Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair. Ten years ago, Disney’s Tangled made its theatrical debut on November 24, 2010. The animated retelling of the story of Rapunzel builds upon the 1812 German fairytale of the same name from the Brothers Grimm – though elements of the original fairytale can be traced all the way back to the 11th century Persian mythological tale of Zal and Rudabeh.
Starring Mandy Moore as Rapunzel and Zachary Levi as her romantic interest, Flynn Rider, Tangled – Disney’s 50th animated feature film – marked a landmark of modernizing firsts for Walt Disney Animation Studios, and would go on to spark a short film, a TV movie, a television series, and even a stage adaptation for the Disney Cruise Line. How did it revolutionalize Disney’s animated storytelling? Let’s dive in.
A Modern Rapunzel For Modern Times
Prior to Tangled’s 2010 release and the addition of Princess Rapunzel, the official Disney Princess franchise consisted of nine other characters: Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora, Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, and Tiana. One of the most frequent complaints about the earlier Princesses is that so many of their goals revolve around the desire to be with a man or that a man saves them. Snow sings that someday her prince will come, Cinderella escapes her abusive stepmother and stepsisters by marrying Prince Charming, Aurora sneaks out of her cottage to find a man in the woods – one she met once upon a dream, and Ariel ditches her family and even becomes an entirely different species in order to catch the attention of Eric.
But starting in 1991 with Beauty and the Beast, Disney’s heroines started to shift their focus and goals to be about more than just getting a man – though the scenarios still weren’t always the most inspiring. Sure, Belle wanted “adventure in the great wide somewhere” and denied Gaston’s proposal, but she also ended up falling in love with the Beast…after being kept as his prisoner in order to save her father. Jasmine is often seen as a strong feminist while challenging the tradition of arranged marriage, but again, her main focus was all about marriage and getting the guy – not just any guy, but the guy she wants. Pocahontas aspired to keep the peace between her tribe and the white settlers but did so by falling in love with the colonizer John Smith. Still, it was a step in the right direction.
Prior to Rapunzel, Mulan and Tiana from The Princess and the Frog were perhaps the most progressive Princesses, with Mulan’s goal to fight for her country against the restrictions forbidding women from serving in the military – and with no intention of falling in love (though sparks did fly with Shang). Meanwhile, Tiana wanted to achieve her and her father’s dream of opening up a restaurant (also falling in love with Prince Naveen along the way) and being an independent businesswoman.
Having a romantic interest is not a bad thing inherently – romance is great! When it’s a female character’s sole motivator, however, or at least a large part of her motivations, it reduces her character significantly to something that satisfies the outdated notion that a woman’s purpose is to find a husband to please and to take care of her. It’s not the character’s fault though, not even the studio. One has to consider the times during which each of these movies were made, and even more, who was making them: In the early days of Walt Disney Studios, the few women involved in the filmmaking process were mostly secretaries, or ink and paint girls who applied colors to the pencil drawings created by men, with the stories being created by men at a time in which traditional gender roles were the rule, not the exception.
Jumping forward to 2010, Tangled highlights a Princess with numerous hobbies: painting, pottery, chess, guitar, reading, cooking, baking, darts, and, of course, brushing out her seventy feet of magical hair. Rapunzel’s extensive array of hobbies also includes charting stars – a fairly intense, academically involved hobby, if I do say so myself – which leads her to her primary goal and dream of wanting to see the floating lights on her eighteenth birthday, and discovering who she really is beyond the walls of her tower. Romance and marriage aren’t even on her mind.
