Tangled: Disney's Return to Inspired Animation Features
"It looks like a classic Disney animated film, but it's also in 3D
CG animation. So it's unlike anything we've ever done before"
Walt Disney built one of the greatest animation studios in the world by pushing himself and the artists who worked for him to achieve greatness. He demanded perfection and he drew those people to him who responded to that call. Classics like Snow White, Pinocchio and Bambi simply would not exist if it weren't for Walt's brilliant leadership and imagination.
So, when Walt Disney died in 1966, something essential at the Disney Studios died with him. Even though the Studio had shifted their focus from feature-length animated features and moved into Television and Theme Parks, Disney Studios was always identified with their animated films. Without Walt's remarkable visions and ability to inspire others, the company focused instead on selling the Disney brand. The Studio still continued to create and release animated features, and many of them were outstanding. But, they all suffered from excessive sentimentality and never achieved the young/old appeal of Walt's classics. They lacked a certain "gravity" at the core of the story that the best of Disney classic films contained, even in films that were primarily comedies.
Pixar Animation Studios became the new Disney in the mid-nineties. John Lasseter and Ed Catmull formed Pixar with the same genius and drive that Walt started his own studio with. Films like The Incredibles and Wall-E were head and shoulders above anything coming from the Disney studios, due mostly from the inspired genius of Lasseter and Catmull. A partnership that is still producing wonders of animation in the present day.
And then in 2006, Walt Disney Studios acquired Pixar, and Lasseter/Catmull became president of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios. The status quo at Disney Animation was about to drastically change.
The "Hat" Animation Building at Disney
Tangled: Walt Disney's 50th Animated Feature
Tangled, a reboot of the famous Rapunzel story found in Grimm's fairy tales, is the first animated feature from Disney Animation Studios under the leadership of John Lasseter from Pixar Animation. Significantly, it's also Disney's 50th animated feature film. And it's Disney's first classic fairly tale since Beauty and the Beast twenty years ago.
I was fortunate to see an in-progress version of the film during a day-long "media day" at the "Hat" on the Disney lot. The "Hat" refers to a huge animation building with a huge replica of Mickey's Sorcerer's hat in front of it (officially, the Roy Disney Animation Building). Although smallish-looking from the outside, the building is huge and gorgeous from the inside, with natural lighting and wide, open spaces to work in.
Without fanfare, a hundred or so journalists and critics sat for an hour and a half inside of a wonderfully comfortable screening theater, watching what I predict will be the start of Disney's return to greatness. I certainly didn't expect the film to be a near-classic, but by the end, I found myself, in spite of missing textures and animation, absolutely thrilled by Tangled. It's the first Disney film I have seen in 20 years that not only entertained me, but moved and captured my 56-year-old imagination. Yes, the music isn't quite up to the quality of the rest of the film and some of the scenes rely on the traditional Disney story formulas a bit too much, but it's just so beautiful and made with such care that I found myself forgetting about the film's few flaws.
(L-R) Flynn, Rapunzel ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
I'm sure there will be a lot of coverage of Tangled, so I won't go into detail on the updated plot, except to say that the modernized story adds meat to what is essentially a passive character (Rapunzel) in the original tale. They've made her feisty and SMART (thank God) and at the same time shaping a romance (her lover is a professional thief) that makes sense. I was also glad that Tangled didn't get lost in the ironic, pop-references that dominate so many other animated releases, although the opening monologue that introduces the Rapunzel character is sometimes forced. The anthropomorphic animal characters are frequently the best thing on the screen. Something I've always loved about classic Disney films. Rapunzel's chameleon sidekick Pascal has some of the best lines in the film, despite having no dialogue (all done in brilliantly animated wordless pantomime).
Pascal ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Dan Fogelman wrote the script, which I think is one of the best I've seen at Disney in a long time. Last year's The Princess and the Frog was underwhelming at best, as far as the story was concerned. But, I was involved from the opening scenes on. The thief character (Flynn) had some very funny lines that are well-delivered by actor Zachary Levi. Rapunzel is voiced energetically with wit and intelligence by Mandy Moore. In fact, all of the voice work is top-notch, including Theater actress Donna Murphy voicing the antagonist, Mother Gothel. Her musical number "Mother Knows Best" steals the show. Oh, did I tell you this was a musical? It sure doesn't play like a typical musical where the songs are what drive the story. In Tangled's case, the story drives the songs, which I like so much better.
