We’ve reached the Disney Animation Studio’s 50th feature film. As such, I’ll be splitting this into two posts. For part 2, click here.
There are several reasons I’m doing this. First, 50 movies is a significant achievement for a single animation studio. Nobody else is even close. Although DreamWorks Pictures has released 35 animated features (Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie being their most recent), most of them are done through sub-studios or in co-operation with someone else. Second, Tangled was the second most expensive movie in history when it first released. It currently remains both the most expensive animated movie by far and the fifth most expensive movie of all time. Third, it has the most complicated backstory of any animated Disney movie ever, to the point where it’s worth writing an entire post about.
In this post, I’ll mostly be talking about the movie’s long production, but I’ll also talk about my own personal history about the movie. Tomorrow, we’ll talk about the movie itself and how it compares to the original fairy tale. Because there’s a lot to talk about there as well.
Plans to adapt the fairy tale of Rapunzel into a feature animated film went as far back as Walt Disney himself. Back in 1937, after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs became a monster hit, Disney and his team threw around ideas to adapt more fairy tales. Rapunzel came up multiple times, being one of the most recognizable fairy tale names in existence. However, the fairy tale is about a young woman who spends most of the story locked in a tower. They couldn’t figure out a way to make that exciting, so it was set aside in favour of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty for the time being.
After Walt Disney’s death in 1966, Disney stopped working on fairy tales for a while. Their production schedule slowed to a near halt, releasing two or three movies a decade instead of a movie every one or two years. When The Little Mermaid kick started the Disney Renaissance, it encouraged the studio to work on some more. In comes Glen Keen in 1996, who started working on a Rapunzel adaptation while in the middle of working on Tarzan as both an animation supervisor and a story writer.
At first he wanted to write a straight fairy tale movie in the veins of the Disney classics, but the people in charge of Disney in the early 2000’s pushed for a more comedic approach. We’ve already seen how that worked out for the likes of Home On The Range and Chicken Little. They announced the title of the movie in 2003 as Rapunzel: Unbraided.
Rapunzel: Unbraided would be more of a fairy tale parody like Shrek from DreamWorks than a straight fairy tale. It would star two characters who are somehow transported into a fairy tale world and took over Rapunzel’s and the Prince’s bodies, planned for release in the year 2007. Keane described the concept as,
“It was a fun, wonderful, witty version and we had a couple of great writers. But in my heart of hearts I believed there was something much more sincere and genuine to get out of the story, so we set it aside and went back to the roots of the original fairy tale.”
Then chair of Disney, Michael Eisner, suggested that they set the beginning of the movie in modern day San Francisco. Keane couldn’t make the idea work. In November of 2005, Disney announced a delay to give Keane more time to work on the story. Months later, Disney bought Pixar and put John Lasseter in charge of the entire animation department. Some of the concepts for Rapunzel: Unbraided ended up in the live action/animation hybrid Enchanted, released in 2007.
After Lasseter took over the animation department, he kept Keane on the project, but pointed them in the direction of a straighter fairy tale adaptation. Keane still planned to direct the film, but in 2008 he suffered a heart attack and stepped down from the role, assuming Executive Producer and Animation Supervisor roles instead. In stepped Byron Howard and Nathan Greno to take over as the directors for the movie, now retitled to “Rapunzel.” Both of them started off as animators, and Howard was fresh off of his directorial debut with Bolt, while Greno headed the story development in the same movie. They would both move on to direct more Disney movies after Tangled.
With a planned release date of 2010, they were running out of time to finish the movie. When they realized this would also be Disney Animation Studio’s 50th movie, that motivated them to work harder to make sure it would be good. They upped the size of the animation team, and they took no vacations for the rest of the movie’s production. I can’t find a good source on this, but I’ve read that the team played thousands of Mario Kart games to stay sane during the intense production.
Although Keane originally wanted the movie to be traditionally animated, the head honchos at Disney would only approve the project if it were to be animated by computer. That would make it the first CGI Disney Princess movie. In response to the command, Keane held a press conference with 50 animators (a mix of traditional animators and CGI animators), where they’d discuss the pros and cons of both traditional animation and CGI animation. They ended up deciding on a blend of the two, primarily in CGI.
Concept art for “Rapunzel”
They modeled the movie’s visual style on French painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s work, most notably “the swing”. They used a method called non-photorealistic rendering (also used in Bolt) to scan painted images into the 3d environment and otherwise make the movie look a bit less CG. Every painting you see in the movie is an actual painting, scanned and pasted into the computer generated environment. It’s a fascinating blend that makes the movie look that much better compared to older CGI movies at the time.
