It seldom fails. We’ll be in the theatre, watching the newest Disney release, and I’ll think, “This! This is the song that is going to be Oscar-nominated this year for this movie. What a great song!”
I am almost never right. Oh, the biggies—no one would have picked anything but “Let It Go,” for example. I’m also about the only person I know who genuinely championed “How Far I’ll Go” over “Shiny” or “You’re Welcome.” But for The Princess and the Frog, I knew it would be “Friends on the Other Side.” How could it not? And then they gave nominations to two other songs, neither of which were as good, in my opinion. Similarly, while “I See the Light” isn’t a bad song for what it is, it doesn’t match the humour and exuberance of “I Have a Dream” and is instead pretty much a generic love song.
Long ago, a drop of the Sun fell to Earth and created a magic flower. For centuries, Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy) has been using its healing power to keep young. Then one day, a queen is very ill. She and her husband fear it means she will lose her child, and a search is made for the magic flower. She drinks a potion made from it and is healed—and the girl is born with golden hair, which Mother Gothel discovers has the healing power of the flower, but only if it’s still growing. Once it is cut, its power vanishes. So she abducts the girl and hides her in a tower deep in the forest, and the narration says she raises the child as her own. We’ll get back to this.
Eighteen years later, Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) is still living in that tower, and her hair is easily thirty feet long and semi-prehensile. Every year on her birthday, she sees lights rising in the sky, and she wants to know what they are. She asks Mother Gothel to take her there; she is told that she is too innocent and inexperienced to leave the tower. When Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi), a thief on the lam, takes refuge in her tower, she captures him, intending to use this as evidence that she is tough enough to make the trip. But Mother Gothel says she is never to leave the tower no matter what, so Rapunzel makes a request that should send Mother Gothel away for days and tells Flynn that he can have the crown he’s stolen—the crown of the lost princess—back if he’ll take her to see the floating lights.
There are, goodness knows, parents like Mother Gothel. The fact is, she doesn’t love Rapunzel. She doesn’t like her. It’s more as though you have to be constantly nice to your pill bottle before you can get your medication out of it, but “nice” is on a sliding scale. She says some breathtakingly cruel things to Rapunzel and couches them all in “I’m only kidding” or “it’s for your own good.” She has told Rapunzel that she’s her mother, and certainly she’s the only mother Rapunzel has ever known, and I guess it’s true that I don’t believe Mother Gothel would treat her own child better than this. She still makes my “at least I’m better than her” parenting list that I consult when I feel I’m doing a bad job with my own kids.
I wonder if Mother Gothel ever realizes she’d still have the flower if only she’d shared it. The fact is, the queen (neither of Rapunzel’s actual parents ever say anything) probably only needed to touch it and sing the little song, not drink a potion made from it—and since there’s only one flower, there goes the magic. If Mother Gothel had set herself up as a healer, or the flower’s protector, or something along those lines, she could’ve healed the queen and still had the flower for herself. Instead, by being selfish, she loses all. And while Rapunzel’s mother took all of the flower’s magic for her own, it’s not as though it was helping anyone but Mother Gothel before anyway.
Really, though, this is a fun movie that people need to talk about more. It unfortunately fell into that “boys won’t see it if they know it’s about a girl” thing, so the marketing focuses on Flynn, and the title does reference Rapunzel but not directly. But Rapunzel is frankly the Disney princess that a lot of people who don’t like Disney princesses should be more aware of. For one thing, she’s not happy just lolling about; she tells us about her day, and it’s clear she is trying very hard to avoid boredom. She’s self-educated, but she’s still very intelligent and as knowledgeable as her books will let her be. She’s strong and independent, and even though she’s been sheltered her entire life in a way that should stunt her emotional development, she’s still bright and winning and personable, and she still—after much inner debate—makes the decision to go against everything that’s expected of her to get what she wants.
Indeed, in that light, Mother Gothel takes on all kinds of metaphorical weight, most notably at the moment where she tries to weight-shame Rapunzel. Who is remarkably slender for someone who bakes as one of her ways to stave off boredom and doesn’t have much opportunity for real exercise. One assumes she’s got a healthy workout regimen, as much as one can in the confines of that tower. It’s also worth noting that Mother Gothel makes her do work she does not need her to do as part of the means of keeping her penned in—we see, later in the movie, that there’s a regular entrance to the tower that Mother Gothel blocked up as soon as Rapunzel got old enough to use it herself, and the whole “let down your hair to me” thing is merely part of the trap.
So the film works on two levels; it’s a lighthearted romp with a fun love story and the most charming Disney horse since Sleeping Beauty, and it’s a deep exploration of societal expectations on women. And if we know where most of the story is going, well, it’s a fairy tale. Of course we do. And it’s still one of the few Disney movies where a hero is in mortal danger at any point, and I’m pretty sure it’s the only one to show someone who is pregnant other than The Emperor’s New Groove. So it’s got that going for it, too. Also, hearing my two-year-old repeat, “I got dream” is one of the most adorable things going.