Even though Tron: Legacy and Tangled are both coming out under the Disney banner they make for weird bedfellows, especially when it comes to decorating. Taking over the French Institute's Florence Gould Hall to present footage from both films on Monday night, Disney had pulsing blue Tron lights on the walls on one level, and ropes of blonde hair and ivy garlands on the stairs down below. It felt kind of like parents letting their young male and female children each decorate a half of the Christmas tree, with deliberately schizophrenic results.
But Tron: Legacy and Tangled are both hugely important to Disney going into the holiday season, one a mega-budget take on a minor 80s sci-fi classic and the other an animated throwback to the more recent golden era of Disney animation (though with more contemporary humor than last year's disappointment The Princess and the Frog). Gathering a wide swath of New York media to prove just how important these films are, Disney President of Production Sean Bailey stepped on to the stage to introduce not just 20 nearly finished minutes from Tron, but the entirety of Tangled, albeit in rough form that sometimes was mere storyboards sketched out in black and white.
First up, Tron: Legacy. After seeing somewhat extensive footage from the film at San Diego Comic Con I was surprised at how much new content was included in this presentation. It actually followed the basic beats of the trailer released last spring-- Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) is approached by his dad Kevin Flynn's former right-hand man (Bruce Boxleitner) and told to return to Flynn's Arcade, Sam returns to the arcade and is sucked into the world of Tron, where he gets forced into a game of disc wars, meets bob-haired hottie Quorra (Olivia Wilde) and finally reunites with his long-lost father (Jeff Bridges, of course). What we saw was just a lot more detail, from old family photos at Kevin Flynn's abandoned work station in the basement of Flynn's Arcade to the impressive fight choreography in the disc wars.
It all looks, as ever, mighty impressive; the bright lights and deep blacks of the Tron world feel miles from cheesy 80s graphics, and though not all of the score was in place, Daft Punk's work feel surprisingly cinematic, much more than just translating their techno riffs to the screen. Hedlund had a surprising amount of heavy lifting acting to do in just those 20 minutes, and though he sometimes comes across as the kind of scowling anti-hero Hayden Christensen might have played, he pulls out real emotional weight in his reunion with his dad (Bridges, it goes without saying, is pitch-perfect). It's still a little unclear exactly how the world of Tron works, how the lightcycles and discs and skintight black suits make up a coherent society, but I admit I didn't think much about that while I was watching; for the most part, I was too dazzled to care.
When the Tron: Legacy footage wrapped up it was time to morph into the griller, more traditional half of the evening… except that out walked two geeky looking dudes who immediately exclaimed, "Doesn't Tron look awesome?" But Tangled co-directors Nathan Greno and Byron Howard are much more steeped in the classic world of Disney animation than anything as modern as Tron; they explained that even though Tangled is a fresher spin on the old Rapunzel fairy tale, "There's not a cynical bone in the movie's body," and they gushed about the fact that Alan Menken, Oscar-winning provider of music for Disney classics like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and Pocahontas, wrote the songs for Tangled as well.
I admit I was a skeptic-- after so many Shrek films did we really need another post-modern take on a fairy tale-- but Tangled won me over within minutes. Again, the movie is not finished and I'm not allowed to provide a final opinion, but the movie has pretty much everything you expect from a Disney Animation musical, plus dashes of sharp humor that perfectly balance the wide streak of sentimentality. Voicing the naive, optimistic and tough Rapunzel, Mandy Moore plays off her pop princess roots to build a character who can be bubbly and goofy while also wielding a frying pan with surprising strength. Chuck star Zachary Levi has less fun stuff to do as the cynical, Han Solo-esque Flynn Rider, but his voice fits perfectly into the square-jawed Disney prince mold, and he and Moore build a fun chemistry as Rapunzel and Flynn's unlikely romance builds. Stealing the show from both of them, though, is Broadway star Donna Murphy as Rapunzel's adoptive mother, a classic fairy tale witch who rules not with terror, but with hilarious motherly passive aggression. It's no knock on Moore or Levi to say that Murphy's voice outstrips both of them, and her big musical number may be the best among many very, very good songs from Menken.
Given that no one really knows the Rapunzel story beyond the line "Rapunzel, let down your hair!" the filmmakers take things in a lot of fun directions, from sending Rapunzel and Flynn as squabbling buddies on a road trip to a detour at a bar populated by singing and dancing tough guys to what might be the film's best character, a horse hell-bent on bringing Flynn in as a fugitive from the law. Many of Menken's new songs would sit comfortably alongside classics like "A Whole New World" and Beauty and the Beast's rousing "Gaston," and it just feels indescribably great to encounter a new animated musical that matches the energy and emotional heart of those early-90s efforts.
The film's title was famously changed from Rapunzel to Tangled in an effort to appeal to boys, and while that may still be a challenge-- it's a movie about a princess and true love and twinkling lights play a major plot point-- there's at least one spectacular action scene in the film, and a lot of goofy humor and slapstick that should appeal across the board. By not taking itself too seriously, by carefully mining the Disney musical playbook while also taking a few measured risks, Greno and Howard have put together a real delight, and if Disney believes in the film as much as they appeared to last night, they should make this an easy bet even for families strapped by high movie ticket prices. I'm already planning to snag my cousin's little girls for an afternoon and make them go see it with me again.
The Disney presentation ended with a cocktail reception in a room decked out with Rapunzel-themed decor, from paper lanterns echoing the film's beautiful finale to more ropes of gold hair. There were also blue cocktails circulating in honor of Tron, but I'll admit, I had nearly forgotten about the techno sci-fi film in my post-Tangled high. Yes, I join the rest of my Internet-writing brethren in being excited about the potential geeky bliss of Tron: Legacy, but I've gotta admit, I'm even more excited to see what Tangled does for family entertainment this winter. Tangled hits in time for Thanksgiving on November 24, while Tron: Legacy makes you wait a little longer with its December 17 release. Keep coming back here to read much, much more about both films as the release dates get closer.