In contrast to the creation of their earliest movies when women were hardly given opportunities at the studio, Tangled featured a number of women across multiple departments, from producers to animators, artists, editors, and more. Women had insight across the entire production, leading to a more empowered heroine. Rapunzel is a girl that is able to hold her own in a fight, even knocking out Flynn Rider the moment he seeks refuge in her tower. Rather than immediately falling in love with Flynn, her initial need for him is just as a guide to take her to the kingdom to be able to watch the lights. With Flynn, the two fight off guards and thugs, and Rapunzel is concerned with eagerly exploring the world around her and making new friends, though they do end up sharing a romantic boat ride surrounded by 45,000 floating lanterns in the night sky. In a pointed directorial decision, the camera focuses on the loving looks Flynn gives Rapunzel during the scene as he slowly starts to melt for her, not the other way around. Toward the end, Rapunzel is back in the hands of her captor, Mother Gothel, and although she has just admitted to Flynn that he was her “new dream,” she proves willing to endure a lifetime of captivity without him provided she be allowed to heal him from a life-threatening wound. She’s determined to do the saving, even if it means the death of her own freedom. For Rapunzel, it is not ultimately about marrying Flynn – though they do eventually get married. Yet, that marriage comes after Rapunzel denies several of Flynn’s proposals due to not being ready for the commitment, something a Disney Princess had never done. By the time she accepts, she fully knows herself and him. Now that’s love.
A Changed Man: From Flynn Rider to Eugene Fitzherbert
Looking back at the above list of Princesses, their male love interests are mostly…forgettable. For starters, Snow White’s prince hardly has a name. Prince Charming, Prince Phillip, and Prince Eric are about as bland as stale bread. Okay, Phillip did fight a dragon, so he gets points for that. Beast has pretty intense anger management issues for a majority of the film, though he does gift Belle with a library that any nerd would be jealous of. Even with his good heart, Aladdin lies and pretends to be someone else in order to level up his social status, John Smith wants to colonize Native land, and Shang doubts Mulan’s abilities once he discovers she is a woman (though he later comes around). Before Flynn Rider, Prince Naveen had the most prominent change in character for a Disney male romantic lead and his change is the most realistic – minus the prince thing. He starts out as a snobby though recently cut-off prince who doesn’t want to lift a finger to work, and ended up wanting to get a job, or even two, all to raise funds to help Tiana get the restaurant of her dreams. You go, Prince Naveen.
And then along came Flynn Rider. It should be noted Flynn Rider’s backstory gets even more interesting in the television series that follows the film, but we’ll stick to the original film lore for this. The first we know of Flynn is that he’s a thief on the run, with kingdom guards chasing him after he steals the crown of the Lost Princess (plot twist: The Lost Princess ends up being Rapunzel). Even his own criminal companions are on his trail after he double-crosses them and cuts them out of their share of the lot. Honestly, probably not someone you would want to bring home to your mom. He’s a sarcastic player as he tries to charm Rapunzel with his good looks and “smolder,” which he claims always works, and is beyond reluctant to take the determined girl to see the lanterns. In fact, he only agrees to it with the promise that his satchel (and the stolen crown inside) will be returned at the end. He tries his best to ditch her by bringing her to a tavern full of ruffians and thugs, though Rapunzel, in all her selflessness, later saves his life after they both nearly drown.
But as the movie progresses, the devil-may-care Flynn Rider becomes the orphan Eugene Fitzherbert as he opens up to Rapunzel about his past, which includes reading bedtime stories to younger orphans. Flynn’s evolution is so prominent and important to the film that he quite literally takes on a new name – his original name – and his goal starts to evolve, too. Rather than caring about getting the crown back, he cares about giving Rapunzel the birthday of her dreams, dancing with her in the kingdom, and even using his own money to pay for cupcakes and decorations for her (remember, he was a thief, and would usually have no problem with stealing these items). Through Rapunzel, he learns that being a dashing, handsome swashbuckler isn’t the end goal and he learns to be more selfless and empathetic.
Once he’s injured by Mother Gothel and admits that Rapunzel is also his new dream, he too is ready to give up his life and quite literally die so that Rapunzel can live, the Lost Princess finally free of her captor. Eugene knows that all Gothel wants Rapunzel for is her magical healing hair, so he cuts it off before Rapunzel is able to use it to heal him, effectively sacrificing himself to kill Gothel in the process. He may be dead, but it doesn’t matter to him as it means Rapunzel can now live. Of course, he comes back to life, and the two do live happily ever after because this is still a Disney movie, after all. Flynn / Eugene is flawed in all of the best ways, with a contradicting, evolving personality that sets him apart from Disney’s previous bland male heroes.
