Like Nietzsche with God, last fall Disney declared that the fairy tale was dead. In this case, that is, Disney would no longer be making animated features out of the old stories.
As a child of the golden years of Disney fairy tales in the early 90’s, I found this news unutterably depressing. Forget that Disney is notorious for sanitizing the bloodiest aspects of the tales and turning the bitter endings sweet. My love for the true stories, the old stories, the stories in my various anthologies (and it was various…as many as five, perhaps) of the original form fairy tales did not diminish my love for the Disney versions. It still doesn’t, when the modernization is done well; case in point, The Princess and the Frog.
I felt this decision was a result of the Shrek Effect–that no movie subsequent to that successful parody of fairy tales could be successful without taking the same sort of irreverent, modern-humor-infused approach to a tale of “once upon a time.” I also assumed that the current Hollywood mentality of only investing in endlessly franchisable stories had something to do with the decision—because, let’s face it, there’s just not a demand for after-the-wedding story continuations in the under 12 market, aside from, again, Shrek.
And then I saw Tangled, and was convinced of all that.
Don’t get me wrong; I liked Tangled. I was entertained by it, and engaged by it, and I enjoyed it a little bit against my will because the first time I saw it all I could hear were the echoes of Shrek‘s modern characters and behaviors mashed with a medieval setting, its slapstick, and its self-consciousness, all of which made me roll my eyes at the entire ludicrous mood of the movie. I found that mash-up funny in one franchise; I would never want all my fairy tales to be that way, and so, I thought walking out of the theater, good riddance to the genre if this is the only way fairy tales can be told anymore.
Such was my reaction to my first viewing of Tangled, and I rented it a couple weeks after its March 29th DVD release for the express purpose of writing that article—the one that deconstructed it as a postmodern shambles that proved fairy tales are better off without modern culture, may they rest in peace at last instead of being churned in their graves by such castrated specters of their former selves.
But a funny thing happened when I watched it for the second time. I realized that, in fact, the fairy tale really is dead.
What I mean by this is that if you examine what fairy tales have always been to human culture–a projection of our collective fears and morals–that we can no longer simply tell a story that has good, and evil, and things that we fear; the characters can no longer simply act and move the story along. No, instead we must have a psychological parsing of the good, the bad, and the ugly, and no character can undertake any action without breaking the fourth wall to explain it to the audience or soliloquizing about it.
But those attitudes toward and depictions of good and evil are a reflection of modern values. As a society now, we have nothing to fear. We are secure, well-fed, and wealthy. We have nothing to work for except that ephemeral thing called happiness, and we incessantly self-examine our minds and moods and emotions to figure out if we are happy at all, or happy enough, and what we can do to be more happy still. We try to manufacture a sense of worth and industry by over involving ourselves—and our children—in activities. We create bogeymen out of the sense of failure, or low self-esteem, and we refuse to let children face real adversity or disappointment for fear that they might suffer hurt feelings. Essentially we are raising a nation of Rapunzels, sheltered children trapped in ivory towers who have been told that they are special just for existing and have never needed to accomplish anything or succeed at anything in order to be recognized as special and unique and wonderful. All the while we constantly psychoanalyze ourselves, berating ourselves for not enjoying those five paid classes a week more and wondering why it never seems to be enough.
This is the culture that spawned Tangled, with a heroine whose mother treats her with a textbook case of passive-aggressive guilting, who in turn can’t take five steps out of her mother’s tower without falling apart for fear of hurting her mother’s feelings.
Forget Hansel and Gretel, whose very real fear was of being left in the forest to starve only to be replaced by a very real fear of getting eaten to death by a cannibalistic old woman; in this world they would banish themselves into the forest for fear of disappointing their father by making a B on a test or eating a few too many of stepmother’s cookies and getting that dreaded O category on their physical.
We are all like Harry Potter, turning the boggart into a dementor, with, as Lupin would interpret it, nothing to fear but “fear itself.”
When I came back to tangle with Tangled, I realized, in examining it as the end of the line of fairy tales throughout the last century, that it is the inexorable conclusion to our growing cult of science and reason against the occult and the magical. And in watching it through my critical lens, I noticed that it is actually quite subversive toward the message that spawned it, as opposed to subservient.
You see, if you think back to the oldest Disney fairy tales—Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty—the movies are really little more than slightly scrubbed tellings of the original tales. Sure, Cinderella’s sisters don’t have to cut off parts of their feet, and sure, the witch after Snow White has a nice gentle fall to her death instead of being strapped into red-hot shoes and forced to dance at the new queen’s wedding until she dropped dead for the delight of all the guests, and sure Sleeping Beauty never ended up with a thicket of bones around her castle, but all of those stories even as Disney told them were pretty fucking brutal, and that was no different from their original presentation. They all relied on a villain who was pure evil and in two cases supernatural; moreover, the supernatural elements were integral parts of the story, a carrier of the darkest fears and brightest hopes of humanity.
