Disney's 50th animated feature has a bit of everything that one might think of when one thinks of a Disney animated film. For the classic touch, there is a princess rescued by a dashing male hero, a wicked mother, animal sidekicks, musical numbers and magic. For the modern touch, there are irreverent splashes and gags galore. The former parts work much better than latter and in the end traditional storytelling wins the day.
Rapunzel (Mandy Moore, SAVED!) was saved from death as a child by a magic flower that gave her hair magical healing properties. Gothel (Donna Murphy, SPIDER-MAN 2) had been using said flower for years to turn back the effects of time, so she decides to kidnap the baby princess and raise her as her own, keeping her locked away in a tower in the forest. The devious woman tells the girl that the world is evil and that she is safer hidden away. But the now 18 year old girl wants to venture out and see firsthand the lanterns that happen to rise in the distance on her birthday.
Flynn Ryder (Zachary Levi, TV's CHUCK) is a charismatic thief who with the thuggish Stabbington Brothers (Rob Perlman, HELLBOY) sneaks into the castle and steals the crown of the missing princess. The royal guard chase them into the forest. Flynn stumbles upon the tower where Rapunzel is and well Rapunzel might be naive, but she is not incapable of defending herself. She gets the crown and promises to give it back to Flynn as long as he takes her to see the lanterns, while Gothel is away.
The macro story of Rapunzel striking out on her own and the way Gothel tries to manipulate the situation once she learns the girl is gone is tightly written. The micro elements that make up that macro story is where the film sometimes falters. A montage of Rapunzel embracing her new freedom once she leaves the tower is hilariously cut with her self doubt about disobeying her "mother." These type of character moments are too few and far between. Instead the film relies on gags with frying pans as weapons and brutes that really aren't brutes to create "humor" mixed with forgettable musical interludes.
That said the film does have its funny moments. But they don't come from the obvious jokes. More often I found myself chuckling at the character performances. The animation acting has some great comedic poses and timing. But the biggest laughs come from the best developed character in the film -- Maximus, a horse of the royal guard. And he's certainly loyal to his duty. He is well animated and well conceived. He subtly satirizes fairy tale and action conventions by being a better detective than any of the castle guard. He's not the only compelling animal sidekick either. Rapunzel's pet chameleon Pascal is in the tradition of Abu.
Rapunzel and Flynn are compelling enough, mainly due to good character animation and voice work. As far as they are written, Rapunzel is just a naive girl with a less than stellar dream and Flynn is a charming scoundrel. I never really felt a real conflict between them and Gothel's manipulation creates more of our desire to see them together in the end than anything else. But by the end we do care and the unexpected turns in the final moments create an emotional climax that really saves the film from any weaknesses in the character development throughout.
This is a step down from Disney's last princess film, THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG. Rapunzel is actually in the tradition of the more passive princesses of the past and not that of the post-Belle era. But it's the traditions of an innocent princess oppressed by an evil mother that works here. You want her to be rescued from her imprisonment. It's traditional storytelling elements that allow the film from getting tangled up in being too hip for it's own good.