Not Just For Girls
At large, the Disney Princess franchise and its films are primarily targeted towards young girls. Of course, Disney movies must also be enjoyable for adults, as well, since they are the ones taking their kids to the movies, but what about young boys? And teenagers? Disney had to find a way to get these other demographics engaged. And it didn’t come cheap. Clocking in at a production cost of $260 million, Tangled became the most expensive animated film of all time (and still is), as well as currently ranking as the ninth most expensive film including both animation and live-action when adjusted for inflation.
Part of this expensive budget was due to the groundbreaking technology Disney used to make the film. Rapunzel was Disney’s first 3D CGI Princess, with bright, wide eyes full of wonder, while Glen Keane and the animators blended in traditional, 2D romantic elements using non-photorealistic rendering. But part of it also went to changing the film’s title from Rapunzel to Tangled after market research showed boys don’t like movies with girls’ names in the title – another troubling problem to dive into for another day. With the title rebrand, Disney attempted to advertise to young boys as well as young girls by putting just as much emphasis on Flynn Rider as on Rapunzel. It was a smart move on Disney’s part, as the story is not just Rapunzel’s (as is usually the case with Princess films), but also that of Flynn, who plays just as much of a role as she does.
Along with the updated technology and rebrand, the film was also the first Princess film to receive a PG rating for its violence, action, and intense scenes. When choosing a movie to see, perception is key. A potential audience member looking at the available options will automatically see a G rating as for little kids, and an R rating as for adults, which leaves PG and PG-13 in between. For the Princess franchise, a PG-13 movie would cut out almost all of the target audience – young children – but a PG rating increases the likelihood of a teenager and their friends going to see it.
Disney also expanded its audience by appealing more to adults, and not simply the adults taking their kids to the movies. Specifically, I’m talking about adult women. Flynn Rider came about as a result of the famous “Hot Man Meeting,” where director Byron Howard had the goal of creating “the most handsome, most attractive male lead Disney has ever had.” A focus group of women were invited to discuss what they did and didn’t find attractive in a man. No male actor and celebrity went without being torn apart – nothing was perfect about any man that existed. So, the animators combined all the features and traits the women had rated as positive until the ultimate man had been created in Flynn Rider. So, if I can give only one reason to convince you to watch Tangled, let it be because of Flynn Rider’s hotness and his ability to be vulnerable. Gents, take notes. Women want Flynn Rider.
Modernizing The Grimm Tales
Like many of Disney’s animated classics, the story of Tangled is taken from the fairytale “Rapunzel” by the Brothers Grimm, who in turn were inspired by other similar, previous works, dating all the way back to 11th-century Persia. The Disney film actually varies quite differently from the classic fairytale, though, with adaptations suitable to a modern audience as well as the pre-existing Princess franchise.
First is Rapunzel’s changed status. In the original telling, Rapunzel is not royalty, but the daughter of peasants who reluctantly gave her up to a sorceress in exchange for the leafy plants – known as rapunzel – that nourished the wife while she was pregnant. From a franchise standpoint, it wasn’t necessary for Disney to make Rapunzel royalty by birth – after all, Cinderella, Belle, and Tiana all married into royalty. But it did allow for better storytelling. By being a royal, and a kidnapped royal at that, it provides a reason as to why the floating lantern festival would exist, a beckoning call for the Lost Princess to return. Had Rapunzel been a peasant, there’s no way a kingdom would have fronted the expense of putting out the same signal for eighteen years in hopes of her safe return.
