Ever since buying out animation rival Pixar and putting their lot in with the company's CGI-animated, boy-dominated and masterful films, Disney has tiptoed away from the kind of lavish musical adaptations of fairy tales that brought them renewed glory in the early 90s. Last year's The Princess and the Frog was a nostalgic attempt at turning back the clock, but it seemed more like a relic from the earlier golden age than an actual comeback.
But just when we thought all was lost for little girls who wanted to be witty and tough princesses instead of Buzz Lightyear or Nemo, here comes Tangled, a clever and shiny and deliriously funny take on the classic princess genre, with rousing songs from Alan Menken, a splendid voice cast and a gigantic heart that proves an irresistible combination. Unlike the Shrek franchise, which skewered fairy tales with a sometimes brutal sarcasm, Tangled tweaks the classic Rapunzel story by basically abandoning all but the basics, creating a road movie crammed with adventure, coming-of-age lessons and, of course, a romance. Even packaged with the familiar messages of learning to stand up for yourself and realizing your true potential, Tangled is winningly clever and original.
Former pop star-turned-actress Mandy Moore brings both the bubblegum and the steel in her voice to Rapunzel, born a princess of the realm but captured by the selfish Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy) for her magical hair, which heals wounds and provides eternal youth to those who sing to it. Rapunzel's relationship with her mother, who dominates not through intimidation but passive-aggression and something approximating genuine love, is hilariously familiar to anyone who's been a teenage girl, and Rapunzel's dreams of escaping her lonely tower are nicely complicated by her complex feelings about her mother. A chance encounter with roguish thief Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi) finally gives Rapunzel her chance at escape just before her 18th birthday, and when she and Flynn set out as mismatched road trip adventurers, it's not the story of a poor abused girl escaping her captor, but an ordinary young woman finally determining her own fate.
The basic beats of Flynn and Rapunzel's journey are familiar from sources as varied as Aladdin and It Happened One Night, as the two encounter some strange characters on the road, get into a bit of trouble and inevitably fall in love before reaching their destination (in this case, seeing the floating paper lanterns that mysteriously show up each year on Rapunzel's birthday). But a raft of compelling side characters, including a horse animated in a way straight out of Looney Tunes and the showstopping Mother Gothel herself, keep the story feeling fresh, and Flynn and Rapunzel establish such an easy, relatable rapport early on that you instantly root for their happy ending together.
Menken's songs aren't all Little Mermaid-level winners but all boost the film's buoyant and sincere mood, including a rousing pub singalong about having dreams and "I See The Light," the corny but endearing love ballad duet sung against the stunning backdrop of those floating lanterns. And though no one can match Broadway vet Murphy's pipes and general showmanship, both Moore and Levi acquit themselves well as leads who skirt dull heroics and build real warmth into their characters. Significantly, their relationship is also one of equals, the romance given time to blossom as the two jump into the adventure with enthusiasm.
Without ever striving too hard to feel hip and current, and avoiding pop culture references to everyone's benefit, Tangled possesses a frank modernity, from its weapon-wielding heroine to its embrace of silly yet gut-busting gags. Co-directors Nathan Greno and Byron Howard make confident, funny and warm films like this seem effortless, when we know from a decade of Disney's animated disappointments that it's anything but. As has been said, it's a tale as old as time-- or at least Hollywood-- but telling it this well, and with such grace, makes Tangled a genuine and special achievement.