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.
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. – Ed 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.
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.
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.