Comparing Disney films with their original stories.
Our first foray into CGI Disney, Tangled is based on the tale of Rapunzel, the girl with the long golden hair who uses it as a ladder to let people into her tower. Interestingly, the DVD box says the source text is “hilarious”, which is a slight departure from the original claim of “inspires Nazism”.
Okay, that’s an equally slight exaggeration, but Rapunzel formed part of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s most famous work, Die Kinder und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales), which was banned from many a classroom in the west after World War II. It was feared that the stories contained therein had desensitised children to violence and paved the way for extremism, so at least we know it’s not just video games that turn kids evil. Despite appearances, just as Tangled is as happy-go-lucky as Hercules, Rapunzel is actually one of the less traumatic offerings from the Brothers Grimm.
In case you’ve only heard their names and not a lot else, the Brothers Grimm are heralded as the fathers of modern German literature studies, and with good reason. During the 19th Century, Germany was in a bit of a mess due to various political squabbles, and so to help preserve the country’s identity, the brothers set about collecting German folk tales and fairy stories as well as researching the roots of their own language. Since their adaptation is the first story that carries the name “Rapunzel”, I have chosen this version as our source text.
Based on the German translation of Mademoiselle de la Force’s Persinette, Rapunzel actually has two iterations, from 1812 and 1857 respectively. The one from 1857 is the most well known, but this was after some conservative editing – when the Grimms realised how popular their stories could be with children, they decided to clean them up accordingly. Sounds familiar.
So, are we going to look at the unedited 1812 version? Of course we are.
In a far away land, a good king and queen (who still hang people for stealing) are in a spot of bother. The queen is pregnant but gravely ill, and the only thing that can cure her is a legendary flower made from a drop of sunshine. The king sends out his soldiers on what they probably thought would be an epic, dragon-filled, swash-buckling quest to find it, but it turns up pretty quickly beside an up-turned basket on a cliff, and so they whisk it away to make a potion to cure the queen. Result!
Unfortunately, the owner of the up-turned basket is Mother Gothel, who may or may not be a sorceress. She has been using the flower for its magical youth-restoring properties, and she is none too pleased at the thought of reverting back to wrinkle cream like the rest of us. By the time she reaches the castle to retrieve the flower, it has long since been digested by the queen and its powers now have a new home in the luxuriant blonde hair of the baby princess.
Out of desperation, Gothel resorts to something even more extreme than botox and cosmetic surgery: kidnapping and emotional abuse. She sneaks into the castle, steals the princess and then raises her as her own for the express purpose of cheating old age.
After a fruitless search for their daughter, the mournful king and queen make a pact to release hundreds of lanterns every year on her birthday in the hope that one day she will return to them. Because “missing” posters would be too obvious.
Both sides show a distinct lack of effort here.
After many years of trying for a baby, a married couple finally conceive, and one day the pregnant wife has a particular craving while looking out of the window. She spots a patch of rapunzel (lamb’s lettuce) in the lush and verdant garden next door, and decides there’s nothing else in the world she would rather eat. Unfortunately, it belongs to a fairy, and so no one dares to go inside. Clearly unable to do her own shopping, or, you know, ask the fairy’s permission, the wife falls into a deep depression and becomes ill.
Worried for her health, her husband steals some of the rapunzel for her, but when he returns the next day to pilfer more, he is caught red handed. Doing his best to avoid fertilising said garden, he apologises profusely to the fairy, Gothel, and explains that he can’t refuse his wife anything when she is pregnant. Gothel is utterly reasonable and says he can take as much rapunzel as he wants as long as they give her the child afterwards. In his terror the husband agrees, and when their baby daughter arrives, the fairy whisks her away. As an extra slap in the face, or because she has no imagination, she names the girl “Rapunzel”.
The parents are never heard of again, because after swapping their first born for a bunch of salad leaves, they then trade their organs for a sackful of carrots. Probably.
Disney took all of the elements of Rapunzel’s origin and gave them a cinematic upgrade. A tasty piece of garnish and a rather extreme punishment for stealing become a life-saving magical flower and a royal tragedy due to an inconvenience. There is also the hope that the princess will one day be reunited with her family, whereas in the Grimm version there is no question of this because the parents must take responsibility for their mistake. This seems to be the only motivation of the fairy in this case, whereas Disney’s Gothel takes the child so that she can continue her way of living. So what do these charming ladies do with their newly acquired offspring?
Realising a basket isn’t the best hiding place after all, Gothel decides to confine the newly-named Rapunzel to a tower in the middle of the woods for the rest of her life. After a certain age she only visits the girl a few days at a time, shouting out for her to throw her long hair out of the window so she can use it as a ladder, with a clear disregard for hygiene. Her visits are fleeting; she only stays long enough to humour Rapunzel and replenish her youth.
Despite this, Rapunzel has been making the best of a bad situation and spends her days baking, painting, reading or playing with her pet chameleon. Although usually afraid of leaving the tower, she can’t help but be intrigued by the strange lights that appear in the sky every year on the night of her birthday. Demonstrating Sherlock-like skills of elimination, she has worked out that these lights are not stars or any natural phenomena, and since her 18th birthday is fast approaching, hopes Gothel will give her permission to go and see them up close. Her response?
Yes, it seems that Gothel went to the same parenting classes as Frollo (less the sideline in genocide and religious fundamentalism), and has manipulated and emotionally blackmailed Rapunzel into staying in the tower for her own safety, becoming sarcastic and snide whenever the subject is breached and baulking at the idea of Rapunzel surviving on her own. She then launches into a passive-aggressive song and rounds it up with veiled threats if she ever asks to leave again. So, that would be a no.
However, Rapunzel isn’t quite as downtrodden as it appears, and she is about to be presented with an opportunity to shine.
