Fairytales: they’re all sickly sweetness and light right? You know beautiful princesses, magical kingdoms, swashbuckling heroes, kindly companions etc. Well no. Think of any classic fairytale and chances are there’ll be generous portions of nasty evil deeds hand in hand with the overwhelming prettiness and niceness. This is certainly the case with Tangled, a Disney anniversary special retelling of the story of Rapunzel.
As a baby, Rapunzel is the girl with the golden touch, or to be precise, hair. After her mother, the queen of a kingdom that rather fittingly resembles the Disney logo with its picturesque towers and steeples, falls ill during childbirth, it turns out the only way to cure her is with a magical golden flower (formed from a drop that fell from the sun – bear with me). The royal guard promptly retrieves said flower just in time and mother and baby make it through fine, with the unexpected complication that baby Rapunzel adopts the plant’s amazing abilities. Prior to the soldiers snatching the flower for the good of the kingdom however, a miserly old crone had been using it to stay forever young. Bitter and after revenge, she steals the wondrous baby with the golden, glowing locks in the dead of night. Then, tucked away in a lush green wilderness, she raises the child in a tower as her own, and sings to it instead of the flower she replaced for eternal youth. Meanwhile a kingdom mourns and the endlessly saddened royal couple release thousands of lanterns each year on their child’s birthday, in the hope that she will return home to them one day.
So far, so Disney. This is the back story to Tangled. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll have been concerned about accidentally vomiting in such a family orientated environment. Much like Marmite, you either love this sort of sentimental tale, or you hate it (although I mildly like Marmite, so does this ruin the rule?). However this background to the story is dealt with swiftly in Tangled’s opening. And it gets away with its sickly sweet, emotional mush, to such an extent that it wins you over.
If you’re a Disney sceptic, you’ll be dubiously asking how. The key to Tangled’s immense appeal is that it recognises fairytales are too sweet and sugary for some, so it gently sends up the whole tradition at times. That’s not to say you can’t enjoy the fundamental fairytale aspects, as I say the relief is only gentle, but it’s crucial and enough to make Tangled an extremely accessible movie. It’s refreshing because it doesn’t take itself too seriously, despite being a significant anniversary picture. It can entertain kids and adults alike with its broad range of humour and sentimental punches.
The key to the appeal for adults lies with the self-depreciating performance of male lead, Zachary Levi. His loveable rouge character, Flynn Rider, crashes into Rapunzel’s life after stealing the kingdom’s crown. Incidentally he grabs the crown in an amusing homage to Mission Impossible, lowered from the palace ceiling and later on he snatches a frying pan (used throughout as an effective weapon, with decent comic effect) as Indiana Jones would snatch his hat from beneath a closing booby trapped door. Touches of adult humour like this, alongside Levi’s well judged, constantly witty tone, provide more than enough sly, self-mocking moments to stop normal human being’s brains turning into vegetables.
This is no mean feat, given that Tangled is not just a typical Disney tale but one with random bursts of song. This sort of spontaneous, inexplicable, irrational singing is usually enough to tip most men over the edge. Whilst none of the songs from Tangled are particularly memorable, they are poignant at the right moments (and had kids dancing in the aisles occasionally). Donna Murphy, as evil Mother Gothel, delivers a charming diva like performance whenever she gets the chance to belt out a musical number. “I’ve got a dream” an ensemble piece in a seedy tavern, is heart warming and funny and stands out from the crowd, along with “I see the light”, a romantic duet between leads Levi and Mandy Moore at the emotional peak of the story, as Rapunzel’s dream of watching the floating lanterns seems to be realised. This scene is one of the best examples of the film’s startlingly vivid animation, with glowing candles fantastically rendered in the early night sky. With my secret soft spot for sentimental songs, I nearly shed a tear at the beautifully animated visuals coupled with the emotional duet.
Indeed Tangled as a whole is touching and visually captivating. There are lovely strokes of animation on the expressions of the characters, amusingly so on horse Maximus, but what strikes you most of all is the colour of the scenery. Vibrant and vivid greens and blues contrast with bright pastel colours in the city, set against a varied, but always stunning sky. The animation also allows for some distinctive action set pieces, most notably when a chase climaxes at a dam. There are gobsmacking leaps, acrobatics with endless reams of magic hair and exciting sword fights, with a frying pan, guards and a horse. But most impressive for me was the glistening water, which eventually erupts outwards in a great, mesmerising wave, chasing our hero and princess into claustrophobic confinement.
I saw Tangled in 2D and there is really no need to seek out the 3D version. It’s refreshing to see an animation go back to basics at a time of endless technological advance and reinvention. Here we just get funny, moving storytelling, that’s generally inclusive and pretty for all. From a hilarious opening montage of Rapunzel simultaneously rejoicing and hating herself for escaping her “mother’s” prison, to a heart wrenching emotional finale, Tangled has ingredients to delight everyone. It’s a pretty near perfect family movie, with bags of not only laughs but tender moments for adults too, which rest on the scripting and performance of Levi’s character Flynn Rider. My friend and I really enjoyed it, despite a disappointingly small portion of popcorn and initial doubts. Tangled will reel you in and surprise you, too, whatever your preconceptions.
