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A classic fairy tale. A beautiful maiden in distress. A handsome young rogue to the rescue. The story of Rapunzel is so obviously a perfect vehicle for Disney—the doyen of bringing fairy tales to big screen life—that it’s a wonder Walt Disney himself didn’t tackle the project years ago. After watching Tangled, I can’t help but wish he had.
The film starts out with narration from the “hero” who opens the tale with a clever humor that reoccurs, though too seldomly, during the course of the picture. He provides the backstory for Rapunzel’s magical birth, enabled by the healing power of a sun-created flower, and the kidnapping that brings her to the famed tower. In this version of the tale, the baby princess Rapunzel is kidnapped by Gothel, a woman who stays eternally young through the restorative powers of the girl’s golden hair.
Gothel doesn’t just kidnap Rapunzel, she actually raises the stolen princess as her own daughter—a plot device that sets up one of the major problems of the film. In Gothel, the central mother figure for the story and for Rapunzel is actually a narcissistic kidnapper and liar, who later even attempts murder. Just a moment’s thought given to the symbolic implications and subliminal message conveyed by this scenario should be enough to make any parent shudder. The filmmakers don’t seem to want anyone to miss the cynicism and heartless deception in the portrayal of this relationship, as Rapunzel and Gothel repeat a habitual exchange of, “I love you. I love you more. I love you most”—loving words far too reminiscent to those used by many a legitimate mother and child.
This attack on the mother-daughter relationship is surprising to say the least, and sets up more than one confusing scenario for Rapunzel and young viewers watching her story. Innocently unaware that she is a pawn in a concerted effort to slash at the heart of family stability, Rapunzel naturally believes the stories that Mother Gothel, as the character is designated in the end titles, tells her about the outside world—that it is full of evil people who will try to harm Rapunzel and steal her hair. The latter prospect is frightening, indeed, since this telling of the fairy tale turns Rapunzel’s hair into a powerful source of healing, light, and life itself.
Meanwhile, Rapunzel’s royal, actual parents search in vain for their daughter. Unable to find her, they never give up hope and their entire kingdom joins them in annually lighting floating lamps that illuminate the sky on the evening of Rapunzel’s birthday. The young princess sees these lamps every year and, in true magical fashion, senses that they must be for her, though she doesn’t understand why. Nevertheless, seeing these lamps up close becomes Rapunzel’s driving goal—her dream that motivates her every action.
Unable to secure permission from Gothel to leave the tower and seek the lamps, Rapunzel gives up, momentarily. Enter the hero, or, more aptly, anti-hero. With this character named Flynn (a.k.a, Eugene) comes a second problem, though arguably a less harmful one. Gone are the days when the noble prince galloped to the rescue of the princess, sitting tall on his pure white stallion, raising his gleaming sword in self-defense against the black sorceress or fire-breathing dragon. The bad-boy thieves and con artists have beat out the princes with their forbidden charm, becoming so common in animated films that they’re almost as clichéd as the knight in shining armor.
These movies tell young girls that as long as the handsome rogue at least slightly mends his ways under the influence of love, his inclination toward rebelliousness and selfish immaturity is of no concern. In fact, the very presence of those traits seems to be what makes the man exciting, appealing, and fun. Eugene’s character does indeed improve under the influence of Rapunzel and his love for her, but teaching young girls to hope in the power of their love to become the moral compass for an otherwise amoral individual is unrealistic at best and can be seriously detrimental to future relationship choices.
As Rapunzel goes with Eugene into the world outside her tower, the viewers are plunged into the emotional conflict of the mock mother-daughter relationship that begins to torment Rapunzel on-screen. Rapunzel knows she is acting in rebellion against “Mother” Gothel by leaving the tower, but she also enjoys her freedom and the beauty of nature in the outside world. She shouldn’t be imprisoned in a tower, so we’re happy for Rapunzel. We know Gothel is evil and not really Rapunzel’s mother, so, again, we can cheer her on. Yet what do we do with the fact that Rapunzel is, to her knowledge, willingly acting in disobedience to her mother’s command? Rapunzel herself doesn’t have the answer. In her initial moments of freedom from the tower, we watch her alternate between ecstatic joy and overwhelming guilt from disobeying and hurting her mother.
Given the messages underlying this story, the filmmakers likely intended Rapunzel’s emotional struggle only as a depiction of the conflict most teenagers feel when rebelling against parents. Instead, this sequence stands out as a powerful visualization of the emotional torment a child would undergo when under the control of an untrustworthy, vindictive, dangerous parent. Gothel’s treatment of Rapunzel is highly corrosive, yet Rapunzel loves the older woman, trusting Gothel as her mother until she feels trapped enough to rebel. Children should trust their parents and heed their advice, yet viewers (kids included) are made to feel that Rapunzel does the right thing in following her own desires and disregarding her mother’s favorite phrase, “Mother knows best.”
Over the top of the film’s convoluted messages—which include the flipside of showing the importance of family in the enduring search for Rapunzel by her birth parents—is a dazzling coat of color and supreme animation excellence. In terms of filmmaking skill, Disney shows it can compete with Pixar through computer animation that gorgeously blends astonishing realism and heights of imaginative possibility. The Disney story creators also do their founder proud, as far as the art of storytelling is concerned.
Yet I don’t believe that Walt Disney would ultimately be pleased with this retelling of the classic Rapunzel fairy tale. In the end, he would likely have seen that beneath the mesmerizing color, artistry, and imagination of the film lies a story with messages as tangled as the hair on Rapunzel’s head.
Check out these movies instead:
Beauty and the Beast (Disney, 1991)
Sweet Pea Beauty (Big Idea, 2010)