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Tangled Up In Green

Now that Tangled (or Rapunzel, for the non hip-and-edgy among us) has hit theaters to great critical and financial success, hopefully everyone has taken a moment to congratulate the folks at Walt Disney Animation Studios, directors Nathan Greno and Byron Howard, and most definitely and especially Glen Keane, who has spent most of the last decade trying to get this story to screen.

Of course, the big question on everyone’s lips is… what’s next? What can we take away from this, and what does it mean for the future? So far, there have been no hints from Disney. Their current slate consists of next year’s traditionally animated Winnie the Pooh, and the quasi-announced CGI Reboot Ralph in 2013. We’ve seen them alter The Frog Princess to make it the more allegedly “girl-friendly” The Princess and the Frog; we’ve seen them panic and alter Rapunzel to make it the more allegedly “boy-friendly” Tangled; we’ve seen that same panic lead to the abandonment of the hand-drawn Snow Queen and the revival of the videogame-themed Reboot Ralph.

My reaction to pretty much all animation news

Then, right before the release of the film, we’ve seen a prominent story in the L.A. Times focusing on statements by Ed Catmull about how Disney was going to get out of the fairytale business for a while; after an explosion of media interest (and fan hackles), Catmull rolled back the story with this statement on Facebook (!):

A headline in today’s LA Times erroneously reported that the Disney fairy tale is a thing of the past, but I feel it is important to set the record straight that they are alive and well at Disney and continue this week with Tangled, a contemporary retelling of a much loved story. We have a number of projects in development with new twists that audiences will be able to enjoy for many years to come. РEd Catmull

As to what those projects are, however, we’re left to guess. Although I have to say that I had to laugh at the statement in the Times that John Lasseter has been “encouraging filmmakers to break with safe and predictable formulas and push creative boundaries.” This from the director of Cars 2 and the producer of Toy Story 3, Monsters Inc. 2 and Winnie the Pooh. As to telling filmmakers, “‘Tell us what’s driving you,” I’d like to hear that question asked of Chris Sanders or Brenda Chapman.

ANYWAY… Tangled. After all the fretting, it roared into theaters with a $70 million five-day Thanksgiving weekend. This was the best opening for a Disney animated feature ever, and the second-highest Thanksgiving debut ever behind Toy Story 2. The film continued strong in its second weekend, taking first place from previous champ Harry Potter and wrapping its first twelve days with $96.5 million in the bank. More than likely, by its third weekend it will surpass the entire box office take of The Princess and the Frog.

But what does it all mean? That CGI will, by default, beat hand-drawn animation? That the title change was some master stroke of marketing? That people don’t like princess fairy tales but really do but only if you call them something else?

The film’s early marketing was derided by animation fans for being generally awful, and word of mouth about the picture did not improve until a massive wave of preview screenings were held before release. Almost uniformly, the word came out: “This movie is nothing like its previews! It’s really good!”

This shored up rumors that had existed since the very first teaser trailer. After each new trailer or commercial, the film’s animators would pop up in the usual online hangouts to beg people not to believe what they were seeing. “This isn’t our movie,” they’d say – “Our movie is really good, we promise!” Well, they were right. And sure enough, those trailers were not indicative of the film. Let’s take a look at that first trailer, which was the most lamentable:

Now of all the animation clips in that trailer, less than half appear in the actual film. Yep. And the rest are, for the most part, taken out of context. So there’s that.

Thankfully, they did decide to have those screenings and word of mouth spread like wildfire. Audience polling by Cinemascore recorded a very rare perfect A+ score, something no other film this year – not Toy Story 3, not Inception – achieved. And the word of mouth seems to have paid off.

And how about the movie? Yeah, it’s good. Really good. I still would love to see Keane’s vision, and out of curiosity I’d like to see the handful of other takes on the story that were developed over the last ten years. But thankfully this time all the retooling still resulted in a successful film. The visual style, art design, lighting and shading is all absolutely gorgeous, and really does avoid that plastic look that so often plagues CG animation. The animation itself is very detailed and nuanced, and save for some very unfortunate exceptions avoids the stereotypical “attitude” that has become the bane of animation fans.

