Movie Review - Tangled

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Nathan Greno, Byron Howard
Walt Disney Animation Studios
for brief mild violence

Everyone walks into a movie with presuppositions about its style, worldview and whatnot. Mine, walking into Tangled, were that I was probably about to see crass feminism paired with a comedic mixture of lust and cowardice in an “unlikely” love/hate relationship that would end by showing the world their worth, and a good deal of their skin—all in a DreamWorks-quality picture just masquerading as a Disney masterpiece. The trailers and posters tended that way. Well, everyone has presuppositions, and those were mine. But, as happens from time to time (I’m not always wrong), the movie surpassed my expectations. The romance really didn’t have any tension to it, and both of the main characters proved willing to sacrifice their very lives for each other. Neither of them were out to prove anything to the world; Flynn actually had fewer vices than I thought he would; and Rapunzel ended up being Disney’s most clothed princess since Snow White. I was pleasantly surprised. Imagine my further surprise at discovering that Rapunzel is more than just a repressed teenager. She’s a home-educated, domestically-competent “stay-at-home daughter” who truly loves and respects her protective mother.

Right about now, you’re thinking there must be a catch to all this. And you’re absolutely right.

Violent and Intense Content:

The movie begins with this statement: “This is the story of how I died.” Well, actually, we’ll deal with that in Worldview. Suffice it to say, for now, that it’s not your typical G-rated opening line.

The narration is from the other main character of the Rapunzel story; not the prince, but the thief (and, yes, we’ll come back to that one, too), Flynn Rider. As a thief, his job description includes falling from great heights, encountering the occasional skeleton in a dark passage, and getting hit in the head several times with a frying pan. Extracurricular activities involve remarking with fascination about all the blood on a thug’s mustache, fighting a handful of royal guards with the aforementioned frying pan, and running with Rapunzel from a bursting dam only to be trapped in a cave with the water level rising. And, in consequence of his numerous felonies, he ends up being led to the gallows to be hanged for his crimes. But don’t worry; that’s not how he dies. Here comes the PG part: he gets stabbed to death. And that’s the end of Flynn Rider (well, temporarily). It’s a rather graphic segment for a kids’ audience, what with one little thing and another (the knife, the blood, the death, etc.).

Rapunzel gets her share of the excitement, being chased by ruffian kidnappers, running from the burst dam, of course, and dealing with her wicked foster mother (another worldview element). Mother Gothel can have a fairly scary look about her when she sets her mind to it, and when combined with a creepy tone of voice and a “You want me to be the bad guy? Fine. Now I’m the bad guy,” it might very well give children nightmares. And if that might give them nightmares, they don’t even want to know about Mother Gothel being defeated at the end by transforming back into a hundreds-of-years-old witch, falling screaming from the tower window, and evaporating just as she hit the ground.

Sexual Content:
Now, it must be said that Mother Gothel doesn’t usually look hundreds of years old. Because of the magical properties of Rapunzel’s hair (we’ll get to all this stuff in time), she usually looks much younger, and takes advantage of it. In her case, this means wearing a red, fitted, bosom-revealing dress through the duration of the movie. As kind of an aside, we might mention that while Gothel has definitely got Rapunzel persuaded that she is her true mother, there is no hint of Mother Gothel ever having been married. She does, however, get marked attention from a man at one point in the story: a two and a half feet high, white-bearded, drunken thug in a cupid costume (you know: wings, no clothes but a bit of cloth around his loins). He flirts with her once; he appears in the movie several times in the same clothes. Yes, it is kind of weird.

Rapunzel does a bit better than her “mother” in several respects. First off, her costume is less revealing, though not necessarily up to the standards of the viewers. She also seems to attract less-repulsive men. Not that she doesn’t sometimes find Flynn repulsive, at first. His smiles don’t have quite the alluring effect he intended, and when he turns to his usually-successful “smolder”1 (that is, his non-verbal offer to kiss her), all it gets him is another whack with the frying pan from the nervous Rapunzel. After that, though, their relationship pretty much starts over again at the beginning—getting to know each other, getting to like each other; after thirty-six hours, they’re to the almost-kiss-while-he-caresses-her-face phase, and forty-eight hours takes them to kissing like a married couple.

Now here’s where the catch comes in. Once upon a time, a drop of sunlight fell to earth and created a magic flower which, if prayed to with the right incantations, did a lot of great things for your health. We then encounter the witch who comes and prays to the flower every night to make her turn young again. Here’s the problem with this part: the magic can be used by both the bad guys and the good guys, so we definitely don’t have a sorcery-is-bad message. As the story progresses, Rapunzel’s mother is healed by the flower, Rapunzel is born with its magical properties infused into her hair, and the witch kidnaps her; but it is Rapunzel who usually does the praying and healing. The prayer goes something like this: “Flower, gleam and glow/Let the power shine, etc., etc., etc. Change the fate’s design/Save what has been lost, etc., etc., etc.” Besides rejuvenating Mother Gothel every day, this prayer does things like heal Flynn when he gashes his hand, or when he—oh, I don’t know—say, gets stabbed to death. The power to bring Flynn back from the dead is all owing to the mystical power of the sun. Needless to say, there are images of the sun all over the place in that kingdom. Not that that has any religious significance. There are a couple of mystical references to fate, destiny, etc.

