For "Tangled," the studio's 50th feature-length cartoon, the team at Disney has taken a deep breath and tried to be all things to all animation-loving people. There are some hiccups along the way, but by the end there is success.
Whether you like stirring adventure or sentimental romance, traditional fairy tales or stories of modern families, musicals or comedies, even blonds or brunets, "Tangled" has something for you. Sampling so many animation touchstones has its risks, but once "Tangled" calms down and accepts the essential sweetness of its better nature the rewards are clear.
As directed by Nathan Greno and "Bolt" co-director Byron Howard, one of those rewards is a gorgeous computer-animated look that features rich landscapes and characters that look fuller and more lifelike than they have in the past.
"Tangled" can be forgiven if it takes some time to find its footing. It is after all a story of a lost princess that does a lot to appeal to boys, a retelling of the Rapunzel fairy tale that (in this country at least) decided it was wiser to avoid the name itself, and a movie with five Alan Menken songs that doesn't call itself a musical.
That initial shakiness is amplified by the irritating and overly glib nature of co-protagonist Flynn Rider (voiced by Zachary Levi), a devil-may-care bandit who is introduced spewing more smart remarks than a Comedy Store regular. Like a refugee from a " Shrek" sequel, Flynn calls Rapunzel "blondie" and says "I don't do back story" when asked about his past.
This comment notwithstanding, it is Flynn who fills us in on Rapunzel's history. The daughter of a king and queen (honest!), she was spirited away as an infant and raised by a devious woman named Mother Gothel (brassy theater veteran Donna Murphy) who keeps the girl in the dark about her real parents and locks her up in a tower because contact with Rapunzel's magical hair keeps Mother G. eternally young.
As envisioned by Disney hair technicians Xinmin Zhao and Kelly Ward (who devoted 10 years of her life and a PhD thesis to pondering how to computer animate hair), that mane is quite the force of nature, 70 feet long and capable of many things, including tying people up and batting them down.
Rapunzel, it should be emphasized, is hardly defined by her hair. As voiced by former tween idol Mandy Moore, this is a very modern young woman, about to turn 18 and, with only a wise chameleon (is there any other kind?) named Pascal as companion, especially anxious to get out of the tower and see the world.
What Rapunzel is especially eager to see up close are a group of floating lanterns filling the sky that she's only observed from a great distance. It's the one thing she wants for her 18th birthday, but for Mother Gothel anything that takes Rapunzel out of the tower is a non-starter.
A guilt-tripping, overprotective, super-manipulative parent from hell, Mother Gothel is given to saying things like "skip the drama, stay with momma." Though given to sugarcoating her tyranny, Mother Gothel declares in a weak moment, "You're not leaving this tower, ever."
Not to worry. An on-the-run Flynn Rider appears, and circumstances conspire so that he agrees to take Rapunzel to see the lanterns. Though both are clearly destined for each other, the movie has the good sense not to force that realization on them, or us.
Once Rapunzel gets out of the tower, Flynn Rider thankfully calms down and the film, written by Dan Fogelman with song lyrics by Glenn Slater, gets both funnier and more adventurous by taking on more of Rapunzel's sunny personality.
The young lady charms a bossy, overzealous army horse named Maximus (the film's funniest character) and disarms a gang of bloodthirsty ruffians by asking them about their dreams: A murderous gentleman named Hook Hand ( Brad Garrett) is, as it turns out, a would-be pianist who would rather be thought "deadly for my killer show-tune medley."
Busy as it is, "Tangled" also finds time to include enough action and adventure sequences, including wild chases, hairbreadth escapes and an enormous flood, to allow even the fussiest small boys to feel it's worth their time.
It takes a bit of doing, but when "Tangled's" core sweetness asserts itself and the film dares to wear its heart on its sleeve in a climactic scene featuring 46,000 paper lanterns, it's been worth the wait. Mother Gothel may have a point when she insists that "the world is dark and selfish and cruel," but that's why we're so grateful for films like this.