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I have recently enjoyed three excellent and thoroughly engaging novels. Each had me gripped in very different ways, but each shares the key ingredient of successful storytelling; a strong narrative voice. The extremely distinctive first person narrators of each of these novels draws you in and captivates you. A narrative voice that feels real and engaging is the element I most struggle with when trying to write my own creative works. I certainly therefore don’t feel qualified to dissect the successful and unsuccessful subtleties of the writing in these books in review form, but feel compelled to record what made them so readable for me as “thoughts”, for that is all they are, and to recommend them to others nonetheless. I may inadvertently let slip the odd slight spoiler, for which I apologise but place a warning here.
First up then is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which I admit I was only inspired to read due to the hype surrounding a forthcoming film adaptation and the allure and beauty of the trailer for it. What’s noticeable and striking even in that brief snippet of film is the overwhelming Britishness of the story and it’s a very British novel too. That sense of place comes not just from the boarding school setting, the childhood themes, the nostalgic reminisces and stunning countryside, but from the voice of the novel, Kathy H. Whilst it appears she is candidly telling her life story, with little reason or desire to embellish and hold back, you soon notice her strong focus on others, on those immediately close to her. If she criticises a friend she will qualify what she means and spend pages delving into another random memory of them to share their alternative, better side. In many ways this is a novel of memories, about the ones that slip away and the ones you never let go of. Given that she focuses on those most important to her, it’s enlightening, revealing and intriguing that she never actually says in the novel, as far as I can see or recall, that she loves the man events make clear to be her soul mate. Indeed Kathy does not spell things out about herself often and retells everything, overpowering emotions and all, with a simplicity and undertone of British restraint. It’s this restraint and modesty that is the most chokingly moving at times too. It’s clearly to Ishiguro’s immense credit that he simultaneously creates a strong, rounded character in Kathy, whilst also letting events, and things Kathy omits, paint a picture of their own. Kathy has confidence that, from what she has retold to us, she need not say explicitly “I loved him”.
I’m glad I read the original story as a novel before the release of the film in January. Despite the promise that attracted me in the trailer, Carey Mulligan will do well to play Kathy H as quite as compellingly as Ishiguro writes her. The film is also set to cut large chunks of Kathy’s childhood memories of Hailsham, in favour of the adolescent portion of the story. I hope this omission does not detract from events later on and make them less meaningful. The one fault I found with the book, and one the film will also struggle to overcome, is the sense that there is never a satisfying big conspiracy revealed, as is hinted at. The one that does emerge seemed fairly clear early on and whilst Ishiguro seems to hint that there is more to it (I had visions of some sort of apocalyptic Britain or a more interesting and dramatic disintegration of ethics) there really isn’t. Mostly though Never Let Me go is a terribly moving story because of the way it feels so real. Kathy’s language is simple but beautiful at times, like many of her memories. Her friendships and loves are not obsessively described with clichés and extravagant imagery, and are consequently all the more like our own. The way things turn out is so tragic because you can place yourself in her shoes.
I have also recently read Lee Rourke’s debut novel, The Canal, joint winner of the Guardian’s alternative award Not The Booker Prize. As the review on the Guardian website points out, this is a debut crammed with ideas. This might have been a problem if the ideas weren’t original or didn’t resonate with me, but I found most of them to be insightful and well expressed musings on a realistic truth. The novel begins as an engaging meditation on the nature of boredom and how it is a fundamental part of existence to be embraced, rather than feared and avoided. It eventually evolves into a touching love story, which becomes an obsession and climaxes with an eventful ending. Most of the novel aims accurately for realism; its ideas, its dialogue, its images. Only at the end do feelings and events become sensational.
The title of the book makes it clear that it will have a strong sense of setting and the surroundings of The Canal are ever present throughout the narrative, the backdrop to almost all the action. Its features are described with some wonderful imagery and symbolism. Even the book itself, the physical design of the novel, is pleasing to look at and hold. If I were Rourke I’d be delighted with the tasteful design of my first fictional foray. He ought to be proud too of the dialogue in his work, which really stands out as exceptionally believable and realistic, becoming almost a script at times before reverting back to the narrator’s thoughts. The dialogue is rightly praised on the back of the book.
Like Never Let Me Go, much of The Canal’s success comes down to the convincing narrative voice. However if Kathy H was restrained, the nameless narrator of The Canal is mysterious. The woman he meets on The Canal is also mysterious, until he slowly uncovers her secrets. She is for the most part a rounded character and their relationship believable, but at times it succumbs to cliché. There are other clichés too such as the stereotypical gang of youths and the unstoppable march of building work that eventually swallows his patch of The Canal. These unimaginative elements let down the originality and realism of the rest of the book, but The Canal was an engaging, un-put-down-able read.
