So, okay, I gave in and signed up for Disney+. It’s not as if I needed the streaming service to see the Disney fairy tales, or Star Wars, or the Marvel movies; I have those on disc. But there were these other things. First, I wanted to see the Hamilton movie (just as impressive as it’s cracked up to be). Then, since I was already subscribed for a month, I figured I’d check out The Mandalorian, if only to keep up my geek cred—it had taken me a while just to figure out where all the “Baby Yoda” memes were coming from.
By the end of the first month, I’d scanned the offerings and marked down a bunch of other things that I’d sort of wanted to see, or that I hadn’t known about but looked interesting, and now could get without paying more than I already was. And I was off and streaming . . .
One of the unanticipated things I turned up was a set of ancillary videos related to the 2010 fairy-tale adaptation Tangled, Disney’s version of the Rapunzel story. And thereby hangs a blog post.
A Tangle of Sequels
I’ve always been fond of the Tangled movie. But the continuing story also turned out to be remarkably good. As a rule, sequels to Disney princess movies tend to be humdrum affairs dashed off to exploit the movie’s popularity—though I must admit that I say this without having seen very many of them; ventures like The Little Mermaid II or Cinderella II: Dreams Come True never seemed to deserve even a look. (Frozen II is a decided exception.)
But the Tangled folks managed to pull off some impressive work in the follow-up media. To discuss it in detail, of course, I’m going to have to deploy detailed spoilers.
In 2012 Disney released a six-minute cartoon, Tangled Ever After, which is basically a comic bit about the exploits of the animal characters during the wedding of Rapunzel and her romantic interest, Eugene Fitzherbert (who previously used the name of legendary rogue-hero “Flynn Rider”). Nothing of interest there.
However, in 2017 the Disney Channel debuted a 55-minute short film, Tangled: Before Ever After. As the title indicates, this story takes place before the wedding sequence. The day before Rapunzel’s coronation, her lady-in-waiting, a tough-minded and capable girl named Cassandra, helps her sneak out beyond the kingdom’s walls to get away from the stress and chaos of the preparations. At the site of the magic flower that originally gave Rapunzel’s hair its healing powers, they find a stand of mysterious pointed black rocks. When Rapunzel touches one, more rocks suddenly sprout from the ground, forcing them to flee. But Rapunzel’s hair, which was cut short and returned to its natural brown in the original movie, suddenly turns blonde again and reverts to its 70-foot tower length.
This business with the black rocks is the story’s “One Ring,” the MacGuffin that links the old story to the new and provides the plot driver going forward. It isn’t explained or resolved in Before Ever After, but serves as the hook for the three-season TV series (2016-2020) that followed. The series was initially labeled “Tangled: The Series,” but in its second season was rechristened Rapunzel’s Tangled Adventure. Season 1 follows Rapunzel’s experiences in her parents’ kingdom; Seasons 2 and 3 take her and her companions on the road on a long-running quest. Wikipedia has a handy list of the episodes.
The series is where most of the plot and character development occurs. It concluded in March 2020. At this point it’s pretty clear that no further follow-ons are necessary, though one can’t rule out the possibility (“never say never again”). There’s also a stage musical (a version of the movie) and a video game, which I haven’t seen and assume are not in the continuity. Wikipedia’s convenient overall reference for the Tangled franchise is here.
Opening Out the Ever After
The first challenge in making a sequel to a fairy-tale movie is what to do about the ending. Traditionally, these stories end in a romantic happily-ever-after. If the main characters marry at the end (or immediately afterward), we’ve resolved the romantic tension. In addition, it may be hard to reconcile the vague vision of enduring happiness with the kinds of perilous adventures that would give life to a sequel.
The “before ever after” notion is thus productive. The characters can have further adventures even before their happiness is, as it were, sealed. We can stave off the fairy-tale ending, without subverting it entirely. To ruin the romance would be opprobrious, diminishing the appeal of the original story; but there’s no reason it has to come to fruition (presumably in a wedding) at once.
It’s particularly easy to take advantage of this idea if the couple hasn’t actually become engaged in the original story (even though the audience knows perfectly well that’s going to happen). Some reduced degree of romantic tension remains if the character still has to work up the nerve to propose, though the issue becomes more comical than dramatic. (A similar tactic was used in Frozen II.)
Thus, Eugene proposes to Rapunzel several times in the course of the sequels. She doesn’t accept at once. She wants to marry Eugene, but she isn’t quite ready yet. This brings out the familiar “moral” that a girl’s future is not solely bound up in marriage. It also makes psychological sense—and this is one of the ways in which the Tangled sequels intelligently carry forward the original storyline. As other characters point out, Rapunzel has spent almost all her life locked up in a tower, never meeting another human being but her “mother” captor. It seems hardly appropriate to expect her immediately to enter into a marriage.
Of course, Rapunzel could marry and still have adventures. The story thus plays around with the notion that “happily ever after” means the end of adventures and of our interest in the characters—a notion I’ve criticized elsewhere. It both dodges, and runs into, that trap.
