In a recent issue of Marvels & Tales, Marina Warner writes that “Rapunzel” is both vivid and unsparing in its address of issues related to motherhood, aging, and fecundity (24.2 : 329–37). For Warner, at their essence, Rapunzel narratives navigate “anxieties about safeguarding the young, about sex before marriage and teenage pregnancy, about their yearnings for freedom, which lead to so much conflict in the home” (331–32). In their 2010 animated film Tangled, Walt Disney Animation Studios recuperates a fraction of the essence Warner describes. Although the film maintains themes related to coming of age, it strategically avoids other versions’ sexual implications of young womanhood while vilifying mature femininity and invalidating nonbio-logical mothering. The film’s manipulation of the tale’s most salient metaphor, Rapunzel’s hair, demonstrates how Disney cleverly distorts tale type ATU 310 (The Maiden in the Tower) while also diverging from other popular renditions.
Whereas in most versions the young child is given to a lonely sorceress who raises and loves the child as her own, in Tangled Gothel (Donna Murphy) kidnaps the child from the king and queen’s bedroom. The abduction occurs because the child’s hair has been endowed with the magical healing properties of the flower Gothel has used to stay alive for centuries. As Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) nears her eighteenth birthday, Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi) stumbles upon the tower where she has been confined since her abduction. He is enticed (bribed) to guide her to visit the kingdom. Helped by a gang of unconventionally talented criminals and slapstick animal sidekicks, Flynn and Rapunzel unwittingly confirm Rapunzel’s birthright as the lost princess. The film concludes with the false parent exposed and defeated and the kingdom’s order reestablished by a (biological) family reunion and Rapunzel and Flynn’s implied wedding. Viewers who appreciate Disney’s legacy will hardly be disappointed; with a conservative message, catchy musical numbers, and visually stunning, cutting-edge animation, the film will likely please many audience members. Viewers who require less conventional messages from their contemporary fairy-tale films, however, may find themselves desperately clinging to more traditional retellings.
Perhaps Disney’s most considerate gesture is giving its film a title that clearly distinguishes it from its precursors. Tangled emphasizes that the protagonist is not Rapunzel herself but instead the story of her “tangled” hair. Because tangled hair serves as the film’s most unique facet and remains the strongest signifier linking it to the tale, it is relevant to focus on hair at length (pun intended). The film cleverly obfuscates Rapunzel’s sexual maturity by [End Page 296] fashioning her with something more valuable to safeguard than her virginity: 70 feet of magical hair. Her tresses at once perform as an instrument of self-defense (used by the heroine as a lasso, a swing, a rope, and finally as the trip wire that disposes of the villain) but also as a burden. Even when fastened, the hair is liable to get caught on surrounding objects. During Gothel’s song “Mother Knows Best,” the manipulation of Rapunzel’s hair leaves the heroine’s body wrenched in one moment and bound up in it the next. Although her hair offers protection, it is simultaneously a liability.
But primarily the hair is valuable. For Gothel its worth justifies Rapunzel’s captivity. Shifting the justification for this imprisonment reconfigures the tale’s mother-daughter relationship. Rapunzel’s value as a daughter is displaced onto an aesthetic property of her body (hair). Gothel’s appellation of Rapunzel as a flower underscores the hair’s use-value as external to Rapunzel herself. Whereas other versions of the tale make the sorceress’s wish for an unremitting mother-daughter union selfish yet sycophantic (see Anne Sexton’s poetry in Transformations  for an expressive retort), Disney’s Gothel is motivated by her obsession with immortality (and looks). Any doubts relating to the legitimacy of Gothel’s role as Rapunzel’s adoptive mother...