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Old 27th November 2010   #1
Join Date: July 2005
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Default Rapunzel: Disney's timeless beauty

From the Kelsey Olson interview that we posted earlier this year, readers will know in what high regard we hold the great Walt Disney and his dream of reconnecting European-Americans to their Old World heritage. For that reason, and many others, the new film Tangled--Disney's adaptation of the Rapunzel fairy-tale--richly deserves a mention on this forum.

As it happens, one of those reasons even concerns the specific topic of body image.

In brief, the movie tells of a princess, Rapunzel, who is stolen from her parents by an evildoer who pretends to be Rapunzel's mother, then locks her away in a secret tower for 18 years.

Rapunzel herself is a stunning vision of loveliness--second only to Brier Rose from Sleeping Beauty as the most gorgeous of all Disney princesses. Whereas Aurora is ladylike and elegant, though, Rapunzel is more delightfully girlish. Her look is a cross between Kelsey Olson and Chloe Agnew, featuring Chloe's magnificent hairstyle and Kelsey's big, doll-like eyes and adorable, turned-up nose and round facial features.

With the predictable caveat that Rapunzel is thin rather than curvaceous, this is the closest that Disney has come in several generations to depicting the timeless ideal of feminine beauty. The company has spent decades celebrating ethnic heroines of every variety, but in Rapunzel, Disney at last returns to its roots in Brothers Grimm folklore, with a fair-haired, doll-faced princess exhibiting a peaches-and-cream complexion.

Mother Gothel, on the other hand--the scheming antagonist of the story--is depicted as Rapunzel's physical opposite: sable-locked rather than blonde; frizzy-haired rather than straight-haired. Such a contrast between fair-featured goodness and dark-featured wickedness is, of course, prevalent in European folklore. In this day and age, however, it is remarkable and courageous for Disney to be revisiting this polarity, especially given the fact that Hollywood has spent decades pushing the opposite trope, whereby ostensibly "evil" female characters in teen films, such as head cheerleaders and prom queens, are invariably depicted as blonde, whilst politically correct (and therefore supposedly "virtuous") characters are presented as dark-haired.

Personality-wise, Mother Gothel brings a contemporary psychological dimension to her wickedness. She is not an overt harridan to Rapunzel, but rather a passive-aggressive manipulator who slyly exploits the young blonde's innocence and naïveté. Their relationship constitutes a female equivalent of Wagner's Ring cycle, in which the heroic Siegfried, the golden boy of myth, is brought up by Mime, the dark and evil Nibelung.

To come now to the film's direct relationship to the topic of this forum, in one of Mother Gothel's many passive-aggressive put-downs of Rapunzel, she claims that the princess is "Getting kind of chubby." Apart from the ludicrousness of such a charge (especially given that Rapunzel is slim while Mother Gothel is more curvaceous), the fact that the script presents this line as a slur--as the kind of thing that an archetypal "bad mother" would say--is quite encouraging. The film thus de-legitimizes the anti-plus insult, associating it with a definitively evil character, indicating that only a malicious parent would ever say such a thing. At a time when "weight epidemic" fearmongering has so thoroughly permeated public discourse, such a choice on Disney's part is highly welcome. Hopefully, more than a few mothers upon seeing this film will think twice before undermining their daughters' confidence in this manner, not wanting to take on a Mother Gothel persona.

* * *

As for the movie as a whole, it is a flawed masterpiece. The most agreeable element by far is Rapunzel herself. Beyond being extremely beautiful, she is the most genuinely likable of all of the Disney princesses. She is youthful and innocent, yet energetic and vivacious, and truly feminine, but in a delightfully girlish sort of way. She has a rich inner life--as anyone living alone in a tower for 18 years surely would. She loves art and literature, but lacks the snobbery and smug superiority that makes Belle in Beauty and the Beast somewhat off-putting.

One could almost go so far as to say that Rapunzel is the feminine antithesis of Faust--another solitary soul locked in his tower, living a life of the mind, but in a masculine context.

Although Rapunzel participates in some of the film's fight scenes, she never does so in a ridiculous, feminist-warrior sort of way. Quite the opposite--she remains adorably girlish even when scrapping with enemies, given that her "weapons" are strictly distaff implements. (She never wields a sword, for example, or performs implausible martial-arts movements, but remains a delicate touch throughout.)

