Spoiler warning for Tangled.
Recently, I went to watch Tangled (in 3D! not that it matters, and because there wasn't an alternative, but there you are), the new Disney Rapunzel film. I'm not planning to do yer'actual review of it, and I'm not that interested in getting into heavy analysis of the plot or logic or of a Disney film based on a fairy tale, because that would be silly. It was fun, it was more-or-less for children, it was funny, it was sweet if a bit saccharine, it had an awesome horse. Their version also seemed quite original, which is something I tend to forget about Disney films. Anyway, this article is not about that. It brought up some vaguely interesting issues that I thought might be worth waffling about in case anyone else also found them interesting.
The Disney plot is rather different, and people might not be over-familiar with the details of Rapunzel anyway, so here's the gist. A drop of sunlight falls to earth and grows into a magical flower (just go with it, okay?). An old woman finds the flower, and discovers that if she sings a particular magical song to it, it glows with healing light that temporarily restores her youth (ditto). She hides it and uses it to stay young and beautiful for an unspecified but long time. The Queen becomes ill while pregnant, so they send the army to find the fabled flower. They make a healing potion from it, which works, and the child is born as a beautiful golden-haired daughter (it wasn't entirely clear when the mop of hair appeared, but stick with me here). One night, the old woman sneaks into the palace to steal a lock of hair, believing it'll have the same healing properties. But when she cuts it, the hair loses its power. In desperation, she steals the baby. Nobody knows what happened to the princess, and they never find her. Every year on her birthday, they release Chinese lanterns to remember her.
Eighteen years later, thieves break in and steal the princess' crown (presumably a traditional item from the treasury) which is handily kept on a cushion beneath a skylight with all the guards facing away. They're pursued, and one (Flynn) splits off from the others with the crown, escaping the guards but still followed by an angry horse. He finds a tower in a hidden valley, which seems like an ideal hiding place. Sadly, he's beaten unconscious by an 18-year-old Rapunzel with a pan, and stuffed in a cupboard. Rapunzel wants to go and see the floating lights she's spotted every year on her birthday, but her mother won't let her. After yet another argument, which dissuades her from revealing her prisoner to her mother, she decides to make the man take her instead while her mother's away. Wacky adventures and angst and excitement ensue. The two fall in love, and are followed by the old woman, who uses Flynn's betrayed partners to set an ambush, and sets it up to look like he's abandoned Rapunzel so she'll accept her mother's advice and won't try to leave the tower again. He escapes, comes to see her, is mortally wounded, and has a pointless heroic moment of sacrifice that is negated by Lurve. Old woman crumbles to dust, Rapunzel is reunited with her family, and all live happily ever after. Except the old woman, and presumably the now-imprisoned Stabbington Brothers.
One of the things that was vaguely interesting about the film was the family issues it brought up. The thing that really got my attention was right at the end, during the reuinion, when the narrator (i.e. Flynn) says something like: "...Rapunzel finally had a real family..."
Let's leave aside the likely problems for a girl brought up by a single parent in humble surroundings in a small tower, who's barely met a handful of people in her life, joining two unknown biological parents of immense wealth and power who live in a massive castle and incidentally becoming the biggest celebrity of all time. I'm sure there will be no issues whatsoever getting accustomed to that. Or long-term trauma associated with the violent death of the woman who brought her up and whom she sincerely loved. This is a fairy tale. However, it does get me thinking about families.
The old woman is never named in the story. I do wonder why; perhaps to stop us having any sympathy with her, though villains in other stories are named, or perhaps they simply couldn't be bothered inventing a name. It does dehumanize her a bit. Anyway, I'm going to call her Agnes. So Agnes has, indeed, kidnapped Rapunzel to use her supernatural power so she can live forever. This is Not Okay. And she keeps her trapped in the tower so she won't either leave her, or be found by anyone. The thing is, apart from that, she treats her as a daughter.
Now, I am not going to claim she's a great mother. She's controlling and emotionally manipulative, which I suppose isn't that surprising when she's keeping Rapunzel there basically by force of will. She's only tepidly affectionate. On the other hand, Rapunzel's very comfortable and, apart from a desire to see the outside world, she's pretty happy. She has nice furniture and playthings, nice clothes, and an apparently endless supply of hobby materials. They don't seem to have a luxurious diet, but neither do most peasants; and Agnes makes a point of cooking Rapunzel's favourite food when she visits. She's also educated her brilliantly: although a tad naive, she knows everything an ordinary, non-imprisoned girl would know. She recognises Flynn as a man, knows what birthdays mean, how drowning works, and when she's in danger. The outside world doesn't really phase her, so she must know about nature and geography, and she seems to have a decent grasp of society and normal behaviour too. She's articulate, intelligent and very pleasant. In fact, given the difficulties of the situation, Agnes is one of the most successful child-raisers I've ever heard of. It's very clear that, right until the end, Rapunzel is very fond of her mother. Regardless of Agnes' ultimate feelings towards the girl, she treats her extremely well so far as the situation allows. Compare, say, Cinderella or Snow White. Agnes may not be a great mother, but she's actually not a terrible one.
