This is Disney Reflections, a series of monthly posts in which I compare Disney animated fairy tales to the original stories.
I can be quite demanding when it comes to fairy tales. Occasionally I go on impromptu rants about feminist princesses who should be household names but aren’t and I’ve written several retellings – including, as it happens, one about Rapunzel. When I first saw Tangled, shortly after its release in 2010, I was a little underwhelmed. As with The Princess and the Frog, this is my first rewatch.
The fairy tale: I reviewed the Grimm brothers version of this story for the Fairy Tale Tuesday project.
The film: We begin with a wanted poster for one Flynn Rider that you’d be forgiven for confusing with a pin-up, what with the roguish smile and good hair. I believe it to be the only one in the movie that doesn’t deliberately get his nose wrong. “This,” announces the voiceover, “is the story of how I died.” Flynn hastens to clarify that it is not as depressing as it sounds! Nor is it his, it actually belongs to a girl called Rapunzel. So it would appear he is already nicking the story.
Once, he tells us, a drop of sunlight fell to earth and where it landed, a magical golden flower grew with the power to heal the sick. When the pregnant queen of a nearby kingdom falls desperately sick, her subjects turn out in droves to search for the legendary flower. Unfortunately, someone else found it first. For centuries a woman called Mother Gothel has been hiding the flower under a cunning leafy basket. By singing over it, she calls on its power to restore her youth and beauty.
But the deluge of miracle-seekers takes her by surprise and despite her best efforts, the flower is found. The queen drinks it down, recovers at once and gives birth to a beautiful baby girl. In celebration a painted lantern is lit and floats away into the sky.
Magically assisted pregnancies always come with side effects, however, and in this case it is a creepy wannabe immortal sneaking into their daughter’s bedroom to take back the magic. Rapunzel’s hair glows like the flower when she hears the song, but the spell doesn’t last when a lock is cut off. Does that stop Mother Gothel? Not a bit of it! She takes the child and spirits her off to a tower deep within the woods, to bring her up in complete isolation. A more sophisticated version of the leafy basket, really. Refusing to give up hope, the king and queen send up thousands of lanterns every year on their lost daughter’s birthday, hoping that one day she’ll see them and come home.
Years pass. Rapunzel grows and so does her hair. Having found myriad uses for the endless blonde coils – from a lasso to a bungee cord – she’s technically capable of leaving the tower. In fact, frenetically active individual that she is, she needs to leave the tower, she’s painted all over the walls and has made enough candles to open a small shop, plus she’s driving her chameleon sidekick Pascal crazy with games of hide-and-seek. The world outside scares her, though. Mother Gothel has drummed it into her since infancy that no one out there can be trusted.
At this point Flynn Rider finally crashes into the movie, leaping across rooftops with some very large thugs in pursuit. They’re on the same side, nominally. Flynn wants his own castle, where he can pose dramatically on the battlements; the Thugs want the royal treasure. Letting him down through the roof – because OF COURSE Flynn thinks he lives in a heist movie – they acquire a heavily guarded tiara and leg it like mad.
Meanwhile, at the foot the tower, Mother Gothel has arrived for a visit. She doesn’t climb Rapunzel’s hair, that’s for losers, she lets her adopted daughter haul her up instead. She then proceeds to tear down Rapunzel’s self-confidence with carelessly unkind jokes that are excused with an ‘I’m just teasing!’ that actually make them WORSE. Rapunzel, though, has a plan. She turns eighteen tomorrow and she wants one thing: to go and see the floating lights that rise every year on her birthday.
Mother Gothel tries to brush her off. When Rapunzel persists, she’s treated to a litany of horrors that are sure to pounce on her the second she sets foot in the outside world, ranging from men with sharp teeth to the plague, and accompanied by rapid-fire criticisms, until Rapunzel is so distraught she’ll promise anything for a reassuring hug. “Don’t ever ask to leave this tower again,” Mother Gothel tells her, and Rapunzel agrees. It’s deeply disturbing to watch. Assured that her charge is sufficiently cowed, Mother Gothel departs again into the forest.
