Tangled up in Fairytales: Walt Disney’s remarkable return

The Times

January 16, 2011


It’s clear from the outset that Tangled (terrible title, great film) is not going to be the classic tale of Rapunzel when the prince, who is really a schmuck and has stolen a crown, comes to our long-tressed heroine’s tower, where she conks him on the head and locks him in a wardrobe. Using the finest of Disney’s animated drawing, the latest in 3-D technology and a sharp script, this new version of the classic fairy-tale will, Disney estimates, gross more than $300 million (£193 million) worldwide.

If industry rumours are true, the film cost $260 million to produce, making it the most expensive animated film yet (even Avatar had an official production budget of “only” $237 million) and the second-most expensive feature film (after Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End). When Tangled opened in November in the US, it became the second highestgrossing film to open at Thanksgiving after Toy Story 2. Disney’s 50th animated film, its release is being marked by a year-long season at the BFI in London, where all 50 are being shown in chronological order, beginning with the first animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1937.

In its calculated mixture of classic and modern, Tangled is a high-water mark: it’s as smart as Shrek and as exquisitely wrought as Snow White. Rapunzel (voiced by Mandy Moore) is a Disney heroine at least on speaking terms with feminism, as instrumental in her bid for freedom as her “prince”, Flynn (voiced by Zachary Levi), who transforms himself from scoundrel to hero. Their courtship is overshadowed by the villainess, Mother Gothel (amazingly voiced by Donna Murphy), whose song Mother Knows Best is a chilling and convin- cing encapsulation of the twisted co-de- pendent relationship that she has with Rapunzel. The score, composed by Alan Menken, is so good that it sounds Broad- way-ready. “We wanted to make a movie with music, such as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, not a musical,” Roy Conli, Tangled’s producer, says. “It could become a Broadway musical. It would need to be rewritten, but those are discussions I’d welcome.”

The script is fast-paced and filled with wisecracks; the intention, Conli says, was to mirror the repartee of the classic 1940s battle-of-the-sexes comedies, though modernised. “There was no way Rapunzel was going to be a damsel in distress. In the 1950s the Disney princess was a certain way; that changed in 1989 with The Little Mermaid, who was assertive. Now in Tangled our 21st-century heroine wants to take her part in the world.” Conli wants the film to appeal to young and old, “and we want you to feel you’ve been to a ‘Disney’ film. There are design elements that echo Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Snow White and Pinocchio. We also want it to feel contemporary and ring true in the years to come. When I arrived here we were editing using razors and tape. We’re aware of the Disney legacy, the storytelling that preceded us. We pay homage but we are not slavish. CGI allows you to push things farther.”

Glen Keane, the animation supervisor of Tangled,who started his career at the studio 33 years ago on The Rescuers, recalls in 1981 going to see an early screening of the original Tron. John Lasseter, then a Disney animator, accompanied Keane and both were impressed by the early shots of the light cycles in space. “We came back exhilarated at the technical possibilities the film showed and depressed we couldn’t do it.” But it made them determined to innovate as much as possible. Lasseter went on to rise through the ranks at Pixar, which was responsible for the original Toy Story, the first computer-animated feature film (which led to a slew of popular animations, including A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2 and Cars). Keane claims that Lasseter — who became a Disney employee again when the company bought Pixar in 2006 — brought “renewed life” to the studio after “a decade of malaise, which wasn’t the first I’d experienced. When Michael Eisner came [as chief executive officer in 1984] the animators were moved out of the Disney office into a former coffin factory.” That “decade of malaise” for Walt Disney Animation Studios seems particularly acute when compared with Pixar’s output: in the early 2000s Pixar gave us Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles; Disney Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Treasure Planet and Brother Bear.

Tangled began its present screen life 14 years ago after being, as Conli has said, “on and off the shelf” for 60 years. The end result, Keane says, “feels like the end of the process where the studio itself was trying to find its new identity. You worry con- stantly, but whenever the studio seems o be on the brink of disaster something comes along to turn its fortunes around.” The 3-D technology in Tangled leads to some truly stunning effects (“It feels like a real living world,” Keane says), most beautifully in a scene when a sea of lanterns is released into the sky. Another scene, in which Rapun- zel’s hair is illuminated, also represents a technical breakthrough, he says; as well as the vivid lushness of a forest. This tech- nically enhanced naturalism can feel creepy, though. The peachily smooth, waxy cheeks of Rapunzel and Flynn reminded me of the fake “babies” that people buy to care for in place of the real thing.

Conli’s favourite character — the one that made him cry at a key moment, not to be spoilt here — is Maximus, an initially aggressive horse who becomes a hero. “That’s the true success of animation,” he says, “when you can give a complete story to a non-speaking character.”

Keane describes the dizzying interplay of hand-drawing and CGI that goes into every scene, every movement. He recalls Freddie Moore, one of the original Disney animators, working to perfect “the cute and stretch” of Mickey Mouse’s face. Visually, the film-makers want the viewer to feel “comfortable”, Conli says: they reference classical painting, notably the Rococo canvases of Jean-Honoré Fragonard. “The essential elements of a Disney animation,” Keane says, “are sincerity: you must believe in the characters; and appeal: how you draw the audience in.” Technology should be used in the service of storytelling, both men say, not the other way round. “Brilliant animation engages the heart,” Conli says. “Computer is another word for pencil. We don’t want the 3-D to be in your face, but to pull you into the screen.” Lasseter, Conli claims, has brought to Disney “something we lost for a while: telling stories from the heart. He has re-energised us.”

But, with its apparently record-breaking budget, Tangled will have to work hard to turn a profit. (“The studio never discusses budgets” is the Disney mantra.) And a genuine profit is what the media and enter- tainment giant needs after reporting a 6.7 per cent fall in fourth-quarter profits at the end of last year, despite the success of Toy Story 3, the highest-grossing film of 2010.

Declines in its TV and theme-park business dragged down Disney’s overall results, although for the full year Disney reported a 19.8 per cent rise in profits, while rising revenues (at $38 billion) made 2010 a “financial and strategic success”, according to Bob Iger, Disney’s president and chief executive. In 2010 the company bought Playdom, a maker of games for Facebook users, for $563 million and announced plans to expand its California Adventure and Hong Kong theme parks, and to build a resort in Hawaii.

Disney’s most recent high-profile American opening, the much-hyped Tron: Legacy performed mutedly at its opening weekend at the American box office (on December 18), taking $43.6 million, having cost a reported $170 million to make. The studio is keen, then, for Tangled — the first Disney film to be executive-produced by Lasseter — to be seen as a milestone and future talisman. In 2009 Disney also acquired Marvel Entertainment and its full complement of comic-book heroes for $4.3 billion, a purchase that Iger said meant that Disney’s brand and purchase portfolio was “stronger than ever”.

A recent report claimed that — after 2009’s The Princess and the Frog, which was critically acclaimed but had a disappointing box-office return — Tangled was the last hurrah for the Disney fairytale, with the company ditching its heritage (the logo itself is a fairytale castle) for 21st-century characters and superheroes. Stung by the accusation, Ed Catmull, president of Disney and Pixar’s animation studios, issued a statement claiming that fairytales “are alive and well at Disney . . . We have a number of projects in development with new twists that audiences will be able to enjoy for many years to come”. However, the forthcoming Disney/Pixar slate seems fairytale-free: Cars 2 (2011), Winnie the Pooh (2011), Gnomeo & Juliet (2011), Brave (2012) and Reboot Ralph (2013).

Regardless of the future of cartoon fables, Disney is “in a great position”, Steven Gaydos, the executive editor of Variety, says. Rich Ross, who as Disney’s chairman oversees worldwide production, distribution and marketing for the company’s animated and feature films, comes from a TV background, and, Gaydos notes, “instinctively understands the importance of franchises and merchandising, how to build the best from a brand”. Ross intends to bring in big-name directors, such as Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth), who will direct a 3-D action-adventure version of The Haunted Mansion based on the Disney theme-park attraction. Meanwhile, John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) will direct Electric Boy, Genius, based on the true story of Ryan Patterson, who at 17 created an electronic sign-language device that used sensors in a glove to translate hand movements into letters on a screen.

The strength that Disney must play to, Gaydos says, is “that feeling that when people leave the cinema, they know . . . that was a ‘Disney’ film. That brand identity is the one thing it has above any of the other big studios.” But stockholders are not dewy-eyed and Gaydos notes that Disney cannot afford to stumble. The margin for costly mistakes in movies is unforgiving.

Conli says that the market for animation is growing. “It is becoming more sophisti- cated and mainstream. Four out of ten of 2010’s biggest movies are animated.” (Toy Story 3, the part-animated Alice in Wonderland, Shrek Forever After and How to Train Your Dragon.) Keane would like to see computers used to “elevate and celebrate hand-drawn animators’ art in a way we haven’t seen”.

It is in this intriguing push-pull marriage of old and new artistry that the key to Disney’s film-making future lies, for all its theme parks, TV stations, video games and merchandising. But however well Tangled does, Disney needs more than one success to guarantee its own fairytale ending.