The World and the Plot
Since the continuing story takes Rapunzel into new territory, both within and later beyond the Kingdom of Corona (which turned out to be a somewhat infelicitous name for this year, however appropriate for a princess), it was also necessary to expand the world. The writers carry out this worldbuilding exercise with enough novelty to earn some credit. For example, one of the new secondary characters is a young alchemist named Varian. Although his alchemy is technically magic, he firmly takes the position that it’s science, not fantasy. He thus adds a sort of steampunk vibe to the whole business.
The second season of the series introduces a secret society of crack warriors who are in some way protecting or defending the source of the black rocks. An enigmatic woman named Adira provides them with clues, along with ominous nonspecific warnings, and occasionally ends up sparring with the suspicious Cassandra. She and other members of the “Brotherhood of the Dark Kingdom” sometimes end up opposing or challenging the main characters, though they are basically on the same side. This secret society’s stance is reminiscent of the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
The most striking element of the plot is the long-running plot arc, which begins with the black-rock episode in Before Ever After and isn’t completed until the final episode of the series. The black rocks are tied in with the “sundrop flower” that originally gave Rapunzel her powers, so they link back neatly into the original movie. Keeping such an über-plot going over sixty episodes is a challenge, and the writers lay in enough complications and reversals to make it work.
This long-term development isn’t perfectly uniform. There are one-off episodes sandwiched in, often with throwaway plots (Max the noble steed is threatened by a competing evil horse! The queen’s annoying sister shows up for a visit!). Nor do the “side quest” episodes always make sense. In one show (Season 2 Episode 6), Rapunzel and Eugene decide to go off on a “date” while the group is encamped on the road in the middle of nowhere. (Butterbur in The Lord of the Rings: “Well, you do want looking after and no mistake: your party might be on a holiday!”) At the same time, these one-offs do sometimes have a point. The “date” introduces some characters who eventually turn out to be crucial to the plot. For another example, in a primarily silly episode (S2 E18) which turns most of the characters into toddlers, we get a fairly interesting lecture on parenting styles, courtesy of Rapunzel and Eugene.
The metaphysics, the “theory of magic,” is somewhat murky. Rapunzel’s “sundrop” and the “Moonstone” source of the black rocks have a sort of yin-yang relationship, but the Moonstone power is sometimes presented as evil, and sometimes as merely complementary. Rapunzel’s long hair, as restored in Before Ever After, has lost its power to heal, but has now arbitrarily become invulnerable—uncuttable—just like the black rocks. The conclusion of the story does make some degree of sense, though, so this particular worldbuilding weakness isn’t fatal.
The story is willing to deal with serious issues. For example, the story introduces some genuine moral dilemmas, as when Rapunzel has to break a promise to Varian in S1 E16, which leads to no end of trouble for everyone. Some cogent sociopolitical points are raised, unlikely though that seems in a cartoon, in the second and third episodes of Season 2. Rapunzel and her followers want to reform the city of Vardaros, whose citizens have collapsed into a state of mutual distrust and predation. Rapunzel’s effort to use sheer niceness to show the inhabitants a better way doesn’t work: the locals don’t trust these strangers. Instead, Rapunzel and company have to convince the former “sheriff” everyone trusted to come back out of retirement and lead the reform. The success of this strategy is still a bit cut-and-dried, but for two 24-minute episodes, it’s handled pretty well.
Other character developments can also be surprisingly sophisticated. The scheming girl Eugene was supposed to marry ends up being reformed—but she still steals the party’s money; she doesn’t suddenly become sweetness and light. An entire episode (S1 E2) is devoted to showing that, even though Rapunzel is so adorable that everyone loves her, there’s one old guy in Corona who doesn’t—and he’s a good guy, respected by everyone, kind and helpful; he just doesn’t especially care for Rapunzel. And the moral of this story is that you don’t have to make everyone like you—a good thing for a young viewer (or even an older one) to recognize.
The sequels are thoroughly genre-savvy—a good platform for ringing new changes on the stock fairy-tale conventions. In S2 E 23, the characters are threatened by “…lethal, inescapable traps.” An array of nasty spikes springs up—and immediately crumble into ruin. “They’re old,” one character remarks, pinpointing one of the silly aspects of Indiana Jones-type adventures where centuries-old mechanical devices work perfectly without deterioration. And at the end of the second season, the characters walk into a whole series of classic Star Wars and Lord of the Rings tropes in succession—surely on purpose.
Carrying On the Characters: Rapunzel
The most interesting aspect of the Tangled sequels is the treatment of Rapunzel herself.
Rapunzel’s role in the movie is that of a “fish out of water” character—the naïve newcomer to the world, to whom everything is new and fascinating. That’s one of the things I like about the movie. Another is that she faces this brave new world outside the tower with kindness and wonder, though not without a sensible caution that’s sometimes deployed against the wrong targets, for comic effect. It isn’t by accident that Eugene calls her “Sunshine.”
