Academic Writing

Monday, February 14, 2011


A Fairy Tale for the Jaded

A few weeks ago I went to see Disney’s latest installment of the Princess movie franchise, Tangled. I wasn’t particularly dying to go see it, but definitely had an interest in it and since I was always such a sucker for this genre as a kid, I was happy to tag along. Furthermore, as an adult I’m still waiting for my prince to come, so why not watch a movie where that catharsis is guaranteed?

The movie was cute enough, but from the eyes of this admittedly somewhat jaded movie go-er, it didn’t provide anything new to the Disney landscape. As previously mentioned, I’m a total sucker for the Disney princess musicals. I grew up watching The Little Mermaid at least twice a week (literally wearing away my VHS copy of it), dreaming of being Jasmine with those big batting eyes, wishing I could sing and dance in a spacious ballroom in a flowing golden dress, imagining one day I too would fall head over heels in love with any of the princes that my idol princesses did. Tangled seeks to hearken back to the day of those movies, providing just the right combination of rebellious and independent princess, love story, song, and cute little anthropomorphized animal side-kick. Yet, despite its best efforts, it doesn’t quite live up to its hopes. There was something lacking in it, and it could be that I've personally seen it all before on the screen, or as an adult I know things just don’t work out that way. I’m tending to lean towards it being my own prejudices that left the moving falling flat because the throngs of 7- and 8-year-olds in the theater seemed to be thoroughly enjoying it.

Tangled tells the somewhat reimagined story of Rapunzel, a princess kidnapped from her parents and locked away from the world in a tower by a woman posing as her mother. In this version, Rapunzel (voiced by Mandy Moore) has magical hair which not only brings youth but healing to whoever is in contact with it when she sings. It is to protect this magic that “The Mother” (Donna Murphy) keeps Rapunzel isolated from any human contact. One day resident thief and ladies man, Flynn Ryder (voiced by Chuck's Zachary Levi) appears in her tower hiding out from the lawmen (and horses) who are trying to capture him. Never before face to face with another human other than her “Mother,” Rapunzel is scared and unsure as to how to deal with the situation. Ultimately she decides to use him for her benefit. Itching to get out of her (literal) ivory tower and explore the outside world desperate to see, she blackmails him to bring her out on a journey to see the fire lanterns which are sent out on her birthday each year. What Rapunzel doesn’t know is that these lanterns are dispersed by her birth parents in memory of their daughter and what they hope will lead her back to them.

All of the stock characters you would expect to see in a Disney movie are present, from the rake leading man, fiercely independent but ultimately “helpless without her guy” princess, creature sidekick, and absent/dead parents, and evil step-mother. The lush landscapes, vague time period and song and dance numbers are also clear indicators that this is a Disney Princess flick. (Come to think of it, is it weird that another stock scene is a drunken bar song and dance number?) It’s for those reasons that I both enjoyed and was a tad bored by this film. I could enjoy it because I knew what to expect, it fit the mold that I’d come to know and love. However, I was slightly frustrated that there was really nothing positively nuanced about it that would set itself apart from its predecessors.

I say “positively” nuanced because I would have hoped that decades since the first princess iteration we could have evolved ourselves into idealizing a stronger female main character. Rapunzel is even needier than some who came before her, helplessly relying on her step-mother until Flynn comes along and she proves to need him to care for her. While she acts independent, ultimately she cannot save herself unless she has the support of Flynn coming to her rescue. Her most liberating moment comes at the end of the film, and without giving anything away, is not merely superficial, but also ultimately an unnecessary act. Additionally, something interesting about this film is that while Disney Mothers have always gotten a bad rap, this one is particularly haunting. The Mother is unflinchingly evil, having not even kidnapped Rapunzel due to her need for a child or for love. She kidnapped her for purely selfish reasons and needs her to stay safe for her own gain. Is that where Disney thinks women are today: either helpless victims who need men to save them, or horrible matrons who procreate for their own selfish gain?

While pondering this concept and looking around at the young girls in the theater I wondered to myself if they were reading into the film as I was and if this message was subliminally penetrating their young minds. Were they really thinking that these were their only two options? Personally, I don’t think I can point to The Little Mermaid or Aladdin as solely being responsible for formulating my wish for happily ever after. Moreover, I consider myself a strong woman despite having looked up to Ariel and Jasmine. There’s a lot of worrying about the “Disney effect” on young women and society, and the messages those films are sending. However, thinking about my past experiences growing up on these films and coming to understand the messaging as an adult I don’t know if I agree with the idea that the subliminal messages seep into the subconscious of young girls and they come to emulate their on screen heroines. If anything, it’s Hollywood on a whole that creates the idea of Happily Ever After and perpetuates the image of helpless-without-her-man female characters.

I've already said that Tangled didn’t particularly “WOW” me, but I don’t think it had to. It was meant to impress the kids in the audience. They were there to take away from it messages and themes important to them. I’m sure they got a thrill out of the 3-D (whereas I just grumbled about the higher ticket price and lack of eye-popping imagery). Too often adults judge kids’ movies based on how they see them, not by how the children their meant for see them. So what if I wasn’t enlightened by the film or found its stock characters and plot devises to be repetitive. The kids were eating it up, and for me, watching them being drawn in and awed by what was on the screen was enough for me because ultimately, that’s what reminded me of what it’s like to be a kid. As an adult who can so easily talk about how there’s nothing new in the movies anymore, to look and see how they were lapping up and being impressed by “the movies” reminded me how sometimes, especially when it comes to movies made for kids, they don’t have to be particularly nuanced, they just have to be fun and adventurous and allow kids to enjoy themselves and be, well, kids.

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