Warning: spoilers and ranting ahead.
Yesterday, Toby and I braved the half-hour bus trip in to Dundee to see Tangled, being as how the little cinema in St Andrews doesn’t do 3D. It was, undeniably, a very pretty film, and I enjoyed it while it was on. I laughed or felt moved at various points, I appreciated the visual aesthetic – but when it was over, all I could think of was how many aspects of it had been wrong, annoying or outright troublesome, such that now, it retrospect, it mostly makes me angry.
For starters, there’s the songs. Now, not only was I brought up to love vaudeville, musicals and musical comedy, but I also own the Disney Singstar game. I have watched the Buffy musical upwards of fifteen times, and I can sing the entire score to Cats. I am not biased against singing in cinema! But in Tangled, not only are the lyrics deeply mediocre, but the songs themselves come at weird moments in the film; moments where the the music tells us nothing that we can’t already see on screen, or where the lyrics are little more than fluffy dialogue. Watching the opening scene, where Rapunzel sings about the tedium of her daily life while simultaneously enacting the lyrics, I was struck by the sense that I was watching Disney meddle in a Pixar montage. Think of those early moments in The Incredibles where Bob struggles to fit in his cubicle and the ongoing battle he has with his shonky car door; think of Wall-E’s repetitive cube-folding and treasure-salvaging. That balance of silence, poignancy and humour is a Pixar trademark, and so I can’t help thinking that if, instead of listening to a cheerful, whimsical musical number, we had just seen Rapunzel going about the same daily routine in silence – sometimes to a physically comical effect, but mostly not – we would have learned more about her character, and come to love her more deeply, than the song itself permitted.
Even without this suspicion, later songs, such as the two variants on ‘Mother Knows Best’, remain deeply unoriginal, no matter how prettily sung. There is no wordplay, no musical complexity – nothing to make them the kind of song you’d sing at a karaoke night or hum to yourself on the bus – and if you think about golden age Disney films like Pocahontas and The Lion King, both of which won Academy Awards and Golden Globes on the strength of their music, there’s no good reason why this should be so, except that very little effort was put into making them. Even ‘I See the Light’, the big romantic duet – which, in fairness, has been nominated for both those awards – is so utterly reminiscent of Aladdin’s ‘A Whole New World’ that I keep getting them mixed up in my head, the chorus of one bleeding into the memory of the other. Compare the lyrics – particularly the use of ‘crystal clear’ as a key rhyme – and you’ll see what I mean. (Also, they sing the song while in a boat, at night, on a lake, and have their first kiss prevented by external villainy. Copying The Little Mermaid, much?)
But what irritated me most about the singing? Is the way it was used to rob Rapunzel of competence.
Midway through Tangled, there’s a point where Flynn, sick of babysitting a girl with zero experience of the outside world, tries to scare her into going back home. His does this by taking her to the roughest, toughest bar he knows and telling Rapunzel before they go in that it’s a quiet, normal place, and that if she can’t handle it, she’s not going to be able to deal with going any further. Inside, the bar is full of stereotypical, scar-faced, hulking goon-warriors, most of them dressed like Vikings in leather and horns, weapons akimbo. The plan to get in and out goes awry, however, when the ruffians realise that Flynn is a wanted man and potentially worth a lot of money to them. Everyone starts grabbing him; Rapunzel is forgotten – until she starts yelling at them all to let Flynn go, because he’s taking her to the one place she’s always wanted to see, and don’t any of them have a dream? And because this is a Disney film, the answer to that question is yes, they do: every single meathead in the place wants to be a concert pianist, a mime, an interior decorator or a lover, they all start singing along with Rapunzel, and by the end of ‘I’ve Got a Dream’, everyone is so moved that when the authorities come to arrest Flynn, the ruffians show the pair of them a secret tunnel under the bar, thus allowing them to escape.
It’s a funny scene. I get that. The song was arguably the best in the film. But afterwards, when Flynn changes his attitude and starts to respect Rapunzel as someone worthwhile, it’s not because she’s done something that can actually be called smart or impressive, even though we’re meant to think it is. After all, didn’t she save the day? Yes, she did – but not by being competent. What she did was bring the reality-warping magic of a Disney princess to bear on a situation that, in any other instance, would have resulted in a far worse outcome. Even by the standards of a children’s fantasy world, Rapunzel does something stupid: despite being brought up to believe in the existence of criminals who would hurt her given half a chance, her first and only tactic is to appeal to their better natures with a single, pleading sentence. She does not trick them, thereby proving her smarts. She does not purposefully seek to manipulate their emotions, which would have been a subtler and better way to reach the same outcome, and which she later does to win Maximus to their cause. She does not cause a distraction, thereby allowing Flynn to gain the upper hand. She does not cause the men to underestimate her. Instead, her princessness causes a song to be sung which, despite all available logic, gets them out of trouble. And this means that, even though she then goes on to do something genuinely clever and brave – using her hair to swing them both out of danger – we are still left with a sequence of events where Flynn accepts her as competent, not because of the actual competent thing she did, but because of a ridiculous, stupid and lucky thing over which she had no control.