Although she has to deal with progressively more fearsome and even heartbreaking problems as the series goes on, Rapunzel doesn’t lose that essential innocence. Yet, imperceptibly—and that’s the artistry—through the second and third seasons, she develops into the genuine leader of the group. She becomes capable of making difficult decisions. She isn’t intimidated by threats. When she has to take over governance of the kingdom, she falters at first, but later on becomes perfectly capable of running things without her parents. The changes are highlighted in the “dream trap” episode, S2 E19, where the matured Rapunzel speaks with her earlier self.
She even becomes a capable fighter in her own right. Rapunzel uses her long, indestructible hair like Indiana Jones’ whip, as both a weapon and a tool. Of course, this is cartoon physics. This slender girl hurls around what’s essentially a 70-foot rope without any issues of strength or leverage; it catches onto things and releases them just as she wishes, like Indy’s whip. The hair only gets in her way, or is used against her, when the plot requires it. It never frizzes or becomes unruly (fortunately for everyone nearby). Nonetheless, her trademark feature, which seems a romantic beauty mark at first glance, transforms her into a melee fighter, who can hold her own in a scrap.
While Rapunzel is no longer a magical healer, she does gain the ability to use ‘sundrop power’ over time. This power is erratic and not dependable, but it does rise to cosmic levels at the point where she can blow up an entire landscape at the end of Season 2. TV Tropes rightly cites her under the Films–Animation section of Badass Adorable.
The really remarkable thing about this maturing process is that Rapunzel is not altered out of recognition. She retains that essential sweetness of character that made her so likable in the movie. To depict a character who is both powerful and “nice” is difficult, and rare. When we have a chance to see the character visibly grow into that maturity, with both continuity and change, the writers’ achievement is noteworthy.
Carrying On the Characters: Others
Not all the other characters fare as well.
Romantic interest Eugene, in the sequels, gets somewhat dumbed down or, in TV Tropes’ term, “Flanderized”: turned into a caricature of himself. His vanity, a nicely balanced flaw in the movie, becomes tiresome when played out in every episode. His capability is uneven: sometimes he’s clever, sometimes clueless; sometimes he’s a formidable fighter, sometimes ineffective—as the plot may require. This is a classic problem in a continuing series, where different writers may produce inconsistent characterization.
Rapunzel’s parents, also, are not too well managed. In the movie, they’re merely props: the welcoming family to which Rapunzel can finally return at the end. In the series, we’re told that her mother, Queen Arianna, was once a sort of adventurer herself—but we see little of that. Her father, King Frederic (what a promising name!), tends to play the overbearing, irrationally restrictive father, generally as an obstacle to Rapunzel’s self-assertion. The two of them tend to fade out almost entirely toward the end of the series to give Rapunzel sole center stage.
The great prize among the new characters is Cassandra. Her edgy but loyal personality makes her a perfect foil for the sunny Rapunzel. That same sardonic cynicism makes it plausible when she veers from the path of righteousness and aligns herself with the enemies at the end of Season 2, a development that is carefully shaped over much of that season. In particular, she highlights an aspect of hero-stories that doesn’t get much attention. What happens if you’re not the Chosen One? If the whole motion of the plot is toward Rapunzel’s destiny, how does the henchperson feel whose role is simply to support the main character? Doesn’t she have a destiny too?
The series as a whole shows a certain bias toward what we might call the “Arthas Effect,” a plot staple in the World of Warcraft game: an initially good character becomes corrupted and turns into a major villain. The two most prominent secondary characters, Cassandra and Varian, are both subject to this kind of transformation at different times. The basically positive tone of the Tangled story is borne out by the fact that each eventually repents and returns to the side of good. But the “turn to the Dark Side” motif helps keep the tale from becoming too optimistic or Pollyanna-ish.
The Tangled sequels honor the original movie’s romance. We see from the very beginning that Rapunzel and Eugene do get married eventually. But that aspect is sidelined in such a way that the impetus of the romantic interest is largely lost.
During the entire first season, Rapunzel and Eugene hang around the castle, waiting for—what? We noted above that Rapunzel puts off the wedding, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But her reasons remain rather vague, and we don’t see much of the longing or attraction I’d expect from a couple of young people who are very much in love. It’s as if the writers every now and then remember that there’s supposed to be a love affair going on, but mostly take that to be understood.
The diverging development of the two characters also creates a somewhat unsatisfying disparity. While Rapunzel develops in power, competence, and maturity, Eugene has no comparable character arc. As a result, by the end we may ask ourselves whether he’s really sufficient for her. The lovers are “unevenly matched,” a problem I’ve noted before.
The key theme of the extended Tangled story, as I see it, is that power and innocence are compatible. You can be a consummately nice, caring, pretty, cheerful sort—and still have the determination, endurance, capability, and courage to fight what needs fighting.
Rapunzel is not the only example of such a seemingly-paradoxical character. But the writers were able to take advantage of the extended development of the TV series to showcase in detail how a person can grow to take on that mantle. It’s something we always need to see more of.