Mother Gothel's song "Mother Knows Best" is a show-stopper
Mother Gothel ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
But as good as the story, characters and voice work is (and it's great), the real achievement of Tangled is to take Disney Animation out of it's nostalgic past and it's continued settling for the generic and put the company squarely into a new era. One in which Disney animation can now start creating films that, while new and imaginative, rival the achievements of past classics. As one of the Tangled directors pointed out during a press session, "the Disney I wanted to work at as a kid, that's what Disney is now" (because of John Lasseter).
Donna Murphy Ph: Eric Charbonneau ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
A Day at Disney Animation Studio
It was smart (and risky) of the Studio to begin the press day with a screening of Tangled. Smart, because if the film is great, then you come away from the screening intensely interested in how the film was made. Risky, because if the film isn't that well received, you have a press group bored and uninterested. I came away from the screening thinking, "how did they manage to produce a Pixar-style 3D film that still looked and felt like a classic Disney hand-drawn film?" The answer to that question came slowly throughout an event-filled day at the Disney Animation Studio.
"Let's create something that no one has seen before"
Over and over throughout the day in meeting with the directors (co-directors Nathan Greno and Byron Howard) the phrase "raise the bar" appeared in many comments and conversations. And later in the day, with the surprise (and wonderful) appearance of John Lasseter himself who gave a stirring and passionate speech about the new Disney and the remarkable "peer to peer" production process he had instigated, I came to understand that the whole focus of Tangled from the top down was to not only change the status quo at Disney, but to "create something that no one has seen before." Part of that, as I was to discover in Mr. Lasseter's comments, was that there was a new sense of trust at Disney Animation. It was okay to be wrong, but "be wrong as fast as you can." As one of the Tangled animators said during a session, "I've never animated like this before."
One of Mr. Lasseter's most emphatic points was that "no sequence would be approved until it was ready." This put him squarely in the position of pushing people (much like Disney himself) so that they would not accept the simply "OK" sequence, but should create to the very best of their ability. And nowhere was this more apparent than with the character animators. Watching their demo in the main theatre and listening to some of the animators describe their daily work experience reminded me of descriptions of the early Group Theatre, who were committed to changing the way theater would be created and produced.
Intense sessions of personal identification with characters and repeated re-working of animation to cut away everything that doesn't contribute to the scene made for very focused work. And technical innovations allowed for the Animation supervisor, Glen Keane (also Executive Producer) to draw right on top of the clips being reviewed, thus enabling a direct example of what doesn't work and what does in an animation sequence.
Frankly, I found the animation in Tangled to be my favorite part of the entire film. After seeing how beautifully so many of the sections of the film were crafted, it was a revelation to learn just how much the animation team put themselves into their work. Another part of the "Pixar touch," I think, as animation in Pixar films is fantastic. Animation Supervisors John Kahrs and Clay Katis, along with animator Zack Parrish, were eloquent in presenting the animation process during a production session in the main screening theater. I was impressed with the fact that the Animation team didn't follow the traditional method of assigning a specific character to a group, but instead, they rotated the characters so an animator would have a chance to create a moment that defined a particular character. This was probably something brought over from Pixar, and boy did it work well at Disney.
After several enjoyable Tangled-related games in the center area of one floor, complete with strolling period "thugs" (who were delightful, by the way), we were given an outstanding lunch overlooking the lot behind the building where you could see artists (presumably Disney artists) sketching the fall landscape. Made me think of the classes Walt used to require all of his artists to attend in order to improve their work. In fact, the whole day I kept thinking that the Tangled production team reminded me an awful lot of the descriptions I read of Disney's own team during the company's heyday.
Midday play/fun at Disney Tangled press day
After lunch, we visited with several production teams in an office filled with Tangled sketches and paintings. Of course, we were all intensely interested in how the hair was created for Rapunzel. Hair is notoriously difficult in 3D, as it's behavior is unpredictable and there are limitations in the current software for creating massive amounts of hair. The Hair team at Disney had to create 70 feet of hair for Rapunzel. John Lasseter, in his pre-lunch speech, mentioned that the goal was to "make hair so believable that you didn't really notice it."
