Tangled

WHAT A COPOUT!!!!

Seriously, what a lame deus ex machina. The movie was perfect until the last five minutes ruined everything. And there were so many other ways to keep him alive yet have a happy en–

Wait a moment, that’s spoilers!

Ahem…

OH MY GOD, THIS IS THE GREATEST ANIMATED MOVIE I’VE EVER SEEN IN MY LIFE!!!

It has, like, everything!

The action, the visuals, the humor, the characterization, the continuous lampshading or outright avoidance of common genre tropes that came under heavy fire in the recent years…

I cried when Booker took Elizabeth out of the tower and she first saw the outside world.

And I cheered when she rescued Booker from the Handyman and they escaped by that skyline!

And I also cheered at the dance scene on the streets of Columbia…

…Oh, and there was something or other about an evil stepmother and magical hair. It was in, like, one scene.

So there. I liked it. Sue me.


No, seriously. Surprising as it is, Tangled is the first Disney production not to leave me scratching my head with a heap of Unfortunate Implications. The first one that avoided the sickeningly saccharine sweetness and the feelings of, “Wait, what just happened? And that’s supposed to be a good thing?”

This, by the way, is how you do self-awareness well. Self-awareness today is generally tricky because it has itself become a repetitive trope, especially the cheap, shallow kind of self-awareness. Constant lampshadings and subversions and anachronistic references are old hat by now. But to actually heed to the criticism of your earlier works, to show that you’ve learned, that you’re sincere in applying the lessons, and to avoid all the unintended emotional responses the work could generate if not done just right… that, my friends, takes far more skill.

To quote Rich Burlew of The Order of the Stick fame…

Fantasy literature is ONLY worthwhile for what it can tell us about the real world; everything else is petty escapism.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the best kind of fantasy is the kind that speaks to your gut, by evoking feelings embodied in our collective consciousness. And by that, I don’t mean dreams of secretly being a princess, or of a handsome boy on a literal white horse, perfect wedding and a “happily ever after”. Or how Rapunzel — oh, to heck with it, I’ll just call her Elizabeth, because that’s who she really is1 — is everything that the classic Disney princess isn’t.2

Ignoring the obligatory male swashbuckling action hero, I’ll focus on some chords that Tangled struck with the audience. Many viewers have noted how Elizabeth’s upbringing and parental issues reminded them of their own, and it’s honestly not surprising. It is taken from real life. Our comfy-ish post-industrial real life that would feel alien to the authors of the original fairy tale, but real life nonetheless.

I won’t point out how Elizabeth’s passive-aggressive parent figure subverts the traits of traditional Disney villains by giving us an anti-villain (well, until That Scene) with a believable motivation. Of course, Disney wouldn’t actually put in the family-unfriendly message that sometimes birth parents cam be like that, and that finding her birth parents may not be for the best, so instead of an actual mother, we have a kidnapper who raised the kid as her own. Fine, it’s Disney, I can live with that. The true horror is that from Gothel’s perspective, everything she does probably is for the greater good. After all, the outside world is a scary and cruel place, and anyone who would claim her daughter’s precious hair would use it for the same selfish reasons as she would, right? (Projecting, by the way, is also a common trait of abusive parents. They think everyone else is like them.)

Keeping the fragile child on a tight leash may have made more sense back when the original Rapunzel was written. Parents like Gothel may have actually come off as sympathetic and caring back in the day, damned if I know. But to a modern audience it comes off as barbaric. Or at least, I hope so. The abusive parent-child relationship reproduces itself for a reason: children who grew up under bullying control-freak parents believe this is the only viable way of parenting, and later in life, lash out on their own children in return. It takes a reflection and a wider context to understand the hidden horror of one’s own upbringing, and most people hate to think.

Even at the start of the story, Elizabeth is already smart, skilled, self-sufficient, and implausibly competent. (Gee Disney, overcompensating much?) Her only crippling flaw is emotional immaturity, making her a literal ivory-tower intellectual. The actual tower, by the way, is an Epiphanic Prison. She could leave at any moment — heck, when she does leave, she does it entirely on her own — if she just had the mental strength to cut off the ties with her mother, and she just can’t bring herself to that step. And the mother is good at keeping her an emotional wreck by playing up her insecurities, deflating her self-esteem, and guilt-tripping her into staying with the supposedly-sensitive parent who clearly loves her so much — just look all those things mommy dearest has done for you! Wouldn’t leaving her be selfish?

It’s why this story strikes a chord, because it’s every bad parenting story ever written. The closest Disney can get away with such a family-unfriendly message, anyway.

In observing Gothel, I see — in exaggerated form, obviously — ways my own parents asserted control of me in the past. A form of emotional abuse that I only recognized after looking at it from a detached perspective, and from comparing my story to those of people who actually had happy childhoods.

It’s only in hindsight that I realize that my parents didn’t and still don’t care about me as a person — but rather as a possession, decoration, piece of work if you will. I know it’s unfair to say, considering they did care a lot for me, and still support me in a way that suggests some linger of genuine care. (So, I guess, they deserve the “not as much of a jerk you could have been” award?)

Yes, they cared about me — but only as long as I conformed to their idea of what their child should be. As long as I was “like everyone” and didn’t “dishonor” their good name in the eyes of their peers. (Back in primary school, whenever I started crying, mom later whipped me at home for “bringing shame to her”. They got better.) As long as they could feed me tall tales about how life is pain, how might makes right, and how my life would be ruined if I didn’t follow all their advice to the letter. My intellect, my educational achievements were only something to brag about in front of their friends. (Elizabeth was only valuable to Gothel because of her magical ability, and not as a person.) They kept it subtle, often at the level of the same kind of “lighthearted” demeaning jokes that Gothel did.

And the true horror comes from the realization that they actually thought it was for the best. That a controlled child afraid to make even a single step without their overprotective parents would actually be the ideal scenario. That they actually, sincerely, entertained the idea that they could “buy” my approval with gifts, as if I was an NPC follower in a BioWare game, instead of really trying to understand what I wanted all along. That no money could replace the emotional connection I longed for. And that even now they probably convinced even themselves that they’re selflessly spending their money to buy me a separate apartment — while in reality they’re likely driven by the selfish desire to cut their losses. They want me to change my surname so that I wouldn’t “stain” their family business, and their emotional treatment of my decision reeks of a GLaDOS “want you gone” scenario.

I’ll finish with a single observation. Some people considered it unrealistic how quickly Elizabeth adjusted to the outside world once she was off the leash and the initial sense of wonder wore off. That she didn’t end up a broken sociophobic wreck after an entire life in isolation. But that’s actually a case of Reality Is Unrealistic. I certainly know people who longed so life for a more active social life that when the restraining factor — financial dependency on their parents — was taken away, they adjusted relatively well to living alone and making their own decisions, more than even their parents expected.

I like to think that I’m one of them.


1 Yes, I’m aware that Infinite came later. My point stands.
2 The “classic Disney princess” being somewhat of a Dead Unicorn Trope, really. Even Ariel was fairly progressive for her time, especially compared to the original, and only the big three — Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty — came close to that stereotype. But given the time period and usual social context of works back in the day, can you really blame them?

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