3.5 stars out of 5
Unforgettable melodies and delightful characters with a story that speaks to you regardless of whether you’re 8 or 88 – there was once a time when the Mouse House churned out great work.
Ever since CGI decided to take over the world and Disney gladly leapt on the bandwagon, the studio powerhouse has copped much flak for losing its classic flavour.
Nonetheless last year’s 2D animation offering The Princess and the Frog proved they still have what it takes to deliver mind-blowing, hand-drawn fare, though critics and commercial audiences alike were mostly annoyed by its patronizing storyline. Rapunzel attempts to silence (some) naysayers by serving a more gender-balanced portrayal, while boldly blending the fluidity of traditional animation with modern visual techniques.
And for the most part, Rapunzel doesn’t fall short. Loosely based on a German fairytale by the Brothers Grimm, Disney’s 50th animated feature tells of a baby princess with magical hair, bestowed upon her when the Queen consumes an enchanted flower with healing powers. Enter your typical witch-like crone Mother Gothel (Broadway veteran Donna Murphy), who discovers the bloom which had her looking so young and sprightly is now encapsulated in a mewling infant.
Inevitably she chooses to steal the poor kid and locks her in a tower, because who wouldn’t want their very own botox-on-demand. Rapunzel (enlivened by pop songstress/actress Mandy Moore) grows up unaware of her privileged pedigree, longing to discover the world beyond and solve the mystery of the ‘floating lights’ (really just lanterns) which miraculously get released into the sky on her birthday. When Flynn Rider (a criminally charming Zachary Levi from TV’s Chuck), debonair thief on the run seeks refuge in her home, she can’t resist striking a deal – she’ll safely stow his loot if he agrees to take her outside.
Despite the plot being far from ground breaking, its titular princess is a refreshing elevation from your formulaic damsel in distress. She’s a sassy sweetheart who wears flowers in her hair as gracefully as she deftly hurls baddies on their butts. Even the girl’s requisite knight in shining amour is hardly run-of-the-mill Disney and certainly not some prince with an identity crisis.
Rapunzel generally bounces along at an easy but unremarkable pace, occasionally suffering from chinks of stilted dialogue. This is made apparent since it unapologetically relies on character banter for a good first half. While adults might find the exchanges mildly amusing, younger viewers will be shifting in their seats. Fortunately, the film saves itself by circumspectly balancing heavy chatter with a dose of hysterical, non-speaking animal side-kicks. Much of this unevenness can probably be attributed to a switch in creative hands mid-production, where acclaimed animator Glen Keane (Aladdin, Tarzan) helmed the project before Byron Howard (co-director for Bolt) and story-boarder Nathan Greno took over the reins.
Alan Menken, the Oscar-winning musical maestro behind the tunes featured in Beauty and theBeast and The Little Mermaid, lends his signature zing to Rapunzel’s score. Murphy’s vocals meld effortlessly with Menken’s snappy melodies, infusing Mother Gothel’s passive aggressiveness with just enough malevolence to give Ursula a run for her shells. In spite of Moore’s scanty singing voice, which more often than not gets completely enveloped in soaring orchestral arrangements, Menken skillfully suffuses Rapunzel’s songs with a quality that’s more saccharine than sickly. Levi surprises the most with his bossa nova baritone, injecting Flynn with a roguish yet princely gleam.
Reportedly inspired by French Rococo artist Jean-Honore Fragonard’s painting “The Swing”, there’s undeniably an irresistible quaintness about the art in the film; from the kingdom’s lush landscapes to the elegant array of watercolor impressions splayed across the tower walls. Although Rapunzel’s CG rendition disturbingly reminds one of a manga-infected Kewpie doll, there’s no refuting the fact that technology has afforded considerable authenticity and physical depth to animation today. Particularly the nuances of her luxuriant tresses, which strikingly resemble real hair in both look and texture.
Then all that blasphemy about tainting old-fashioned animation with the evils of CGI gets neatly tossed out the proverbial window in the movie’s romantic duet sequence, where Flynn and Rapunzel huddled in their wooden gondola, glide across the tranquil waters freeing glowing lanterns into the sunburned sky. And you believe that maybe, just for a moment, Disney has somehow managed to revive that elusive magic spark.