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Movie vs Myth: Tangled

Updated: Jan 1

First pitched in 1996, given the green light in 2001, and finally released in 2010, Disney’s ‘Tangled’ takes reimagines the classic tale of Rapunzel; a character largely known for her shut-in lifestyle and long, long hair. With a budget of $260 million, the film is one of the most expensive animated movies ever made, with an entire team dedicated to solving the problem of animating Rapunzel’s characteristic hair.

The story of Rapunzel is said to have been partially inspired by the story of Saint Barbara, who lived in the 4th Century, and whose life was far darker than the fairy story. She was so beautiful that her father, Dioscorus, locked her away in a tower. He was a devout pagan, but despite her isolation, Barbara came to know of Christianity and converted. She swore to live a life of chastity, never marrying and devoting her life to God. When her father learnt of this he was enraged. His daughter steadfastly refused to give up her faith and wound up beheaded by her own father. Divine judgement was swift, with Dioscorus dying soon after from a lightning strike.

The story changes quite dramatically as it was passed on, but one of the key elements – the beautiful girl, trapped in a tower – remained. Initially an oral tale, eventually versions of it were written down. One of the earliest of these was the French tale of ‘Persinette’, written by Mademoiselle de la Force in the 17th century, in which a child (Persinette in this tale) is bargained away to a fairy and locked in a tower after her parents stole from the fairy’s garden. Another version of the story was written in the 18th Century with Friedrich Schultz’s ‘Kleine Romane’, and yet another in the 19th century, this time by the Brothers Grimm, who would produce the most famous version of the story.

In the tale, a husband and wife spend many years in married bliss, their happiness only marred by the fact that they are unable to conceive a child. After many years waiting, they discover to their joy that the wife is with child, though this joy is soon shattered when the wife grows ill. Weak and unable to eat she is confined to her bedroom, she looks out into their neighbour’s garden to see delicious looking greenery, and the wife is overcome with her craving for the plant. The identity of the plant itself varies by telling, (in ‘Persinette’ this is parsley) though rampion is the most common choice, as it is also known as rapunzel.

Terrified for his wife’s health, her husband climbed the wall into the neighbour’s garden and stole some of the plant – a task more dangerous than it first appears. As it turns out, this neighbour was a wicked witch. The wife eagerly devoured the plant, growing better for a time. But she was still unwell, and her cravings could only be satisfied by the plant. Without it, she began to wither again. With no other choice, her husband went back over the wall and this time, he was not so lucky. Captured by the witch, the man begged for his life. The witch said she that not only would she spare his life, but she would allow him to pick as many plants as he needed from her garden… if he swore to give her the child his wife carried. The man agreed.

The witch kept her word, and when the couple welcomed their daughter into the world, she appeared to claim her. The witch took the child away, and her parents never saw her again.

Disappearing into the woods, the witch named the child for the plant that had started it all, Rapunzel, and hid her away in a tall tower with only a window and no door. When she visited, the witch would stand at the base of the tower, calling up for Rapunzel to led down her golden hair. Rapunzel would throw her long hair out of the window and the witch would climb up to see her stolen child.

This continued for many years, until a prince riding alone in the forest happened to hear Rapunzel singing to herself. Captured by the enchanting song, the prince followed it. Though he wished to meet the owner of the song, he had no way to enter the tower. That didn’t stop him from returning often, to listen to her song. One day, his visit coincided with the return of the witch. Staying hidden, he saw the witch call for Rapunzel, and Rapunzel let down her hair. The prince waited until the witch had left before coming out of hiding and calling for Rapunzel to let down her hair, climbing up to meet her.

The two meet up regularly, falling in love, and the prince proposes marriage and escape. On each visit, her brings a piece of silk, which Rapunzel ties into a ladder. Before they can put their escape plan into motion, their relationship is discovered. In over version, Rapunzel accidentally gives them away when she asks the witch why she is so much heavier to pull up than the prince. In a less child-friendly version of the tale, naïve Rapunzel asks the witch why her dresses no longer fit around the middle – the implication being that she had fallen pregnant with the prince’s child.

Angry at the betrayal, the witch sheared Rapunzel’s hair and banished her from the tower, turning her out into the wilderness. The witch herself waited until the prince returned. When he called out, she threw the severed hair from the window, allowing the prince to climb up before revealing the deception. Horrified, the prince was either pushed, or fell from the tower in his despair. Thick bushes grew at the bottom of the tower, and the prince landed on top of them. Though this saved his life, it cost him his eyesight, with two thorns from the bush blinding him.

