How did Quasimodo get a Disney movie before Rapunzel? Okay, they were probably trying to go after the hunchbacked boys' market with that one, but everyone knows that the four most iconic princesses in fairy tales are Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Snow White and Rapunzel (as seen in Shrek the Third), and yet it took 50 animated feature films for Disney to get around to her. Perhaps they were waiting for computer animation technology to reach a point where they wouldn't have to hand-draw every single strand of hair on her head? Whatever the reason, it was worth the wait, because the end result is a flawless animated spectacle, with great vocal performances and one of the funniest and most entertaining princesses in Disney's cotillion.
Mandy Moore provides the voice for Rapunzel, the princess whose life is saved by a magical plant that gives her magical hair, but who is then kidnapped by the evil Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy), who needed the plant (and now Rapunzel's hair) to stay young. Kept in a treehouse with no stairs, Rapunzel grows up to be a surprisingly positive and creative girl, who's had to make her own fun by reading and painting and playing hide-and-seek with her pet chameleon. When Gothel forbids her from going to see a floating lantern display that appears in the distant sky each year -- actually a memorial for the kidnapped princess -- Rapunzel sends Gothel on three-day errand and enlists a wanted thief named Flynn (Zachary Levi) to be her guide to the palace. Along the way, they have to dodge the Palace guards (who want the gem Flynn stole), Flynn's former partners the Stabbington brothers (ditto) and an overzealous Palace guard horse who doesn't need a rider to get his man.
The movie bears a passing resemblance to the Shrek films, being set in a fairy-tale kingdom where a man with an equine antagonist/companion is coerced into acting as rescuer and guide to a talkative young princess who can fend for herself, but needs to be reunited with her parents. There's even a bar full of roguish villains, voiced by Brad Garrett, Jeffrey Tambor and others, where they sing songs and have dreams of living ordinary lives. But the animation is brighter and closer to traditional Disney 2-D animation than Shrek's, Rapunzel is younger and more naive than Fiona, and Flynn is more of a dashing rogue -- think Charles Carmichael, with a hint of Chuck Bartowski. Gothel is evil in the worst way -- not through outright villainy, but through tampering with her adopted daughter's emotions and self-esteem, which is how she got her to stay in a tree all those years. The Stabbingtons (one eyepatched and voiced by Ron Perlman, the other muttonchopped and mute) supply the brute force, and ultimately team up with Gothel to the detriment of everybody. And the horse, Maximus, has no dialogue, but has some of the best facial expressions of the entire movie, and is possibly the funniest character. (The chameleon sidekick Pascal has fewer moments, but also wordlessly kills it each time.)
While Rapunzel is yet another blonde, Caucasian princess, we... actually haven't had one of those in a while. Since 1959, to be exact. And Rapunzel is wacky and goofy and creative, which makes her far more interesting than any of her noble, self-serious predecessors. Mandy Moore voices her with enthusiastic teenage abandon, and is the perfect choice for the character, especially given the character's fate. Usually, sequels to Disney animated features are fated to DVD releases, with inferior animation, but with all of the programming already done, I wouldn't be surprised (or mind) if a theatrical sequel was put in the works.
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