It’s just hours since the nominations have been announced for the 2011 Golden Globes when Beat meets with Nathan Greno and Byron Howard, the directors of Disney’s 3D Rapunzel adventure, Tangled. The film has been recognised in two fields: Best Animated Feature Film and Best Original Song – Motion Picture, and the pair have spent a long, wakeful night fielding calls from abroad. If they’re at all tired, they don’t show it. But as career animators, they’re perhaps more accustomed to burning the candle at both ends than most. For in a vocation where an individual produces a mere three to five seconds of tangible results per full-time work week, down-time is never really an option.
“Nathan and I actually pitched our next film for John Lasseter [director of Toy Story; Chief Creative Officer of Disney and Pixar] about eight months ago, while we were still finishing Tangled,” tells Howard. “It’s almost like a post-traumatic stress syndrome that happens after you finish one of these things, because you’re working in such a focused way for so long. Psychologically, it’s good for us to have something in the future.”
Tangled is the 50th animated feature released by Walt Disney Animation Studios, as well as Disney’s first computer-generated (CG) film to introduce a new princess. “It’s so great the way it worked out, because [Disney’s first feature-length animation] Snow White was a Brothers Grimm story, and so is this,” Greno enthuses. “And we didn’t even know. We were six months into the movie when someone finally did the math!’”
“The film had actually been at the Disney studios since the 1940s,” continues Howard. “It was on Walt’s desk on a list with Cinderella and Peter Pan as films that they wanted to do.” Six decades seems like an abnormally protracted gestation, even in the painstaking world of feature animation. So why is a Disney-fied Rapunzel only now reaching screens in late 2010? Tangled is the result of six years of intensive reworks, reboots and restarts. During that time, the film was developed in three different iterations by a conga line of creative talent before Greno and Howard’s version was settled on. The fairytale’s static narrative, Howard explains, meant grooming the tumble-haired maiden for the big screen was quite the tricky venture.
“It’s about a very passive young woman sitting in a room for the whole length of the story,” he notes. “Not much real estate for a ninety minute film.” Then there’s the seven years it took to perfect the software required to realise the heroine’s luxuriant locks…
Never before in the history of CG-animated features has hair been called upon to perform and interact with its surrounds so much as it does in Tangled. “And we have seventy feet of it!,” laughs Greno. “They always say ‘Don’t have that hair touch anything!’ Meanwhile, we’re having her tie people up with it, throw it up in the rafters and climb it, and use it as a bullwhip – all these crazy things.”
In case all of this weren’t cause for anxiety enough, Tangled, thanks to its knotty development, holds the distinction of being the second most expensive movie ever, trumped only in total outlay by the third Pirates of the Caribbean – itself another a Disney production. “The nice thing is they don’t tell us exact numbers,” admits Howard when the matter of budget is broached. “Our job is making it the movie it needs to be. We don’t limit ourselves in the story room, saying ‘Well, I don’t know if we can do this technologically...’ It’s more about ‘What’s going to make this movie great?’”
As that Globe nom for Best Original Song suggests, Tangled, like all Disney princess yarns, is a musical. To melodise their kingdom far, far away, Greno and Howard enlisted composer Alan Menken, the musical maven behind such enduring Disney earworms as A Whole New World, Under the Sea and Beauty and the Beast. “Alan said, ‘Why don’t we make Rapunzel’s [numbers] sound like Joni Mitchell wrote them?’,” tells Howard. “We thought that was a great match for Rapunzel. You can just picture her sitting on her bed with a guitar, composing these songs.”
A high-point in the film is Mother Knows Best, the deranged Broadway-style theme tune of the film’s slinky villainess, Mother Gothel. While it’s Menken’s most memorable contribution to the score, it also marks Tangled’s most visually ingenious sequence. “You can get away with things in these songs,” smiles Greno. “Logic can go out the window a little bit. You’re able to creatively explore areas that you wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.” Well worth a few sleepless nights, then.
Tangled releases nationally on January 6 2011. Artwork from the film features extensively in the Dreams Come True: The Art of Disney’s Classic Fairytales exhibition, currently on show at ACMI until April 26. For more info, visit acmi.net.au.
Review By GERARD ELSON