"Great," sighs the wicked witch in Tangled, a CG-animated spin on the Rapunzel story, "now I'm the bad guy." Mother Gothel, the frizzy-haired, sharp-featured enchantress with the inimitable voice of Donna Murphy, is Disney's first villainess whose chief crime is being an underminer, and the heroine of Disney's 50th animated film is its first co-dependent princess. Tween girls may have some tough questions for their moms on the way out of the funny, brassy Tangled: "Hey, how come Mother Gothel said the same things about Rapunzel's weight that you say to me?"
Those moms might answer as Murphy does in her finest number, "Mother Knows Best," a Mama Rose-worthy tune (by famed Disney composer Alan Menken, with lyrics by Glenn Slater) in which the witch — who kidnapped the magical Rapunzel as a toddler so that her long blond hair might keep Gothel forever young — explains all the reasons why Rapunzel doesn't want to leave the tower on her 18th birthday. Sure, there are "ruffians, thugs, poison ivy, quicksand" — but the real problem, Gothel tells the girl, is that Rapunzel is too silly, too uneducated, too unsophisticated to survive the trip.
Of course, when Rapunzel finally does get out — in the company of good-hearted thief Flynn — she's a mess. The film's wittiest sequence cuts between Rapunzel's emotional highs (feeling grass under her feet for the first time ever) and lows ("I'm a terrible daughter!") to great comic effect. Tangled is unusually attuned to the emotional frequencies of mothers and daughters, considering that, like basically every Disney/Pixar feature, its writer (Dan Fogelman) and directors (Nathan Greno and Byron Howard) are a bunch of dudes.
When it strays from its filial drama, Tangled is mostly unsurprising, though not without its charms. Rapunzel and Flynn are just as vanilla as their respective voice actors — Mandy Moore and Chuck's Zachary Levi. Rapunzel gets a traditional Disney "I Want" song, but where Beauty and the Beast's Belle wanted more than her provincial life, Rapunzel doesn't even know what life is yet — hers is titled "When Does My Life Begin?" As for Flynn, he's all pratfalls and wisecracks — "I don't do backstory," he advises, when asked about his childhood — with floppy hair and (naturally) a late-breaking sensitive side.
The movie's real accomplishments are in its look, which was generated inside a computer but is as warm and rich as a painting. Rapunzel's endless blond locks must have been a nightmare to program — the credits cite a Hair Animation Lead, who earned every penny — but the movie uses that hair (as swing, as obstacle, as weapon) to great effect in its lively action sequences. Rapunzel and Flynn's romantic interlude is lit by a thousand floating lanterns; while Tangled's 3-D is mostly unobtrusive, the lights swooping over the audience might be the most crowd-pleasing three-dimensional filigree I've yet seen. If the movie's a hit, expect a nightly floating lantern show at the Magic Kingdom by summer 2011.
Sadly, though, Disney's been undercutting poor Tangled just as badly as Mother Gothel does her charge. Stung by the middling box office of last year's The Princess and the Frog, the Mouse scotched this picture's original title, Rapunzel, and launched a lousy ad campaign stressing the movie's rugged leading man (and shying away from the songs). It won't work, of course; boys will smell the movie's princess-y perfume a mile away, and stay away in droves.
With its fairy-tale origins and its Menken score, Tangled reaches for the heights of the company's early-'90s masterpieces, Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid. But it's a shame that Disney can't embrace Tangled's charms, and that an audience full of appreciative girls may not be enough anymore.