Monday, January 31, 2011

Tangled: A Movie Review

I took my sweet wife to see Tangled on Friday night. I want to buy it. My computer graphics professional's eye was tuned to the quality of the CG animation. It was an interesting contrast to Tron, which is a mixture of live action and deliberate CG.

In Tron, the storytellers and artists went for photorealism. They expected the audience to do the suspension-of-disbelief thing that sucks people into Star Wars, Star Trek, and so on. In most of the scenes, they succeeded.

In Tangled, instead, the storytellers and artists went for cartoony effects. The characters were caricatures, the scenery elements were fanciful and exaggerated, the physics was cartoon physics -- and yet they sucked you in anyway.

And just when you were getting comfortable with the cartooniness of the thing, they gave you a visual effect that was stunning in its realism. I offer you four examples:

1. Rapunzel's dress
Disney being Disney, I'm sure they made several real dresses, put them on several models, and took hundreds of videos and stills for the artists to work from. Well, their meticulousness paid off. The laces on the back of the dress were not spaced perfectly, just as laces on a real dress would not be, and yet the laces kept their imperfect spacing when Rapunzel moved - just as they would on a real dress. The hem on the white petticoat looked and moved just like a lace-trimmed hem on a real petticoat.

And the sleeves! Did you notice the sleeves? I'm not talking about the puffy shoulders, but the delicate, sheer, skin-hugging material that went all the way down her arms and ended with embroidery? binding? some kind of fancy trim, anyway, at her wrists. Maybe these subtle touches were missed on most of the audience, but without them, the film would have felt a little less polished. It's like a dressmaker drew every frame with the dress in it.

One other subtle touch, and please don't think I'm a perv for noticing this: In real life, a wide neckline gapes open just a fraction of an inch at the sides, at the reverse curve on the front of the shoulder. (Shoulder straps can often be seen in this gap.) The gap widens and closes according to the wearer's posture and movement. Few, if any, animated movies get this right. No, change that. Until Tangled, every animated movie ignored this gap completely. Even Shrek ignored it. I don't know how, but Tangled got it right.

Again, you might ask: why go for all this realism if you intended to make a cartoony movie in the first place? I dunno. But the fact that they did, and got it right, makes the movie that much richer.

2. Water
Everywhere there was water, its modeling was a mixture of cartooniness and realism. The cartooniness was deliberate, and so was the realism. How they decided which approach to use, and when, is beyond me, but again they got it right. The waterfalls, the dam, the flooding of the cavern, and - oh my - the lake that surrounded the island town, were all modeled so perfectly that they enhanced, rather than distracted from, the film. For a contrast, look at the CG water in The X-Men, which was a nice try but still obviously fake, and in The Incredibles, which was also intentionally cartoony, and felt more like plastic than water.

3. Light
If you watch the film again, you will notice that "light" was a central theme throughout the movie. That was deliberate, and they put real money into "light". The Lighting department got a major portion of the credits at the end.

The story line followed the light, emanated from light, and always returned to light. Starting with the fireflower in the prologue, then with the incident in the nursery, light against darkness mattered. It was central to the story. It told the story. The interplay of light rays and shadows in the tower told of good versus evil, knowledge versus ignorance, courage versus fear, hope versus despair, freedom versus captivity. The complicated animation that was Rapunzel's glowing hair was fascinating. But to me, the most breathtaking use of light was during the festival of the lanterns.

4. The lantern scene
When the first lantern was lit and launched, that was okay. Yeah, it was amazingly realistic, but by then I was used to the amazing realism. But then the entire town lit up lanterns - and I gasped out loud. These glowing tissue-paper lanterns lifted off and floated around, hundreds of them, in individual paths, all around the palace towers. It was a powerful visual representation of hope. It brought tears to my eyes.

Then, combining the water and light effects, the camera zeroed in on the boy and girl, sitting in a small boat in the middle of the lake, surrounded by lanterns in the air and lantern reflections in the calm water. Right then, I wished we were watching the movie in 3D. That's the kind of scene 3D cinema was made for.

I sat there with my mouth hanging open until the lantern scene ended. Between the tears and the mouth agape, I'm glad the theatre was dark.


It was a good story, too, and well told. There's a reason G and PG movies still pull in most of the money in the movie industry, in spite of the fact that they are outnumbered by all the other titles. And I'm not embarrassed by the fact that I prefer movies like Tangled over most of that other stuff.

Having said that, I am looking forward to Cowboys and Aliens this summer.

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