I was talking about this to Dan, and he summed up my argument here as basically: "Apart from kidnapping a baby, pretending to be her mother, bringing her up alone in a tower for eighteen years and deceiving her for her own selfish ends, she's not a particularly bad mother". The thing is, ridiculous as it sounds, I think that's about right. The things she's done wrong aren't really about how she raised Rapunzel, but more general wrongs that intertwine with that. The problem is that Agnes' dual status as adoptive mother and kidnapper rather complicates the issue.
As far as Rapunzel is concerned, at least, Agnes is her family. The thing that changes that is not really a shift in their relationship, or anything Agnes does; it's seeing a picture of the baby princess and then seeing herself in the mirror wearing the crown. It's a revelation of Objective Truth ('you are Really the Princess, the Queen and King are your Real Family'), rather than anything about the family itself - right until that moment, Rapunzel thinks of Agnes as her mother and loves her.
There's a decent argument that it's not a good family, because it's built on a tissue of lies. It's also possible that Agnes has no real affection for Rapunzel - she doesn't show any active affection in the film. On the other hand, she's brought the girl up for 18 years, and in that time, I'd have expected things to crystallise one way or the other. The first option is to view and treat her as a useful tool or a pet, in which case I wouldn't expect Rapunzel to be so well educated or comfortable; that's extra effort and liable to encourage further trouble, when you could bring her up cowed and ignorant so she won't get ideas. If, on the other hand, Agnes brings her up as though she was her daughter and treats her kindly, you'd expect some affection to arise on both sides.
Now, I don't think Disney thought much about this one throwaway line and I'm not that interested in decrying them. A fairly normative and slightly old-fashioned way of thinking is par for the course. I suppose the "real family" reference means one with honesty and love, rather than manipulation, deceit and using your daughter selfishly. It means the parents who wanted you and loved you unconditionally, rather than someone who stole you for selfish reasons, whether or not they've got fond of you. In context, though, it had a faint whiff of narrow-mindedness: that what really matters isn't who brought you up or how you felt about them, but your genes (and incidentally having two parents, not just one). The fact is though, Rapunzel actually had a pretty happy family life before all this kicked off.
From My Point of View, the Jedi are Arguably Morally Ambiguous
Although the story glosses over her, I was also quite interested in Agnes and her actions. We don't ever find out anything about her, other than her use of the flower and her relationship with Rapunzel. We don't know her background, her history, or what she does when she's not visiting Rapunzel. Why should we? Rapunzel doesn't either. She's presented pretty much exclusively as a manipulative, selfish woman, whose use of the flower is immoral, and who commits a string of selfish acts to keep herself young and live forever. I'm not sure how convinced I am by that portrayal, or the way morality is defined in this story as a whole.
Agnes is lucky enough to find the flower and discover its powers. She keeps it hidden and uses it to stay young (and therefore alive) for, well, a long time. She chooses to keep it to herself, which is selfish, but I wonder how long she'd get to keep it if people found out about it? She could legitimately have all kinds of worries about that, so keeping it hidden isn't that unreasonable. As it turns out, the first thing that happens when the flower's discovered is it gets taken - so her hypothetical suspicions are vindicated.
Now for a look at the Castle. When the Queen is ill, the Castle mount a frantic last-chance search for the rumoured magical flower, and due to carelessness on Agnes' part, find it. Under her very eyes, they carefully dig it up and take it away to the castle. Someone makes it into a magic potion, which heals the Queen and (probably) saves her daughter's life too.
The issue here is the magic flower. Who has the right to use it, and what uses are acceptable?
The flower just appears. There's no reason it belongs to anyone, but Agnes has as much claim to it as anyone. Agnes uses it to save her own life; the Castle use it to save the Queen's life (and her unborn daughter). While Agnes keeps the flower to herself, nobody else benefits; once the Castle destroy the flower, nobody else can ever benefit. There's a touch of criticism in the film's portrayal of Agnes' actions, as though it were a crime to seek immortality. I don't know much about ethics, but I suspect issues like immortality are much more complicated than "it's bad to try and live forever". The Castle's actions are presented straightforwardly as a good thing. To be honest, I can't really see much difference. From a purely practical perspective, the first is a much more efficient use of the flower. The only real difference I can see between them is that Agnes chooses to save herself, whereas someone else (the King?) chooses to save the Queen. The first is more obviously selfish; but the second involves destroying an item of fantastic potential benefit to the world, which doesn't actually belong to the King any more than it does to anyone else, to extend the life of his wife. Not entirely unselfish.
Once the flower is destroyed, Agnes is doomed. Having and then losing immortality is more of a blow than never having it. She works out that Rapunzel's hair could do the same job, and plans to steal a lock. It's a bit skeevy, and involves burglary; on the other hand, the Castle are responsible for her plight, and taking a lock of hair shouldn't actually harm anyone. I can't really see the Castle giving her one, so theft or death is pretty much the choice. It all goes downhill from there.
