Tangled, a milestone marker on a strange and interesting journey taken by Disney, is really the movie this production company should have come out with back when the powers that be decided to retire their traditionally animated features in favor of computer-animated ones. But the road that led them through that path was fraught with bad timing and worse decisions -- having strayed far away from their initial claim to fame (princess stories and fairy tales), their last traditionally animated movie was the poorly received zany comedy Home on the Range (2004). Blaming the "outdated" media for their failures, they rebooted their animation department, which then produced the computer animated zany comedy Chicken Little (2005) -- fairly successful, but not in the league of the more successful Pixar and DreamWorks releases. Also, it was not well-received by critics.
Disney would sputter out two more animated films of no particular distinction, but, under the guidance of Pixar's pioneer John Lasseter, the studio would find itself back to its original princess/fairy tale bread and butter. Last year they released The Princess and the Frog in glorious traditional animation. This year, Tangled, officially their 50th animated feature, finally marries computer animation to a treatment of a fairy tale (in this case, an adaptation of "Rapunzel"), and is the result of everything they've learned so far: that their brand matters.
Another way of putting this is to say audiences expect certain things from Disney, and are happy when they deliver. Tangled plays it very safe -- its story, about a girl who longs to see a fantastic sight outside of her "protective" home/prison, avoids complexities (her current mother kidnapped her when she was a baby, and though they may actually have a relationship there's no question the mother's wickedness is seen as irredeemable). The film boasts an assuring formula with stepmother-type villain, dashing hero and heroine, animal sidekicks, and musical numbers (and its ending seems actually a bit too neat). Its attitude is modern, its humor fast, and the movie appears aware of its role as a girl-empowerment vehicle. Its look reflects the familiar style of the Disney princess line -- though rendered in computer animation, the characters have large eyes and very expressive faces and body language.
The movie could have easily danced by in the hand-drawn style, fitting right in with its predecessors, but it represents a successful transition, finally, to the modern playing field while keeping the studio's identity intact. Tangled comes across as an entertaining movie that does its job well, yet its polish simultaneously gives it strength and limits it. The film suggests that audiences will be happy to watch these movies as long as Disney does exactly what they expect. At this point, the logical direction to move in would be to work off of this foundation and expand from it, stretching its formula while not straying so far away from it in visionless roaming as was the case in the last decade. Yes, easier said than done, but consider Tangled newfound solid footing.
(Released by Walt Disney Pictures and rated "PG" for brief mild violence.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.