Early Disney princesses are predominantly passive characters. That changes as time goes by: the girls get stronger, more self-sufficient, and even though all the princess stories still use the same narrative arc – a naive girl yearning to explore the wider world is guided through an adventure by a handsome man, who she marries at the end – you can still see the marks of progress. It might be significant, therefore, that Disney has been wanting to do a Rapunzel movie since the forties. But even though the director of Tangled, Nathan Greno, says that Disney “wanted to make Rapunzel a very smart, strong girl,” what they’ve actually done is created the most passive princess in decades.
Ignoring Snow White, Cinderella and Aurora – who appeared between 1937, 1950 and 1959 respectively, and whose passivity can therefore be blamed on the social mores of past eras – all other Disney princesses have agency. Tiana (The Princess and the Frog, 2009) is a hard-working career woman; Jasmine (Aladdin, 1992) escapes a palace under her own steam and refuses to marry where she does not love; Belle (Beauty and the Beast, 1991) rides out solo to rescue her father, then makes a deal with a monster to see him set free; Ariel (The Little Mermaid, 1989) disobeys her family and gives up everything to learn about a different world.
But Rapunzel is too terrified to leave her tower without Flynn’s help. She prances around like a ninny, alternately revelling in her freedom and then sobbing about what her mother will think without ever demonstrating any notable intelligence. When the wicked Mother Gothel tells her stolen daughter that she’s naive, dreamy and unfocussed, we’re meant to think it spiteful and false, but in reality, Rapunzel’s behaviour doesn’t contradict these labels. There are exactly two points in the story at which she does something useful – rescuing them both with her hair, then talking Maximus into an alliance – but these are not what define Flynn’s belief in her competence, and at neither time does she display any self-awareness beyond her usual wide-eyed cheer. And when, finally, we come to the big finale, it is Flynn’s actions which undo Mother Gothel, denying Rapunzel the catharsis of defeating a woman who was only ever her demon to defeat – not his. The fact that Flynn’s character is an underdeveloped would-be Aladdin for most of the film only makes it more offensive that he and the horse Maximus dominate the advertising: even the title was changed from Rapunzel’s name to the more ambiguous Tangled in the hopes of attracting male audiences. Which is where I start to blame Pixar, rather than Disney – because Disney, at least, have a track record of creating decent female characters, while Pixar, despite all its success and accolades, not does not.
Uncomfortably, my verdict is that Tangled is representative of the worst failings of both companies. Left to their own devices, Disney can write about women (sort of), adapt fairy-tales and score fun, light-hearted, memorable songs. Left to its own devices, Pixar can create strong original stories, write witty banter and construct emotional scenes that work on different levels for both children and adults. We’ve seen them work successfully together writing stories aimed primarily at boys, whose protagonists are overwhelmingly male and non-human – Cars, Wall-E, Up, Toy Story 3 – but Tangled, which was meant to be their debut effort at writing for and about women, fails. Rapunzel is almost entirely absent from the trailers promoting her own movie because she gets no witty lines, no banter, no moments of strength or humour that can be used to sell a film – and what’s worse, if the differences between so many of the trailer clips and the scenes which actually made it into the movie are anything to go by, this has resulted as much from a process of nervous, fearful erosion of the character as much as from forward planning.
The closing joke of Tangled is like a metaphor for these failings. As Flynn narrates the happily ever after, he finally reaches the question of marriage – did he and Rapunzel ever end up hitched? “Well,” he says, “it took a long time and many, many refusals, but eventually, I said yes.” Which is character-appropriate and funny and a great way to end – right up until Rapunzel chimes in to reassure us that actually, he asked her. And even though I understand that this line is meant to be an added joke on Flynn, catching him out in a lie about his feelings, what it ends up affirming is the idea that of course Flynn proposed to Rapunzel, because he’s the man and she’s the woman and that’s how these stories go, and given how passive she’s been throughout, why should that change at the finale? Just letting the joke sit there without comment, or having Rapunzel’s comeback be that she only had to ask Flynn once, is apparently too radical a notion.
Throughout this review, I’ve barely touched on the character of Mother Gothel, the woman who stole the infant Rapunzel and raised her in isolation so that she, and she alone, could use the magic of her hair to stay young forever. And that is because, quite simply, she barely exists. Unlike virtually every other Disney or Pixar villain, we never see her in isolation, plotting her schemes or learning her motivation; we see her alone once, but the point of that scene is only to show us that she knows Rapunzel is gone, and not as a means of developing her character. She is a shell, constantly sniping at her daughter about her ugly looks (what!?) and stupidity in a chirpy, passive-aggressive way, and despite all the possible richness of making her a complex villain, a woman who loves the child she raised but is still unable to let her go, this never eventuates, turning her into yet another example of the film’s failure to either write about or understand women.
And now, looking ahead at what will be their next joint offering – Brave, a film that was meant to be the first instance of a Pixar film with a female director, but which now isn’t – I wonder: will it be more of the same? Or can the studios take a lesson from Tangled, and realise that female characters can be just as interesting, witty, complex and compelling as their male counterparts? If they actually take a risk in this department, rather than fearfully pulling their punches, it will work; if they don’t, they’ll break their own magic forever. Disney managed to write strong women with Atlantis, Mulan and Pocahontas. Now it’s Pixar’s turn.