By changing the title of the Rapunzel fairy tale to Tangled, the folks at Disney have found a perfect euphemism to represent today’s cultural confusion. But so many conflicting interests are apparent in this animated reboot—hewing (at least a little) to the Disney fairy tale–musical tradition that stretches from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to Aladdin; competing with the popular antic, self-referential tone of such non-Disney cartoon hits as Shrek and Ice Age; showing off the latest digital production technology—that Discombobulated also would have worked.
Our motivations for engaging with fairy tales have changed from a simple childhood enthrallment with bedtime narratives to a febrile taste (in a world post TV and video games) for excitement unto turmoil, tension unto cynicism, and clarity unto doubt. Thus “Rapunzel” has been amped up from the morality tale told by the Brothers Grimm into a typically overactive Disney concoction of cute humans, comic animals, and one-dimensional villains. While this is probably a reflection of society’s deeper political disorder, the hyped-up story line of Tangled also gives evidence that cultural standards have undergone a drastic change. We are not just a fragmented culture; as we live, suffer, and hope in our polarized states, our aspirations, fears, and relations become knotted, enmeshed, and fraught. And Hollywood exploits this jumble. The Walt Disney Company, ever conscious of a lucrative opportunity, knows how to compensate. Its new title disguises the lack of cultural continuity that makes the name Rapunzel seem not simply uncommercial but worse: obscure.
The once common moral lessons of fairy tales no longer get passed on the same way they used to. Tangled disconnects from the Grimms’ portrayal of feudal life, superstition, and nature. The name Rapunzel is German for “rampion”; that vegetable sets in motion the tale’s story of wild appetite and thwarted desire when a witch bargains for the expected child of a couple who have stolen rampion from her garden. The witch keeps the child locked in a tower that can be entered only by climbing the girl’s long, golden locks of hair. In Tangled the Rapunzel legend gets strained through a sieve of political correctness that includes condescending to fashionable notions about girlhood, patriarchy, romance, and what is now the most suspicious of cultural tenets, faith.
Tangled’s lack of faith contrasts with the recent announcement of a new venture by the British dance-pop duo the Pet Shop Boys. Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe are adapting Danish author Hans Christian Andersen’s 1870 story “The Most Incredible Thing” into a full-length ballet. This surprising project, which is consistent with the duo’s sophisticated and literate approach to popular music (“West End Girls,” “It’s a Sin,” “What Have I Done to Deserve This”), addresses not only the moral and political quandaries of their usual terrain (the dance-music demimonde) but also the modern, tangled pop world.
Through Andersen’s fable—a parable, really—lapsed Catholic Tennant and his partner Lowe explore the circumstance of heretical cultural fashion, a phenomenon that existed even in the nineteenth century. “The Most Incredible Thing” describes competition among artists for contemporary recognition and acclaim. A modish, faithless artist wins the contest until something extraordinary happens. The tale’s meaning recalls that of the better-known “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” but “The Most Incredible Thing” tells a more complex story and is well worth reading because of its vision, which projects past skepticism and attaches to faith. Andersen posited the power of substantive art that by divine right overwhelms the folly and insincerity of current, passing style. It turns out that “the most incredible thing” isn’t rebooted technology (technology figures in the story) but art that maintains the principles and beliefs by which our civilization established its social and moral foundations. Andersen’s tale asserts the value of faith just as the Pet Shop Boys’ 2001 London stage musical Closer to Heaven—truly adult entertainment—featured characters who sought personal commitment and sustenance against the desperate distractions of hypersexualized hedonism.
In its attempt to turn “Rapunzel” into the next most trendy thing, the story of Tangled climaxes with a jest that not only disregards the spiritual values that informed Andersen’s climax but also demonstrates our moral and spiritual disorder. This newfangled “Rapunzel” features the resurrection of the heroine’s mortally wounded suitor (no longer a prince but a bandit); he’s brought back to life by her one magical tear. Of all the changes rung to Disnify the Grimm tale, this is the most significant. In Grimm, the prince has his sight restored. Now Disney elevates the crisis and then de-dramatizes the transfiguration, as if the filmmakers are afraid to give the thought of resurrection its due.