Distraught, lost and confused, the prince wandered aimlessly for two years. Finally, he came upon a woman singing, her voice so familiar. Drawn again to the voice, the prince discovered Rapunzel, struggling to live in the wasteland the witch had banished her too along with (in the versions of the story where Rapunzel fell pregnant) their twin children. Reunited, Rapunzel began to weep. Her tears fell onto the eyes of the prince and, miraculously, healed him. He opened his eyes, no longer blind, and looked upon the face of his love.

Overjoyed, the prince took Rapunzel home to his kingdom, where they lived happily ever after.

Though this is the basis for the film, for ‘Tangled’, Disney flips the narrative. Rather than the story of a prince discovering the daughter of a thief locked in a tower, instead ‘Tangled’ sees a thief, discovering the daughter of a king.

The film follows a basic plot of the Rapunzel storyline, a pregnant wife who falls ill, a plant which is the only remedy, a child locked in a tower with long golden hair, but makes many changes to the specifics of the story.

The husband and wife are, instead, a king and queen and rather than the queen craving the neighbour’s greenery, the kingdom instead goes in search of a legendary healing flower that Mother Gothel had hidden away. Found, the flower is used to heal the queen, and in the process its power passes on to her unborn child, imbuing Rapunzel with magical golden healing hair.

Mother Gothel, who had been using the healing power of the flower to remain young for hundreds of years, comes to the castle to steal the child’s hair, only to discover that it loses power when cut – with seemingly no other open, Mother Gothel steals the child. Terrified of losing the magic a second time, Mother Gothel isolates Rapunzel in a tall tower, and raises her to fear the outside world.

In doing so, the ‘Tangled’ version of the story does neatly close a couple of plot holes in the original fairy tale – why Rapunzel’s hair grows so long in the first place (in some versions of the tale this is remarked as happening because the witch was so incompetent at caring for the child) and why she doesn’t just cut it off herself and use it to escape.

This version is also far kinder to Rapunzel’s parents, arguably at the expense of Mother Gothel. The king and Queen did not steal from the witch (as Mother Gothel had no right to the flower), incite her anger or willingly trade away their child. They are just the unfortunate victims of a terrible child abduction. It also gives Mother Gothel a motive for taking the child, while the witch’s reasons are never explored (beyond the presumably generic, evil witchy motives). Interestingly, in a departure from both the fairy tale, and Disney’s own tradition, while a villain, Mother Gothel is not a witch. She has no powers of her own, and the only magic she has access to is the flower and Rapunzel.

The Disney adaptation also goes further into the years the Rapunzel spends with Mother Gothel, and what they are like – focusing on how Mother Gothel sees Rapunzel only as a resource, and depicting her as manipulate, cruel and verbally abusive. The fairy tale never much explores the relationship between the witch and her kidnapped child – though given that she banishes the girl in rage at the first sign of disobedience, we can assume it was not particularly pleasant.

It further changes the interactions between Rapunzel and the ‘prince’ – or in the case of the story, Rapunzel and the thief, Flynn Rider. Rather than meeting many times in secret while planning an escape, Rapunzel and Flynn leave the tower on the day they meet. It was also far from love at first sight, with Rapunzel initially blackmailing Flynn to take her to (unbeknownst to her) the kingdom of her birth.

Rather than banishing Rapunzel, Mother Gothel instead seeks to take her back, and eventually manages to get her back to the tower. The final confrontation of the film does contain many aspects of the fairy tale. As the prince did, Flynn makes it to the tower, calls for Rapunzel to let down her hair, and climbs, only to be met with someone else at the top. For obvious reasons, Mother Gothel did not cut Rapunzel’s hair, but instead tied her up and used the hair without her consent. Unlike the prince, Flynn also wasn’t blinded – instead mortally stabbed. When Rapunzel attempted to heal him, he cut her hair, and her power was lost. Mother Gothel – with the help of Rapunzel’s chameleon friend – was the one to fall from the tower, and she did not have any convenient bushes to break her landing.

A tiny part of the magic remains however and – much like in the fairy tale – Rapunzel’s tears heal Flynn’s wound. In another inversion of the fairy tale, now that he is healed, Rapunzel takes Flynn to her kingdom, where she is finally reunited with her parents.

Overall, though there are (as ever) many changes between Disney’s version of the tale and the classic, well known fairy tale, the story is still very recognisable. It even adds a further dimension to the story by exploring aspects of the tale not originally explored – most notably Rapunzel’s relationship with her guardian/captor. Though the precise details may have changed, the essence of the story remained the same and ‘Tangled’ joined a long tradition of similar, but distinct retellings of the same locked-in-a-tower legend.


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