Once upon a time, straightforward tellings of classic fairy tales sprinkled with song seemed to be Disney’s formula for movie magic. But if the critical and box office success of the 2010 Rapunzel movie “Tangled” has anything to teach, a new approach to animated fairy tales may spell the studio’s happily ever after.
“Tangled” shook up the classic Disney princess formula, adding a male lead and a dash of humor to accompany the 70 feet of golden hair and sparkling tiara of the traditional tale. Most of the movie’s main characters are back in “Tangled Ever After,” a new animated short that opened in theaters this weekend, showing before the 3D re-release of “Beauty and the Beast.”
“We don’t want to do a sequel for the sake of sequels,” said Byron Howard, a Disney animator who along with Nathan Greno directed the 2010 film and the new short. “The story has to be worth telling.”
“The movie kind of buttons up, but the one thing we didn’t do in the movie was a wedding,” Greno added. “There’d be a beautiful wedding of Flynn and Rapunzel, just like the royal wedding. It would be this big, grand event. And Byron and I thought, ‘Well that’s not entertainment. Maybe little girls would like to watch that, but that’s about it.'”
So Greno and Howard turned the focus on some supporting characters from “Tangled” — Pascal, Rapunzel’s pet chameleon, and Maximus, a horse with the heart of a soldier and the tracking skills of a bloodhound. The two characters were based on silent movie stars Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Howard said, and provided the animators “an opportunity to do a lot of slapstick” that didn’t make it into the feature film.
“We figured out a way to give [the audience] exactly what they wanted, so there is a beautiful grand wedding in the short, but what happens pretty quickly, those two goofballs Maximus and Pascal lose the wedding rings,” Greno said. “It turned into this big, zany, cartoony, fun, action-packed short. Just like what we were trying to do with ‘Tangled.’ We wanted that to be a movie for everyone; kids, boys, girls, adults, everybody could watch that movie, could be entertained. We wanted the short to be the exact same thing.”
It’s a tactic that proved successful for Greno and Howard with “Tangled” in 2010; the film grossed nearly $600 million worldwide and received glowing reviews from critics. After “The Princess and the Frog” disappointed at the box office in 2009, Disney was careful not to include “Princess” in the Rapunzel film’s title and developed a roguish, Errol Flynn-type bandit to appeal to boys.
“That’s why we added Flynn Rider,” Greno said. “The story is very much about Flynn and Rapunzel. And Maximus and Pascal, the reason why they’re brought up so often is because they are universally loved by both males and females. … I think this is why it worked out in the box office.”
“Tangled” arrived at the same time Disney Animation was considering closing the book on princess movies. Pixar Animation Studios chief Ed Catmull told Hero Complex in 2010 that it was time to turn the page on fairy tales and try something fresh.
“Films and genres do run a course,” said Catmull, who along with director John Lasseter oversees Disney Animation. “They may come back later because someone has a fresh take on it … but we don’t have any other musicals or fairy tales lined up.”
But that was before “Tangled” became a hit and spawned the short sequel premiering this weekend. So does the success of “Tangled” send a message to Disney about the future of princess movies?
“We’re built on this rich tradition of these animated films,” Greno said. “This company’s been around for a long time, and that’s why all of us want to work here, because there’s all these great movies. But you can’t go back to these same wells. ‘Cinderella’ worked in the 1950s ’cause it worked for a 1950s audience. But there’s also this expectation of what Disney Animation is. So you can’t go too far away from it. There are other studios that make fun of these classic stories, and that’s fine too, but for us to do that, that doesn’t seem right either. So we’re in this interesting spot. How do you make a modern fairy tale? How do you take these classic stories and do something modern and different with them, but at the same time maintain what everyone loves at Disney?”
For Greno and Howard, the answer lies in finding a balance between history and originality.
“We wanted one foot firmly planted in our history, in what made Disney great, but at the same time do something fresh and unexpected that audiences won’t see coming. I think that’s what we need to do moving forward with Disney Animation — somehow deliver on what people expect and what they love, but we have to challenge the audience and give something new and something original. I think that’s why ‘Tangled’ hit, and the studio is open-minded to more princess movies, because if you do it right, the audience will be there for you.”
– Noelene Clark
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