While Rapunzel may be regrettably thin, she does exhibit a trace of fleshiness at her neck and upper chest area, which gives her a non-starving look. This too is a welcome development at a time when female characters in animation frequently sport the emaciated frames of minus-size models. (E.g., the young Jedi apprentice Ahsoka in the George Lucas series Star Wars: The Clone Wars is so frighteningly skeletal that viewers have dubbed her "Anorex-soka.")

But the primary point of attraction in Rapunzel is, of course, the hair. The hair. Nothing in the history of animation is as beautiful as the sight of all of that golden hair. One cannot watch this movie without falling in love with Rapunzel for her miraculous tresses, which the animators have rendered astonishingly well. All of the beauty that Shannon Marie and Kelsey Olson and Charlotte Coyle and Anita Ekberg derive from their fair hair is there in Rapunzel, only magnified, due to the breathtaking length of the character's golden mane.

For this reason, we propose a new rule for plus-size goddesses: all fair-haired models must now grow out their tresses to Rapunzel length. Lest anyone claim that such an expectation is a trifle unrealistic, well, look at her. Just look at her:

A plus-size model with golden tresses such as these would have the world at her feet.

The only minor flaw in Rapunzel is her voice. While Many Moore performs the dialogue quite well, Rapunzel would have benefited from a slightly brighter, sweeter, more lyrical soprano voice. Chloe Agnew would have been the perfect candidate in more ways than one, especially given that her hairstyle is practically identical to Rapunzel's, and would have been the ideal vocalist to perform Rapunzel's songs.

* * *

The second point of distinction in this film is its physical environment. Tangled exhibits the most gorgeous visual dreamscape of any Disney film since Sleeping Beauty. It is not a coincidence that both Sleeping Beauty and Tangled are the most visually Germanic of Disney's films, and also the most beautiful. Just look at the magnificent splendour of the Teutonic Urwald, the primordial forest of Northern Europe, as depicted in the Tangled concept art:

The initial sketches of Rapunzel's tower show a distinctively half-timbered structure atop the kind of defensive tower that distinguishes numerous German medieval castles,

like the famed Sinnwellturm of the Imperial Castle in Nürnberg.

Although later designs modified the tower to more closely resemble a French structure,

in the final cut of the film, Rapunzel's tower has recovered its Germanic elements. The secret valley in which the tower is situated is also breathtaking, like something out of a dream.

The interior of the tower was eventually brightened to make it appear more feminine and appealing, but this initial design shows commendably authentic-looking medieval elements.

The royal palace where Princess Rapunzel was born, as well as its surrounding town, are likewise depicted as locations of enchanting beauty. A preliminary Disney painting shows traces of Mont Saint-Michel in the design,

as well as the influence of the Prussian Romantic artist Karl Friedrich Schinkel:

Compare the two Disney concept-art paintings, above, to the following pair of canvasses by Schinkel. First, Cathedral Towering over a Town (1813):

Next, Medieval Town on a River (1815):

Interestingly, the movie is governed by the same rich colour palette that fans have always associated with Shannon Marie: purples contrasting with greens and laced with golds. This colour scheme is evident in the design of Rapunzel herself, with her lavender dress, green chameleon sidekick, and golden hair. Such a colour combination appeared most prominently in Shannon Marie's final Fashion Bug ad: a purple outfit, a green chair, and, of course, her golden mane.

* * *

The rest of the film's characters vary widely in appeal.

Mother Gothel, as noted earlier, is a complex and riveting villain.

Pascal, Rapunzel's chameleon familiar, is certainly appealing enough, as is Maximus, the noble steed, who seems to be an elaborated incarnation of the Prince's horse from Sleeping Beauty.

Tangled also depicts the life of the townsfolk in a lyrically appreciative way. One of the film's most enchanting moments plays almost like a scene out of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, with Rapunzel participating in a folk festival. It brings joy to the heart.

However, the so-called "pub thugs" are unappealing and unfunny, and every bit of business involving them is painful to watch.

Worse still, the movie's male lead, Flynn Rider, is a colossal disappointment. Far from being an Errol Flynn or a Han Solo (who are his obvious progenitors), he is merely shallow and full of himself, and rather revoltingly metrosexual. One cannot help but think that Disney has taken several steps back in his characterization, because he shares far too many characteristics with the repellent Gaston, the GQ villain of Beauty and the Beast. Whereas that film teaches its viewers that superficial "modern guys" are utterly loathsome, this film turns just such a lout into its ostensible hero. Thus, one never fully believes in the romance, because one always senses that Rapunzel is simply too good for Flynn, and that she deserves a real prince for a consort, such as the Siegfried-like dragonslayer of Sleeping Beauty, or at least the caring and soulful Beast of Beauty and the Beast.

* * *

Some of the film's weaknesses are quite surprising. The musical numbers are very poor--poor in musicality (often sounding more like tuneless recitatives than lyrical melodies), and poor in storytelling, as they do not advance the plot and could easily have been dispensed with. They seem like intrusions in the narrative.

This is a far cry from Disney tradition. In Sleeping Beauty, the music of Tchaikovsky provides a glorious soundtrack to the film and furnishes numerous beautiful and indispensable songs. (E.g., the Prince and Brier Rose fall in love during "Once Upon a Dream.") Even more contemporary Disney movies like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King benefit from engaging musical numbers that are seamlessly integrated into the storylines and significantly advance the plots.

Finally, the most unforgivable point in the movie appears during the climax, and violates something essential about Rapunzel's appeal. To avoid revealing a crucial plot element, we will not describe the incident, but it makes the "happy ending" a bittersweet affair at best.

* * *

Here are several enjoyable video clips highlighting to the best aspects of the film. First, a clever trailer focussing on the delightful lead character:

Second, a similar trailer introducing the antagonist, Mother Gothel:

Third, our favourite clip: a video called "Creating the Look," which describes how the directors conceived of the visual style of the movie (which is its strongest aspect):

* * *

All in all, despite its significant flaws, Tangled is a thoroughly enjoyable film, and easily one of Disney's best fairy-tale adaptations. It blessedly avoids political correctness (which is the bane of modern filmmaking) and tells a traditional story in an engaging manner. Above all, it creates a lead character in Rapunzel who is remarkably attractive and also extremely likable, one who is much closer to the timeless ideal of fair, feminine beauty than anyone has any right to expect in the modern day and age.

Best of all, Tangled suggests that the only sort of mother who could ever demean her daughter by telling her that she is "getting kind of chubby" (as if this would be a bad thing, even if it were true) would be a wicked mother indeed. Let us hope that more than a few mothers who intend to inflict that sort of emotional abuse on their daughters, supposedly "for their own good" (the most repulsive of all rationalizations for cruelty) think better of it, and leave the theater determined not to behave like Mother Gothels.

Also, let us hope that more than a few young fair-haired girls learn from Tangled that they can dramatically improve their appearance by growing out their golden tresses to glorious, Rapunzel-like lengths.

- Tangled: Concept Art

Last edited by HSG : 28th November 2010 at 18:23.
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Old 28th November 2010   #2
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Posts: 517
Default Re: Rapunzel: Disney's timeless beauty

Originally Posted by HSG
Such a contrast between fair-featured goodness and dark-featured wickedness is, of course, prevalent in European folklore. In this day and age, however, it is remarkable and courageous for Disney to be revisiting this polarity, especially given the fact that Hollywood has spent decades pushing the opposite trope, whereby ostensibly "evil" female characters in teen films, such as head cheerleaders and prom queens, are invariably depicted as blonde, whilst politically correct (and therefore supposedly "virtuous") characters are presented as dark-haired.

This conception reminded me of the "Victorian Vixen" post from earlier this year, which noted the cultural shift from the traditional celebration of full-figured blonde beauty to an ideological, resentment-based denunciation of such attributes:

I have to applaud Disney for going back to the roots of the fairy-tale and reviving the timeless appreciation of fair beauty, as contrasted with darkness and wickedness.

I saw the film the other day and loved everything about it. In addition to all of the points made in the preceding review, I found myself spellbound by the beauty of the town and marketplace at the foot of the castle. Anyone who has been to Germany will immediately recognize the lineage of this town, which resembles any number of villages along the Rhine, or in the German countryside.

In the "Creating the Look" video, the directors talk about how Fantasyland, the core of the Disneyland theme park, was the inspiration for the look of the film. Well, Fantasyland itself was inspired by the small towns and villages of Central Europe, so Walt Disney's dream lives on in this movie -- his desire to help European-Americans rediscover their Old World heritage, as the review noted.

In that same video, I found the conceptual painting of the town to be breathtakingly beautiful.

Disney has even published a coffee-table book with a generous collection of the concept art for the film, called The Art of Tangled. It includes these lovely canvasses which highlight the Germanic, half-timbered Gothic look of the town in the movie:

This piece of concept art, also depicting the town, appears especially Germanic, with the Fachwerk (half-timbered) houses, the gate, and the well.

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