OPENING AND OPENING IMAGE
In voiceover, Flynn Rider tells about the drop of sun from the sky that created a magic flower and a gives us a brief introduction to the old woman, Gothel. Years later, the queen is sick and the magic flower saves her. Its power is transferred to her daughter Rapunzel. After this intro, we get really concise visual introduction to the daughter and the rest of the setup.
We see the newborn Rapunzel and her golden hair bathing in golden light. Above her crib hovers the golden image of a star-shaped sun, which is the beginning of a prevalent motif and a way for the story to externalize Rapunzel's inner thoughts and longing.
Gothel needs the child's magic to stay young, so she sneaks into the castle. The baby Rapunzel's hair does the trick, and Gothel regains her youth, but when she cuts it off, it turns brown, loses its magic, and we see the stakes: Gothel's youth withers. So she steals the baby.
Before the four-minute mark, we see her brushing the hair of a young Rapunzel as she succinctly reveals her philosophy and the fear she has used to scare Rapunzel into not wanting to escape the tower: the outside world is a selfish and horrible place. A nice little thematic touch is her nickname for Rapunzel: flower.
INTRODUCTION TO CHARACTER
Minutes four through eight are a continuation of the opening but now incorporate the introduction to the protagonist.
It is the eve of Rapunzel's 18th birthday and her introduction allows us to understand her essence very quickly. The window flies open and we watch her playing hide-and-seek with her chameleon pet. Despite her (at least partially) voluntary quarantine and her internalized fear of the outside world, she is also full of life. A song/montage shows us that her life is full of reading, baking, chores, chess, exercise, painting & sketching (image of the lights and sun which represent her hope, her destiny, and her desire to see the outside world), and even ventriloquism. However, the title of the song (When Will my Life Begin?) makes her longing very clear: she wants to see the "lights" (that coincide with her birthday) in person this year.
In the opening sequence, we had to spend some time alone with Rapunzel to see her true nature. Her chameleon acts as a reflection or mirror character to help externalize some of Rapunzel's fears and thoughts but the absence of Gothel is a useful choice with strong consequences. Had Gothel been present during Rapunzel's introduction, Rapunzel would have been constrained or inhibited simply by her role as a daughter. We would not have been able to see her true vibrant self and her uncensored longing.
When introducing characters, be very mindful of how a character's role can confuse us as to their defining characteristics. For example, if your character is a cop, and in his introduction he does something helpful or heroic, the fact that it's part of his job lessens the impact. Use role playing or the lack thereof to show different facets of your character.
THEME LINE / REFRAME
In the next sequence, Gothel returns and becomes impatient waiting for Rapunzel to lower her hair. Her remark that is meant to chide Rapunzel to hurry up is a great example of what I call a Theme Line. It's a line that is loaded with meaning, usually a double entendre of sorts that plays on more than one level.
An example of a Theme Line is where Neil in Dead Poets Society says, "You know me, always taking on too much," which seems like, "I fill my schedule with too many activities," but also resonates on a deeper level: "I am extremely sensitive and things weigh more on me than on other people." It is a quick defense toward an overbearing father but it is also foreshadowing of how that flaw will destroy him.
Before I reveal the line from Tangled, let's look at our priorities. We want to make sure we never force a Theme Line just for the sake of the idea. Any line has to work dramatically (capture the right subtext) and emotionally (be motivated and character-consistent) before anything else. Then and only then can you consider reframing or tweaking the line to load it with additional meaning.
Gothel is mean and impatient, so it's consistent for her to be sarcastic and to try to hurry/pressure Rapunzel. A line like "hurry up" or "I don't have all day" would capture the beat, but notice the line the story stumbles upon is more specific and works on an additional layer. Gothel responds, "I am not getting any younger down here." It's fun to enjoy the "double-entendre" meaning (that Rapunzel is literally her defense against her worst fear: aging) but if you forsake the most basic levels (emotion/voice of character/subtext) in service of what might seem like higher level concerns (theme/idea/complexity), the line will stick out like a sore thumb and stop the story in its tracks. Here, the line fits very organically.
DEEPENING RELUCTANCE BY REINFORCING FEAR
Rapunzel works up the nerve to ask Gothel if she can see the lights in person. We set up earlier that Rapunzel has learned that the world is a scary place but we didn't have time to create "an argument" but here as conflict in service of Gothel fighting to stop her from leaving the tower, we do. We can go deeper. In the song, Mother Knows Best, Gothel is able to reinforce all of the reasons Rapunzel should stay inside. Here is the language she uses to describe Rapunzel and the outside world: Fragile as a flower, just a sprout, leave the nest soon but not yet, calls her "pet", something will go wrong in the world, the world is full of ruffians and thugs and men with sharp teeth, you will not survive; and then finally she describes her as gullible, na´ve, vague and even chubby. Thanks, Mom!
It reads like a laundry list but it works in the song. The film also cleverly uses the fact that an animated musical fairy tale doesn't have to mimic reality. As Gothel sings her song, the lighting and imagery change and allow the chameleon and Gothel to "act out" the song and bring the fears to life in an a way that harkens back to German Expressionism or Gothic Horror. The song does its job. It scares Rapunzel literally back into her surrogate mother's arms.
