“The outside world is a dangerous place, full of selfish people.” So warns Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy), determined to keep her young charge, Rapunzel (Mandy Moore), confined to the tower where she’s lived most of her 18 years. What she doesn’t tell Rapunzel is this: Mother Gothel is herself one of those selfish people, having long ago kidnapped Rapunzel as a baby, in order to gain access to the girl’s magical hair.
That hair is all over Tangled, literally and metaphorically. For one thing, and following the Grimms’ fairy tale on which this latest Disney picture is loosely based, it’s grown to preposterous proportions, long and strong enough to serve as the only means of entering Rapunzel’s tower. It is also the means by which Rapunzel entertains herself inside that tower, combing it for hours, using it to swing herself up and down a scaffolding, from which she fills the walls with murals. She also gazes, occasionally, out her window, where she imagines a world that’s less dangerous than Mother Gothel describes.
The hair is also magical, of course, and that’s the prime value (of the hair and the girl) for Mother Gothel, who basks in its golden ethereal glow in order to maintain her eternal youth. Rapunzel doesn’t much use the other effect of the hair, its healing powers, as she doesn’t bang around too much in the tower or as she plays with her pet chameleon. Even as she approaches her 18th birthday, Rapunzel doesn’t question her life thus far: it’s all she’s known, and so it seems normal to her. She never questions her own origins, her mother’s comings and goings, or even her mom’s apparent addiction to the hair.
This outline of a hostage’s delusions doesn’t focus so much on damage, as Rapunzel seems perfectly healthy and reasonable, even a little too trusting and resilient, considering she was stolen from her parents, the local king and queen, who each year send up a bunch of floating lanterns, in memory of their missing daughter. Rapunzel’s attraction to these lanterns seems the only sign that she’s hankering for an alternative existence, but she’s easily put off when Mother Gothel makes her promise never ever to ask to leave, because, as she puts it in song, “Mother Knows Best.”
Of course, this being a fairy tale, all that trust and good will pretty much goes out the window when Rapunzel meets a boy. Flynn Ryder (Zachary Levi) crawls up the tower and in through her window as he seeks an escape from the Slobbington Brothers, his erstwhile thieving partners. She does what any smart girl would do — she thwacks him with a frying pan, waits for him to wake up so she can thwack him again, and then ties him to a chair with… her hair.
The hair is, as they say, awesome. Weapon, device, and source of identity, it helps Rapunzel feel confident enough to demand her visitor serve as her guide outside. The world of the film changes drastically when they leave the tower. Her toes curl in the grass, her eyes sparkle in the sun, and her hair rustles in the breeze. (On this point, the animation is excellent.) She also worries about mom’s reaction when she finds out she’s disobeyed her — for the first time ever. Flynn sees this as a typical step in growing up, which means he’s baffled as Rapunzel goes through a montage of alternating anguish and bliss: “What she doesn’t know won’t kill her,” reasons the girl, before she bursts into tears and proclaims herself “a horrible daughter!”
As agonizing as this experience may be for Rapunzel, it illustrates the hold Mother Gothel has on her, and the girl’s emotional back-and-forthing may resonate for viewers who’ve grappled with passive-aggressive parents. Once she makes the decision to move on, however, Rapunzel is all good times, surprised by how much fun it is to outsmart grumpy and short-sighted adults, from the Slobbingtons and the king’s men to Mother Gothel and a frankly magnificent horse named Maximus, who tracks the fugitives like a bloodhound. As glowering and dedicated as Maximus is to the chase, he also finds Rapunzel irresistible.
In part this is because she’s not only naïve but also pushy and immature, a shift from the source story’s version, who waits to be rescued from a dank prison by a dashing prince. This Rapunzel’s got sand. When Flynn takes her round to an inn, where he imagines she’ll be frightened of all the drunks and ruffians, as she’s never been exposed to such type, she is instead charmed and charming, encouraging all to sing along with her, as she extols the great joy of pursuing one’s dreams. The number is routine, including the “trick” revelations of the ruffians’ aspirations (one imagines himself a pianist, another an interior designer, a third collects ceramic unicorns). Still, the point she draws from it — gee, we’re all alike, lonely and hoping against hope — is just perverse enough to work.