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After repeatedly seeing the trailer and various TV spots for Disney’s latest CG-animated feature, I found myself increasingly uninterested. It seemed like Disney was scraping the barrel. desperate for another (yawn) princess movie with a specific target audience that was clearly not me. Even taking the story of Rapunzel, who only had extra long hair going for her, seemed like a stretch and a snore fest. There was no possible way this could be interesting to me, much less provide anything unique or remotely exciting. Boy, do I ever love it when I’m wrong about a movie.

Tangled is a wonderfully entertaining motion picture, executed with flawless artistic style that is, for a change, effectively enhanced by the use of 3D. Filled with voice acting that provides impeccable comic timing and solid singing chops, resulting in a delightful surprise. For a fable steeped in familiarity, there are many reasons why this story shouldn’t work, but directors Byron Howard and Richard Greno are confidently earnest as they deliver a fun yarn that successfully balances madcap irreverence with a traditional storybook approach.

Screenwriter Dan Fogelman loosely bases the story on the classic Grimm fairy tale and this approach is to the benefit of the audience. Yes, there’s a beautiful girl with 70 feet of hair and she lives in a tower, but thankfully there is much more to take in here. The story has come up in pop culture for decades, but rarely has it ever been this exciting and fun.

As an infant, Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) was stolen from her royal parents by the villainous old hag, Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy), who was determined to keep the girl and her flowing magical locks all to her self. For eighteen years, Gothel has kept Rapunzel in a secluded tower surrounded by the forest, using the girl’s restorative locks to maintain her youthful appearance.

Despite her situation, Rapunzel has grown into a joyful and creative young woman with a resilient spirit. After all, she really hasn’t known anything else. Her pet chameleon Pascal is great company, but she longs for something more out of life. She may have been taught that the outside world is an unforgiving, selfish, and cruel place, she has watched from her window with restless curiosity.

Each year on the evening of her birth, Rapunzel is enraptured by the night sky that is mysteriously set ablaze by dancing lights. She makes it her dream to find the source of this tantalizing sight, unknowing that it is actually her parents and their kingdom releasing floating lanterns into the air in her memory, hoping that their stolen princess will return.

Along comes handsome Flynn Rider (Chuck’s Zachary Levi), a dashing and cocky young thief who stumbles upon Rapunzel’s tower while running away from his betrayed criminal cohorts (including Ron Perlman), a determined palace horse named Maximus, and a handful of armed palace guards.

Seeking shelter in the tower, he stumbles upon a curious Rapunzel, they tangle, and soon he is coerced into escorting her out into the great wide open, to follow her dream. It doesn’t take long for Gothel to realize what has transpired and most of all…. that her vanity is at stake! Manipulating anyone in her way, she seeks to return Rapunzel as she was, before the truth is revealed.

While the tower may be the main location in the Grimm tale, the movie really takes off when Rapunzel and Flynn begin their journey. The interior of the tower has artistic flair due to Rapunzel’s savvy arts and crafts touch, but seeing Rapunzel express such wonder, amazement, even guilt is far more entertaining.

Just imagine how it is to experience a blade of grass or a stream of water for the first time. The filmmakers, along with Moore, portray this in both an amusing and natural way.

It’s hard for Flynn and viewers to not be taken, or tangled, with this Rapunzel. Considering I’ve always felt the character was dull, it is commendable and refreshing how bright and alive she is here.

While this is contemporary and comical update to a familiar tale, there are still some apparent Disney conventions intact here. Disney made fun of characters breaking into song in a hilarious way in Enchanted and while I have for some time now rolled my eyes whenever it happens in animated films, I didn’t mind it here. Maybe it was due to the involvement of multiple Oscar-winning composer Alan Menken (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin) and lyricist Glenn Slater or maybe I was already so smitten by the dazzling art direction, that I didn’t mind watching the tunes (many quite jubilant and fun) incorporate into the picture.

With their singing backgrounds, Moore and Murphy effortlessly deliver their songs, but the real news here is that Levi can sing. Yes, that’s actually his voice in a duet with Moore and his vocals are just another addition to the surprises to the film.

The rest of the actors provide some musical laughs, particularly in a hilarious sequence outside a seedy pub (the kind where you’d find Aragorn) where a slew of burly barbarians (prominently Brad Garrett and Jeffrey Tambor) sing “I’ve Got a Dream” with Moore and Levi. It’s a song that offers up some silly characterization and great physical comedy, while naturally progressing the story. So, something familiar, done right.

It comes as no surprise to learn that producer Gary Kearns had in mind a painterly approach here, citing the painting ”The Swing”, by French Rococo artist Jean-Honore Fragonard as a primary influence. The character designs, atmospheres and tone reminded me of a cross between Sleeping Beauty and The Emperor’s New Groove, both in terms of style and madcap silliness, respectively.

At times, it genuinely does feel like a painting come to life, carefully enhanced in-depth and perception by a non-gimmicky 3D. Sure every animated film is now released in 3D and it often barely does much for the film, yet the best use of 3D this year has been in animated films and this is one of them. The detail and articulation displayed is an undeniable achievement.

Before the film begins, Disney takes a moment to note that this is their 50th animated feature (not counting their work with Pixar), and this is a film they can be proud of. Like many Disney films before it, Tangled derives from a fairy tale, adds songs to the story as well as animal shenanigans, but all those elements seem to line-up in just the right way.

Still, its villains are not as dark as other Disney films and, for a change, neither of the two leads are ever annoying. How ironic and appropriate for the House of Mouse to deliver a return to form in such a successful way. Packed with broad comedy, a variety of delightful supporting characters and absorbing environments, this is a charming winner for Disney.

What we have here is an enjoyable film that will surprise anyone who had any reservations whatsoever about seeing something that would seem overdone. That’s how I had felt at first about Tangled and it’s a rare delight that I wound up feeling completely satisfied.

(This review also appears on David's own website, Keeping It Reel.)

David J. Fowlie

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