To watch “Tangled,” in three dimensions or two, is like entering a familiar old neighborhood that has been tastefully and thoroughly renovated. Not gentrified, exactly, and certainly not razed, but modernized.
The architecture — in particular that castle, its tower garlanded with clouds — is more or less as you remember it, and among the inhabitants is the usual crew of princesses, emotive beasts (a horse and a chameleon), villains and buffoons. The ambient noises (music by Alan Menken) take you back to a charmed world of swoony longing and sprightly mischief. But the décor is shinier, the pace a little faster, the overall atmosphere slick and efficient, with a few welcome grace notes of self-conscious classicism.
This is, all in all, a pleasant place to visit. Which is saying a lot, given how awful it could be in recent years. (Remember “Chicken Little”? “Treasure Planet”? I hope not.) “Tangled” is the 50th animated feature from Disney, and its look and spirit convey a modified, updated but nonetheless sincere and unmistakable quality of old-fashioned Disneyness. Hewing to a corporate tradition that is also, like it or not — and even if you say you don’t, you really do! — a glorious touchstone of American popular culture, this film, directed by Nathan Greno and Byron Howard from a script by Dan Fogelman, is a lavish, romantic musical fairy tale. In keeping with the company’s current Pixar-dominated aesthetic, it has a story that takes some liberties with the genre; a nimble, kinetic visual style; and a willingness to marry complex psychology with storybook simplicity.
“Tangled” begins, like far too many animated features these days, with some annoyingly smart-alecky voice-over narration, courtesy of a charming rascal named Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi). This temporary hijacking of a princess’s tale by her square-jawed love interest seems like a crude commercial calculation, a sign to the anxious boys in the audience that things aren’t going to be too girly, or to Disneyphobes that the studio can bring some DreamWorks-style attitude. (It may also be further evidence of the Pixar touch, since the guys in that super-cool animation club are notably reluctant to place female characters at the center of the action.)
Luckily, Flynn shuts up before too long, allowing the story to find its proper center of gravity, which belongs to Rapunzel (Mandy Moore), an exiled princess shut up in a tower with only her magic hair and her pet lizard for consolation. Also living there is her mother, or at any rate the evil sorceress called Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy), who snatched the girl from her real parents and has raised her in cruel, passive-aggressive physical and psychological captivity.
On its long road to a theater near you, “Tangled” had a few different titles. As far as I know, none of them were “Rapunzel: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” but the film’s portrait of maternal monstrosity may remind you of “Precious,” albeit without the incest, the poverty or the violence. (A weaponized frying pan does come into play, but not as an instrument of domestic abuse.)
The Disney pantheon is full of evil stepmothers, though none quite match Mother Gothel for sheer sadistic intensity. A classic underminer, she has brainwashed Rapunzel into loving her, and her brutal selfishness is camouflaged in sweet-voiced expressions of solicitude. Really, though, she keeps the girl around only because of that golden hair, which has the power to heal wounds, cure sickness and, most important for Mother Gothel’s purposes, reverse the aging process.
But Rapunzel is young, curious and lively, and as she approaches her 18th birthday, she sets off on the usual heroic voyage of self-discovery, accompanied by Flynn and pursued by her mother, Flynn’s former partners in crime (he is a thief as well as a charmer) and a tireless police horse whose puffing, prancing and mugging represent the perfect marriage of Pixarian technical bravura and Disneyesque expressive cartooning.
The action sequences are brisk and breathless, and the cute and grotesque secondary characters provide bits of comic diversion, but frankly you could get chases and gags of this kind from the animation division of just about any major studio these days. The heart of Disney animation lies in song and spectacle, and while none of the musical compositions here are quite at the level of “The Little Mermaid” or “Beauty and the Beast,” they are good enough, and made even better by the range and clarity of Ms. Moore’s voice.
For the eye, there are sequences that have some of the ravishing beauty and exquisite detail of the great, old hand-drawn Disney features, including a few that make gorgeous use of 3-D technology. A scene of paper lanterns descending through mist onto water is especially breathtaking, partly because it departs from the usual 3-D insistence on deep focus and sharply defined images, creating an experience that is almost tactile in its dreamy softness. Like much of “Tangled,” this moment gives a new look to some very familiar magic.
“Tangled” is rated PG (Parental guidance suggested). Mild and sweet, but sometimes also rough and scary.