“Tangled” and Disney’s Big Weakness

Since rediscovering and posting my little essay on the problem with having a big bad, I’ve been thinking on how this relates to the problems in Disney “cheapquels” and their more modern animated works like The Princess and the Frog and Tangled.

The Princess and the Frog has pretty much the same flaw as I already explored in Don Bluth’s Anastasia, but Tangled is a little more interesting.

For those who haven’t seen the film, Tangled is Disney’s take on the fairy tale, Rapunzel. It’s a 3D-animated film and they do it with a degree of panache and flair that makes me think of the second Shrek movie and, in some ways, makes it a candidate for their best animated feature ever… except for one small thing: Mother Gothel (the witch who kidnaps Rapunzel)

While the movie’s characterization is excellent everywhere else (Including Rapunzel doing a pretty good job at being clever, resourceful, and not being a damsel in distress more than her circumstances would demand), Mother Gothel is conspicuous by how uncomplicated her character is.

In fact, compared to Lady Tremaine (Cinderella’s wicked stepmother) who has two daughters of her own to care for (and who, it’s possible, harbors some sort of personal resentment for Cinderella) or characters like Maleficent or Ursula who not only have no reason to care for the heroine, but are also inhuman enough to at least get the benefit of the doubt, Mother Gothel is so circumscribed by the needs of her role that, for someone used to seeing nuance in entertainment, the shallowness of her character can be downright grating compared to the rest of the cast.

Despite raising Rapunzel for 18 years and, supposedly, spending that time alone with her, Mother Gothel is still portrayed as caring only for the youth-giving magic of Rapunzel’s hair. Now, while there are certainly many people in the world that sociopathic, casting one as the villain in a story that is otherwise so well-polished just doesn’t work.

Rather than (admittedly very clever) lines like “You want me to be the bad guy? Ok. Now I’m the bad guy” and Disney’s signature cliché “villain falls to their death” scene, a more fitting end could have at least involved some sign of raising Rapunzel alone in the woods having affected her.

But, in the end, the plot calls for an evil witch of a villain, so Mother Gothel is forced to remain nothing but a “big bad”. She can’t grow as a character; she can’t have a “rock and a hard place” moment where her fear of age and death battle with a desire for the happiness of the girl she raised and unintentionally grew attached to. She can’t even hesitate or show regret that things could have played out differently. She’s just an evil old witch, hurting and lying to others for unexplored selfish desires because, if she’s human, then the viewers might not want her to die… and obviously a villain’s only purpose is to be defeated in a dramatic fashion (and serve as a blind attempt at continuing a pattern that worked in the past).

This interpretation becomes even more obvious with all of the themes and twists which feel borrowed from other Disney successes, like the post-death save by an admission of love from Beauty and the Beast. I worry that, if this trend continues, Disney may take the dubious honor of being the first studio to not just milk a franchise dry, but combine so much character talent and so little talent for plots that they milk an entire class of plots dry. (Their excessive investment in female royalty, as one person put it, and the associated preconceptions about what plots to use don’t help)

Fundamentally, Disney’s big problem seems to be that their skills lie very firmly in the ground-level details like how to write entertaining characters and good comedy while, when they have to construct plot details on their own, they fall flat.

This is most clearly shown in their “cheapquel” sequels like The Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride or The Little Mermaid 2: Return to the Sea. When borrowing a good, time-tested plot, they can enhance it to classic status by replacing the traditionally simplistic characters with more entertaining, personable ones. However, when they need to cook up their own plots or, as with Tangled or Peter Pan 2: Return to Never Land (more on that in a moment), expand an existing plot too simple for a feature film, their efforts fall flat.

This may be because they put up a wall between their high-level plot and their low-level details through which ideas can only flow in one direction. They do an excellent job on the little details and characters can affect plot points that are unimportant… but when push comes to shove, the plot has veto power over the characterization. If you look at something like Lion King 2, there’s almost a direct inverse correlation between a character’s importance to the plot and how interesting they are… The less the plot is yanking the character around, the more interesting they are.

Peter Pan 2 is actually an interesting example because, while it is a “cheapquel”, like Tangled, it wasn’t created from whole cloth. Rather, a few years after the original Peter Pan play had gained success, J.M. Barrie wrote an additional scene titled An Afterthought (essentially an epilogue) in which Peter Pan returns when Wendy has children of her own. It is that scene which, like the Rapunzel fairy tale, Disney inflated into a feature-length film and, with only the budget of a cheapquel behind it, Return to Never Land feels as if the Disney magic is going “putt-putt sputter, putt-putt cough” as the mix of borrowed and created plot elements constantly changes.

I’m very happy to see that Disney is still very capable of producing good films and I’m also happy to see them receptive to the idea of realistic female leads for the 21st century, but a truly good story has to be character-driven, with a free flow of influence back and forth between the plot and characters, not locked-down so the characters become little more than marionettes. If Disney wants to continue their tradition of casting a nasty, selfish woman as their main antagonist, they’re going to have to work at least as hard on her as they do with everyone else in the cast.

Note: The portions of this regarding Peter Pan 2: Return to Never Land were originally written near the end of October of 2009 and were rediscovered alongside my previous two posts on writing, but weren’t complete enough to be posted on their own. Thankfully, my brother’s less wordy commentary several months ago on Mother Gothel’s motivations and death scene came to mind and, once I’d pulled out Tangled and watched it, the rest was easy.

