I’m generally a big fan of animated films, and the recent slew of animated features from Disney are actually pretty good. Perhaps understanding that times have changed, Disney seems to be focusing on retelling fairy tales and classical tales but with a fresher, modern twist. Take Frozen and the surprisingly progressive “twist” at the end of the movie that stray from the expected “guy gets girl” trope.
Before Frozen came Tangled, a retelling of the Rapunzel story. I quite enjoyed Tangled as a light and funny romp with enough heartfelt “Disneyness” about it that gave it my tick of approval. But there was one thing that annoyed me about the movie, and that’s the way it depicts the villian, Gothel, who is Rapunzel’s adopted mother/kidnapper. Spoilers ahoy!
At the beginning of the film, Gothel is described as a centuries-old woman who found a magical flower that is able to heal the sick and injured if one sings to it. Gothel visits the flower periodically to sing to it to regain her youth. While she does hide the flower, she doesn’t disturb it from the spot it grows. Instead, she simply visits it when she needs her youth restored.
A Queen from a Generic Disney Kingdom™ falls pregnant and becomes sick. To save her life, the King sends his army to search far and wide for the magical flower. Once they find it (without any resistance from Gothel), they cut down the flower in order to brew it into a tea for the Queen. This was a magical, forever growing flower that could benefit all that comes to it, and they just cut it down. Imperialism, everybody!
So the magical flower is gone forever but the Queen is saved. She births a little girl who happens to have absorbed the magic of the flower through her hair. The ever resourceful Gothel sneaks into the baby’s room and discovers that when she sings the magic song, Rapunzel’s hair reacts and replenishes Gothel’s youth just like the flower did.
Now, Gothel isn’t out to snatch the kid, in fact, the first thing she does is cut a lock of Rapunzel’s hair, probably intending to keep a lock of the magic with her. If the magic had stayed in the lock, Gothel would’ve gone her merry away without further disturbing the princess or the kingdom. But unfortunately, the magic is somehow attached to Rapunzel herself, so the cut hair has no magic. Gothel has no choice but to kidnap the princess if she wants to stay alive. She just wants to live people, is that such a crime??
Anyway, so Rapunzel is kidnapped and locked in a high tower to live out her childhood. Unlike the traditional story where the princess is kept all alone, it is highly implied in the movie that Gothel generally lives with her in the tower. Not only does Gothel look after her, but she also tries to keep Rapunzel happy, by bringing her paints and books. The only thing that Gothel can’t do is let Rapunzel leave the tower.
I’m not justifying Gothel’s actions of keeping Rapunzel in a gilded cage as being a good thing. It’s not. I’m sure she could’ve gone about it a more civil way, perhaps trying to negotiate with the King and Queen to allow periodic visits to Rapuznel to get that magic hair juju. Kidnapping was definitely a pretty drastic move. However, for a Disney villian, kidnapping and raising a child as a single mother in order to stay alive is pretty low on the list of villainous acts. Certainly lower than cursing a baby to die on her 16th birthday because you didn’t get invited to said baby’s birthday party.
Anyway, Gothel tries to keep Rapunzel in the tower by warning her of the dangers of the outside world via the best song in the movie, Mother Knows Best. It doesn’t work and Rapunzel sneaks out anyway. She encounters the very things that Gothel warned her about, ruffians and thugs, but thanks to contrived Disney logic, said thugs turn out to be warm-hearted fellas, who become instant BFFs with Rapunzel. Don’t listen to your parents kids, strangers are all way cool!
Things happen but Rapunzel is brought back to the tower by Gothel. There, Rapunzel puts together that she must be the missing princess. And this is the part that gets to me the most, she immediately rejects Gothel. Despite the fact that Gothel had raised her and was the only person she knew all her life, because of the newly discovered fact that Gothel is not her biological parent and had dared to deprive Rapunzel the right to live as a princess, she now hates Gothel.
Flynn comes to rescue Rapunzel who is now chained up by Gothel to stop her from escaping. Flynn gets shived by Gothel and Rapunzel promises to go with Gothel if she is allowed to save Flynn. Gothel agrees and Rapunzel tries to use her hair to save him. What does he do? He cuts her hair, which kills the magic and reverses Gothel’s youth. In her shock and despair, Gothel stumbles towards the window and the stupid chameleon uses Rapunzel’s hair to trip Gothel so that she falls out the window to her death. WTF animal side-kick??
Not a single word is said about Gothel for the remainder of the movie. Rapunzel is reunited with her biological parents, the people whom she’s never spoken to, seen or know anything about. They welcome her with open arms and the end.
This movie teaches us that biological parents you don’t know are waaaay better than adoptive parents. Forget how an adoptive parent might have “bathed and changed and nursed you”, it’s okay to completely move on from them if you discover that you have “real” parents out there. Gothel may have kidnapped Rapunzel for selfish reasons, but who’s to say that she didn’t grow to love Rapunzel? Couldn’t she both be protective of her daughter and her daughter’s magical hair?
Imagine if Gothel was the protagonist of the movie. Perhaps the reason she always leaves the tower is to find an alternate way to keep her youth without having to rely on Rapunzel. Perhaps she finally finds this alternative source of magic and realises that she no longer has to rely on Rapunzel, meaning she can finally tell Rapunzel the truth. But before she’s able to finalise her plans, her liar revealed moment occurs when Rapunzel realises that she’s a kidnapped princess. With time running out, Gothel chains Rapunzel up to take control of the situation, but in the end, all is for nought when Rapunzel’s hair is cut and Gothel falls to her death because of a freaking lizard. Gothel’s long life ends, and she is never able to redeem herself in the eyes of her daughter.
I am certainly not advocating kidnapping. Yes, Gothel’s motives are definitely selfish, and she’s can be pretty crummy as a mother (chaining up your kids is a no-no). The movie certainly implies that Rapunzel’s picture-perfect, royal biological parents would have been way better parents than Gothel. I am just puzzled by the themes of this movie, which on one hand, has a villian whose biggest crime is committed out of selfishness, and on the other, has a hero (Flynn) who also acts out of selfishness, yet is given the chance to redeem himself.
Out of all the Disney villians that come to mind, Gothel is the one who I would say is the least “evil”. She doesn’t have lofty “evil” ambitions, she doesn’t derive joy from seeing others suffer, she’s not vengeful or jealous. She had a sustainable method to keep herself alive (without hurting anyone) and she had to make do once the method is unthinkingly destroyed by the supposed “good guys”. She’s a complex character who could’ve been given the opportunity to redeem herself but I guess that would’ve been too difficult for Disney to pull off.
Instead, Disney seems to advocate the uncomfortable idea that biological parents are the best, even if you know nothing about them, as opposed to lame adoptive parents who had cared for you all your life and who impose stupid rules on you for your protection.
I had pretty strict parents when growing up and there were rules I had to obey, especially when I was a teen. I try to imagine how I would react if I found out that my parents weren’t biologically related to me, but had kidnapped me for whatever reason when I was a baby, and I have now found my biological parents. Would I immediately jump ship? Could I abandon the people who raised me and more importantly, could I deny them something that would save their lives which was in my control, just because they had lied to me about my origins? What is Disney trying to say if the protagonist of their movie would say “yes” to all of the above in a heartbeat?
But forget all that! The guy and the girl got together! The horse is funny! Happy ending, hooray, right?