Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Tangled: Deconstructing a realistic fantasy


What is a "realistic fantasy"? My friends mean it in different ways but my general understanding is that though the setting is based in a fantasy realm, characters behave and emote in realistic ways.

And when it comes to Tangled, the modern take on the Rapunzel story, I was surprised that an animated film could capture human emotions at an existential level. And you get to say that particularly about animated films in a very few instances.

And see how long I have “reviewed” an animated film - since writing a short halfhearted “review” of The Princess and the Frog more than a year back.

But when I watched Disney’s Tangled this week, it really surprised me – to the extent that I had to divert some time to write even a short "review" of it – because I felt that this was a film worthy to be recommended to any film-lover and I would be doing a disservice if I didn’t let all my friends know that here indeed was a film (animated or not) which is not to be missed at all.

Realism, ironically, is written all over this fantasy.

If you never gave a thought to how serious the crime of baby-stealing is, something which happens in the modern world, too, Tangled will give you a full blast on the heinous nature of this crime and the psychologically devastating consequences it would have on the parents.

The film captures this realistically by showing the King and Queen, in the few instances they are shown, as utterly silent and almost motionless. You can imagine: after so many years passed with no sign of their daughter, will such grieving parents have anything more to say in words? And towards the end, when the guard opens the door to the King and Queen’s chambers to announce that their daughter has indeed been found after 17 long years, even the guard remains silent and a subtle nod of his head with a ghost of a smile, says it all.

Such scenes touched me deeply and I have to congratulate the team behind Tangled for getting almost everything right.

And in the case of Rapunzel herself, observe the sensitive way how the film deals with her first venture out into the open world after she turned 17: the camera focusing on the grass as she was about to touch her feet on the ground for the first time; and how she sticks her toes into the sand to get that first feeling of the Earth. And then, in a comedic sort of way from her rescuer the thief’s viewpoint, the mixture of conflicting emotions she gives out, feeling both giddy and excited at the same time to be out in the open world for the first time, and also guilty and regretful because she has been “disobedient” to her “mother” for the first time - by leaving the tower in search of her dream.

The film starts with the thief, Flynn Rider, narrating that, unlike other fantasies, this story was about how he died. It grabs your attention right from the start and towards the end, the viewer is rewarded by that lasting selfless act he carries out in order to save Rapunzel: Flynn knows for sure that he will not survive but he carries out the act any way to save another human being from slavery and ultimately it is this humane act – coming no less from a thief himself – which leaves you humbled.

And, well, here’s a part I would rather have avoided. But before coming to that, perhaps I should mention here that I don’t know what’s wrong with me now but over the past two years since I have been coming into close contact with the Maldives' underprivileged class, and becoming disturbed by seeing and experiencing firsthand the subhuman conditions they live in, I have been avoiding realism cinema because it somehow disturbs me now.

In fact, I have not even watched half of the 10 Oscar nominated films of last year although I have all those films on my hard disk. So, I actually diverted time to watch Tangled after seeing its somewhat playful trailer thinking that since it was an animated fantasy, there would be no disturbing aftertastes lingering on my mind for days, like how it happened when I watched Black Swan and 127 Hours after preparing myself mentally for several days! If you should know I watched Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire a year after it was released and to date I still have been keeping Anti-Christ on my hard disk, too afraid to watch it but too cowardly either to delete that Lars Von Trier classic without watching it first! Perhaps I have become a softie now but if that is the result of witnessing the sick things that goes on in this small Maldivian society, then so be it.

So as I was saying, the first shock to my system came that Tangled was really a “realistic fantasy” during the psychologically twisted “interaction” the woman who stole Rapunzel (when she was a baby) later has with her while posing as her “mother.” In my life I have seen real Maldivians who are as psychologically twisted as this fake mother. So it really disturbed me to see how she plays with Rapunzel’s emotions and feelings to make sure that Rapunzel remains her slave in the tower forever.

This scene made me sick to my stomach but now that a film which belongs to the category of “realism cinema” had “tricked” me into watching it, I kept watching the film towards its very end. So although it was disturbing, Tangled was ultimately rewarding, because it is not every day that you come across such a cinematic gem, especially in these times when Hollywood is only concerned about making money-earning, brainless visual-effects laden films for testosterone-filled adolescent male teenagers.