Update 2011-08-21: The Noah’s Ark segment of Fantasia 2000 is  a good, simple example of how the Disney magic works when it really works. A proven plot which is spiced up with distinctive, memorable art, characters, and music as appropriate to the type of project.

CC BY-SA 4.0 “Tangled” and Disney’s Big Weakness by Stephan Sokolow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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8 Responses to “Tangled” and Disney’s Big Weakness

  1. Guest says:

    I just watched Tangled for the first time and was struck by how shabbily the character of Mother Gothel was handled.  Besides the evilness of stealing the baby Rapunzel, she wasn’t such a terrible mother,  just incredibly self centered and strikingly passive aggressive.  Rapunzel never starved, she didn’t appear to have been abused,  and although she was  kept in a figurative cage, she wasn’t kept in a literal one.  Rapunzel knew Gothel as her mother and despite some unforgivable transgressions (like trying to kill her boyfriend), it didn’t make sense to me why Gothel was thrown out the window and perhaps more shocking, why Rapunzel had absolutely no reaction to her death.  There were no mixed feelings, no tears, not even a a last glance back from our heroine.  I certainly didn’t find Gothel to be a sympathetic character but I didn’t find her to be abominable either.  It would have been more effective to let her live and deal with the consequences of her actions.  There are children with mothers who are just as narcissistic, maybe worse, and it would have been far more constructive to confront the complexities of the ‘mother-daughter’ relationship instead of just killing the evil witch mother off.

    • ssokolow says:

      Paragraph breaks are your friend but, aside from that, good point.

      That’s actually one of the things I was saying, though I didn’t really focus on it in quite that way or in that much detail. Disney’s great at characters… but they seem to decide their plots first and then bend their characters to them, whether or not it makes any sense.

  2. Pingback: Why A Big Bad Is A Bad Idea | Stephan Sokolow's Blog

  3. Kramer Stuart says:

    While I find most of this interesting, sadly this was one of the movies I was too busy enjoying to dissect at the time. Ill have to review over all of this the next time I see it, but until then…

    “Frying Pans, who knew, right?”

    That line is true in so many ways…

  4. Taylor Richards says:

    Good analysis. I think Disney’s heading for a downwards spiral, and Dream Works will begin a steady rise above it.
    There’s a flaw in your argument, though. (Just one, no big deal). A little known fact is that the writers who write the Disney SEQUELS are NOT THE SAME writers as the one’s who write the originals movies. The writers who write the sequels are “tv” writers. They’re experts in writing short, episode-length plot lines, not movies (which have a different plot construction to them). If you notice, Tarzan’s sequel, “Tarzan and Jane” is essentially made up of 4 separate episodes chained together into a (sort of a) “movie.”
    So it’s not that Disney writers are incapable. They are, in fact, VERY capable. (Though I think in recent years they’ve maybe recycled some writers, which is probably why “Princess and the Frog” and “Tangled” don’t live up to the standards of Tarzan, Lion King, or Little Mermaid.
    Well, that’s just my 2 cents for you. I enjoyed reading!

  5. mathrick says:

    This is a very spot-on analysis, and mostly captures my own sentiment about the film. The characters are pretty much flawless (including Mother Gothel, see below), except for the royal couple actually, who are the blandest and most unlikable of all. However, the plot does a huge disservice to the film, and leaves me with what could be called a distaste and guilty conscience of sorts.

    Some more specific comments and additions to what you said:

    • The way Gothel is established to be bad is the most ridiculous, arbitrary instance of double standards. She’s bad, you see, because she’s “hoarding” the magic flower “for herself”. What’s hoarding, you ask? Well, it’s using the flower knowledgeably without harming or destroying it, leaving it available for a long time. Which is totally unlike what the good, moral King did, namely cut it down and make it into a brew for a single person. That’s totally not “hoarding”. Just like black folks “loot” while white ones “find”.
    • To add insult to the injury of Mother Gothel being a big bad is that she’s actually a smart, resourceful, independent and witty person capable of both outwitting and outgunning two hardened criminals. She’s also demonstrably not generally greedy, and has consciously and fully limited herself to a simple, self-sufficient life. Making her into nothing more than “oh well, she fell out the window” is just incredibly lame, not to mention more than a little heartless of Rapunzel.
    • The save felt really, really cheap. If you play the sacrifice card, you have to make it count. It was also nonsensical, because it was shown on screen that Rapunzel’s flower power didn’t just disappear, it was actively undone with Gothel decaying to dust. You just can’t have it both ways (and obviously, as you say, it’d be vastly more interesting if they just let Gothel live and let live, thus having all of Rapunzel, Flynn and Gothel make choices and then live with their consequences, both intended and not).

    Overall I’m really torn about it, because it was essentially a brilliantly executed, world-class production of a horrible script full of broken aesops.

  6. mathrick says:

    And one thing I forgot to add was (which further adds to the blandness of the royal couple) is how absolutely unrealistic the reunion was. What could she possibly have in common with people she hasn’t seen for 18 years, who lived a life so far removed from hers as to make it literally a different world? To suggest that she’s just forgot about her actual mother and guardian of 18 years dying before her eyes, and then happily went to live with complete strangers with not a pause is plain insulting, either to Rapunzel’s character or the viewers’ intelligence.

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