Which is unexpectedly full of soldiers, in pursuit of Flynn and his associates. Despite Flynn being distracted by a badly drawn wanted poster, they’ve managed to maintain their headstart, only to run into a rocky dead end. He convinces the Thugs to give him a boost up in exchange for the treasure-filled satchel, but filches it on his way up and runs off without them. The soldiers are hot on his heels, led by a moustachioed commander on the white charger Maximus. Flynn swings down from a tree, knocking the commander to the ground and replacing him in the saddle – but Maximus immediately skids to an outraged stop and does his level best to rip the satchel out of Flynn’s hands. It goes flying instead, hooking on a branch, swinging precariously over a clifftop. Flynn and Maximus brawl to get to it. Unable to bear their combined weight, the branch snaps and they fall from a great height.
Because this is a Disney movie, they survive it. Maximus springs up. The forces of justice cannot be stopped by so trifling a thing as a near-fatal fall! He tries tracking Flynn, but the thief has ducked behind a curtain of leaves and is hiding in a cave. From the other side it opens onto a flower meadow…and a hidden tower.
Flynn doesn’t need magic hair. He scales his own way up and is promptly knocked out cold by a frying pan. Rapunzel has a perfectly reasonable freak-out over his unconscious body and shoves him in a cupboard. Once she gets over the panic and confused attraction, she zooms in on the really important point: one of those untrustworthy people Mother Gothel has been warning her about came into the tower and she handled it. Also, he has nice teeth.
Then she sees the open satchel, and inside, the sparkling tiara. It takes her a few tries to figure out what it’s for, but once it’s on her head…
Mother Gothel naturally chooses that precise moment to interrupt. Hiding the satchel and tiara, Rapunzel hauls her up as usual and tries to explain what happened, but at the first reference to their earlier argument, Mother Gothel flies off the handle. “You are not leaving this tower!” she shouts. “Ever!” Rapunzel stares at her with wide shocked eyes and right then makes the decision to lie. She pretends that she wants paints for her birthday instead, ensuring Mother Gothel will take a three-day trip away. As soon as she’s out of sight, Rapunzel cautiously approaches the cupboard.
Flynn is still out cold, possibly with permanent brain damage from all the whacking. When he finally wakes up, he’s tied to a chair with suspiciously silky golden rope and a gorgeous girl armed with a frying pan is standing over him. Quickly sizing his captor up, Flynn tries out the charm card but just baffles her. She makes him an offer: he can have his satchel if he takes her to see the lights and brings her safely home. Considering he just robbed the royal family, that sounds a bad deal to him. But it’s that or be tied up with hair for the forseeable future, so he agrees to her terms.
For the first time ever, Rapunzel sets foot on grass and earth. She meets her first Disney bluebird! She alternates between dizzying joy at her escape and paralysing guilt at deceiving her mother, while Flynn looks on with stony resignation. He tries to exploit her conflict to make her go home, but Rapunzel turns contrary immediately. She is going to see those lights.
Meanwhile, Mother Gothel gets ambushed by Maximus. He backs off, disappointed, when he realises she’s not his quarry – but she sees that he’s a palace horse and hurries back to the tower. Of course, Rapunzel isn’t there. Mother Gothel finds the tiara instead…and a wanted poster of Flynn Rider.
Who is trying out another tactic to get rid of his unwanted companion. He drags her to a hardcore pub for lunch. It’s called the Snuggly Duckling, and is full of ruffians, rogues and generally the kind of armoured blokes who look like knock-off orcs. Turns out this was a terrible plan because they recognise Flynn (those wanted posters are inescapable!) and decide to hand him over for the reward money. Only everyone wants the reward money so he’s thrown from one thug to another while they bicker it out. Rapunzel finally catches their attention with a violent flick of her hair. It is not something you can ignore. “I don’t know where I am and I need him to take me to see the lanterns, because I’ve been dreaming about them my entire life,” she pleads. “Find your humanity! Haven’t any of you ever had a dream?”
Forget orc extras, these guys wandered off Les Miserables. THEY ALL HAVE A DREAM. From wannabe concert pianists to interior designers to that guy who makes ceramic unicorns, they all seize on Rapunzel as the eager listener they’ve been waiting for all their lives. Even Flynn (admittedly at swordpoint) joins in, though his dream is to be hideously rich on his own personal island. No one sympathises.
