I recently watched Tangled, the latest offering from Disney based on the fairytale Rapunzel. It unexpectedly proved to be a very thought-provoking experience, not only inspiring reflections on the evolving relationship between modern mainstream culture, fairytales and folk culture, but also inspiring a new creative project.
I’ll start with the aspect of the film that I had the biggest issues with – the Rapunzel character (see image below). With her exaggerated Barbie figure and sassy, sexualised posturing, she encapsulated everything that is wrong with the sparkly pink princess that so many young girls seem to want to be these days. I have no doubt that the endless rails of plasticky girls’ princess dresses for sale in Tescos recently were directly inspired by this very film’s protagonist. Her long tresses were also a huge disappointment to me, contrasting with the mental image I had built up through the pen and ink illustrations in my childhood fairytale books – Rapunzel’s hair seemed so synthetic, uniform and lifeless in its golden, but so very un-magical hue. And her face…those enlarged, faun-like eyes, that endless expanse of flawless facial skin moving so deftly from one expression into the next, but seeming more like a rubber mask caked in matte emulsion paint than the fresh, peachy skin of a young woman. Rapunzel’s face, alas, featured the aesthetic perfection but unsettling human deadness that features in so many current animations, described in the digital arts world as the uncanny valley (I’ve written more about this in another post here).
Onto the prince. I was instantly surprised by how the representation of the prince characters in Disney films has changed since I was a child – this guy was pretty approachable, laid back, not that intelligent and a bit of a clumsy idiot really – which constrasts starkly with my memory of the silent, enigmatic, deadly hansome and incredibly intimidating princes in classic Disney films like Snow White. It seems that today’s Disney prince has become a slightly foolish, low status joker whilst the princess has been elevated to the status of an impossibly perfect, multi-talented golden Barbie girl. I wonder why that is, and what Joseph Campbell would have made of it?
What I did like was the modern day relationship that developed between Rapunzel and the prince. In the Disney films of my childhood, I seem to remember hardly any words being exchanged between the prince and princess – they experienced earth-shattering true love in one glance, sealed their union with an equally earth-shattering kiss, got married and lived happily ever after, without ever really getting to know each other. In this version, Rapunzel and the prince developed a low key friendship, hung out together and got on each others’ nerves a bit before eventually becoming romantically entangled, which is surely a healthier representation of love for our modern day youth?
But early on in the film, something separate from the narrative began to grab my attention, and refuse to let go.
What I really want to talk about is Rapunzel’s tower.
In total contrast to the high-gloss, hyper-real but rather dead characters playing out their story in the foreground was Rapunzel’s tower – an unexpected vision of sheer beauty, whispering influences of European folk arts traditions and eccentric venacular architecture. And the exterior view of this enchanted, wonky creation was just the beginning.
The interior of Rapunzel’s tower I can only describe as a folkloric haven. How had Disney done it? It seemed to me a truly magical, otherworldly and ancient space, bringing to life so many aspects of folk arts, folk crafts and folk architecture which inspire me.
In contrast to the smooth, flat and unconvincingly characters of the film, this tower seemed ancient, and real. My senses stirred, and willed my imagination to enter this fantastical space. The cracks on the huge timber beams, the shadows falling onto the tiles and picking out the ridges and details of wooden doorframes, pillars and cubby holes – this place felt alive, like a place I had been to before.
Disney was baffling me right now. How could it have produced a visual setting so deeply ingrained in tradition, and place, and so rich in the subtle elements of texture, light and shadow which were so lacking in the actual characters of the film? And the unexpected references to folk culture continued to appear – during a fairly dull musical number, there was a brief shot of Rapunzel wearing a sort of fabric mask which surely referenced Slavic pagan carnival traditions…
Yet another nod to non-mainstream folk culture came in the form of Rapunzel’s favourite past time. In the film, Rapunzel was shown to spend her free time avidly and obsessively painting the interior walls of her tower with heavily folk art- inspired imagery including birds, stars and trees, looking very similar to Tree of Life motifs found in world folk art traditions. One particular panel, however, hidden behind a heavy velvet curtain, bore striking resemblance to Van Gogh’s Starry Night – – putting all of these cultural clues together, might one assume that Disney was portraying this Rapunzel to be a reclusive, tortured visionary – one of the first true outsider artists..?
I came away from Tangled feeling simultaneously inspired and confused. I was excited and totally surprised by the many folk culture references in Rapunzel’s extraordinary tower, but they contrasted so starkly with many other elements in the film. Pondering on the cultural mishmash I had just witnessed, I began to feel the urge to distill what I had found authentic and beautiful in the film by putting it through some sort of creative filtration process…
The process of which I speak is one that I carry out regularly, without thought, as I am sure many others do too. I use this process when, for example, I buy an item of clothing second hand, from a charity shop, when it was once available to buy first hand from a high street fashion outlet. When I first buy the item in the charity shop, it has already gone through the first stage of this filtration process: the de-fashioning stage. Removed from the high street shop, it no longer holds power as a fashionable and currently desirable item, one which would look good with other similarly on trend items. When hung in a charity shop amongst other diverse second hand clothes, the fashion context is removed, and the item becomes something that can only be assessed via straightforward means: shape, fit, material, colour, etc. I then buy the item, and quite often amend it at home with my sewing machine, thus bestowing new layers of meaning upon it. In this way, an item which was once a (possibly throwaway) fashion item can become a treasured, personal item – this is a process of extracting old meanings, and adding new ones to something – it is a reinvention. And it gives me great satisfaction.
So I’ve decided to take on Disney’s Tangled in a similar way: to extract from the film those aspects which I feel contain beauty and meaning, and reinvent them in a new form. My process started by taking still images from the film, some of which are in this blog post. And I’ve begun to work with these still images to create a series of new artworks, taking the imagery away from the world of digital animation and back towards the domain of pen and ink illustration! The first of my outcomes is the print Rapunzel Paints (below), a collage and watercolour illustration based on a still image of Rapunzel suspended in mid-air by her hair, rather like a trapeze silk artist, in order to paint the walls of her tower.
Rapunzel Paints, illustration print, for sale at:
Oh – for your interest, here is the film still that the print is based on…
I’m going to continue with this extremely fun process of translating Disney’s digital ‘neo-archaic’ imagery back into more archaic formats – paper, watercolour, ink etc – but what I’m most looking forward to is the final, ultimate act of Un-Disneyfication. I hope for this mini-project to culminate in the creation of a moving panorama box – which will use imagery of Tangled’s beautiful Rapunzel tower tocreate a hand-illustrated, animated sequence using early cinema techniques which Disney has long since strayed from – rods, handles and a scroll of illustrated paper in a box.
♠ ♠ ♠ Many Many Moons, April 2014 ♠ ♠ ♠