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The Disney PrincessesReleased in 1937, Disney's Snow White was a gamble for the company: the first fully-animated, feature-length film ever created. It's success lead to the eventual creation of the Disney Princess franchise, which has spawned 13 main-line films and multiple spin-off movies and shows. brand is interesting, not because I'm a fan of the films (although going through and watching these there are more of these films I actually liked them I realized) but because the brand itself wasn't originally intended to be a "brand". It was a concept added to the films afterwards, once many of the tropes of the princess movies had set in and calcified. Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty were just adaptations of popular stories, like Pinocchio and Alice and Wonderland. Any connection between the princesses was just due to their source material (being fairy tales) and the common tropes of that genre.
That shifted when the Disney Princess brand was formalized, of course, and many other ladies joined their ranks -- Ariel, Belle, Tiana, Jasmine -- but the roots of those fairy tales was never completely forgotten. It seemed only a matter of time before Rapunzel, another fairy tale lass, would join the ranks and, frankly, it was surprising that it took until 2010 for the long-haired princess to make her debut. She's seems of-a-piece with the likes of Sow White and Aurora, what with her own longing (in the fairy tale) for her Prince Charming to come save her. But it wasn't until Disney started doing 3D animated reinterpretations of the classic fairy tales that Rapunzel finally got her movie and, honestly, it was worth the wait.
Tangled is Rapunzel's film and it actually starts off a whole new era for the Disney Princess brand. We've already looked at the associated films that came after -- Frozen, Brave, Moana -- but those films all owe a debt to Tangled. This was the first of the fully animated films in the line to push against the tropes of the brand, the idea that the Princess has to be all things to all people, sweet and kind in the process, while also needing a prince to come along and save her. The whole idea of the self-saving princess starts here in the series (discounting Disney's live action-hybrid Enchanted, which isn't technically part of the line).
The other thing this film sets up is Disney's own in-house animation department running at the same level and quality as their one-time second-party studio Pixar. Although Disney had been working in 3D animation before Tangled, with films like Chicken Little, Meet the Robinsons, and Bolt, those films all felt like Disney was playing catch up to the likes of Pixar and Dreamworks. Tangled is the film that set the new standard for Disney, showing they could make animated films as good as (and, really, better than) the other guys while also ushering in the new house style for the series. This movie redefined Disney animation, in a very good way.
Of course, Disney paid a lot to make this happen. While later entries like Frozen and Moana were made for about $150 Mil, Tangled had a budget nearly twice that, coming in around $260 Mil. Much of that had to have gone into developing the tech and getting the house style perfected. You can't just remake an animation studio over night, but in the process Disney set the standard, and the tools, they could reuse for their future, billion-dollar movies. Sure, Tangled "only" made about $600 Mil against it's inflated budget but the investment was well worth it.
In large part that's because the film is really great. Again, I wouldn't consider myself a fan of the series of princess films in general -- it is pop-culture and you can't escape Disney no matter how hard you try -- but if I had to pick a favorite of this line I would learn towards Rapunzel's tale. That's because not only is it a pretty film but it's has just the right script, and right tone, to really sell it's story. It doesn't buy into the old princess tales of old but finds its own way to reinvent itself and come up with a new way to give us a solid Disney story. And it all starts with a shut-in.
Rapunzel, of course, is a princess kidnapped at a very young age by an evil witch. Raised by the witch to think the woman is her "mother", Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) grows up isolated in her tower, spending her days learning every hobby she can, reading and rereading every book she has, and painting every surface of her tower because she has nothing better to do. The one thing she has to truly look forward to is the pretty lights in the sky that, for some reason, happen once a year, at night, on her birthday. All she wants for her upcoming 18th birthday, more than anything, is the leave her tower and see the lights. She doesn't want to leave permanently, she just wants a day out. Her mother, Gothel (Donna Murphy), adamantly refuses the request.
It should be noted that Gothel has Rapunzel because, when the princess's mother was pregnant she suddenly got sick and the only thing that could save her was a magical, life-giving flower. Gothel had been protecting that flower, using it to keep herself young and immortal for decades, but once the flower is found the royals use it to save the queen. However, the magic of the flower passes into the newly born princess, and so Gothel took her. If the princess leaves the tower she might be discovered as the "lost princess" and the Gothel will lose her immortality. So she tries to keep the princess locked up at all costs, which works for a time until, while the witch was on a trip, a thief showed up at the tower. The thief, Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi) was on the run having just stolen the tiara of the lost princess and fate, as it would have it, was putting these two together, princess and thief, to make all her dreams come true.
At first it would seem like that the movie is buying into the same kind of tropes that other Disney films had used: a kidnapped princess, a magical enchantment, and evil queen, and a dashing hero come to save the girl. But very quickly it's revealed that things are different this time around. For starters, Flynn isn't really much of a hero. He's a cad, a liar, and a thief, and he's pretty much only out for himself. While Rapunzel needs a guide in the real world, having never left her tower before, in a way you could look at it as the princess actually saving the thief, at least on an emotional level.
It helps that Rapunzel is a very self-assured girl who can do a lot of her own saving. At times she does come across a little like a manic pixie dream girl, although since she's also the lead of the film that trope doesn't necessarily apply. She is magical, in her own way, and the world does seem to bend around her, but that's all part of the princess magic. it works in this context as Rapunzel goes on her own princess journey, finding action, adventure, and plenty of laughs in the process.
One thing I really like about this film is how much it invests in the character of Rapunzel. There's a quality to her, an investment in all facets of her personality, that makes her feel like the most rounded and interesting of the princesses, right up until Anna in Frozen. You can see a shared DNA between those characters, a willingness to let them be fun and silly while also having their serious sides. They're well-realized and deeper characters, a seeming evolution over the arguably shallow early princesses from the line.
Along with all that, this film has one of the better Disney soundtracks. As with any movie musical not every song is a winner -- the tavern song "I've Got a Dream" is cute and silly but not a big winner -- but the show-stoppers really make the movie watchable. The opening song, "When Will My Life Begin?", is a cute ditty that sells you on Rapunzel's character while also being a decent toe-tapper. "Mother Knows Best" let's Gothel find her big dick Ursula energy, making it a solid number. "I See the Light" then acts are the culmination song, the moment when princess and would be hero fall for each other, and it has the right energy to carry us into the climactic finale of the film.
Really, though, it's how all of these elements blend together to create just the right film. Heroine, and hero, manage to have their own arcs, each growing as people, and together, along the path of the story. The music, the pretty animation, and the script all work in unison to create a solid adventure that pushes against the bounds of the standard Princess tale while still letting the basic tropes have a little bit of sunlight. This isn't an "anti-Princess" film, Disney hadn't verged that far yet at this time, but it does set the groundwork for Disney to truly reinvent all that their line had become.
The film works as an evolution in all respects, but mostly it just works as its own adventure. It's a fun, light-hearted tale that knows how to let its characters, and it's animation, shine. It doesn't challenge viewers but it also doesn't just give the same expected princess story all over again. It's fun, well-made, and just fresh enough to be interesting. Even if the film doesn't have the long legacy of other 3D animated princess movies (Frozen made a ton of money and had an even bigger sequel, and Moana will likely get similar treatment), it still has a proper place in the Disney pantheon. It's a good film that not only sets the stage for what was to come but was great in its own right. The start of the next Disney Renaissance? Maybe...