Sunday, November 28, 2010

Review: "Tangled"

For those of the spoiler-phobic disposition, beware, I may sprinkle some rather liberally through this review. If you wish to avoid them, I'll give you the short version: I did not love this movie. I didn't hate it, either. I'd call my reaction "tepid" and occasionally frustrated at what I felt like it not only could have been but should have been. I will also say that I appear to be in a vast minority, judging from Rotten Tomatoes and my own online f-list. If you saw the trailer and thought it looked like a laugh riot, then go, you'll enjoy it. If, like me, you looked at the preview and thought they were trying way too hard and not hitting the mark, wait for DVD.

Spoilers beyond this point, beware all ye who read past this line.
Since I got home last night I've been trying to focus on exactly why
this movie fell so far short of my already hesitant expectations, and I'm still not entirely sure. In part, I felt like the character animation wasn't quite up to snuff-- the three leads look too perfect, with no blemishes, little imperfections, or quirky facial features to offer anything very interesting to look at. They came off looking more like dolls than people, and without much in the way of visual performance beyond highly repetitive slapstick numbers and not a lot in the way of internal mechanics, I found myself very aware that I was watching some very pretty emptiness. I might change my mind if I ever watch this again, but going off my first impression, the characters didn't seem to do much in the way of "thinking" or experience an emotion that wasn't telegraphed a mile wide.

This leads to my second issue: the lack of character depth in general. Again, I'm not expecting Hamlet from Disney, but characters that feel like they had at least some thought beyond archetype tropes put into them would be nice. Rapunzel fared the best in this department, I think, and there were some interesting things done with her, but quite often she ran into trouble in terms of interesting animation that might have added that little extra depth that could have pushed her over the edge in Really Interesting territory. Sadly, she spent most of her time hovering in the Has Potential lobby. To a lesser extent, Flynn suffered from the same issue, and the Mother character was just flat as a pancake. I tried to get invested in them, but the only one I felt an even remote connection to was Rapunzel and quite often that connection would get squashed by a completely unnecessary musical sequence or series of slapstick jokes. This happened with nearly any moment where started to feel like we were finally getting into some character development/connection, which was irritating and downright annoying by the end of the movie. I get the concept of delayed gratification, but the filmmakers weren't giving me enough time to get a solid foothold into my caring about ANYTHING that was happening. It's like in their effort to ramp up the swashbuckling adventure/humor elements they cut too deeply into any real emotional resonance for the audience (or just me, whatever).
Major irritants: the musical numbers and the animal sidekicks. I'll give the horse a pass since they did a serviceable job of making him important to the plot in some small ways, but the lizard was completely pointless and just took up running time that could have gone into character development or humor that didn't involve hitting someone with a frying pan. The same goes for the songs. I'm not anti-musical, in fact I quite enjoy them when they're well-made. But I have a rule for the musical numbers: if they don't advance the plot, reveal character, or transport the audience from one level of emotion to another in the service of the previous two things, in ways that can't be done as efficiently with plain dialog, cut the song because it's dead weight and will drag the pace of the movie down. For me, that was every SINGLE song in this movie. I have never been so annoyed with musical numbers as I have been with this movie. I could be a bit more forgiving if the songs were at least catchy/fun enough to be memorable, but none of them were. They were dull, dead weight around the neck of this film, and again, that time could have been better used in the aid of character development or plot advancement.

I've mentioned the humor several times, and it probably works for a lot of people. It didn't work for me at all. Can't say why, really, maybe it was too dependent on repetitive slapstick and abruptly halting animation and not anything actually clever or creative. This was probably the biggest mood dampener for me, since it felt like so much of the run-time was devoted to it and it just flat-out did not work for me. I gave a few half-hearted chuckles at first, but I got tired of it pretty fast and gave up. Other people seem to like it, and if there's anything that's subjective, it's humor, so eh, whatever. I do object to the filmmakers trying to use it for character development instead of actual character development in the case of Flynn.
All in all, though, I think my biggest complaint was this nagging sense that this movie really could have been something a lot better and different than it was. It felt like I was watching something that could have been great but was hamstrung by a bunch of people who were too afraid to take risks. Elements of this would surface now and then and I'd find my interest piqued only to have it re-submerge and never appear again for the sake of banality. That was the worst of it. Don't dangle the carrot in front of my face long enough to get me excited and then take it away. You can't be brave and cowardly at the same time, either take the court or go back to the bench.

I don't know if it was a lack of faith in the animators, the story, or the audience, but I suspect the latter. Rule one in movie-making: trust your audience. If you can't do that, do something else with your life. Trust that we will understand what a character is feeling without having to spell it out in huge letters. Those musical numbers felt superfluous specifically because they were not necessary to understand anything. It was like getting "Anakin, you're breaking my heart" on repeat for two minutes a pop every ten minutes or so. Film, and especially animation, is a visual medium: SHOW us, don't TELL us. If you don't trust the audience to understand the significance of a moment that has been built up for half the film in every conceivable way without a song TELLING us how the character feels, you have issues. The moment with the lanterns would have been so much more powerful resting on the ability of the animators to convey it on Rapunzel's face instead of the song they felt was necessary. I get it's a big moment, I don't need you slapping my face asking me if I get it yet. Give us the opportunity to figure it out for ourselves, it means so much more when we do. Other animation studios get this, it's time to step up and get with the program.
Having said all that, I didn't hate it. It's not going on my "must own" list, or even my "I'll rent it when it comes out" list, but I'm probably in a minority there. Everyone seems to quite like, if not even love this movie, and that's fine. I really wanted to, heck, I paid $9 to see it on an evening when I could have stayed off the icy streets and watched a movie I know I already like. I heard friends wax poetic about how much they liked it, I skimmed reviews to the same effect, and I figured if nothing else I'd get an hour and a half of nice animation. Instead I spent an hour and a half being very aware that I was watching a movie in a theater. I was constantly aware that I had seen nearly all of this before in other Disney movies and I had a hard time trying not to directly compare them. It was like a mash-up of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and the Hunchback of Notre Dame when it would have been nice to just see Rapunzel without the ghosts of Disney past. Yeah, you had some successful movies back then, but don't strip their carcasses to try and pad your new movies. Figure out WHY those moments worked and go with that, don't just recycle the same ideas over and over again. In short, I was bored. I am frequently many things while watching animation, but"bored" is not one of them, even if the movie itself isn't that great. I left feeling frustrated, confused and irritated at the waste of it all. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't what it could or should have been if someone had taken the chances the film needed to really breathe and come into its own the way it had the potential to do.

For a less clich├ęd version of (a surprisingly similar take on) the Rapunzel story, check out the graphic novel Rapunzel's Revenge by Shannon, Dean and Nathan Hale. I read it a few years ago and found it really charming and clever in ways that fell flat for me here. Even if you liked this movie, check it out, you'll probably like it.