Unraveling Tangled

The challenge: balancing animation artistry with true storytelling

Without a doubt, Disney's Tangled delivers some of the best 3D character animation, rivaling the skill and artistry of the company's traditional 2D legacy. Yet, while following in the footsteps of their legacy brings visual success, maintaining the company's unique brand of storytelling does not.

Face it--the Disney classics of old (pre the Little Mermaid) were not great stories. They were tales. Mid 20th-century audiences, familiar with many of these tales and comfortable with the relative simplicity of the linear events, took to these films with ease and comfort. Audiences filled in many of the story holes with their own knowledge of these tales and brandished little complaint.

This isn't to say those films weren't charming, or that they weren't packed with sincere honest character moments.

They simply weren't stories.

Tangled suffers from the same fate. Tales lay out a simple linear plot progression: this happens, then this happens, then this happens, the end. The only meaning one can extrapolate from such a construct lies in comparing where the characters began with where they ended up. Cut the journey off earlier or let it prolong a little while and the final destination shifts. Different resting spot, different meaning.

A Purpose for Storytelling

Stories, on the other hand, present arguments. Through the machinations of character, plot, theme and genre an Author argues that one particular approach fares better or worse than another while solving a particular problem. Cutting the journey shorter or making it longer may change the ending, but it won't change what the story means. Within this process, story points resonate throughout the piece into one large holistic purpose. The key to providing this experience lies in consistency and a clear structural basis.

In all, there are four major areas where Tangled breaks this process:

  • Unclear Main Character
  • Both Principal Characters Change
  • No Protagonist
  • No Consequence

Unraveling these story issues should help clarify the difference between a story and a tale, and hopefully suggest ways to avoid any further entanglements.

Unclear Main Character

Obviously the story is about Rapunzel...so how can one possibly argue that the Main Character was unclear? Quite simply, it is never clear to the Audience whose shoes they are supposed to be standing in. At times, we see the film from Rapunzel's viewpoint. Other times we feel like we are riding along with Flynn, empathizing with his plight. The filmmakers themselves even felt this duality, as evidenced by the opening narration that tells you in no uncertain terms know whose story this is.

Now, narration by itself does not determine a Main Character point-of-view. There are instances of narration that are objective and do not involve an Audience into personal issues central to that experience. In To Kill A Mockingbird, Scout narrates the story as an adult, not as her younger Main Character self. In The Usual Suspects, Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) relates the events of days gone past, yet manages to hold back key information. Tangled on the other hand, provides us much more through the eyes of its narrator.

There are two very different Flynns operating within this movie. There is the Flynn who agrees to take Rapunzel out and challenges her status as a locked-away princess. And then there is the Flynn who steals the crown, yet ultimately gives it up for love. The former operates properly as an Obstacle Character to Rapunzel's Main Character. The latter works as Main Character. We don't see Flynn's struggle from afar, we experience firsthand--up close and personal--the very definition of a Main Character.

Whether this came as a result of marketing influences determined to appeal to a broader Male audience (the film, after all used to be called Rapunzel) or as a result of several and competing visions matters little. The final analysis remains the same: Audiences were confused as to whose side of the argument they were supposed to be on.

Both Characters Change

Pile on this grave mistake with the unfortunate reality that both Rapunzel and Flynn philosophically change their point-of-views. If both principle characters change, all meaning is lost.

Story works like this: One character says I believe this, and there's nothing you can do or say to change my mind. Another character comes along and challenges the first by saying Oh yeah, well you're looking in the wrong place because I believe this and there's no way I'm going to change my mind. The two battle it out back and forth until ultimately one gives in and changes over to the other's point-of-view. Match this change with whether or not that decision was right or wrong and the Author has crafted a Meaningful Ending. In this way, The Author has proved, or argued, the appropriateness of one approach over another.

When both characters shift their point-of-view, nothing is being said. As an Audience we can't tell what the Author was trying to say with their work.

That's a recipe for disaster.

Again, the Flynn who agrees to take Rapunzel out and falls in love with her is not the same Flynn who steals in the beginning then ultimately gives up that very same chase for the crown. The first Flynn remains steadfast in his approach while the second clearly changes.

And so does Rapunzel.

She wants nothing more than to leave, yet gives that up once she sees Flynn floating away. Yet moments later Flynn begins to change, culminating with his final show of sacrifice. So then which change is more appropriate? Who was in the right? What are the Authors trying to say? It's nice and sweet, but it really doesn't add up to anything in the end.

