Reviews of “Rapunzel” (1812) and related work

“Rapunzel” (1812Text)

Jacob Grimm (writer), Wilhelm Grimm (writer).

Read in 2019.

Read in English.

Fairy tale.

text fiction

Tangled (2010Moving picture, 100 minutes)

Seen in 2019.

In this version, Rapunzel herself is a lost princess and her prince from the Grimm version has been replaced with a rogue.

Superficially, it’s mass-produced schlock. The heroine is built primarily for merchandising, outdoing contemporary Japanese animation designs with her giant eyes, huge blond hair and single pink dress to sell toys to young girls with firm ideas about gender roles and privilege. She gets along with everybody, gets what she wants and is never really in danger. The Grimms’ sexual threat is gone and yet the heroine’s age is raised from 12 to 18 because contemporary US culture is more prudish than 19th-century Germany. The musical numbers are uniformly dull and much of the narrative is nonsense, including a fragile river dam in a ravine, apparently built for an unused medieval mine.

Beneath the surface, Disney made some very good decisions. The emotional core of the narrative is the psychologically abusive mother-daughter relationship between Rapunzel and Gothel. While its consequences are not gruesomely realistic, they are at least complicated and profound, without being sexist. This is surely relevant to the lives of many young viewers, it immediately clears the Bechdel test with vigour, and it elevates the “old witch” (the socially parasitic infertile female unrelated by blood) from a mere archetype to a somewhat developed character, albeit without a life off screen. Thankfully, the resolution of the narrative gets rid of the blond plastic hair, and almost gets rid of the magical-girl power too.

The “funny animals” are significantly less anthropomorphic than usual. They do not speak. Maximus the horse draws his comedy not from the admixture of low human traits or a starring actor’s schtick but from a similar admixture of canine traits; not great, but ultimately more coherent and less disparaging of nature. The art direction adds a lot to the entertainment. The 3D animation is well executed everywhere except at the Snuggly Duckling tavern, where the stereotypical ruffians look too much like machinima.

References here: Frozen (2013), Coco (2017), Disenchantment (2018), Encanto (2021).

moving picture adaptation Disney animation fiction magical girl