I have to preface this by saying that Disney hasn’t made what I’d consider a decent animated feature in years. After subjecting myself to Bolt, Princess and the Frog and any number of other recent Disney features, I dreaded the prospect of handing over my hard-earned money for Tangled. That’s why it surprises even myself to write that Tangled, directed by Nathan Greno and Byron Howard, was an utterly delightful experience. It represents a fresh new direction for Disney’s feature animation department, one that is rooted in the finest tradition of Disney’s gloried past while pushing forward to an even brighter future. Despite a half-baked story that left me frustrated at many turns, the filmmakers made the audience care enough about the characters and delivered enough entertainment that I left the theater satisfied. I wanted to celebrate this achievement by highlighting five things I enjoyed about the film. Spoilers ahead.
1. THE QUALITY OF ANIMATION, RIGGING AND LIGHTING
Tangled‘s world felt organic in a way that no CG film I’ve seen has ever felt before. The modeling of the characters used shapes that were more sophisticated and natural than I’ve ever seen in a CG film. The translucency of the human skin felt more flesh-like than any other CG humans I’ve seen. (Actually, it had a waxy feel, which while not exactly flesh-like, is leaps and bounds beyond the plasticky skin in most CG films.) The rendering had a soft painterly light that pushed it away from the harsh rendering that I find so off-putting in most CG. And finally, there’s the animation.
The animation of the characters is jaw-dropping. All the leads–Rapunzel, Flynn, Mother Gothel, Maximus–were tremendous fun to watch. This is the closest I’ve ever seen a computer animated film come to capturing the looseness, asymmetry, and caricature of hand-drawn animation. Look at the expressions above. It’s as if every extreme was a custom-built expression or pose in the computer. The clarity of acting in the eyes was also a notable achievement. I have no idea what they did that is so different from the way that Pixar, DreamWorks, Blue Sky, et al. rig their characters, but Disney’s approach is a gamechanger in my opinion. Disney is again leading the pack in technique and technical prowess, and it’s been a very long time since they’ve done that.
“Mother Knows Best” and “I’ve Got a Dream” were both excellent numbers, which atoned for the cringe-worthy and out of place opening pop song “When Will My Life Begin?” The tunes themselves weren’t catchy in the way that an “Under the Sea” or “Be Our Guest” were, but both sequences were immensely entertaining. “Mother Knows Best” managed to be both funny (Rapunzel being rolled up like a rug made me laugh out loud; Mother Gothel’s super-fabulous theatrical gestures were a hoot) and menacing with its claustrophobia-inducing stark black backgrounds. “I’ve Got a Dream” proved that even a filmmaking cliche–the misunderstood lug–can be effective if presented in the right context.
3. VISUAL HUMOR
Yes, there was snarky dialogue. Yes, there were eye-rolling jokes. But on the whole, these were outweighed by genuinely funny moments, most of which were purely visual. Maximus’s bloodhound sniffing routine consistently earned laughs. The pantomime antics of the Mime and Pascal both generated laughs too, though I personally found the latter character to be contrived and lame. Most importantly, the comedy was mined between characters. Maximus and Flynn’s physical altercations were well played, and when Flynn tells Rapunzel that his life story is long and depressing, her eager reaction to hear more was a nice moment of personality.
4. THE SHORT THUG
I don’t know who thought it was a good idea to insert a drunk, pervy midget into a film like this, but please send my thanks to the artist who dreamt up my favorite new animated character of the year.
5. END CREDIT DRAWINGS
Shiyoon Kim’s end credit drawings are sophisticated and funny, and sent the audience home on a high note. But more importantly, for once I didn’t leave the theater saying, “If only they’d been able to capture the charm of those drawings in the computer animation.” They finally did in Tangled.