That dynamic of one character, or viewpoint, remaining steadfast while another character gravitates towards them defines the very core of a story. Obfuscate it with dual shifts and the audience will leave the theater confused and disappointed.

No Protagonist

Wait a second, you may be thinking, Didn't you just explain how Tangled couldn't decide whether Flynn or Rapunzel was the Main Character? Doesn't that mean there were two Protagonists?


Main Characters are not automatically Protagonists. In the past those two terms were used interchangeably, but recent discoveries call upon the need for a redefinition. Authors must be able to distinguish between the point-of-view that is the Main Character and the objective character function of the Protagonist.

A Main Character provides the first person point-of-view for the Audience. The Protagonist is the character in pursuit of the Story Goal. Now sometimes these two are one in the same, as in Star Wars, Drive, or Midnight in Paris. Other times they are not, as in the aforementioned To Kill A Mockingbird or The Terminator.

As established previously, Tangled clearly supplies the Main Character point-of-view whether through Rapunzel or Flynn. But who is the Protagonist and what are they after? What is the Story Goal?

If Rapunzel is the Protagonist then the Goal must be for her to see the lights. Yet this happens about 2/3 into the movie. Once the Goal is reached, the story is over. This is part of the definition of a Story Goal.

Besides, that Goal really doesn't classify as an Story Goal as much as it does a personal Main Character Goal. Who else in the film finds themselves overly concerned with finding those lights? An Story Goal--the kind a Protagonist chases after--sits as a concern for everyone in the story. It is an objective Goal that everyone is either for or against.

In this case, it becomes clear that the Goal of the story is to reunite the lost princess with her kingdom. Princess comes home and the inequity is resolved, the story is over.

But who is pursuing this Goal?

Certainly not the King or Queen. Sure they send up lights once a year, but beyond that? There really isn't anyone. The setup feels slightly lopsided as it is quite clear who the Antagonist is. Mother Gothel does whatever she can to prevent her gold mine from returning home. Is there even an objective character who could qualify as standing up against her in pursuit of this Goal?

Rapunzel eventually reaches this point, but far too along in the story for it to balance out the argument properly. Protagonists need to be aware of the Story Goal in order to seek the means to achieve it. That knowledge and the ensuing pursuit must be there in order for the story's argument to work. Otherwise the story comes off half-baked and unrealized. Rapunzel is neither aware nor consistent in her approach the way a Protagonist must be.

Thus, there is no Protagonist.

No Consequence

Adding further insult to energy, the film fails to correctly encode a Consequence.

No wonder there isn't a Protagonist!

Every Story Goal needs a Consequence. Whether it is the fear of having to live under tyranny in Star Wars or fighting the impulse to destroy a giant metal robot in Iron Giant, there must be a negative repercussion in place if the efforts towards the Story Goal fail. Why else would a Protagonist be driven to pursue if there wasn't something there motivating them (and the other characters for that matter)?

What are the consequences of the lost princess not returning home in Tangled? Sure there is sadness. But only once a year, and even then, there are kids playing in the streets dancing and carrying on! There is no Protagonist to be found because each and everyone of the kingdom's citizens gave up a long time ago.

There was nothing motivating them to make a difference.

Striving for Something More

With no Consequence, there is nothing driving a Protagonist, thus no need to include one within a story. With no Protagonist there is no outcome that can be meaningfully juxtaposed against the Main Character's final resolve to change or remain steadfast. Without a concrete resolve it doesn't really matter who the Main Character is, and thus no anchor point for an Audience member. No anchor point, no empathy, no Audience buy in.

No Audience buy in, no Audience buying...tickets.

This isn't to say there aren't those who enjoy the film. In fact, many have found Tangled more enjoyable the second or third time around. Unfortunately this is because they have given up on gaining any appreciable meaning out of the film and instead simply enjoy the visual candy. In short, they've turned off their minds.

Now it may be the filmmakers were content with simply telling a tale of old, and that's fine. Unfortunately audiences today crave more than a simple collection of events mashed up together in an ordered list. If they wanted that, they'd visit their Twitter stream.

Audiences want meaning. They want a reason for leaving their houses and sitting in that theater. They want an experience and a purpose to their viewing experience. They want something more than stereo-vision. They want to live in a moment they can't recreate on their own.

Stories can do this. They can fulfill the promise audiences expect from a movie by engaging their minds with purpose. Structured properly, with a solid consistent argument at the core, stories can move beyond simply visual delight.

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