I finally made it out to see Disney’s “Tangled” several weekends back and I still find myself thinking about the film and its implications for the changing image of romance in family-friendly movies. Up until a few years ago, you could count on Disney’s animated flicks for love stories, but they always lacked depth; true love was synonymous with two good-looking people meeting, swooning over how perfectly they harmonize on duets, and vowing to marry the next morning. In fact, “Enchanted” (2007) mocks this by featuring a princess whose world turns upside-down when the streets of New York City show her there’s more to true love than first kisses and melodic ditties. Giselle, the main character in “Enchanted,” eventually abandons her prince for a single-dad attorney, but the bucking of Disney’s amorous traditions stops there. In other words, there is little indication of why Giselle and her McDreamy lawyer belong together any more than her and the prince, but this is forgivable considering the film balances many plotlines and has its hands full with musical numbers, an innovative mix of animation and live action, and a fresh take on fairy tales that proves a turning point for all Disney animations to come.
“The Princess and the Frog” (2009) followed close on the heels – err, ball-gown train – of “Enchanted” and picked up any and all slack from its predecessor’s romantic storyline. The film centers on Tiana, a girl who longs to open her own restaurant but hits a major roadblock when she’s magically turned into a frog along with a spoiled prince. This is the first animated Disney feature I can recall where the male romantic interest actually has a character arc – we see his journey from being selfish and superficial to becoming a person who actually cares about others – and, in conjunction, we see this pair grow and challenge each other as they fall in love. Despite this great leap in the world of cartoon romance and the other myriad things that made me ache to love this movie (i.e, its depiction of Disney’s first African-American female lead and its place in history as the studio’s first hand-drawn animation since 2004), it falls a little short for me. I think this bitty shortcoming all comes down to the music, which is a bit too bluesy and New-Orleans-infused to yield the kind of catchy tunes Disney is famous for. This may not sound like a big deal, but it means illustrations dance across the screen and pulsate to the rhythms of tunes that don’t stick in audiences’ minds, and this gives the whole film a feeling of spectacularity that’s slightly off kilter.
With Disney’s go-to-hit-maker Alan Menken back in the composer’s seat and a substantive romance brewing on the screen, I think it’s safe to say that if “Tangled” (2010) were porridge Goldilocks would find it just right. This film is a triumph in every way, from its title (which bespeaks dramatic tension and the complications of love) to the phenomenal CG animation (which somehow blends old-school Disney images with high-tech motion and textures). I should note that Disney caught a lot of flack for naming this picture “Tangled” instead of “Rapunzel,” a decision purportedly intended to appeal to male audiences and conceal the fact that this is a fairy tale. Scandal aside, I think the title is fitting because it hints at the fact that this isn’t just a typical princess movie – it’s a movie where a princess rigs pulley systems and performs acrobatics supported by only her hair, and where she hits men over the head with frying pans and falls in love with someone who makes her a better person. I can only hope that “Tangled” hints at a new generation of Disney characters who will allow us to leave the theater with some idea of what their happily ever afters look like; sure, this ever after might be filled with cutesy spats and a requisite number of regal balls, but if “Tangled” is any indication we’ll also be able to rest assured that our protagonists will continue to bring out the best in each other and evolve as people in their own right long after the credits stop rolling. If that’s not a reason to cart yourself and every other child at heart you know off to see the next Disney movie, I don’t know what is.
Psst: If you’ve already seen these animated romances and are still looking for some love-infused cinema this Valentine’s weekend, check out my top picks for romantic comedies.