Not that I believe Disney when they say anything, but as they tell us that they are done with the Princess and Fairy Tale genre, they present us with the model for how to do it better than they have done it in the past (movie studios, take note, please).
This weekend I was guilty of indulging in Tangled, twice, at the free theatre on post with Kid. The first time we saw it with some friend, one of them being the family of one of her best friends from school and his family who had already seen the film in the States, and who liked it enough to recommend it to us. The second time was because we were bored about the time that it was showing the next day, and lo and behold! it was playing, and we were there, and we liked it enough to force ourselves to get some popcorn and enjoy it again, just the two of us.
The obligatory and only slightly spoiler-y plot synapses:
Tangled is a re-boot of the classic Rapunzel story, the story of a baby, traded for lettuce by her careless father (a classic recipe in fairy tales, the uneven trade of something small for something of worth to jump-start the story-line, especially in a Brothers Grimm story… ugh the Brothers Grimm…) to a woman slash witch (it is always an old woman slash witch) who agrees to raise her as her own.
Bad enough that the two women of consenting age in the Grimm version are already turned to be the at-fault beings: The mother of the soon-to-be Rapunzel craves lettuce, and since in olden times it was nigh a crime to deny a pregnant woman any food she craved (not a lot of food policing and shaming going on then), what was her poor hen-pecked husband to do but sneak into the old woman slash witch’s garden and steal it. Then, the old woman slash witch, who is obviously wronged because her lettuce has been stolen, over-reacts and demands repayment in the form of flesh. To her the baby is awarded, and she is painted as evil…the evil stepmother is exemplified in Dame Goethe, as only an example of one. The Grimm Brothers liked their evil stepmothers, for sure. The baby girl is also exchanged as property.
Dame Goethe raises her in a tower, accessing it by calling the iconic words “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair, so that I may climb the golden stair”. Naturally, following the recipe, of conventional beauty, a mystically beautiful singing voice, and a handsome prince, Rapunzel is encountered by a Dude who wants to Save her (read: marry her after first sighting).
Of course, after a few meetings, Rapunzel is stupid enough to get herself knocked up, according to the Grimm Brothers, and gives away their secret rendezvous. Their silky ladder plan is wrecked by her wacky lady-brain. Rapunzel’s hair is chopped, she is banished from the tower, and the Prince is taken by surprise by Evil Step Mum who casts him from the tower where he is blinded on some briar patch. If I recall correctly, Rapunzel and her dreamboat find each other via
True Love the sound of her voice.
They live happily ever after.
Anyone not aware that I am not a fan of The Brothers Grimm would do well to make a note of that.
The re-boot twists the plot by making the girl a baby stolen from a King and Queen by an old woman because she is born with magical hair that has healing and re-generative properties which can make a person forever younger. Mother Goethe raises her in a tower, and Rapunzel is none-the-wiser. The idea is to hide her away so that no one will discover her or her magical hair that glows when she sings.
Rapunzel, however, from her tower, gathers glimpses of the outside world, and decides that she must see what she calls “the floating lights” for her 18th birthday, in person, which she concludes only appear on her birthday. She sets her mind to accomplishing a goal and to leading her own life, even though she is scared out of her mind to even ask, and even though Mother Goethe badgers her into temporary submission by telling her she may never leave the tower, because she is too naive and the world is too dangerous.
The world, however, doesn’t stay away from Rapunzel, and in a terrific plot device, a wanted thief going by the name of Flynn Ryder happens upon her tower and hides from the palace guards inside it. Rapunzel defends herself from the invasion (in a convenient “women can fight back” image), and convinces Ryder to take her on her journey after she cleverly dispatches her mother on an errand that should have kept her away long enough.
The biggest problem that Disney hit with this film was that their marketing for the film, most of which I was sheltered from with my being in another country, centered on the story from Flynn’s point of view. It seemed that Disney was afraid that the movie would not draw an equal number of boy and girl viewers if they didn’t pretend that this was a swashbuckling dudebro film about a guy saving a girl from a tower and convincing her to fall in love with him. The trailers from the film certainly back this up, and Natalie Wilson’s post at Women and Hollywood certainly seem to follow this idea, though she takes some of Scott Mendelson’s thoughts out of context. You would think that Tangled was following Disney’s narrative of damsel in distress and that boys won’t see “chick flicks”, but that girls will see either a movie featuring a boy or a girl. You would think this was the story of how Flynn Ryder saved a missing princess from a tower, rather than how a smart young woman saved Eugene Fitzherbert from death.
But Tangled, much like James Cameron’s Avatar, which I reviewed earlier this year, didn’t live up to the idea of the marketing, and actually delivered a much more delightful event that promised. Not without flaw, Tangled was a twist on the recipe, and almost a spoof on the Princess films of the past. There were moments when I was certain that Disney was mocking its own history of the pretty girl singing to a flock of blue birds in a field, or making fun of the heroine who fulfills her day by keeping house and performing absurd tasks for the delight of her wicked stepmother.