In a sense, the story is a series of choices that Agnes has to make, each one more morally questionable. Initially, she chooses to keep the flower's benefits for herself, rather than risk sharing it. Then she chooses to try and steal a lock of hair to regain her lost immortality, rather than dying to avoid a relatively minor crime that harms nobody. She's cheated of that option by the way the magic works. The real problem starts when, panicking, she chooses to steal the baby rather than die. Then she chooses to deceive and manipulate her stolen daughter rather than risk her running away. Then she chooses to genuinely betray her (by acting against Rapunzel's interests) to get Rapunzel and her own immortality back. Finally, when the truth comes out, she chooses to resort to force rather than lose Rapunzel and die. Agnes is stuck on a slippery slope, where each decision makes it harder to give up the immortality for which she's done so much, and makes it easier to take the next and wronger step. What she ends up doing, and her treatment of Rapunzel, is clearly wrong, but it's not nearly as simple as her being a wicked old woman.
One of my friends suggested that one reason why Agnes and the Queen are portrayed differently is that people find it creepy for old people to want to be young and live forever; but saving and extending the lives of young, beautiful people is fine. There might be something in that.
A Bit of a Lad
The other thing I found a bit off about Tangled was its hero. Aladdin had a thief hero, but it was a little different. He was clearly a destitute beggar who stole food to live. Flynn Rider, the hero of Tangled, is also from a humble background, but he's more of a professional thief - all we know is that he's conspiring to steal a crown from the palace.
Now, thieves as heroes are a well-established trope in literature. However, Flynn is clearly not only a thief, but an untrustworthy thief. In the film, he's sort of contrasted against the Stabbington Brothers, his partners, in a way that is clearly supposed to show him in a good light. However, if you look at the details, it's rather murkier. He is willingly engaged in the robbery at the palace, and makes it very clear that it's a chance to live in luxury rather than a matter of need. All three are chased by the soldiers and trapped in a dead-end gully. Flynn offers to climb up and help them after him; they don't trust him and insist he leaves the bag with the crown with them. However, once he gets to the top they clearly believe he'll help them escape too. Instead, he reveals the bag he's somehow managed to steal back, mocks them, and runs off to save his own hide. In other words, he betrays his partners and leaves them trapped in a gully to die at the hands of the soldiers. That is not the act of a hero, not even a thief. That is not being a rough diamond, or a rogue. That is being a treacherous backstabbing git. As it happens, the soldiers spot him and chase after him instead, but that's clearly not the intention.
Rather surprisingly, he does behave mostly honourably towards Rapunzel. He does try to deter her from going through with the plan, but since he's a wanted outlaw liable to be killed if he gets spotted in the kingdom, it's not that unreasonable. He's not doing it just to get the crown back. When she does offer him the crown later, he's in love with her and tries to give it to the Stabbington Brothers. To be honest, though, that came across more as a way to weasel out of any comeuppance for his betrayal and get them off his back, rather than a genuine attempt to face up to his actions or any real remorse. Unsurprisingly, they prefer to exact some revenge.
There's also a scene in the middle where they visit a dive. As part of his attempt to persuade Rapunzel to give up the excursion, he takes her to a wretched hive of etc. This being Disney, a bit of eyelid fluttering and a song show up all the murderous thugs as sweethearts deep down. The fact is, though, if it's even remotely as bad at it appears, he has no business taking her there. All the men there are clearly villainous and criminal, and there are no women there at all. Taking a naive 18-year old girl there, while (as we soon find out) not having the ability to protect either of you if there's trouble, is not only utterly stupid but an unforgivable failure of responsibility.
Despite all this, it's the Stabbingtons who are treated as the real criminals, who deserve only to be locked up. They're also the only characters, other than Agnes, who don't get a happy ending: the last we see of them, they're locked in the castle dungeon. Given that Flynn was about to be hanged for stealing the crown, I don't fancy their chances much.
In a way, neither the Stabbingtons or Agnes are villains, any more than Flynn is really a hero. They're all people who are faced with decisions, and sometimes choose the wrong ones. Agnes does wrong to avoid dying, the Stabbingtons and Flynn do wrong for profit, and the Queen does no obvious wrong. The reason they come across differently is that everyone has different choices to make. Agnes has to choose between crime and death; the Queen doesn't have to make that choice. The Stabbingtons and Flynn all choose to steal the crown, but Flynn's the one who chooses to betray them to death. The Stabbingtons choose to seek revenge when it's offered, but Flynn doesn't have any revenge to seek. Flynn is kind to Rapunzel and falls in love with her, but the Stabbingtons don't get the opportunity. The Stabbingtons plan to capture Rapunzel and profit from her powers; Flynn doesn't find out about them until he's already her friend, she's saved his life and they're well on their way to falling in love. It's not that surprising that, treacherous git as he is, he doesn't take that option. Whether he would have or not, we don't know. But while falling in love might redeem people to one another, simply falling in love with Rapunzel doesn't turn Flynn from a thieving, untrustworthy scoundrel into a noble hero.
Fundamentally, though, I'm thinking far too much about a very fun and nicely-executed children's film that I really enjoyed watching. Let's not take it too seriously.