The movie Tangled came out in 2010 from Walt Disney Animation Studios. Tangled is a Disney-fied version of the older fairy tale, Rapunzel. In Tangled, Rapunzel is a girl with magic hair that can heal and bring lost youth when she sings. Because the magic is seemingly in Rapunzel’s hair, she can never cut it. Rapunzel is also a princess who was stolen away from the King and Queen by an old woman who tricks Rapunzel into believing that she is her true mother and hides her in a tower away from the rest of the world. Rapunzel lives her life trapped in this tower up until her 18th birthday when she enlists the help of a thief, Flynn Rider, who stumbles upon the castle while trying to escape the royal guards. They leave the tower together with a deal struck, if Rider takes Rapunzel to see the floating lanterns that appear on her birthday and then brings her safely back to the tower, she will return his satchel with the stolen crown of the lost princess. Thus the two of them leave on their adventure while being pursued by the false mother who wants Rapunzel’s magic for herself, the thieves Rider left behind and the royal guard who want the capture of Rider and the return of the crown. I am going to look at Rapunzel’s character and story through the lens of both Marxist literary criticism and Narratology in Tangled by examining two different scenes in the film.
Marxist Literary Criticism
Marxist literary criticism is essentially the viewpoint that all literature (media) is a reflection of the current social and cultural structures that the text originates from. Marxists generally believe that there is a foundation based on the bare-bones needs of a society with a “superstructure” that supports that foundation. The superstructure is the government and culture that maintains the foundation while the foundation provides for the superstructure the basic needs for its survival.
From a Marxist point of view, Tangled is a product of the superstructure that feeds back and supports the system it was created from. To see this more closely look at the overall story of Tangled. Tangled is produced in a Capitalistic society that generally believes that it is up to the individual person, not society, to better their standing in that society. Rapunzel in the beginning of the film tries to get her false mother to take her to see the lanterns but is shot down. This could be seen as an appeal to the only society Rapunzel has access to, that of her false mother, to help her escape her current state of existence. Rapunzel ends up asking the thief, Rider, for help later on but Rider is untrustworthy at that point in the film. Rapunzel, by asking Rider, is taking matters into her own hands to better her situation. This is clear because of Rapunzel’s need to blackmail Rider into helping her by hiding the crown she took from him.
This structure is further supported in one of the final scenes of the movie (deeper spoilers ahead) in which Rapunzel saves Rider after he has been stabbed by the false mother. There are different ways to read this scene but it’s clear that, only through the main character’s own struggles does she prevail. It supports the superstructural viewpoint that if she tries hard enough, even the bleakest of circumstances will work out for her in the end. Rapunzel has seemingly lost her power at that point but through her trials and her tears, she prevails to attain her new dream, that of Flynn Rider.
Marxist literary criticism aside, what about looking at Rapunzel through the lens of narratology. Narratology boils down to the study of how a story is presented and told that enhances or provides new or further meaning to the story. Narratology is fairly generic in form as there are many avenues to examine a story in this way. In the case of film, a narratologist may examine specific dialogue used, information the audience is given that the characters on screen are unaware of, the structure of how the story is presented (are there flashbacks, etc.) and even the use of technical aspects such as camera angles and lighting in the film. Tangled, in regards to Rapunzel’s character in the film is also examinable with this framework.
In the first couple scenes described above, we see Rapunzel attempt to convince her false mother that she is old enough to leave the tower and see the floating lanterns. The scene is portrayed very darkly even though it is a bright day outside. Dialogue is carefully chosen during the scene for both characters – Rapunzel appealing to the others emotions and logic while the false mother attempts to frighten Rapunzel away from the outside world and make her feel guilty for wanting to leave the mom who has worked so hard to take care of her and keep her safe. While the viewer primarily is watching from Rapunzel’s perspective during the scene, we also can see the manipulation at play by the false mother because of our own knowledge of the outside world from earlier scenes and our own lives. Similarly, when Rider is present in the next scene we see him pulled into a bright light. Even though he is a thief we, as viewers, relate to him and are immediately led to view him as a positive character. He may be a thief, but he is honest in his words with Rapunzel and she is honest with him. Perspective remains on Rapunzel primarily but there is a notable shift in this scene and for the rest of the film on showing the perspective of both Rider and Rapunzel.
Examining the ending climactic scene in the film, Rapunzel is captured and chained by the evil, false mother. The scene remains shrouded in darkness as both Rapunzel and Rider seem to be caught in a plight that they neither can escape from or control. There is light in the scene but the light is kept sharp and colorless. The first moment of bright color we see is from the magic of Rapunzel’s tear drop on Rider’s wound. This scene also begins with a perspective of Rider who rushes to the tower to save Rapunzel but, when he is stabbed, the scene shifts again to Rapunzel striking one final deal with the false mother. It’s notable that in both these scenes, we never see or hear the characters thoughts – everything is spoken to another character to deliver the scene. This is constant through the majority of the film except for Riders narration to the audience in the beginning and end and the beginning of Rapunzel’s song when she finally sees the lanterns and her additions to the ending narration. The point of Narratology is to put focus on what the structure of the storytelling says, rather than the characters themselves. A true narratologist will examine what I have provided and more and then compare and contrast that to other similar texts to determine overall lessons the creator is trying to point out. The focus then is on purpose of story and why it is formed the way it is.
Rapunzel in Tangled helps to bring female heroines into the mainstream in a more positive way. Through clever narrative focus, the story is delivered in a way that bridges gaps between different ideals and viewpoints. There is darkness and light as both the main protagonist and antagonist share the common traits of being resourceful, clever, strong and female. This is highlighted in a way Narratology helps bring to light throughout the film with Marxist literary criticism adding an extra element to think about for a primarily western audience. The complexity of character that Rapunzel exemplifies helps solidify her as an important heroine for today’s audience.