Mother Gothel arrives at the door in time to see her adopted daughter dancing on a table surrounded by cheering thugs. And look, she’s the worst in pretty much every respect, but that is a legitimate maternal nightmare. Rapunzel is having the time of her life, though, and Mother Gothel can’t get near. Instead, the door slams open for the palace guards. The Ducklings, having had a total change of heart mid dance number, spirit Rapunzel and Flynn out the back door so she can achieve her dream. They’re out of luck anyway because Maximus kicks in the door, reunites with his commander and tracks Flynn’s scent to their escape route. Flynn’s associates – who were caught but not very well restrained – grab the opportunity to free themselves and set off to catch their double-crossing partner.
Rapunzel’s attempt at bonding with Flynn over backstory is spoiled by soldiers thundering in pursuit. They fetch up in an abandoned quarry, cornered by the variety of enemies Flynn has acquired. Rapunzel swings to safety with her hair, leaving Flynn armed with her frying pan – it is an excellent weapon but not so useful against Maximus, a horse with a grudge and a knife between his teeth. Disarmed, Flynn is cornered until Rapunzel throws him a length of her hair and drags him to safety. Well, not actually safety. Maximus has kicked down a beam to make a bridge so he can get to them, but they’re already gone, swinging away on loops of hair. That’s when the floodgate collapses, water floods the quarry and they get stuck in a dark tunnel. With the water rising and no way out in sight, Rapunzel sobs out an apology. Flynn confesses that Flynn isn’t his name at all, his real name is Eugene Fitzherbet.
Smiling wanly, Rapunzel shares her secret: she has magic hair that glows when she sings. Realising what she just said, Rapunzel starts singing. By the light of her hair, they dig their way free of the tunnel and tumble out, scrambling up onto a riverbank. Rapunzel is blissed out on being alive. Flynn is still rather gobsmacked by the hair.
Mother Gothel, in the meantime, has caught the wrong escapees. She gets Flynn’s erstwhile thieving friends instead, and convinces them to join forces with her. They get the tiara and a promise of revenge.
Flynn has other problems right now. Rapunzel has wrapped her hair around his injured hand and he watches with increasing bewilderment as she literally sings him better. Flynn would really like to flail and flee for a bit, but Rapunzel is giving big sad kitten eyes so he forces himself to be cool with the glow-in-the-dark hair and she ends up telling him how her hair stops working when it’s cut, how Mother Gothel was afraid for her (HA) and that’s why she’s never left the tower before now. It’s obvious she is feeling guilty again. On the other hand, it’s less than a day since she left the tower and Flynn is already returning the kitten eyes.
Rapunzel drops the subject of whether she’s going back home in favour of needling ‘Eugene’. He tells her that when he was a child, growing up in an orphanage, he’d read to the younger kids from a book of adventure stories and dream about a life of swashbuckling excitement. He swears her to secrecy. He has a reputation to protect. A bit awkward after all the oversharing, he jumps up to go get firewood and Rapunzel gazes after him fondly.
So obviously this is the moment Mother Gothel arrives to ruin everything. It’s a gift.
She takes her usual tack of maternal guilt-tripping, trying to pull Rapunzel into the woods, but Rapunzel digs in her heels and won’t go. She thinks something is happening between her and Flynn, something good. Mother Gothel’s reaction is instantaneously spiteful, mocking the very idea of anyone wanting Rapunzel, and tosses the satchel – complete with tiara – at her foster daughter, telling her to put Flynn to the test. If he gets what he really wants, he’ll leave. Rapunzel is standing there shell-shocked and alone when Flynn comes back. She quickly hides the satchel while he rabbits cheerfully on about superpowers.
The next morning he wakes to a dripping wet and utterly enraged Maximus looming over him like the Charger of Doom. Rapunzel wakes to Flynn howling blue murder as the horse hauls him off by the boot to face justice. She grabs his arm and they have a brief tug-of-war. The boot pops off and we discover Flynn Rider does not wear socks. He must have terrible blisters.
Of course Rapunzel doesn’t wear SHOES, so…
Between her and Pascal and some authoritative babytalk, she gets Maximus to stand down. The sympathetic murmurs of ‘nobody appreciates you, do they’ probably help. She brokers a 24 hour truce between horse and thief for her birthday, though they squabble wildly behind her back. She doesn’t care – she’s arrived in the royal city and it is gorgeous.
