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Three-Word Review of ‘Kung Fu Panda 2’

 

Stronger than bamboo.

Captions don’t count: KFP2 treads boldly into territory that usually belongs only to Pixar. This soulful film swings confidently between heft and lightness, humor and pathos, which until now has been only Pixar’s playground. I’ve blogged here before about how the original KFP out-Pixar’ed Pixar that year and sent Wall-E to the rust bin of history. I’ve also been clear that I didn’t care about this sequel, because the original did its job so well … and since when has a sequel to a children’s franchise been anything other than a mediocre cash-grab anyway? Since KFP2, that’s when. Featuring fewer kung fu kicks, but more meaning, this movie also deals in one of my favorite themes: Self-determination and the notion that destiny is not in charge of you – YOU are. Panda Po comes into his own as a fully fleshed out personality, a magic combination of self-confidence and self-deprecation, of gravitas and goofiness. This is not just a great sequel, it’s a great movie.

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Stealing a little thunder: How I’d inject some extra electricity into ‘Thor’

“Thor” seems to be enjoying a sort of hotness, seemingly embraced by the geek community at large, which is notoriously harsh to those who mishandle beloved properties. A Facebook friend of mine recently announced, “Thor was actually pretty good. Don’t act like you’re all above it.”

I’m not above it. I swear. I am, however, confident in saying that while this is a very fun movie, it is not a very good movie.

It’s not that I can’t enjoy a good popcorn film. I’ve been pretty clear that I can support the poppiest of popcorn movies without being snobbish about it. The kink in my craw comes when I actually start to get my expectations up. When I get an inkling that something might be uncommonly good – either thanks to a distinctive trailer, good nerd-of-mouth buzz, or a perfectly paired actor or director – that’s when I want a story to rise to the occasion. Come on nerd culture: We can expect our media to be a cut above.

So it was with “Thor.” I never cared about the character (as a comics superhero, at least), and had written off this movie the instant I heard it was greenlit. But then Kenneth Branagh took the director spot — that is, Kenneth “Once more unto the breach” Branagh — and I thought, “Oh. I see. Marvel wants this movie to be good, not just some slam-bang cash-in. They have expectations.

Certain of my expectations were met by this movie: When a god of thunder hits things with his big, fat hammer, there should be big, fat explodey on the screen. On this, Branagh delivers. The boomboom scenes look pretty; very pretty indeed. My favorite scene is one that rests lightly (relative to the rest of the movie) on computer graphics: A cannon-faced automaton is destroying a little Arizona town, while a cast of Asgardian heroes has a dickens of a time containing it. It’s got all the visual surprises and dead-sexy ultraviolence a superhero movie should have.

But in this story of Norse gods, the devil is in the details, and the details of character development must have been left on the editing room floor. The whole point of this “origin story” for Thor is that the cocky god-thug must learn humility and a genuine affection for the human race before he can truly be a hero. After what appears to be a single day in the Arizona desert, he ends his vacation on Earth with an inexplicable, unconvincing commitment to heroism and humans. Natalie Portman plants a kiss on Thor as he departs our world, and in no way do you believe that these two share a meaningful relationship beyond lusty desire (hers) and bemused curiosity (his). After all, Thor’s had centuries to snog hearty Asgardian dames like the lovely and talented Sif (Jaimie Alexander) … so after 24 hours with a slightly scattered, flustered and, uh, breakable Earth girl, he’s got real Capital-L Love and a hankering for humanity?

That’s not change we can believe in.

What I’d have whispered in Branagh’s ear as he sat down with his storyboards: Thor needs to have an ironclad reason to don his Team Earth shirt, and it needs to come from Natalie Portman directly. She needs to wow him with some behavior or act that is distinctly human. This happens all the time in science fiction, where supposedly superior beings encounter Earthlings and find something quaint and endearing about us, causing them to find us endlessly fascinating. Think of, say, Q from Star Trek (an omnipotent being who couldn’t stop the comparatively prosaic compulsion to stick his nose in Capt. Picard’s business), and Dr. Who (who at tense moments often interjects his enthusiasm for human spirit, gumption, adventurosity and the like).

So in the middle third of this movie, we needed to see Thor try to solve a problem in his Asgardian way, and Natalie Portman needed to show him – with the confidence of a woman worthy of a god – a better way. She needed to to appeal to his head and heart, not just to his other godly bits.

She could use her smarts. She is an astro-meteoro-cosmo-something-or-other scientist, after all, though most of the movie she acts like a headless chicken with a schoolgirl crush. Perhaps she could solve a problem with forethought, caution and wit, which would be the exact opposite of Thor’s quite literal smash-mouth solution to problems.

She could use her heart. Since Thor has been cast out for cruelty, she could model some behavior that proves to this superior being that he’s actually inferior in ways he’s yet to learn. Perhaps she exhibits forgiveness of someone (maybe Thor himself), giving the god a peek into how mere mortals must solve conflict without using hammers. Thor’s strained relationship with his brother Loki is central to this movie. So have him learn the power of forgiveness from an Earthling!

She could use her muscles. Though by muscles, I really mean bravery. This thin little woman could find herself in a perilous situation where she must show godlike courage without godlike power to back it up. This demonstrates to Thor the audacity and pluck that even we frail mortals can muster when our hearts are at stake. It’s one thing for an impervious deity to smash through an enemy’s skull, but what does it take for a human to do the same for the sake of another?

One of the most convincing “change of heart” moments I’ve ever seen on film comes from “Ice Age.” Yes, the 2002 cartoon from 20th Century Fox. It’s a brilliant movie all around, and if anyone wants to give me grief about it, I’ll see you outside by the bike racks after school. One reason this movie is so solid: One of the main buddies in this buddy flick is a deadly sabertooth who is secretly plotting to lead his companions into the maw of a sabertooth pack ambush. Hello, that’s an unusual theme for a “kid” movie! Over the course of the story, this cat must be given a cause to betray his pack and side with the heroes, and the moment comes, convincingly, at the end of the second act. The woolly mammoth nearly dies saving the cat from a lava-filled death trap, and the cat asks, “Why did you risk your life for me?” The mammoth replies, “It’s what you do in a herd.” When the cat realizes this new herd cares more for him than his original pack, he has a believable, rewarding, satisfying change of heart.

Thor needed to have a good reason to believe his new herd of Earthlings are worth getting hammered over. I don’t believe he did, and now I have to relegate another high-potential geek movie into the “popcorn flick” category, rather than hailing it as truly one of the immortals.

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Three-Word Review of ‘Hop’

Misses the basket.

Captions don’t count: I don’t like spending time badmouthing movies I didn’t care for because a.) making a good movie is ridiculously hard and b.) tearing down a mediocre movie is ridiculously easy. It’s enough to say that “Hop” – though a hit with my kids – is not funny enough for me to sit through it again. James Marsden does his honest best to yuk it up with a CG rabbit, but nobody says or does a thing that I found worth expending energy to laugh about. It didn’t have to be this way; I think there’s a good movie in “Hop” that never found its way out of the rabbit hole. Here’s some constructive criticism for the moment, in 20 years, when some studio opts to do the remake. ITEM THE FIRST: The Bunny Logic is unsound. Why do some characters freak out when they see the bunny while others do not? In a universe where the Easter Bunny actually delivers baskets and hides eggs unbidden, it would be an accepted fact that he exists. No one should be surprised by a magic bunny, because *someone* put all that stuff under the hedgerows every Easter. ITEM THE SECOND: Further internal logic problems: A major segment in the film involves the bunny following Marsden into a job interview and ruining it for him, because Marsden is so preoccupied with keeping the rabbit under wraps. Why does he care if the bunny is seen -- especially when he spends the rest of the movie toting the rabbit around in public? Broken logic, disconnected viewer. ITEM THE THIRD: The prologue narration gives away (and spoils) the most interesting premise of the whole film: That the bumbling human protagonist ends up as the new Easter Bunny. That’s actually an interesting twist that would have been far more fun to discover in the finale. Far, far, far more fun. I would have been surprised. Pleasantly. ITEM THE FOURTH AND FINAL: In a story about following your dreams, the main character learns he must suck it up and accept the predestination he was trying to escape. The entire story revolves around this runaway bunny rebelling against his father’s plans for him, and following his dreams as a drummer. In the end he discovers that an artist’s life is too impractical, and that he must accept the role as chief bureaucrat in a candy delivery firm (albeit in a co-chief capacity). That’s probably realistic life advice, but it’s a downer as a film for impressionable kiddies. BONUS ITEM THE FIFTH AND TRULY FINAL: I have finally reached Hispanic Ha-Ha Saturation Limit. Like Puss in Boots in “Shrek” and Featherstone the Flamingo in “Gnomeo & Juliet,” a wacky Spanish-accented character provides the requisite Amusing Dialect Humor in "Hop." This character is one of a googleplex of baby chicks in the movie, but he is the only one who speaks with this accent. Why? Perhaps it was the only way the filmmakers could figure to render the unfunny dialog slightly more laugh-worthy. Ai caramba, el hassenfeffer.