But now we have to back up. Okay, we’re back at the first scene where Rapunzel is grown up. There’s a song that goes in here, about how much time she has on her hands after sweeping, doing the laundry, mopping, reading, painting, playing guitar, knitting, cooking, baking, chess, candle-making, sketching and sewing. And that is literally only the half of her activities. Rapunzel is evidently the possessor of the superhuman organizational abilities people presuppose when they ask stay-at-home daughters “What do you do all day?” For Rapunzel, there is nothing to do but while away the hours, purposelessly, and wonder “When will my life begin?” The problem with this is, that’s what a lot of people already think of stay-at-home daughters. And they’re mistaken.

Now we move ahead a couple of minutes to the part where Rapunzel asks Mother Gothel to let her go outside to see the lights in the sky (which we know to be lanterns) which appear every year on her birthday. It’s a matter of deep concern. It’s a dream of hers, in fact, and very meaningful. So then we get a villain-y song from Gothel which comes across as a mixture of classic Disney bad guy and stereotypical sarcastic parent. “You know why we stay up in this tower/To keep you safe and sound, dear… Mother knows best/Mother knows best, etc., etc., etc… Me, I’m just your mother, what do I know?/I only bathed and changed and nursed you/Go ahead and leave me, I deserve it/Let me die alone here, be my guest… On your own you won’t survive… immature… gullible, naïve… ditzy, etc., etc., etc.” Exit Gothel. Enter Flynn.

The first time we see Flynn, he’s in the middle of committing a felony. The next time we see him, he’s running from the royal guard, complaining in his vanity about unflattering wanted posters, double-crossing his accomplices, and finally escaping into Rapunzel’s tower… to be knocked out with a frying pan. Enter Mother Gothel.

Rapunzel tries to get Gothel to soften about letting her outside, but she keeps getting cut short with more of the “You’re not strong enough” material. “You think I’m not strong enough,” says Rapunzel. Then says Gothel, in a stereotypical-wearied-parent tone of voice, “Great. Now I’m the bad guy.” (Yes, the line is repeated for dramatic emphasis later in the movie). At that point, Rapunzel gives in… which means that she decides not to tell her mother about the unconscious man in her closet, and, lying about the reason, sends her on a three-day trip so that she can escape and go see the lanterns. Exit Gothel. Enter Flynn.

Rapunzel and Flynn make a bargain. He will escort her to see the lanterns, and she will give him back what he just stole from the royal palace. He’s on the side with all the risk, but she assures him with the utmost gravity that “When I make a promise, I never break that promise—ever.” Never mind her disobedient schemes and her ploy to get rid of her mother. So they leave the tower, and in a reprise of the first song, Rapunzel—on the verge of deliberately disobeying her mother—asks herself whether she should do it, says no, and then immediately adds “Here I go!” Then, when she’s on the ground, she announces with delight that “for like the first time ever, I’m completely free!… finally feeling/Now’s when my life begins!” Voila: get out from under your parents’ authority, and you can actually start living… until the guilt sets in. Comical mood swings (joy, guilt, joy, guilt, joy, guilt) are reasoned away by 1) calling Gothel an “overprotective mother,” 2) saying that “this is part of growing up—a little rebellion, a little adventure—this is healthy… you’ll break her heart, but you just gotta do it,” and 3) distracting Rapunzel with a visit to the den of thugs.

This is Disney. So “thugs” doesn’t mean “bad guys.” “Guards” means “bad guys.” “Thugs” means, “criminals who are basically misunderstood.” There’s a song about that. “I’m malicious, mean and scary… And violence-wise, my hands are not the cleanest… I do like breaking femurs… But despite my evil look/ And my temper… I’ve got a dream, etc., etc,. etc,… Tor would like to quit and be a florist/Gunther does interior design/Ulf is into mime/Attila’s cupcakes are sublime/Bruiser knits/Killer sews… and Vladimir collects ceramic unicorns!” Note the traditionally feminine nature of most of those activities, just as an aside (masculine=bad, feminine=good). “So our differences ain’t really that extreme!/We’re one big team…! Call us brutal—sick—sadistic… We’ve got a dream! etc., etc., etc.” The message? Well, for one thing, you can escape from vicious thugs by telling them about your dream and appealing to their “humanity”… and criminals are victims of social prejudice who, despite their persistent interest in all things criminal, are really basically good people. Flynn, we might mention here, was a penniless orphan with a story-book hero and no one to believe in him; and while he is “redeemed” from his selfishness and love of money by Rapunzel’s love for him, his love for Rapunzel, and just being able to tell somebody what he’s been through, he remains a thief until a parenthetical epilogue note, which indicates that he does eventually stop stealing. Until that point, however, chronic theft (an unnecessary addition to the plot; being mistaken for a thief would have given the same storyline) is shown as cool and actually funny—as in, the theater audience laughed.