The title character’s 70 foot long hair created serious problems for the animation team. They hired Kelly Ward, who literally earned her PHD in computer generated hair physics, to work on the problem. She developed a program called Dynamic Wires, originally used in Bolt and improved significantly by the time Rapunzel’s final production cycle began. It drastically cut down the time that the animators needed to animate Rapunzel’s hair.
You can learn about it more here if you want – http://www.gpb.org/blogs/passion-for-learning/2012/06/06/disneys-tangled-an-exercise-in-physics-and-computer-animation
Combine the long production cycle, multiple restarts, computer animation struggles and multiple title changes, and that’s why this movie cost Disney $260 million to make. No other animated movie has yet to cost more than $200 million. Even Frozen’s budget was $150 million, and that movie was a technical marvel when it released.
At one point or another there were three voice actresses signed on to play Rapunzel. I won’t go through all of them, but you may recognize two names that auditioned for Rapunzel before its final development cycle. Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell, who played Queen Elsa and Anna in Frozen respectively, both auditioned to play Rapunzel. You could jokingly say that Frozen employed Tangled’s sloppy seconds. Eden Espinosa, who would eventually voice Cassandra in Tangled: the Series, also auditioned for the role of Rapunzel. Mandy Moore ended up snatching the role.
And finally, let’s talk about the movie’s final major change before its release. After The Princess and the Frog didn’t perform as well as Disney hoped, everyone in charge of the movie agreed to change the title to Tangled. The title change was controversial at the time. One writer at Variety compared it to changing The Little Mermaid’s title to “Beached”. But I personally think the title Tangled works better than Rapunzel for a couple reasons. The movie is equally about Rapunzel and Flynn Ryder, whose lives become intertwined after Flynn stumbles upon Rapunzel’s tower. It’s also a more appealing title to younger boys than Rapunzel, and considering this is partly an adventure film, they’d probably be more likely to enjoy it anyway.
Tangled moved on to be Disney Animation Studio’s most successful movie since The Lion King, earning $591 million in its initial theatrical release. That’s despite a bit of a disastrous marketing campaign that showed a bunch of footage that not only made it look too much like a Shrek style comedy, but also showed a lot of misleading footage that didn’t end up in the movie.
It earned an 89% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 71 at Metacritic. It was praised for going back to the classic Disney formula with complex relationships and a deep emotional impact, yet including a bit of DreamWorks style comedy to liven it up. It won several awards for its song, “I see The Light”, including a Grammy, an award for its animation at the National Movie Awards, and a number of other nominations. Although “I See The Light” was praised by most critics, the movie’s other songs weren’t as well received at the time.
We’ll get into that tomorrow.
And now for my personal history with this movie. I first bought it as part of a Disney Movie Club deal back in 2013. Basically I got 5 movies for a dollar each, as long as I would eventually buy 4 other movies at full price. It was totally worth it. Now I can order otherwise hard to find movies with great prices from the site whenever I please. Anyway, I bought Tangled along with Wreck It Ralph and three other movies I don’t remember at the moment. I watched Tangled first of the two movies I hadn’t seen before. Having not seen a Disney movie in years at that point, the musical aspect threw me off. I did enjoy the movie though (more than I enjoyed Wreck It Ralph).
Every now and then I’d think to myself that I should watch it again sometime, but I never got around to it until February this year or so. On a day where I was otherwise bored, I slipped the DVD in again and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I hunted down the Blu-Ray that week, and I’m pretty sure I’ve watched the movie 4 times this year already. That’s a lot for me (I rarely watch any movie more than 3 times the year I first see it, and then usually once or twice every two years at the most). I enjoy this movie more every time I watch it, and I always notice something new. But we’ll get into the movie tomorrow.
While Bolt helped revitalize Disney Animation Studios and is often credited as starting the Disney Revival, Tangled really got it going. It was the most successful animated Disney movie in 16 years, and its fan base has only grown since. It spawned a couple video games (on Wii, PC and the Nintendo DS), a short film “Tangled: Ever After”, and a currently ongoing TV sequel series that’s currently 7 episodes in, with the entire original voice cast. It also features Clancy Brown as Rapunzel’s father – the guy who played the Kurgan in the original Highlander movie, and the voices of Surter in the upcoming Thor: Ragnorok.
Regardless of the show’s quality, that’s just awesome.
That’s enough about this movie’s background. Tomorrow, we’ll talk about the movie itself. Tomorrow, we’ll talk about Disney’s first CGI princess movie, and also their first PG rated princess movie. Tomorrow, we talk about their biggest and most recent milestone in their main animation studio.