Ooh. Pretty.

More important, the characters are both believable and likeable – Rapunzel herself is a delight and the “rogue” Flynn Rider overcomes a very iffy start to become not nearly as irritating as everyone thought he would be. Mother Gothel, Rapunzel’s captor, starts off pretty overwhelmingly camp but overcomes that as the films go on. Even the “cute sidekicks,” the chameleon Pascal and Maximus the horse, are very well animated and act entirely in pantomime, reminiscent of Disney’s best.

Appeal!

So, seriously, congratulations to everyone at Disney Animation. Here’s hoping that this leads to a little job security for everyone, and that management learns the right lessons from this (I know, I know) and lets you really flex your creative muscles on some new projects. It’s time to put some new projects in the pipeline, and some of those should involve some challenging new hand-drawn animation. Hopefully, with a little success under their belt, we’ll have fewer decisions motivated by fear. Tangled, at the very least, proves that Disney can still do what Disney does best.

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3 comments to Tangled Up In Green

  • Ally

    I saw Tangled and I loved it too much…

    Yes, I also love to know what was Glen Keane’s vision of the movie and all version developed during last 10 years…

    Tangled is a very great succes, so I hope Disney now create a new version of Snow Queen with love, drama, humor, a very Disneyish vision of the fairy tale… it could be a great new Disney project…

  • Mark W

    I’ve noticed you don’t seem to like Lasseter/Pixar a ton. May I ask why? While the idea of Cars 2 (sequel to the worst Pixar film) makes me nervous, and Monsters Inc 2 (sequel to the Pixar film that least needed a sequel) even more so, I’m also forced to admit that Pixar thus far has produced nothing but quality films (Cars being their worst, but even that would be one of the best films ever made by any other animation studio were it not Pixar).

    Maybe I’m displaying my own ignorance, but other than Toy Story, Toy Story 2, and Toy Story 3 all being basically the same movie, how is Pixar formulaic?

  • Well, it’s complicated :)

    It’s also weird because I started off with an incredible amount of esteem for Lasseter, and I do still feel like he means well and he’s obviously a fanboy like the rest of us. But there are definitely some cracks showing – the sequels you mention are a big part of it. I’m sure a lot of it is part of the natural conflict that happens when someone tries to be a “suit” and an “artist” at the same time – it leads to conflicts of interest.

    I wouldn’t mind so much if they didn’t keep trying to paint this picture of Pixar as some sort of artist’s paradise, while at the same time it’s clear that the artists at Disney animation don’t have that same sort of leeway. To claim you’re “director driven” is just disingenuous when you’ve pulled a number of directors off of very personal projects that they initiated. Again, I can’t argue with all these choices – my very favorite Pixar film, Ratatouille, was taken from the director that originated it. But to keep claiming this sort of high auteur ideal flies in the face of Chris Sanders, Brenda Chapman, Sam Levine, and probably a bunch of other stuff at WDAS we haven’t heard about. It’s become clear that the reason that Pixar was “director-driven” was that the directors were John Lasseter and the other founders. When they became producers, directors starting holding a lot less leeway.

    I would feel a lot better if Disney had some sort of self-rule and wasn’t held so strongly to Lasseter’s vision. It’s not that I think he’s really screwing things up; I found “Bolt” consistent and entertaining, but I think it would have been a lot more interesting if it had been closer to “American Dog”. I think Lasseter is wary of things that are eccentric and outside the Pixar “buddy road trip” style, and I really would like to see Disney mix things up.

    So, I do get frustrated but it’s because I really hold them all to higher standards. I have enjoyed all but one of the Pixar features, and most of them I love. I have held them in consistently high esteem from the very start, and it’s only until original ideas started getting axed for – as you point out – needless sequels, did I start to get wary.

    All that being said, I did really get disgusted with Lasseter when I saw a special feature on the TS3 blu-ray where he’s very actively shilling for Toy Story Playland. That concerns me.

    But thankfully Tangled has done very well! I’ll continue to hope for home rule at WDAS, and for some new exciting pictures in the pipeline…

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