Now, enter Gothel, who has discovered the plot and been following Rapunzel and Flynn. Rapunzel at this point declares herself in an open rebellion of the worst kind—the “You don’t understand” rebellion. This prompts more sarcasm (and singing) from Gothel, who then exits.
Enter Flynn. Rapunzel finally gets to live her dream of seeing the paper lanterns, and sings a song about her life inside the tower (which, being interpreted, is her life at home with a sheltering parent). “All those years outside looking in/All that time never even knowing/Just how blind I’ve been… I’m where I’m meant to be/And at last I see the light, etc.” Exit Flynn, with a promise to come back.
Enter Gothel, who convinces Rapunzel that Flynn has broken his promise and left her. Brokenhearted Rapunzel runs into her mother’s arms and returns to the tower. Meanwhile, Flynn is captured by the evil guards (that is, any guards, when your hero’s a criminal), and led to the gallows. Death by hanging = too severe a punishment for the crime2. Too severe a punishment = Let the man go free. At least, that’s the way a viewer’s mind usually works in these situations. Enter thugs.

Back at the tower, Gothel is trying to persuade Rapunzel all over again that “The world is dark and cruel. If it finds even one ray of sunshine, it destroys it.” If we’re just talking about life outside Rapunzel’s room, the statement is untrue. But if, say, a Christian parent says something like this about the part of the culture that is at war with Christ, and tries to convince their doubtful teen-aged child that a culture that is at war with Christ is also at war with his people, the statement is true; it’s just not going to sound like it, after a movie like this. And the response, in that situation, might sound something like Rapunzel’s “You were wrong about the world, and you were wrong about me!”

Well, in a flurry of escape, capture, escape, sacrifice, love, dreams and sorcery, the story comes to an end. Rapunzel is reunited with her real parents (who, we are sure, will never have to deal with rebellion from Rapunzel… despite her previous rebellion against the woman she thought was her mother), the guards are reformed and, thanks to the leadership of a horse, “crime disappeared almost overnight.” Flynn’s criminal activities are never mentioned again… except to say that they did, eventually, stop.

The song at the end credits isn’t exactly something you’d want your little girls to be exposed to, day in and day out, either3.

There is one inconspicuous use of the minced oath “gosh.” There are numerous sarcasms, ironies, mouthings-off and insolent tones of voice that will now be repeated by little children all over the globe—some of them mimicking Rapunzel’s defiance of Mother Gothel, others mimicking Mother Gothel herself. Young children may not have the discernment to figure out which lines are wholesome and which aren’t, but they definitely know when something strikes them as funny—or when it made the adults laugh.

So, that’s the catch. Are there positive elements in Disney’s Tangled? Yes, indeed. But it wouldn’t take me nearly as long to list them out. What happens with a movie like Tangled is that the few, real, praiseworthy bits tend to make us forget, when the happy ending has faded into the end credits, all the bad things. And maybe some of those bad things can be reasoned away. Maybe some of them can be handled pretty well by mature children. Maybe so. But they can’t all be reasoned away, and if we have to spend the entire movie “handling” the numerous negative messages, just how much enjoyment are we going to get out of it? Even with the occasional positive message, it’s still the story of a sun-worshiping, rebellious daughter who has to rescue the cocky young thief-but-hero from a bunch of harsh, incompetent military men. And I believe it’s still a movie that’s going to adversely affect any young people who have even the smallest hint of arrogance, disrespect or filial distrust left in their hearts—or who are not mature enough to recognize all the differences between the biblical worldview and the worldview of Tangled. And if they really can recognize the differences, I don’t think they’re going to go on watching a movie like this for enjoyment’s sake, anyway.

Mature, mild-mannered young adults should be able to “handle” the movie just fine, once through, although I don’t recommend it. More than once through, you run the risk of letting the songs and one-liners get stuck in your head, which would be extremely unwise. Children just don’t need to be exposed to all this stuff in the first place.

1 Incidentally, after Flynn’s muffled declaration that Rapunzel “broke his smolder” with her nervous use of the frying pan, a little girl in the theater turned and asked her mother what a “smolder” was. They may not understand it, but they hear it.
2 Exodus 22:1-4
3 “I'm the girl with the best intentions/Something I should probably mention/I like to get just what I paid for/So I pay and I get and I pay and I want some more, more, more… Chorus: And I want something that I want/Something that I tell myself I need/Something that I want/I need everything I see… I'm the girl that's got a notion/I'm not gonna show you my magic potion/I could shop till I drop right to the floor/And I get right up and I want some more, more, more… (Repeat Chorus twice)”

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