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On chameleons, gnomes and the Pixar Continuum

My family and I saw a pair of animated movies in the last few weeks that we rather enjoyed, but for entirely different reasons. And their difference got me thinking about what is really the Sweet Spot for a family movie: That place where kids and parents are entertained, enriched and engaged, and no one feels talked down to or force-marched to keep up.

The first subject was “Gnomeo and Juliet,” which had quite possibly the most humorless trailer a cartoon movie could muster. (Proof: One character tells a mushroom-shaped fellow, with the broadest possible delivery, “You look like a fun guy!” Uncle, I cry.)  When I realized how much recycled Elton John music was waiting within, my skip-o-meter had dipped past AVOID all the way to RENOUNCE. But a President’s Day holiday (concealed in plain sight on our calendar) pounced on us from out of nowhere, and my desperate plan to keep the masses entertained came to this: the only animated movie in theaters. Apparently, every other parent in Chicagoland had the same idea, and so we sat lickably close to the giant screen. Strap in for 90 minutes of misery, I thought.

To my surprise, the flick wasn’t bad. “Gnomeo” had my kids laughing from the get-go. In Shakespearean fashion, the movie opens with a prologue from a helium-voiced gnome: “The story you about to see has been told before. A lot.” For some reason this made my children laugh. The speech, coupled with de rigeur slapstick, warmed us up on all of our various levels of expectation. Could the Sweet Spot lie ahead?

Not quite, but respectably close. “Gnomeo” proceeds with a very light hand, going for the easy comedy of cutesy-poo lawn ornaments behaving unspeakably one moment and adorably the next. It squeezes plenty of juice from the low-hanging fruit of dialog humor, most notably a Latin-talking flamingo who brings a  “Puss In Boots” vaudeville to the proceedings. If you put a gaggle of writers in a room and asked, “What are some funny things you’d like to see lawn ornaments do?” you’d get a reasonably amusing collection of gags very much like this movie. Nothing aiming too high, with most of the punchlines landing below the belt — that is to say, upon the shortest of the crowd.

So with the interests of its LCD fulfilled, “Gnomeo” kept us highfalutin adults (or me, at least) engaged by reminding us that the source material really is, you may recall, a tragedy. Echoing the original play, hot-tempered Tybalt gravely wounds rival Mercutio (renamed Benny here for some reason; an unfinished “… and the Jets” reference, perhaps?). Romeo responds rashly to avenge his clan, which ends up in Tybalt’s death (!) and Gnomeo’s apparent fatal smashing. I almost began to wonder if this light flick had the cojones to go all the way with its homage to the original.

It didn’t, of course. But where I enjoyed “Gnomeo” the most was when it faced its namesake directly and decoupled itself from a tragic trajectory. Gnomeo ends up having a heart-to-heart with another inanimate statue, a Shakespeare in a public park, where Will insists that Gnomeo’s familiar story is destined for doom. Gnomeo vows to break tradition. Shakespeare laughingly dismisses his optimism. Clever stuff, and a smarter way to diverge from the story’s foundation than simply by ignoring it.

Sometimes the best movie-going experiences come from expecting the worst, and not finding it. Unlike most heartless critics, I enjoyed enjoying this movie with my kids.

Which brings us, a few weeks later, to another ninja-like holiday, “Casimir Pulaski Day,” which Chicago-area school children celebrate by wondering who Casimir Pulaski was. In honor of this Polish hero of the Revolutionary War, we took in more cinema distraction: “Rango.”

