Wednesday, December 29, 2010


After a good two weeks of trying, I finally managed to get to the theater to see the latest Disney movie (no, we still aren’t done with them, thank you), and it’s a damn good one. As I said in my Princess & the Frog review, Disney’s been doing great since Pixar took control of their animation department, and if this isn’t quite as good as that previous effort, it’s still a damned impressive outing.

This film actually took roughly a decade to be completed, as its main developer and initial director Glen Keane (who sadly didn’t get to see the film through to completion due to other engagements) had a grand vision for the visual scheme of the movie that the best technology Disney had at the time couldn’t achieve. He basically wanted the film to look like a moving, 3D painting (specifically Fragonard’s “The Swing”), and combine that with his firm belief that all Disney needed to do to reclaim their animation throne from Dreamworks was to get back to basics and tell a simple fairy tale. Well, by the time the film was finally finished, under the joint helm of Nathan Greno and Byron Howard, the idea of getting back to basics had already been co-opted by The Princess & the Frog, which also managed to be a slightly better movie, but this may still be the single most visually incredibly film Disney has ever made. It’s tough to say if Disney will feel that it’s been worth it financially: after such a long development time that was mostly spent on creating new technology, the film ended up costing a crazy $260 million (making it the second most expensive film ever made, behind only Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End at $300 million -- what the hell is up with the rampant spending, Disney?) , which is about how much the film has grossed worldwide so far, so it’s going to take some time on DVD before it can even make back its marketing budget, but at least now Disney has a completely incredible new visual capability that it can use for any of its future films. So I guess it’s all a matter of how many uses the company finds for all its new toys.

The film, for those who’ve managed to miss all the commercials, is based on the story of Rapunzel, and features a girl (Mandy Moore) with magical, ridiculously long hair that must never be cut, who is locked away in a tower deep within the woods by an evil witch (Donna Murphy) that has made Rapunzel believe she’s her mother, and is only keeping her there to help protect her from all the menaces of the outside world. Oh, and also to use her hair’s magical powers to keep restoring her youth, since she’s several hundred years old. Of course, as her 18th birthday approaches, she encounters a dashing young thief named Flynn Ryder (Zachary Levi) who invades her tower while trying to hide from some soldiers, and winds up taking her away on a grand adventure, of the kind which her adoptive mother does not approve.

While the film does largely achieve its goal of being a more traditional Disney film (incredible visuals aside), it apparently wasn’t always going to be that way. From what I understand the first draft of the script was very much a product of Disney’s recent obsession with aping Dreamworks, and was filled to the brim with horrid pop culture references and juvenile humor. While these have thankfully mostly been excised from the film, faint traces can still be found, particularly in the opening narration by Flynn which made me more than a little nervous at the film’s start. Another issue I had is that, while there are songs constantly throughout the film (thanks to the musical talents of Alan Menken and the lyrical talents of Glenn Slater), they’re mostly pretty damn bland, with only a couple standouts (namely the two songs by Murphy, where she is just trying to terrify Rapunzel, and the big chorus number in the bar). I don’t really know that any of them will prove as memorable as numbers like “Almost There” or “Friends on the Other Side” from Princess and the Frog, which I don’t mean to keep bringing up, but since it’s the very last Disney film prior to this one, and they both feature brand new Disney princesses (since neither film has really done gangbusters in theaters, I’m going to assume Disney will be backing off from all the princess films for a while after this, though I suspect that in this case it‘s at least somewhat due to the rather ghastly trailer, which can be found below), so it’s kind of hard not to directly compare.

Still, I don’t mean to be so harsh on the film. It’s definitely the best animated film I’ve seen all year (with The Illusionist being the only major effort I haven’t watched yet), and if it loses out on Best Animated Film at the Oscars to something like Toy Story 3 or Shrek Forever After, I will be very surprised. It’s sweet, clever, funny, imaginative, it has an awesome horse, and may very well be the best visual feast you’ll find outside of Avatar. You need to check it out.

Rating: *** ½

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