Concept Art (L-R) Flynn, Rapunzel ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
The team (including Xinmin Zhao and Kelly Ward) that designed the hair (and the technical process to create it for the film) went to unbelievable lengths to achieve Lasseter's goal. At one point, the team wanted to know just how difficult it was to move with such a length of hair, tying fake hair to a football helmet and trying to move around. They all said it was incredibly hard to move and made their necks very sore. But, they didn't give up, although even late in the production process the team wasn't sure they were going to be able to create the kind of hair (and amount) that was being demanded for Tangled.
They did get it finally. And I can honestly say that I hardly noticed the hair at all once it was established. In fact, the hair becomes a source of humor throughout the film and is used in some very amusing set pieces. This kind of simplicity for an effect that is so difficult to master is one of the reasons Tangled is such a great work of art. Disney has a great pdf of the process they went through in creating the Rapunzel hair. You can download it here.
Amazing hair animation for Rapunzel in Tangled
Rapunzel ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Speaking to the directors, Nathan and Byron, we got a fuller sense of how the studio conceived Tangled, now that Pixar was on board. Nathan, who focused on the "heart and structure" of the film, contrasted with Byron who had a keen "entertainment sense." Of course, both of them were under the influence and guidance of John Lasseter and Disney vet Glen Keane. I was struck by a comment that Nathan made in talking about the new mood at Disney Animation: "The Disney I wanted to work at as a kid, that's what Disney is NOW."
Working on a film like Tangled, Disney's first CGI-driven feature, both directors had a huge responsibility to the traditions of the past and to the new direction Disney was going, under the leadership of Pixar. They studied particular Disney films from the past, like Pinocchio and Cinderella for ideas on style, color and imagery. It certainly shows, as Tangled feels like a classic Disney film, while at the same time, plays like a new style of film for an animation company that has seemed to be in a holding pattern for many years.
Tangled Directors Nathan Greno and Byron Howard
Finally, Tangled is a great film, because not only does it honor the Disney tradition, but manages to be a creative addition to the tradition as well. And all of this, I believe, comes from the leadership of John Lasseter and Pixar Animation. His basic rules for animated filmmaking are deceptively simple:
What Pixar and John Lasseter (and the amazing crew of Tangled) have done is "make Disney a filmmaker-driven studio and not an Executive-driven studio." Tangled is the first child of this new approach to animated filmmaking. And what a wonderful film it is, even in the "almost finished" version screened for press day. If this is what the new Disney can achieve for their first effort, I can only imagine what new and exciting films are coming down the line. That thought stayed with me as I drove out of the Disney lot, with the attendant waving at me and Mickey's sorcerer's hat disappearing in my rear-view mirror.
What a great, great day at Disney Studios. You simply must see Tangled. It's classic/new Disney at it's best.
Visually brilliant climactic scene in Tangled
(L-R) Flynn, Rapunzel ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
My thanks to Disney Studios for creating such an enjoyable and stimulating event for the press. And specifically to Warren Betts for inviting me. Also, the guide during the tour was delightful and made the day go smoothly for us. Thanks to the animation crew who shared their experience of "dailies" while creating the character animation. Quick thanks to Charlotte Tarlitz, my new friend and colleague (she writes for Icrontic.com), whose insightful comments on Tangled during lunch influenced my thinking.
And lastly, to John Lasseter for taking the time to speak to a group of journalists who aren't always known for being fair or friendly. I've inscribed his "if you are having fun while you are making it (a film), it's going to appear on the screen" on my work-desk and remind myself of that fact every day.
Ricky Grove [gToon], Staff Columnist with the Renderosity Front Page News. Ricky Grove is a bookstore clerk at the best bookstore in Los Angeles, the Iliad Bookshop. He's also an actor and machinima filmmaker. He lives with author, Lisa Morton, and three very individual cats. Ricky is into Hong Kong films, FPS shooters, experimental anything and reading, reading, reading. You can catch his blog here.
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