Just as Disney’s 1989 cartoon of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” traduced its story of faith into the exploits of a flirty amphibian, Disney’s 2010 Rapunzel story streamlines its heroine, who still lives in a medieval tower, into a girl of contemporary spunk, daring, and godlessness. In this shrill context, Tangled’s resurrection is denuded of the Grimms’ mystification. Resurrection becomes less than a parlor trick. It doesn’t emanate from some divine provenance; it’s simply a plot gimmick. Rapunzel does not learn compassion in that instant; the restoration to life happens too quickly for her grief to express the depth of her loss. Notwithstanding one sweetly sentimental song whose lyrics wonder about her fate, Tangled moves on to more jokes and musical high jinks for its wrap-up.
We’ve accustomed ourselves to the formula by which a family movie designed to pacify children is considered innocuous, but we cannot ignore the ramifications of entertainment concepts that move away from profundity or that deny audiences the persuasiveness and the confirmation of epiphany. That’s what makes Andersen’s “The Most Incredible Thing” so remarkable and unforgettable. The unpretentious tale gives testimony to faithfulness and is a reminder of the genuine power of art.
When that miracle of resurrection occurs in Danish filmmaker Carl Dreyer’s 1955 Ordet (“The Word”), it provides one of the great moments in art-movie history—an intense, then luminous moment as a minister’s dead wife is revived on the catafalque. The scene conveys Dreyer’s belief in immanence; all his movies, such as the 1928 The Passion of Joan of Arc, vibrate with a sense of a larger reality than what is immediately before our eyes. Going from Dreyer’s twentieth-century masterworks to the digital wonders of the new millennium, our eyes and imaginations are routinely pacified, as in Tangled, without being inspired to contemplation of greater things or even the unknowable.
Some form of faithlessness is apparent in the recent films that cheerlessly depict the phenomenon of resurrection. Silent Light, a 2007 film by Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas (a film-festival darling) about contemporary Mennonites, takes a postmodern, almost derisive approach to Dreyer’s metaphysics—first with explicit references to Ordet, attenuating the circumstances surrounding resurrection until it is observed without passion but with a kind of benumbed ambiguity. The same is true of Clint Eastwood’s 2010 Hereafter, in which a medium (played by actor / leftist political crusader Matt Damon) adamantly denies his ability to communicate with souls who have passed on (“It’s not a gift, it’s a curse,” he insists) until he surrenders to luck and finds a secular, completely faithless, love match.
These recent movies, including Tangled, replace the old-fashioned need for something to believe in with a bland uncertainty. The tradition of popular culture that provides understanding, explanation, and succor gets tangled up with the desperate motivations of art-house, film-festival nihilism and atheism. We’re far past the days of Carl Dreyer, Ingmar Bergman, and Federico Fellini, who contemplated the lines between devotion and agnosticism. And we’re far past Spielberg’s E.T. (essentially a resurrection tale) and the afterlife metaphysics of his daunting A.I.; both are derived from the richness of Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. Now even fairy-tale cartoons loot our moral heritage to make jaunty fodder that might eventually wind up in a Broadway-musical tourist trap.
Religion offers a way to understand our human impulses; popular culture has become a way to muddle them. That’s the theme the Pet Shop Boys identify in Hans Christian Andersen’s “Most Incredible Thing”; it’s also exemplified by the commercial corruptions that Tangled performs on the tale of Rapunzel. In his classic study The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, psychologist Bruno Bettelheim argued that readers “find folk fairy tales more satisfying than all other children’s stories” because “fairy tales carry important messages to the conscious, the preconscious, and the unconscious mind, on whatever level each is functioning at the time.” As pop culture gets away from faith, it also abandons its most important social function, confusing rather than uniting our humanity. It will take faith to raise corrupted pop culture from the dead.
Armond White, film critic of the New York Press, is chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle.