trope. And boy does it ever. To call the plot of Tangled ‘by the numbers’ would probably be an insult to the numbers. Absolutely nothing surprising happens until the end. Every beat is expected. All the same characters are there, from the roguish, down on his luck male protagonist to the imperiled princess to the evil stepmother to the anthropomorphic animals (in this case, a horse and a chameleon, who thankfully don’t have speaking roles). And yet, despite knowing EVEYTHING that was going to happen, it was pretty darned good.
The one thing that comes across when watching Tangled immediately is a prevailing sense of enthusiasm from everyone involved in the project. They know it’s not going to change lives, and they know that everyone knows what’s going to happen at all times, so they up the ante by filling every moment on screen with an irresistible energy. Mandy Moore and Zachary Levi do a fine job in the leading roles, with Donna Murphy being particularly awesome as the villainess of the picture. What’s most refreshing, though, is the way the animators made the active choice of making sure that the whole film feels like it’s cel animated, even if it isn’t. The way the characters move and interact with each other and the setting is strikingly similar to cel animation, and evokes the feel of a classic Disney animated film. Tangled is very much a throwback in this sense, a window into a mostly bygone era. Disney recently announced that they were going to shy away from fairy tale films unless they had some sort of unique take on things, which I wouldn’t even necessarily say is a bad move. In those 10 plus years between Mulan and The Princess and the Frog, I don’t think anyone was desperate for more princesses. But that doesn’t stop Tangled from being a fiendishly entertaining slice of nostalgia. Are the songs great? Not really. Is there an ounce of originality anywhere in the plot? Not as such. But there are certainly much worse films out there, and this is an excellent genre film execution of a formula.
Tangled was the second 3-D movie I saw in theaters. The first, Coraline, was a wonderful experience, and gave me hope for the format in general. Tangled, on the other hand, didn’t really do much for me. What I loved about Coraline was the sense of depth involved in the use of 3-D. Objects would pop out toward the audience, but they would also sink into the screen just as much, creating a sensation not unlike watching a play. Tangled’s 3-D plays out mostly in front of the screen, and while it’s fine on its own, it’s nothing special and certainly not worth the added ticket expense. Yes, there are some cool moments, such as a lantern floating tantalizingly close to the viewer, but it still feels fakey, forced. My initial opinion on 3-D animated films was that they were spurious at best; it just can’t be the same as photographing real three dimensional objects in space. There couldn’t be any real sense of depth that you can have with something you know is really there occupying three dimensions. It feels like a pop-up book instead of a play. It certainly didn’t ruin the experience or anything, but it’s not at all necessary. I don’t think we really need every film to be in 3-D, and part of me hopes that the 3-D aspect of Green Lantern fails in such a way to discourage people from abusing the technology. Obviously, when used with care it can have incredible results, but we’ve all seen what can happen when it isn’t implemented well. Tangled is sort of a middle ground. There’s nothing repulsive about the 3-D in a Clash of the Titans or The Last Airbender sort of way, but it definitely didn’t need to be in 3-D and didn’t really gain anything out of it beyond an inflated box office. And maybe that’s the point. But it’s not a very good one.