"Tangled," the Walt Disney Studio update on the Rapunzel fairy tale, is making a few dreams come true in Hollywood today.
In only its second weekend of release, the film hit the No. 1 spot at the box office this weekend. This means the film – the 50th animated Disney feature – beat out "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1," the juggernaut sequel that is in only its third week of release.
"This is a welcome surprise for this retelling of a princess story," he points out, noting that Disney had reportedly become a bit nervous about the future of the princess genre after the disappointing performance of 2009's "The Princess and the Frog," which featured the studio's first African-American princess.
A princess movie for boys?
This re-imagining works for several reasons, he says.
First, of course, there is the title. "They were pretty smart not to flag the princess motif in the title," he says, noting that while some attitudes about gender may have changed, certain marketing principles still seem to apply. "Young boys won't go to girl movies," he says, even though girls will go to boys movies.
And then there is the action, plenty of it. Rapunzel gets out of her tower early and the film goes on to a series of adventures from escaping exploding dams to hair's-breadth escapes from prison guards. At various points, Rapunzel is wont to use her 70 feet of hair like an Indiana Jones bolo whip, and her thief-turned-accomplice in the escape from her tower at one point slides down a collapsing aqueduct.
"All this appeals to boys much more than traditional princess love stories," he points out.
The visual style – particularly the use of 3D – also supports the more boy-friendly take, says Movies.com critic, Dave White. "They've done a good job of figuring out how to give boys that extra push they need sometimes," says Mr. White, adding, "It's not easy to get the message out to them that not everything is about them."
But while the tinkering appears to have cut down the film's "princessy" quotient, "Tangled" remains, at its heart, a classic fairy tale – opening it to the modern-day questions about race, class, and gender stereotyping. Newer animation studios such as Dreamworks have been fracturing fairy tales for some time – the so-called "Shrek" effect, says Villanova University's Susan Mackey-Kallis.
"That film turns all the princess and beauty traditions on their head," she says.
Old vs. new: a balancing act
Unlike Dreamworks, Disney is caught between a commitment to its own fairy tale legacy and newer tastes. It's a tricky balancing act, she says, both because of Disney's history in the genre and the fact that its princess line of merchandise is valued at an estimated $4 billion.
"Tangled" attempts that balancing act, and in tweaking the formula to focus more on action than beauty, it has made a positive step, says musician and educator Meredith leVande in an e-mail interview. But the underlying themes of the fairy tale still exists, such a beauty and attractiveness to boys.
"What is so alarming about this is that children take their cues about gender from these very models and start to build their identities upon them," she says. "It's still the same premise – the construction of identity based on whether or not we appeal to boys."
Nonetheless, there are good reasons that Disney has returned to this deep well of stories over the years, says Ms. Mackey-Kallis. Though they often clash with modern sensibilities and have a relentless fascination with royalty, they deal with all the important transitions of human life, whether it is coming of age, birth, or death, she says.
"That's what these stories were created to address, and the fact that they have endured tells us something about their power," she adds.