Enter the tales I grew up with Disney presenting—The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin. The Little Mermaid is the bridge, the only one who relies on the old paradigm of purely evil villain who is also supernatural; the others are human villains, with the supernatural playing second fiddle to the affairs of humanity. After all, it is Gaston and Jafar who are the villains, the Beast and the Genie who are victims—magic has been conquered by reason, marginalized, rendered impotent before the power of human evil…until it is imbued with the stronger power of human good (Belle’s love, Aladdin’s selflessness in freeing the Genie).
Magic was resurrected briefly as force of both good and evil in The Princess and the Frog, where its affiliation was determined entirely by its user, but in even that story the supernatural was no part of the daily lives of the main characters. The mysterious realm of the unknown and unnatural has gone from being the projection of the unknown, the horrible, the shadow in the darkness, to a memento from a curio shop.
So then we come back again to Tangled, which takes one of the old fairy tales and its projection of our collective fears, only we cannot give those fears the shape of a real witch, because we have no fears of the unknown left to take seriously. Thus, instead, the witch becomes our fear itself…our fear of the statistically negligible one-in-a-million odds, our fear of “stranger danger,” our fear to let our children set foot outside our own yard for fear that someone will snatch them or exploit them or, god forbid, expose them to a concept that we might feel uncomfortable knowing that they know.
The “witch” here is nothing more than the voice of our own fear. She is not even supernatural, herself–simply greedy, selfish, and lucky. In the prologue she is described as an old woman who had hunted for the magical plant, but not a witch or in any way supernatural until she found it. And is she doing anything with her extended life beyond seducing younger men? We never see what she does with her time, but it is apparently nothing very important, since the only thing she seems concerned about is whether her skin is soft–and she certainly isn’t using her extended life to try and take over the world.
The old woman fulfills, then, two different fears, one the fear of modern women of not merely aging and dying but aging and becoming undesirable, who will go to any lengths and any expense to preserve that glow of youth just a little longer; the other the cultural voice that tells us the world is a bad place, a dangerous place, a place to shun, because it benefits when we believe that. Neither of these fears are supernatural, and, in the end, neither is she.
By giving us this kind of villain, Tangled becomes a masterwork of undermining the bourgeois psyche. I didn’t recognize this on my first viewing, but watching it again I realized that the film is not merely the swan song of the fairy tale but also a rather subversive lesson to the children that the world outside is not to be feared, that those villains and ruffians are in fact simply people just like you with hopes and dreams and fears, and that the only people you should fear are those who tell you to be afraid—because they are doing so for their own ends.
This is true whether you take those fear-mongers to be parents intent on sacrificing every pleasure and freedom of life to keep their child “safe,” or to be the political lobbyists and nanny-statists seeking ever more control over our lives “for our own good” (or, more cynically, also the companies benefiting from overblown health scares).
After all, what happens in Tangled when Rapunzel is finally faced with the outside world? She charms the Viking horde into confessing their deepest secrets to her. However rough they look on the outside, each of them is a big softie somewhere deep inside, and entirely loyal to the new friends they make. The authorities? They can be bribed with guilt trips (because even they know their own authority is in some cases an overreach?) and promises of future reward. The notoriously selfish criminal? He’s just suffering from low self-esteem and want of a father-figure—once someone believes in him, he’s a changed man. Even the people who are villains here aren’t out to kill her: the old woman wants her back safely, because dead she is no longer exploitable and therefore useless, and the two thugs Flynn Rider betrayed simply wanted their money back, and a piece of Flynn’s hide–Rapunzel is incidental to them. This is not Snow White’s stepmother giving the hunter the command to “cut out the little bitch’s heart and bring it back to me to eat.”
The message of Tangled is about going into the world without fear, with an open mind and an open heart, because in fact very little out there in the world is dangerous. Pretty much exactly what modern culture pays lip service to but denies every chance it gets with stories about child predators on every corner and date rape statistics worthy of a third-world war zone, all aimed at frothing us into such fear that we will trust the strangers in “authority” over the person drinking across the bar from us. The witch in our midst insists that we fear the stranger on the late-night bus with us; Tangled tells us that what we should fear is that voice who casts him as a villain and not a late-night fry cook who dreams of becoming the next Emeril. Because the one who seeks to exploit us for their own ends, to our detriment, is not the vague and long-toothed “other” but the propagandist spreading the fear.
That is the message buried at the heart of Tangled—the last of its kind, the witch-killer of our last, worst enemy: fear itself.
With the unknown vanquished, the supernatural absorbed into our own skin, and our own fears thrown off the tower to disintegrate like so much dust in the wind, there is nothing left for fairy tales to do. They have outlived their usefulness as parables. Let them go to their rest.
After all, we can always call them back again when we have need, like Arthur from his sleep in Avalon.
Elena Nola is the imperial movie critic and the colder half of the Ladies of Ice and Fire.