A couple of weeks ago, I ran across this tutorial on facial expression in animation and cartooning, which featured this piece of information:
Clearly, cartoonist Tracy J. Butler knows what she's talking about. According to the commentary on this piece over at The Beat, this is also known as "Dreamworks Brow" and "'Tude." Note to cartoonists: Please stop. Seriously. Just stop. Please? Because I REALLY don't have the patience for characters like this one and shots like this one anymore:
I know! Uggh, right?
Anyway, all of this was very much in my mind watching Disney's 50th animated film, Tangled (2010, directed by Nathan Greno and Byron Howard), because this is a movie that indulges in this trope--and others equally annoying--ad nauseum. I'm also a little bit miffed at the way Disney went about selling this movie. If you don't know, this is their version of Rapunzel. It's totally her movie, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise (least of all Disney). The Rapunzel story is perfectly famous. So why change the name? They were afraid they might alienate boys. Further, the trailers for the film emphasized the exploits of Mr. Smarm brow, "likable" thief, Flynn Rider rather than Rapunzel. I'm already on record with my disappointment that Pixar has yet to center one of their films on a female character. Whatever you may think of Disney's "Princess" films, they at least provide stories for girls. It irks me that they don't trust this. John Lasseter's name is attached to this film as a producer, and he's on notice. (Not that he's going to care about the bleatings of some nobody blogger from the sticks...).
All of these irritants are curdled spots in an otherwise fine confection. Tangled itself is a pretty terrific film. It's everything you expect from a Disney animated musical: fun, bright, exciting, occasionally weird, defiantly heteronormative in spite of its show tune-iness, and it's designed within an inch of its life. You don't have to be a girl of a certain age to enjoy it. It has more than enough to offer to any sensibility. Oh, and it's got Ron Perlman in it as the voice of the wonderfully named "Stabbington Brothers," but that's my kick; it may not matter to you.
The version of the story on display here posits a piece of magical sunshine that falls to the Earth, where it grows as a magic flower that can heal all wounds and cure all sicknesses. This flower is horded by the wicked Mother Gothel, who uses it to preserve her youth and beauty. Meanwhile, the Queen is pregnant and very ill. The King sends out his forces to find the flower to heal the queen. The flower's magic is transferred to the child, Rapunzel, whose hair becomes the conduit through which the healing power flows. But cut the hair, and the magic vanishes. Mother Gothel kidnaps the child, imprisons her in a tower, and raises her as her own. Enter Flynn Rider, on the lam after swiping the princess's crown from the palace and pursued, as well, by his wicked associates who don't like being double crossed. Rider stumbles upon Rapunzel's tower where he becomes the princess's ticket to a world beyond.
It's all pretty stock stuff, actually, but executed well enough. Composer Alan Menken is still looking for someone the equal of the late Howard Ashman, and he hasn't found him in the songwriting committee assembled here. The result is middle of the road: a bunch of songs that would be at home in a Broadway musical, but which aren't going to burn up the Billboard charts. They function mainly as glue for the movie's set-pieces. There's nothing wrong with this, but the days when Disney's animated musicals were interesting for their music appear to be over.
The visual design of the film, however...
According to producer/head animator Glen Keane, the visual inspiration for Tangled is Rococo art, particularly Fragonard's "Girl on a Swing:"
And, yeah. I can totally see that. But I also see hints of the Pre-Raphaelites in the meticulous detail of the film's landscapes, and I even see hints of Gustav Klimt in shots like this one:
What's most impressive to me, though, is how the filmmakers have retained an essential cartoony sensibility when it comes to character design. These characters never approach photorealism, even though elements of the film's design are photorealistic. It understands the function of abstraction and of anthropomorphism. It never, ever falls into the so-called "valley of the uncanny." It's never creepy. This was a point emphatically made by the trailer for Mars Needs Moms that preceded the show I went to, which falls off the edge of the valley of the uncanny's lookout point. The contrast is startling.
In general, I like the characters, too, excepting as noted. Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) is credibly innocent; her joy at being out in the world is infectious. Mother Gothel, voiced by Broadway vet Donna Murphy, is one of Disney's better wicked stepmothers. She also has a bustline that takes full advantage of the film's PG rating. They've gone the extra mile in costuming her, too. She's the first Disney character I can think of who has clothing that I might want to wear myself. I've mentioned the Stabbington Brothers, but the tavern full of thugs deserves some mention, too. This is an odd movie for Disney, because even though it buys into the whole fairy tale royalty business, its heroes are all rogues and thieves. The barroom thugs would be a throwaway in another movie; this one brings most of them to life as human beings.
The comedy bits mostly work, as do the actions scenes. Some of them are inspired. The scene where Maximus the horse winds up fencing with Flynn has the benefit of novelty--I've never seen something like it in any other movie.
All in all, it's a pretty good movie. I don't know if this is a classic. I don't actually think that it is, but that's not for me to say, and certainly not the day after I first saw it. It's already receding in my memory a day later, which doesn't bode well. In a lot of ways, it's entirely too safe, but I understand that. This kind of movie is expensive to make, so they don't take risks with them. Within the parameters of its idiom, it's very good. I do think, however, that the idiom could use some re-evaluation. It was already strangling Disney's movies a decade ago. Things have not improved.