Not, however, really designed for a woman with hair about treble her own height, so Flynn enlists a group of enthusiastic little girls to plait it all up. Able to walk freely, Rapunzel wanders about wide-eyed. A mosaic of the royal family – complete with the lost baby princess – catches her eye. Then she gets distracted by a group of musicians and kicks off a dance party. She’s adorable, and also one of nature’s leaders. No one sees saying ‘no’ to her as an option. Flynn watches on, trying to pretend he’s exasperated instead of totally besotted. Over the course of the day she paints sunbursts on the cobblestones, they eat sweets in alcoves, he shows her maps in the public library (I assume it’s public, he might have broken in) – and they dance, dance, dance.
It is the best birthday ever. When night falls, Flynn acquires a boat and they sail onto the water to watch the lanterns rise. As they wait for the light show to begin, Rapunzel wonders aloud what she’ll do after this. “Well, that’s the good part, I guess,” Flynn says. “You get to go find another dream.”
In the palace, the king and queen – worn down by years of hope and grief, so tired of waiting for their little girl to come home – step onto the balcony to light the first lantern. After that everyone joins in, sending a galaxy into the sky. Rapunzel is transfixed. Flynn surprises her with a lantern of her own and she responds by shyly returning his satchel. He doesn’t actually want it. He takes her hands instead. Leaning in for a kiss, he sees a terribly unwelcome sight over her shoulder – his ex-cronies waiting expectantly on the shore. Realising that he’ll have no peace until they have the tiara, he leaves a very confused Rapunzel in the boat while he heads off to hand over the satchel.
But of course they are working with Mother Gothel now, who doesn’t want riches, she wants her pet magic princess. Rather than letting him go, the thugs knock Flynn out and tie him to the helm of a ship so it looks like he’s leaving Rapunzel of his own free will – while she stares after him, devastated, the thugs bring out a sack. They know about her hair and they know how much that’s worth. She flees, but her hair snags on a bit of driftwood and while she’s desperately trying to tug it loose she hears the sounds of a struggle, followed by Mother Gothel’s familiar voice calling out her name. She turns back to find her foster mother standing over the unconscious thugs with a large branch. So relieved to be saved, Rapunzel agrees to return to the tower.
Meanwhile, Flynn’s boat knocks up against the castle walls. The tiara is tied along with his wrists, which makes no sense if he was trying to get away, but the castle guards are not looking for logic and lock him up on the spot. Maximus overhears Flynn frantically shouting Rapunzel’s name and realises everything has gone wrong.
The following sunset, the guards come to take Flynn to the gallows. At the same time, Mother Gothel has finished unbraiding Rapunzel’s hair and is trying to pretend nothing ever happened. “The world is dark and selfish and cruel,” she declares, but Rapunzel is looking at the world through different eyes. Thinking about the sunburst on the royal flag, she sees it everywhere in her paintings and remembers where she saw it first: dangling above her cot. She’s the lost princess and suddenly she knows.
(Memories do not work quite like that. But never mind! Revelations are afoot!)
On his way through the cells, Flynn spies the thugs and knocks aside his guards to plunge at them, demanding to know how they found Rapunzel. They tell him it was ‘the old lady’, and he works out what must have happened. As he fights the guards, Rapunzel confronts Mother Gothel, refusing to accept her weak lies. “I’ve spent my entire life hiding from people who would use me for my power,” Rapunzel cries. “I should have been hiding from you!” She sees now that Mother Gothel stopped Flynn coming back to her. Admitting that she sent her foster daughter’s boyfriend to the gallows, Mother Gothel tries to patch it up with another ‘mother knows best’ line.
Rapunzel turns spitfire. She will not be used any more.
Back at the palace, doors are suddenly slamming shut, locking Flynn and his guards in a small corridor. It is an ambush – this time in Flynn’s favour, as the dreamers from the Snuggly Duckling come swinging in to the rescue. AND THEY BROUGHT THE FRYING PAN. The whole army mobilises to face the threat. The Ducklings calmly catapult Flynn out of the courtyard and onto Maximus’s back. The horse may not like Flynn much, but Rapunzel is in trouble and if that means organising a prison break? Maximus has a MISSION, people. They go whirling off in a mad gallop towards the forest.
Arriving at the base of the tower, Flynn calls for Rapunzel to let down her hair (it had to be said!) and a golden cascade spills out the window. He catches hold and climbs up – only to see Rapunzel chained and gagged on the floor. Mother Gothel knifes him in the back. “Now look what you’ve done, Rapunzel,” she says dismissively. As she hauls on Rapunzel’s chains, Pascal bites her skirt and is kicked into a wall for his pains. “For every minute for the rest of my life,” Rapunzel swears, “I will fight. I will never stop trying to get away from you. But if you let me save him, I will go with you.”