Tangled is, of course, about a pretty, young, impossibly thin, white girl with huge green eyes in a giant heart-shaped face meant to be the vision of conventional beauty, I am sure. And, OH! the blonde, hair! Isn’t it always blonde (even though it seems that there are versions of the story that pre-date the Grimm’s version in Iran that reference a girl who would throw down her “musky black tresses” to allow her lover to climb up to see her)? It is a story that ends in a hetero marriage, that they were sure to pound home was precipitated by him proposing to her. It must always be marriage.
But are we surprised by this anymore? When there is such a pushback against a brown woman wanting to be a hobbit or people wanting to see movies about Asian stories starring Asian people? I’m not. It feels like running in quicksand to keep pointing some of this tired tripe out, because it is. Tired. Done. Old. Boring.
I do note that the positioning of Rapunzel as a pale, blonde, green-eyed girl as the protagonist against her stepmother, a dark(er)-skinned, dark-haired, dark-eyed woman was the first thing that I noticed. First thing. Evil is positioned as dark (and desperately clinging to youth and beauty), and good as light (and young!), and then people wonder why I get upset that I want to see faces that are not fair and light in movies… They are only ever evil… orcs, ogres who are not Shrek, evil witches and Stepmothers, sorceresses, seawitches, the occasional dark creepy clergy guy… Disney is rife with this dichotomy (Don Bluth had Rasputin once). Played by the talented Donna Murphy who is often, even though she considers herself a white American woman, is often cast as Eastern European in parts I have seen her play on television…Mother Goethe is dark… and an evil mother in fantasy… there is something new and refreshing… Hopefully we won’t see a wave of young girls fleeing out their bedroom windows from their mothers and stepmothers because they are angry at the notion that “Mother Knows Best”.
But Tangled spins the older Disney Fairy Tales on their heads, even the ones that claim to feature “feminist” princesses, like Jasmine or Belle or even Mulan (I like the tale of Fa Mulan…but Disney does it so wrong). Disney destroyed the legend of Pocahontas and can’t get a revision of The Little Mermaid turned into a good teenage coming-of-age story without making it All About the Dude. Rapunzel starts out with a dream of her own, she is clever and resourceful (there are many uses for a frying pan), and even doubtful about what she wants in the long run, but she is trying to figure it out starting with this one small step. A big step for an abused young woman, if you ask me (which Disney, of course, pokes fun at).
I can agree with Wilson on a few things, most notably, that Disney could put a little effort into balancing casts, especially into making notable female characters. This cast had exactly three female characters, two with speaking parts, and only needed three female voice-actors, two playing the same character (young-girl Rapunzel and Rapunzel as a young woman) as the only top-billed parts. This isn’t exclusive to Disney, however, so I am unwilling to ascribe this to “The Disney Machine”. Most all animated films (and family and fantasy films in general) are guilty of doing this with minor exceptions that end up proving the rule. To have a female protagonist who isn’t a waif or (more of) a stereotype is a start.
Unlike many of the other stories Disney has told where the protagonist often either falls in love immediately with the guy at first encounter, or, like Mendelson notes, nor do they end up sniping at one another during their adventure a la The Princess and the Frog. Rapunzel and Flynn, who begin their journey in a rather tense manner, form a friendship based on a need to trust one another so that by the end of the movie when they do wind up, predictably, together, we find it actually believable and not at all forced. Unlike much of the marketing and descriptions I did see for the film (which wasn’t much, and enough to make me roll my eyebrows off of my head), Rapunzel and Flynn did not fall in love at first sight and set off together so she could escape. In fact, Rapunzel had the intention of returning to her tower through most of the storyline.
Though, Disney shatters this in the eleventh hour with a move by Flynn to remove Rapunzel’s (albeit limited) choice from the situation, figuratively and literally. Disney does a great job of placing her in a situation where she is forced into a lose-lose situation to make sure that The Dude has a hand in Saving the Day. Natch.
Just as Disney decides it is finished with Fairy Tales and the Princess genre, they hit me with what I consider to be my favorite movie in that vein so far. Tangled, while not unproblematic, really knocked several things into place that were missing from previous movies, including The Princess and the Frog (which I really enjoyed, but had many problematic elements to it as well). I’m extremely tired of watching Barbie-shaped girls run amok and fall magically in love with a swashbuckling, barrel-chested and tiny-hipped hero who saves them from the evil witch slash stepmother before they can get a scratch on her pale skin (unless the movie is specifically stated to be of a certain ethnic origin, then they will jack it all up with racist tropes). Tangled didn’t undo all of that, but it certainly made leaps and bounds in the right direction.