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I'm an NYC-based director, and this is an outlet for my various musings about theater and about the city of New York. Sometimes the subjects run together, sometimes they are entirely separate, but between the two they comprise the most fitful, most intense, most trying love affair of my few years. They fill my head, my heart, my mouth every hour of every day; they could fill a book.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Tangled (Or: How I Spent My Christmas Vacation) Part I

*Warning: I talk about the movie Tangled in this post and give away a few minor spoilers. So if, like me, you care more than your age would suggest about Disney princess movies, maybe skip this one.*

On Sunday, December 26th I was supposed to be on a flight home to New York City, but I guess there was a little snowfall back here in the East? In any case, it was not my fate to be on that or any plane that day and I was granted a temporary reprieve. Instead, I found myself in a movie theater in Albuquerque, seeing Tangled with my sisters, all the while muttering incredulously, "I can't believe I'm here."

I loved it, of course. That maybe goes without saying. I mean, first, it was a new movie by the man who wrote the score to my childhood. And it started out strong, with a beautiful opening sequence, followed by a charming opening number introducing us to our main character. Very Beauty and the Beast. It seemed to promise to be a Disney musical that - finally - behaved like a musical, and not just a movie with some songs in it, like it's post-Tarzan brethren. Alas, its musical-steam fizzled out after about four songs, none of which were particularly memorable (and why is that a trend now anyway, these movie "musicals" with less songs than I can count on one hand?). But there was still something in its tone and structure more reminscent of the Disney movies that defined my youth than anything I've seen in years. Which made me unspeakably, glowingly happy.

Unrelatedly: I'm constantly comparing Tangled, which I liked, to The Princess and the Frog, which I didn't, because both initially triggered the same nostalgic EEEEE! OMG! reaction within me. So, why didn't the Princess and the Frog work? Especially since, technically, the Princess and the Frog was much more what I would consider a "real" musical; it had an appropriate amount of songs sung by more than two of the characters, all of which efficiently pushed the narrative along.

Here is what I've decided: The Princess and the Frog's failure comes down to a combination misfire in structure and in attitude.

When I attempt to analze the Princess and the Frog I'm almost always brought back to the song-wherein-the-villian-states-his-villainous-intentions, Friends on the Other Side. A good song and an evocative number, it does well by the SWTVSHVI format. So I've been somewhat perplexed as to why something in me points to that moment as the moment when the movie derails. But the problem is, while Tiana is a fun, interesting and dynamic character, her counterpart, the evil Dr. Facilier, is not. The creative team does not seem to recognize the fact that in a good story, it's not just the hero who must be engaging and multi-dimensional, it's everyone. Including the villian. And, if memory serves me, we learn very little about Dr. Facilier other than that he's mysteriously and magically evil. Eventually we do learn that his wicked deeds are in an attempt to avoid payment with his soul on a magic voodoo bet... or something? I don't know, I saw it a long time ago. But in any case, it comes too late. His song, Friends on Other Side, sets in motion the malicious plot that propels the entire story forward. So if we're not clear about who he is, what he wants and why he wants it by the end of this pivotal number, the entire movie is going to suffer.

The movie was also sadly overly pedantic in its attempt to duplicate the celebrated Disney movies of the past. And that is exactly what it felt like: a poor imitation. As in, "We'll give her talking animal friends! Just like in the other movies." The resulting animal sidekicks felt lifeless and recycled. Where Tangled was a clever mix of tried-and-true stylistic standards and the fast-paced, slightly edgier, hipper humor that has evolved during the Disney/Pixar collaboration, the Princess and the Frog stuck humorlessly to an old formula rather than using it to further new, creative, innovation.

But I digress. Back to Tangled. I was also bound to love Tangled because it featured a strong, sassy, blonde-haired heroine. Think about it: all the other blondes in Disney's canon, and widely in children's stories in general, are two-dimensional waifs. Only brunettes, apparently, are smart and cool. Listen, I know this cause, the plight of the blonde, might be an unpopular or even silly-sounding cause to support, since throughout the American and Western European storytelling tradition blondes are somewhat glorified. But they're glorified in the same way women in the chivalric middle ages were glorified: for their fairness - essentially, their weakness. Raised on a pedastal, but stripped of their power. It's underhanded sexism and it sucks.

So pleased am I, in fact, with this fair-haired addition to the Disney princess family, that I'm choosing to overlook the fact that the entire movie is essentially about Rapunzel's realization that she is not a waifish damsel in distress, and in the moment that she discovers that she too can be smart and cool... her hair turns brown.

That actually happens. It's like they're mocking me. But it does make sense as a creative choice so... okay.

I also loved Tangled for unexpected reasons. The journey Rapunzel makes and her realization of her own strength is complex; the movie's themes of courage and identity are uenpectedly profound.

The story, you see, is not about Rapunzel's transformation into a spunky, strong person, she is that from the very beginning (another reason I'll begrudgingly allow the hair change). That much is clear to the audience from the moment she decks her would-be prince with a skillet. But all she's ever been told is that she is too delicate, too weak, and she is too afraid to see the truth, as plain as it may be. Her secret royal birthright echoes this theme: she's already a princess, she just doesn't know it yet.

This is in suprisingly layered context to other, similar children's stories espousing the message, be brave, be yourself. Take Shrek, for example: at first Shrek and Fiona are ashamed of their ogreness, they fear it makes them unlovable. But then they realize that their differences are what make them unique, it's what's on the inside that counts, etc., and they should not be afraid to be who they are. Which is a wonderful message, don't get me wrong, but straightforward. Rapunzel, on the other hand, is awesome, and she is afraid. It reminds me of the oft-repeated Marianne Williamson quote, "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure."

Even the love story ties in metaphorically with the characters' journey to their true selves. The song in which Rapunzel and her love interest Flynn Ryder (struggling with parallel issues of identity) realize their feelings for one another is also the song in which they begin to take ownership of their identities. As they sing they declare that they finally know where they are supposed to be, and the lyrics take on a double meaning: they know they are supposed to be together, but also, they know who they are. In fact, one could go so far as to say they know they want to be together because they know who they are.

Ultimately, Rapunzel finds the courage and the wisdom to recognize the power within her. Because she knows who she is, she finds love, her family, and her place. A witty and wonderful new classic.

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