Also changed from the original story is the way Rapunzel and her love meet. In the fairytale, the sorceress, Gothel, kept Rapunzel locked in a tower with her long, beautiful golden hair, until a prince heard Rapunzel’s sweet singing and climbs up her hair to meet her. It’s a more romantic (if physically questionable) meeting than in Tangled, and in the Disney version, the prince becomes the thief Flynn Rider (spoiler alert: unbeknownst to him, Flynn/Eugene is also actually is a royal by birth, as we later learn in Rapunzel’s Tangled Adventure). The original fairytale meeting is one that we might have expected to see by older, classical Disney standards. Had Tangled been made in the 1950s, Rapunzel and Flynn may have had this demure introduction and would have been engaged immediately. Instead, Rapunzel is more independent-minded, and not afraid to stand her ground against Flynn.
And their story differs quite a bit from the original grimness of the Grimms. The two make a plan to run away together as Rapunzel becomes pregnant in the fairytale, the prince having visited her nightly as she weaves a ladder to climb down. Once Gothel finds out, she cuts off Rapunzel’s hair and casts her out into the wilderness. Gothel tricks the prince when he arrives to take Rapunzel away, informing him of Rapunzel’s fate, and, devastated, he falls out of the tower and is blinded. The prince later ends up finding Rapunzel in the woods with their twins she birthed, and her tears of joy cure his blindness.
As is often the case with the Brothers Grimm, the original story was too dark for Disney to adapt into an animated film. Flynn jumping to his near-death and blinding himself would have been a bit too intense for even me, honestly. But there are some elements that can still be seen in the Disney rendition. In the film, Gothel has a similar demise as the fairytale prince as she trips and falls out of the tower to her death after beginning to age and decay. It’s still a pretty intense scene but not the first Disney villain we’ve seen fall to their death. Gaston, anyone? Rapunzel’s magical healing tears that save Flynn’s life are also pulled directly from the fairytale. There is something immensely more visually impactful about bringing someone back to life than just curing their blindness. The gift of resurrection is a step far beyond and highlights the fact that Rapunzel’s power comes not from her hair, but from inside her. As far as Rapunzel’s pregnancy and the twins? Well, this is a Disney movie after all. But maybe in the sequel?
Onward To A New Dream
Tangled granted a lot of firsts for Walt Disney Animation Studios, firsts that went on to inspire many of the studio’s later productions. Following Rapunzel and Tangled, the next heroines in the Disney Princess franchise would be Merida in Pixar’s Brave and Moana. Currently, Elsa and Anna from Frozen have not been officially included in the lineup, and instead are marketed under the separate Disney’s Frozen flag – though Rapunzel and Flynn make a cameo appearance in Frozen.
All of the subsequent Princess films would also receive a PG rating, just as Tangled had, and would all be done in the new 3D CGI animation style, kickstarting a permanent shift away from traditional animation for the company as a whole. Rapunzel has also sparked later heroines to have goals and dreams that go beyond that of a romantic relationship, with Merida competing in an archery competition to win the right to control her own hand in marriage as her father attempts to marry her off, Moana traveling across the ocean in search of the history of her people, and Elsa and Anna having an emphasis on sisterly love and self-acceptance as they save their kingdom – twice. And it should be noted that the healthy relationship Rapunzel and Flynn have in their equal partnership was the blueprint for Anna and Kristoff later. We’re not against romance, here! We’re just all for healthy, supportive romance.
But Tangled has been incredibly successful on its own, too. Tangled has been so beloved over the years that it sparked Tangled Ever After, a short film centering on Rapunzel and Eugene’s wedding, as well as the TV movie Tangled: Before Ever After and accompanying television series Rapunzel’s Tangled Adventure. Fans of all ages can spot Rapunzel’s tower and lanterns, as well as meet the Princess and Flynn Rider at the Disney Parks, or catch a retelling of the story on stage in Tangled: The Musical on the Disney Cruise Line. And, soon, guests will be able to embark on a boat ride reenacting the magical lantern scene at Tokyo DisneySea in a new Tangled-themed area of the park. For now, Tangled enthusiasts will have to celebrate the best day ever with plenty of hazelnut soup, painting, and guitar strumming as we wait for what new dream Rapunzel and Flynn Rider will have next!