As John Cleese might say, “and now for something completely different.” This dusty spaghetti Western is practically masochistic in its insistence to take the hardest route possible.  The characters are ugly. The theme is dark. The plot is convoluted. The visuals of drought and desperation are downright uncomfortable. What humor there is feels as dry as the desert, and as distant as the setting sun. And “Rango” makes regular use of spirit-quest hallucinations and what them folks with book-larnin’ call “magical realism.” Case in point: the talking roadkill.

Cuddly it ain’t.

“Rango” isn’t an easy movie to love. It’s as if director Gore Verbinski walked into his producer’s office with a presentation enumerating the standard gags, pratfalls, crotch jokes and too-cute sidekicks expected of a modern animated film, then closed by saying, “And I promise not to give you any of that.”

As a card-carrying Cynical Hipster, this means I should be gaga for “Rango.” And after a fashion, I am. I think I’ve established that I enjoy movies that make daring choices, and vow to do something I’ve never seen before. “Rango” is a shoe-in for my Missouri Hall of Fame, an honor for movies that respond to the challenge: Show Me Something.

But “Rango” is as scaly and prickly as its desert-dwelling characters, to the point of becoming off-putting. It walks a line I can’t quite define, meandering between “The Apple Dumpling Gang” and “Unforgiven.” The results feel as murky as a bottle of sassafras. Like it’s daring me not to like it.

So was it wrong to take such dares? No. Though critics are a little mixed on “Rango,” I will always support entertainment that pokes holes in genre. But I wish it had been closer to that Sweet Spot in what I am now calling the Pixar Continuum. Consider for a moment, Pixar’s masterpiece, “Up.” This is a movie that:

* featured an 80-year-old misanthrope as central protagonist

* gave us miscarriage, a lonely widower, and unfilled dreams in the first 10 minutes

* fantasized about dropping children from great heights, and

* pitted its heroes against talking dogs, blimps, biplanes and yet another cranky senior citizen.

“Up” was stuffed to the gills with surprising choices, some of them pretty dark. On a continuum between fluff and heft, it lands far, far from the bearable lightness of “Gnomeo,” while peering down the line at the distant and dolorous “Rango.” It seems almost as if “Rango” hurled itself from a catapult in Candyland, hoping to touch down near “Up,” but overshooting by a fur piece.

Pixar knows that sweet spot. Not only did they stick the landing with “Up,” but they’ve gotten some Kerri Strug finishes from surprising fare like “Ratatouille,” “Finding Nemo,” and “Wall-E.” These are movies that make original, unusual choices, steer clear of cliche and take chances that might alienate the audience. Though I feel like “Wall-E” landed closer to “Rango” on the overshot-the-mark end of the continuum, you can see the confidant Pixar hallmark nonetheless. Pixar makes movies with a vision, and no amount of comparison to The Way Things Have Always Been stopped them from machete-hacking new paths in storytelling for kids.

My kids sure didn’t laugh during “Rango.” They all gave it favorable marks afterward (ages 6, 8 and 10), but the real test will be if they request to see it again when the DVD comes out. If we give it a second viewing, I’m going to bring a tall glass of cool, cool water and see if it dissolves my crusty heart.

Though perhaps a whiskey in a dirty glass is what I really need.

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Golf claps, and a side of grousing, on the Oscar inevitability of ‘Toy Story 3’

Pixar’s entertainment juggernaut continued its dominance with the announcement of the 2011 Oscar nominations. Like “Up” before it, “Toy Story 3” was nominated in both Best Picture and Best Animated Feature categories.

Like most observers, I believe the history of “Up” will repeat itself as TS3 will miss top honors, but will instead use that nomination momentum to ride roughshod over the competition in the animation category. If any cartoon flick deserved a decent shot at the top Oscar, it was “Up.” If that didn’t win, TS3 won’t.

Not that I object to an imminent “Toy Story” victory in its proper category. TS3 is a powerhouse, a wonder, a you-name-the-superlative. It deserves every little scrap of praise it earns for the way it cranked an old franchise back to life and gave it a moving, worthy send-off like few final-chapter sequels have ever done. Who would have thought you could wring so much emotion from a boy parting with his childhood toys? Plus, who doesn’t marvel at the ingenious mechanics of teeny things traversing a big world? Just opening a door is an epic hero’s quest in the Toy Story Universe, and the animators and storytellers earn my word of highest respect: clever. TS3 is, in so many ways, a great movie.