ALLY-OOP: THE SET-UP TO THE THE PAY-OFF OF THE SET-UP
Flynn agrees to take Rapunzel to see the lights but he doesn't want to because it is dangerous for him to return to the castle. His effort to stop her from going is wonderfully in sync with her fears and the way they were set up by Gothel in the song Mother Knows Best. He uses the words "ruffians" and "thugs" to clarify what he is supposedly protecting her from. So when he takes her to The Snuggly Duckling (great name), of course, it is full of ruffians and thugs and just to make the payoff super clear, the first one that smiles even has sharp teeth.
The rowdy bar might be an obstacle for any young girl who is entering a strange world for the first time. But the specific call-back to "ruffians" and "thugs" allows Flynn's actions to resonate more. He is challenging her with physical obstacles that have importance to her, that are linked to her internal fears.
STUMBLING/ THE SUBCONSCIOUS AT WORK
Flynn is on the run from Maximus the horse who is after him and the satchel. They fall an indeterminate distance and via an ellipsis of sorts fall into a new location. Flynn hides behind a rock as Maximus passes him and his hand accidentally slips into a green brush and discovers a hidden cave that leads to Rapunzel's tower.
This idea of stumbling - literally and figuratively -- is similar to wandering in fairy tales. It shows a character's subconscious at work. Used cleverly, coincidence or surprise combined with a bit of disorientation can be a way of showing that a character's path is not being dictated by clear-cut logic and his or her conscious mind. Flynn is unconsciously being drawn toward Rapunzel who will be the only one who will appreciate him for who he is at his core .
One of my favorite literal stumbles in a movie is when the hobbits are leaving the Shire in Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. They literally fall down a hill onto the road. It's like in a dream...their subconscious has led them to where they they need to go. Seconds later, the Nazgul arrive on horseback, pick up their scent, and scare the bejesus out of them. We can cut the hobbits some slack for not being able to enter this new world with 100% conscious effort.
In Tangled, there is a figurative stumble that resolves a scene and saves Flynn and Rapunzel's life. After escaping the rushing water of the broken dam, they are trapped in a sealed-off cave as the water rises. They can't see any chance of escape, so she breaks down and wallows in blame and self-pity. Although earlier Flynn refused to open up ("I don't do backstory"), here there is a reason for him to do it. He shares his real name Eugene Fitzherbert, a source of embarrassment to him, as a way to soothe and comfort her.
She appreciates the unguarded honesty and responds by blurting out an equally embarrassing fact about herself: that she has magic hair and when she sings, it glows. Aha! This leads to them using the hair as a source of light to find a way out. These two lines weren't consciously directed at escaping the physical danger. They surprised us and the characters, and helped to solve the problem. But the action of opening up to each other was something that worked for them on more than one level. Their subconscious minds led to a solution.
On a practical level, look at it this way: The beat of sharing and connecting becomes a turning point in both the romance/relationship story and the adventure story. One action changes both situations: they become closer, and they are able to escape.
The chase scene through the "water park" was pretty clever in exploiting the location and allowing Rapunzel to be active with her hair. But what I really liked about it was the use of the frying pan. First, Flynn uses it to battle with the guards and their swords. It was over quickly to allow for what came next, which deserved more screen time. He uses the frying pan to duel with Maximus, who is armed, or should I say "mouthed," with a sword. Now, that is definitely something I haven't seen before.
CRISP TURNS AND CLEAR GOALS
I pointed out a few places where characters stumbled upon their intended direction or solution by accident. However, in general I think the writer was smart to set up clear, crisp, short-term goals to keep the story focused. For instance, we see Rapunzel look at the chair (that kept Flynn trapped in the armoire) and then at her paintings of the floating lanterns before she sends Gothel away to get her birthday gift. The shots try to show us what she is thinking. Now that Gothel is away, Rapunzel creates a simple, effective deal with Flynn to achieve her goal: the crown in exchange for an escorted trip to the floating lanterns. We know exactly what the next sequence or two will be about.
Later, Rapunzel cleverly convinces Maximus to agree to a 24-hour truce with Flynn, which gives them a reason to stick together despite their conflict. You might think that story devices like this are gimmicky, but as long as the character "earns" it, it can be a great way to help keep a potentially episodic section (it's a road movie at this point) on track. And then within the established boundary, you can let the characters relationship breathe and conflict with each other.
Gothel cleverly preys on the Stabbington Brothers' desire for revenge to get them to agree to a clear plan that will get rid of Flynn. You never want a plan to go exactly as its explanation but the set up allows for the brothers' actions to be clearly motivated. Then near the end of the plan, she surprises and deceives them to make sure Rapunzel is returned to her.
In Killer Endings, I talk about how love stories are hard. What the heck do you put up against love to create a dilemma? What else has almost enough power to compete? Well, Flynn faces a huge dilemma. He has to choose between dying or freeing Rapunzel. I am not going to give the ending away but it's a great choice and results in a real Killer Ending.
Here is what you can take away from this fairy tale that will work with whatever you are writing. Be as precise as you can in setting up the characters' weaknesses. Then follow through with the setup to make sure that the external landscape and physical obstacles are resonating with the characters' inner flaws and conflicts. Tighten your story and make sure your setup and payoffs are working for you, so you never have to stop or explain something.
Tangled definitely has some clever craft going for it. I see some similarities with this and Fogelman's $2.5 million spec Crazy, Stupid Love. (Modest budget, semi-high-concept, castable, genre...I am just saying.) In fact, I stumbled upon a really sophisticated craft technique he used several times in Tangled. I don't want to bog down this article nor do I want the August issue to come out in September, so follow A-List on Facebook and next week I will let you know where to find the follow up blog, article or post.