Mother Gothel agrees. She chains Flynn up instead and Rapunzel flies to him, ignoring his feeble attempts to make her stop healing him. It means she’s not paying attention when he grabs a shard of broken mirror off the floor and slices away Rapunzel’s hair. Without it, Mother Gothel doesn’t want her; without it, she can’t save him. The magic fading, it all turns her natural brown and Mother Gothel’s years finally catch up with her. In a frenzy, she reels backwards – and tumbles from the tower window, to her death.
Rapunzel stares after her, horrified, then goes back to Flynn. She sings the magic song hopelessly, holding his limp body in her arms. But magic is a part of her, and cutting off her hair doesn’t change that. When her tears fall on his face, they melt into his skin and flare gold. He wakes up groggy and flirty. They kiss passionately on the floor.
Shortly after that, a guard bursts in on the king and queen with the news they have been hoping to hear for so, so long. They run to the palace balcony, where Rapunzel and Flynn turn to meet them. The queen is the first to step forward – incredulity gives way to joy and before you know it there’s a huge family group hug underway. Flynn watches on smiling until the queen holds out a hand and hauls him in.
With Rapunzel restored to her true home, dreams start coming true left, right and centre. The Ducklings give up banditry in favour of performance art and romance. Maximus becomes chief of police. Pascale eats a lot of fruit. As for Rapunzel and Flynn…well, he goes by Eugene these days. Still tells outrageous stories about his life and occasionally nicks her tiara. And they are living very happily ever after.
And just for the record, there’s no reason to stop lighting the lanterns just because the princess is found. She wants to CELEBRATE.
Spot the Difference: Well, there’s hair. And towers.
Look, it’s not got much common ground with the fairy tale and that bothered me on the first watch, but to be fair to Disney there’s a lot of non family-friendly content in the original story: the wild tower-room love affair, the resulting pregnancy, the prince’s eyes being put out with thorns, Rapunzel wandering the wilderness with twins. The Disney version steers clear of all that, opting for a lovable rogue instead of a prince and a princess instead of a bartered peasant girl. As with many retold fairy tales, this one tweaks the traditional structure (well, more yanks violently) to make each character’s motivations more understandable. Rapunzel’s parents desperately need the plant and are unaware of the consequences that will ensue from taking it; Mother Gothel wants something specific from Rapunzel; the magic in the hair is probably why it’s so ridiculously long.
What’s delightful about this version of Rapunzel is how she uses that hair. It could easily be a terrible hindrance to her adventurous personality, but she grew up with it and makes it work for her, and Flynn helps her come up with a sensible solution when she really needs it out of the way. In fact, Rapunzel has a tendency to use stumbling blocks as launching pads. The naivete Mother Gothel mocks is tempered with fierce determination; she expects the best from people and usually gets it, but she’s prepared to deal with danger too, even when it comes from someone she wanted to trust. She and Flynn are a well suited couple: outgoing, exuberant, personable, cause havoc wherever they go.
As for Mother Gothel, she is…unnerving, because she’s so believable. It’s difficult to say for sure how much of her relationship with Rapunzel involves genuine maternal fondness, however twisted and abusive, and how much is just possessive pride in Rapunzel’s power. Dominating and vicious when crossed, Mother Gothel gas-lights her foster daughter to keep her obedient, and it’s terrifyingly effective. It takes explicit certainty of her ill intentions for Rapunzel to finally break away, and it’s hard. That’s an important story to tell.
I can’t tell you how glad I am that both Rapunzel’s parents survived to the end of the story and that we got to see traces of Rapunzel’s personality in her loving father and brave, open-hearted mother. There are not enough mothers in Disney.
Maximus is obviously fabulous. The Ducklings are adorable in a weird, unhygienic sort of way. This version of ‘Rapunzel’ may not stick as closely to the original as I’d have liked, but it is irrepressibly good fun with a respect for emotional realities, and anyone who can look at Rapunzel’s big sad eyes without wanting to give her the moon is probably evil. One thing that still irritates me: did her eyes have to be that big, and her waist that small? Disney princesses have always had unlikely proportions, but the principal female characters in Tangled have only-in-animation measurements while the men – even the stupidly handsome Flynn Rider – have more natural shapes. It’s a trend to discourage.