So with its place in history assured, and with the DVD on continuous loop in my household, now is the time to uncork a few observations:

TS3 milks its drama hard. Too hard. The-udder-is-starting-to-chafe hard. In the climactic scene of toys descending ever lower into a trash-burning inferno, the musical score clang-clangs like an anvil in a forge as Doom. Creeps. Ever. Closer. Music clang-clangs, the toys hold hands, fires get hotter, clang-clang, worried look, hot fire, clang-clang … CLANG CLANG! It was remarkable when I saw it in theaters (“Wow, they’re really hammering this home!”). On repeated viewings, it’s maudlin, manipulative and cheap. We know they’re in peril. Quit clanging me over the head with it.

Martian ex machina. The toys are plucked from inferno at the last moment by three toys that have escaped the camera’s eye and had a little adventure of their own: They have found and learned to operate a giant junkyard “claw” in time to find a needle in a haystack (their friends in the trash heap). On repeated viewings, this last-second save doesn’t feel earned, no matter how clever it is that the Martians — who are famously obsessed with “The Claw” from their origins in an arcade toy-grabbing game — are bringing things full circle with, ha ha, a real claw. “Oh,” I say on second and fourth and sixth viewings, “that was convenient.”

The bowling-ball-on-the-head gambit. Speaking of convenient, I am mildly annoyed that Pixar has to resort to a trope that has been around since the Flintstones: Identity amnesia turned on (and off!) by a blow to the head. The gag starts out great, as Buzz is very neatly compromised by fiends who put him in “Demo Mode,” thus erasing his memory. This is complicated even more neatly when the heroes inadvertently engage Buzz’s “Spanish Mode” while attempting to restore him. Now Buzz has become a flamboyant Latin lover who moves with flamenco passion. Mucho humor follows forthwith. When the story needs to have him turn back into Regular Old Buzz, though, he gets hit in the head. For Fred Flintstone, it was a bowling ball, for Buzz it’s a TV, but either way, the result is the same: Poof! He’s back to his old self! What a convenient, creaky old gag.

Slow-motion, pillow-fighting hobbits. Few people love the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy as much as I. But even I must admit that by the end, when everybody has made it out of the exploding volcano alive, director Peter Jackson took just a little too much advantage of the circumstances by letting his key characters reunite in an over-sentimental, oversaturated hugfest under a Vaseline-smeared lens. Likewise does the denouement of TS3 go on just a tad too long, and it risks turning sweetness to treacle. Yes, it is the most powerful moment in the movie when Andy gives up his toys to a little girl with a worthy imagination. But like our slo-mo halflings, the scene overstays its welcome by nudging us in the ribs: “Didja cry yet? Didja cry yet?” Yes, I am moved. Yes, my eyes are moist. And now I am ready to move on; please join me before I begin to regret granting you this gift of my raw emotion.

I only react to little things like this because I’m so invested in the rest of it. I wouldn’t care so much if the rest of the movie wasn’t worthy. I still shake my head in admiration at all the deft details, from the creative use of a tortilla to the final shot of clouds that perfectly mimics the very first image of the franchise. It’s near-perfection, and I only pick at these nits because I want so much for that perfection to be more than just “near.” Catch me opining this much about “G-Force.”

BONUS OBSERVATIONS

* I haven’t seen any of the other competitors in the Animated Short Film category, but I’m confident in saying the other Pixar entry, “Day and Night” (which appeared before TS3 in theaters), is a jaw-dropper that will win it. I’ve never seen so much innovative story telling as two blobby characters who act as filters through which the real world can be seen at different times of day. Who thinks of this sort of thing? I remain amazed on every viewing.

• “How to Train Your Dragon,” the Dreamworks entry in Best Animated Feature competition, is the latest entry from that company to really rise above its station. What could have been a jokey fantasy one-off delivered more heart than I was expecting from a story of a boy who disappoints his father, while struggling to find his confidence. Against many other Pixar entries, I might have insisted “Dragon” is a more Oscar-worthy entry (you may recall I greatly preferred “Kung Fu Panda” over its rival award-winner “Wall-E”), but even Dreamworks has to tip its viking helmet to the accomplishments of TS3.

