Walt Disney's modernizing of the Grimm fairy tale is thorough enough that even the original title, "Rapunzel," has been swapped for "Tangled." One can't help but wonder if in today's Hollywood, we might look forward to other contempo fairy tales like "Heeled" ("Cinderella"), "Ambiened" ("Sleeping Beauty") and "Twilight 5" ("Little Red Riding Hood").
"Tangled," which is in 3-D, gives ample opportunity to grimace at its blatant updating. Describing her situation (trapped for all her life in a tower), Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) explains herself like a Facebook page: "It's complicated."
Since the 1940s, Disney has toyed with the story of Rapunzel. "Tangled," directed by "Bolt" helmer Byron Howard and Nathan Greno (head of story on "Bolt"), finally arrives as the much ballyhooed 50th animated feature from Disney, and the last animated fairy tale currently planned by the studio.
The Brothers Grimm have been very good to Disney over the years and returning to one of their tales has very much the feel of "go with what you know." While "Tangled" is not in the league of Disney's best, it's still a sturdy, pleasant execution by the animation machine, retooled slightly for digital times.
The film is digitally animated (though with some hand-drawn aspects) and was one of the first projects led by Pixar chief John Lasseter once he became head of Disney animation. Thus "Tangled" is the first Pixar-ish Disney film, though it still contains all the familiar Disney hallmarks: song-and-dance numbers, amusing sidekicks and a frightfully cruel villain.
That villain is Mother Gothel (Broadway veteran Donna Murphy), who steals Rapunzel as a baby, locking her away in a remote tower where Rapunzel's magical hair preserves her youth.
Rapunzel, with big green eyes and 70-feet of blonde hair, is turning 18 and her birthday wish is to see the kingdom's annual floating lantern festival. Her only friend is Pascal, a loyal chameleon who doesn't speak, but manages to convey himself with eye-rolls and changes of color.
At first, Mother Gothel acts as though she might take Rapunzel out into the world, but she quickly reneges, insisting Rapunzel isn't ready yet. Darkly manipulative and passive-aggressive, she's a classic villain and one of Disney's best.
When Rapunzel is hurt after Mother Gothel tells her she won't ever leave the tower, she sighs: "Oh, great. Now, I'm the bad guy."
Instead of the prince of the Grimm fairy tale, we get Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi), a rogue on the run who seeks a hiding place in the tower. Though resistant at first, Rapunzel takes to him and let's him lead her, for the first time, on to solid ground. Finally out of the tower, she's wonderfully bipolar: a montage switches between her utter glee at freedom, and dramatic swoons of shame in disobeying who she thinks is her mother.
Rapunzel and Flynn set out on a journey that will include a tavern full of theatrical thugs, chase scenes and moments of budding romance. The screenplay by Dan Fogelman ("Bolt," "Cars") gets the tale out of the tower, bounding across cartoon woodlands.
Rapunzel takes it all in with the curiosity of a wide-eyed innocent. Gamely totting around her long trail of hair, she uses it inventively - like an Indiana Jones with a built-in whip.
Flynn is less memorable. He's uncertain of himself, but he's slowly pulled in by Rapunzel's goodness. It is, of course, a predictable arc, but it's managed without much feeling. Flynn is flip and rather obnoxious. When he tells Rapunzel, "Sorry blondie, I don't do back story," we think: She can do better.
His slacker nature works better when he, without much fanfare, tells Rapunzel that famous line, "Let down your hair" - the fairy tale equivalent of "Release the Kraken!"
Both Rapunzel and Flynn too much resemble Barbie and Ken, lacking both superficial and emotional individuality. Moore and Levi are flat. And we can't help but wonder how Rapunzel's lifetime locked-away didn't produce a disorder or two.
The animation, overseen by Glen Keane ("Beauty and the Beast," "The Little Mermaid," "Aladdin"), reaches its apogee in a row boat scene, reminiscent of "Kiss the Girl" from "Mermaid." Flynn and Rapunzel are surrounded by countless floating lanterns in the nighttime sky and reflected in the water.
The romance doesn't match the visual splendor, but no matter: The lushness is enough. The 3-D - which is fine by current standards but generally dims the images - is best here, immersing the audience among the glowing orbs.
For the songs, Disney turned to another stalwart, Alan Menken, who composed the scores to "Beauty and the Beast," "The Little Mermaid" and a number of the less memorable Disney movies of the "00s. There's no hit here - "I See the Light," "When Will My Life Begin?" - but the songs (with lyrics by Glenn Slater) get the job done, particularly Mother Gothel's big number, "Mother Knows Best."
For a story about shrugging off suffocating parental security, it's a good lesson: Sometimes, Mother doesn't know best.
"Tangled," a Walt Disney Studios release, is rated PG for brief mild violence. Running time: 104 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.