Friday, December 03, 2010

Could 'Tangled' be Disney's last fairy tale movie?

In a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, Pixar Animation Studios chief Ed Catmull, who along with director John Lasseter oversees Disney Animation, declared that “Tangled,” Disney's reworking of the “Rapunzel” story, would be the last fairy tale/princess movie that the company produces, at least for now.

It isn't that Disney has run out of fairy tales to choose from. “Jack and the Beanstalk” and “The Snow Queen” were actually in development before Catmull and Lasseter decided for the new direction. The decision is motivated by money.

Last year's “Princess and the Frog,” Disney's first princess movie in more than a decade, wasn't the moneymaker the studio had hoped for leading to all sorts of speculation as to why. The general consensus seems to be that the appeal of princess movies is too narrow and one expert quoted in the Los Angeles Times article theorizes that young girls have already moved beyond princesses.

“By the time they're 5 or 6, they're not interested in being princesses,” said Dafna Lemish, chairwoman of the radio and TV department at Southern Illinois University and an expert in the role of media in children's lives. “They're interested in being hot, in being cool. Clearly, they see this is what society values.”

The article also suggested that elementary students are more interested in big budget action films like “Iron Man” and “The Transformers” and that with those as possible options wouldn't choose to watch a fairy tale.

When I was younger I watched both action films and animated fairy tales. At age 8 my dad took me to both “Batman Returns” and “Beauty and the Beast.” Back home, I'd gladly watch “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” one day and “The Little Mermaid” the next. Perhaps times have changed, but I think it is possible children today also have diverse tastes. We are selling them short to simply give them what we think they want.

Both Catmull and Lasseter have come from Pixar, which has a near flawless track record of witty animated films with substance. With them at the helm, Disney Animation should be in good hands, but this choice to axe the fairy tale seems rash. One film does not make a trend.

I'm not convinced the reason why “The Princess and the Frog” underperformed was that the appeal was too narrow. Films like “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin” had a broad appeal despite featuring princesses at their centers because they had an ideal mix of humor, heart, action and songs. They were engaging and could be appreciated by both children as well as their parents. “The Princess and the Frog” tried to recreate that vibe but perhaps simply missed the mark, and audiences may have sensed that.

“Tangled” was retooled and retitled to become disassociated with the fairy tale that inspired it. Disney may have overcompensated with the name change, but the reworking of the material wasn't a bad choice. The male lead Flynn (voiced by Zachary Levi of TV's “Chuck”) was made into a roguish bandit, not dissimilar to Aladdin, and Rapunzel (voiced by Mandy Moore) was given a more active role in her story instead of just passively waiting in her tower.

In the process of trying to distance themselves from the fairy tale, Nathan Greno and Byron Howard, the new directors Catmull hired for “Tangled,” stumbled upon the old formula that worked such wonders in the early to mid 1990s. Once again there is a just right balance of laughs, thrills and heart tugging.

As with all the best Disney animated musical, "Tangled” features two comic relief sidekicks. Rapunzel has a chameleon named Pascal, who is her only friend and confidant, and Flynn is being pursued by Maximus, a horse from the castle guard. Both of these characters are worthy of standing alongside the likes of Sebastian, Abu and Timon and Pumbaa. They are essentially silent film characters that provide wonderful slapstick humor.

Most of songs are largely forgettable, but two get it right. “I Can See the Light” makes a valiant attempt at reaching the soaring levels of a ballad such as “A Whole New World” from “Aladdin” and nearly makes it. The very funny “I've Got a Dream” follows in the tradition of having at least one big, infectious comic number.

If “Tangled” turns out to be the swan song for the Disney animated fairy tale, at least it is a good one. But given that the film made $68 million in its first five days, perhaps Disney will not be so quick to forsake one of their mainstays.

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