• “Tangled” didn’t get a nomination and that’s just rude. It’s every ounce a qualified nominee, even if not quite the winner. I don’t know why this fun tale was left out, unless it’s a reaction to Disney Marketing somehow losing its nerve by not just calling the the thing “Rapunzel.” (Call a spade a spade, Disney; that worked pretty well for “Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast.”) Anyway: Boo, Oscars, you dropped the ball!

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Three-Word Review of ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’

Accio characterization. Finally!

 

Captions don't count: At last, at long last, we get a Harry Potter movie that’s almost as fulfilling to sit through as it is beautiful to watch. Unlike past HP movies where the requisite plot-heavy scenes clocked along at a bam-bam pace, “Deathly Hallows” makes the most of its two-part structure by slowing things down so characters can breathe. The plot is no longer the boss, the heroes are. (It bears noting there’s still plot aplenty flying by, and if, like me, you haven’t read the book recently, you’ll have a bushelful of questions go unanswered.) Still, when Harry and friends have time to suffer and laugh and cope and mope, they come alive more than any other movie, and that makes the stakes meaningful. No pointless magic tournaments or Quidditch matches or high-school dances, just characters in a bad way struggling to get better. It’s also chock full of surprises like an animated fairy tale telling, some seriously sinister death-dealing and a naked Harry-Hermione slash-fic come to life. Certain story problems still stick in my teeth. (Why, in a world where anyone can drink a potion to look like someone else, aren’t there more defenses against such an easy ruse?) But on the whole I spent more time with a surprised grin than with rolling eyes.

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Three-Word Review of ‘Tangled’

Stylish cut above.

Captions don't count: Surprisingly more depth and wit than I expected from a Disney princess movie. And don’t be fooled: Even though the marketing campaign shows swashbuckling adventure and boy-friendly pratfalls, the meat of this story is full-on, teen-girl yearning. Which should trigger my schmaltz reflex. As should the typical self-loving scoundrel of a hero who falls in with her in meet-cute predictability. Or the adorable animal-companions-cum-comedic-relief. My eyes should have rolled out of my head and escaped the theater. And yet, they didn’t. I bought it all. And I liked it. Here’s are four reasons why: 1.) Rapunzel’s backstory is set up with the fearless go-for-the-gut instincts of a Pixar film (and it’s no accident Pixar founder and current Disney tree-shaker John Lasseter is the producer). Rapunzel’s mother nearly dies in childbirth, only to lose her newborn to a kidnapper. Then the grieving royal parents launch thousands of candle-powered lantern kites each year on her birthday -- lights that Rapunzel can see each year from her captivity. She is entranced by their beauty while ignorant of their meaning. That’s not quite “Up” levels of pathos, but it’s damn good enough to make me truly care that this wrong is righted. 2.) The animation is punchy, evocative and plum funny. I don’t know what kinds of crippled grips the animators suffered around their digital pens in achieving this, but they wrung every tic, glimmer, wince and furrow for maximum effect in each facial expression. It’s remarkable, especially when your heroine has an alarmingly high eye-socket-to-skull ratio. Rapunzel’s conflicting emotions, her heartbreak and joy, are each hung like portraits in an exhibition. The expressiveness of the supporting cast is just as crisp and humorous. 3.) The villain is the very worst kind of all: A regular human. A bad mom who belittles and whittles away at her daughter’s esteem one slight at a time. She’s no wicked witch (there’s only one spell in the whole Rapunzelverse, and it belongs to the namesake); she’s no wicked stepmother (as in the cartoonishly evil shell of a character from ‘Cinderella’); she’s only this greedy old woman who expresses something like maternal love, dripping with the kind of casual, passive-aggressive malice you’d find at a million American Thanksgiving dinners. It’s very pedestrian, very real, and so much more dreadful than a typical cartoon mustache-twirler. 4.) “Tangled” does the full Joseph Campbell with its hero mythmaking. As you might know, the author of “Hero with a Thousand Faces” identifies death itself as a key milestone in an archetypal hero’s quest, and “Tangled” delivers with gusto. One hero makes the sacrifice of life, which delivers an emotional payoff grander than any Disney fairy tale since “Little Mermaid.” And I think that’s the perfect comparison. Just as Ariel grandly opened the Era of the Disney Princess, Rapunzel closes it with a bookend worthy of the royal bloodline.

 

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