If The Canal mused about boredom then The Dice Man is a full on exploration of its depths and connections to the meaning of existence. The main reason I was reluctant to be bold enough to call these thoughts of mine a review was that The Dice Man is simply too mammoth, sprawling and impressive a work for me to digest, let alone analyse adequately. It’s jam packed with ideas and full of such variety that it touches on more areas in one chapter than most novels. It has spawned a cult and resembles a bible in weight and heft. It’s immensely controversial, challenging long established truths in religion and philosophy, outraging those with a strong moral compass. It contains scenes that are graphically violent and sexual. It is regularly and consistently funny. However as with The Canal, it is the quality of composition and writing that truly impresses me with The Dice Man.
From the very first page The Dice Man makes it clear it will not follow the conventions of an ordinary novel, but mimic several at once. It flits from the brilliantly cynical and scathing first person voice of Dr Lucius Rhinehart, to describing events in his life in the third person. It also chucks in various articles about events in the Dr’s life, along with other methods of storytelling such as transcripts of interviews and television shows. With all the talk of ideas, philosophy and sex surrounding The Dice Man, it can be forgotten that it is an exemplary exercise in creative writing, full of tremendous variety. The dialogue is always funny and realistic and the characters well realised, albeit obviously through the lens of Dr Rhinehart’s own entertaining, intelligent opinions. There are narrative twists and turns, violent thrills and sexual ones. The careful craft and exciting breadth of this novel ensures that a novel of over 500 pages remains gripping throughout. It consumed me for a whole week.
Then of course there are the ideas themselves, the philosophy behind The Dice Man. The reason this book has become so notorious and actually converted readers to the “religion” detailed within its pages, is that many of the ideas make sense, that and the alluring mystery to it all. The mystery blurs the boundaries between fiction and reality. Luke Rhinehart is of course a pseudonym, but a quick Wikipedia search on The Dice Man and you discover the real author, George Cockroft, also genuinely experimented with the “dicelife”. So there is some truth to the claims that this a factual account and that may account for its vivid detail. However it is also undoubtedly a sensational work of fiction, at times taking swipes at the profession of psychology and the state of society in general. I have already said that as a novel it should be praised and not revered simply for its bold ideas, but it is true that the seductiveness of the ideas help sweep you along in the story.
The basic principle of The Dice Man is to abandon free will, at least to a great extent. Every decision in your life you are unsure about should be decided by the throw of a dice, and in fact later on, even those you do feel sure of. You may create options for the various numbers of the dice or die, but whichever they choose you must blindly follow. The options must try to embrace all aspects of your multiple existence, so for example if you have idly fantasised about masturbating over your pot plant, even for a second, this ought to be considered and given to the die to decide. The aforementioned variety and randomness of the novel thus mimics the theory at its heart, with one section actually printed twice immediately after you have read it, presumably at the will of the die.
The philosophical implications of handing over control of a human life to chance are vast and fascinating and I shall not even scratch the surface of their interest here. But Rhinehart comes to believe in the novel that by following the dice and developing his theory he can become a kind of superman, the ultimate human that abandons the misery imposed on us by clinging to a sense of “self”. We often feel completely contradictory desires each day, none more true than the other. What is truly haunting and bewildering about The Dice Man is that by listening to Rhinehart’s distinctive, cynical, hilarious voice, we come to see the sense to his arguments and then when he commits an unspeakable sin at the will of the dice, we feel implicated too. Does a truly liberated human existence require immorality? Rhinehart becomes obsessed by the potential of his simple idea to elevate him intellectually, to truly free him from boredom and obligation. He says that he resembles Clark Kent and by pursuing “dice theory” Rhinehart aims for a permanent transformation into Superman, The Dice Man, on another level to the ordinary human drone.
I’m not saying The Dice Man is the perfect novel, do not misunderstand my awe and praise. At times it left me baffled in completely the wrong way, and despite its championing of the random and new experiences, it can become repetitive, particularly the frequent bouts of sex. And whilst it is sometimes credibly intellectual and inspiring, such as the scene when Rhinehart defends his new theory to a panel of his influential peers, at others it does appear to be simply sick and shocking for shocking’s sake. The thing is that The Dice Man knows it is not the perfect novel, in fact its cynicism screams and mocks the idea of a perfect novel being possible. Even the repetitive sex scenes are always evocatively described or hilariously painted and the idea that a man striving for complete liberty is constantly tied down by sexual desire is ironic and mocking in itself. The Dice Man really is often laugh out loud funny. It is also scandalous, entertaining and everything else it has been described as. Most of all it is an original creation, a unique fusion of cultural influences, which perfectly encapsulates the America of its time and remains powerfully relevant today.
These three novels perhaps demonstrate the importance of two ingredients in particular amongst the many needed for a success: interesting ideas and an individual narrative voice.
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