Beautiful young Rapunzel is only confined to the tower from the age of 12, so we can assume that she was living with the fairy up until this point. Next door to her real parents. Who thought it perfectly acceptable to break the rules for a few salad leaves, but not in order to see their missing daughter. Hmm, perhaps the fairy had more sense than to leave the girl with those two idiots.
However, this Gothel’s actions aren’t exactly model either; like the Disney version, she makes Rapunzel stay in the tower indefinitely and visits her every day, shouting for her to throw down her hair and use it as a makeshift ladder. There are no details about what Rapunzel does with her time when Gothel is away, except for singing at the window, so we have no idea whether she is happy with her predicament or not.
The key difference here is that the tower in the Disney version is Gothel’s way of protecting her secret, whereas the one in the Grimm version is just a huge stone chastity belt. Grimm’s Rapunzel also offers no resistance to her captivity as far as we know, and has as much personality as the usual damsel in distress in a fairy tale. Gothel’s attitude towards her is also a mystery at this point. Conversely, in a bid to make her less of a victim, Disney have made their Rapunzel much more active, intelligent, and unwilling to while away the days despite her confinement, and their Gothel is much more manipulative and sinister in order to keep her in check.
The key to her escape comes in the form of a handsome young man, but each Rapunzel will find that the road to love and happiness is a tricky one indeed.
To fund his pipe dream of owning his own castle, wanted thief Flynn Rider steals what would have been Rapunzel’s crown from the palace and takes off into the wilderness. While fleeing his jilted robber friends and the royal guards (including the most awesome Disney horse since Samson), he stumbles upon the valley of Rapunzel’s tower.
No one apart from Gothel has ever come across this tower in 17 years, which means that this:
was somehow much more obvious than this:
Despite the sheer walls, Flynn manages to climb up and into the window, thinking it would be a superb place to stash his loot. He is rewarded for this ingenuity with several blows from a frying pan, courtesy of a terrified Rapunzel.
The girl, astonished at her own bravery and resourcefulness, further surprises herself by making a deal with Flynn (when he has regained consciousness). If he takes her to see the lights in the sky, she will give him back his satchel, which clearly held something important.
Only Gothel would be less impressed by this turn of events, but Flynn agrees anyway, at first trying to talk her out of it – even turning the knife about how heartbroken Gothel would be if she found out – but then warming to the girl after they help each other out of various scrapes on their way to the lights. After revealing the magical healing properties of Rapunzel’s hair, and an earnest heart to heart about their respective upbringings and dreams, the pair realise they have much more in common than first thought.
It turns out that Flynn Rider was formerly known as Eugene Fitzherbert, a down-on-his-luck orphan who took to stealing so he could become an adventurer. He hasn’t let his status or situation restrict him, and this is part of the reason why he and Rapunzel click – he tells her she can’t live her life by Gothel’s rules, and that rebellion and independence are part of growing up. He also inadvertently shows Rapunzel the world she has been missing, amazingly without the need for a magic carpet.
Regardless, he and Rapunzel go up to the brink of a kiss on a boat while finally watching the flying lanterns. Ahh.
Our original Rapunzel, on the other hand, would be left tapping her foot impatiently in this situation.
Rather than a thief, this handsome young man is a prince, who happens to wander past the tower one day while Rapunzel is singing at the window. He’s somewhat less cerebral than Flynn and doesn’t know how to climb up without a ladder or stairs, but luckily, after a couple of days of moping about, he sees the fairy and hears her call out “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair.”
That same day, when it gets dark, he calls out to Rapunzel using the same words. For some reason she doesn’t notice that the fairy’s voice has suddenly grown a pair of testicles, and throws her long hair down to him.
The prince pulls himself up, and although Rapunzel is scared at first she doesn’t resort to frying pan-related violence. In fact, the pair hit it off so well that they arrange to see each other every day when the fairy isn’t around, and in the words of the original “lived in joy and pleasure for a long time”. So we can conclude that being locked in a tower was a popular medieval aphrodisiac, and that in the original, Flynn’s “smoulder” actually worked.
As with the Disney version, our mother figure is none too pleased with this development and ends up playing gooseberry.
In an interesting role reversal, Disney have made Flynn a peasant whose dream of living in a castle could technically be granted by Princess Rapunzel. Their relationship is also a slow-burner (in fantasy terms at least), starting with a bout of assault, a mind game or two on the part of Flynn, and a heart to heart talk inspired by proximity to death. But then onwards it starts warming up into a genuine romance. Conversely, the Grimm couple don’t even have to leave the tower before they get it on. Neither are also the sharpest tools in the box, as the prince couldn’t work out how to climb up the tower, and Rapunzel demonstrates worse voice recognition than your average Sat Nav, but they seem happy as a couple from the outset.
How is their illicit affair discovered? By good old fashioned stupidity, that’s how.
After an expert diversion by Rapunzel, Gothel has left for three days and is blissfully unaware of her escape. At least for the first twenty minutes, until she finds the aforementioned awesome horse without a rider and dashes back to the tower in a panic. Finding it empty, Gothel somehow stumbles across Flynn’s satchel, complete with royal crown. This would be no help to her at all, if the narcissistic Flynn hadn’t identified himself by putting one of his own “wanted” posters in the bag as well.
Now knowing who to look for, Gothel sets off in search of her absconded
prisoner offspring. She manages to track the pair down, but rather than drag the girl screaming back to the tower (at least at this point), she flexes her manipulative muscles. After planting seeds of doubt in Rapunzel’s mind about Flynn’s true loyalty – Gothel warns he will dump her as soon as he has the crown back – she then enlists the help of the thief’s jilted robber friends.
Together they create a situation where Flynn appears to betray Rapunzel for the crown, and then Gothel rescues her from the thieves. The thieves aren’t privy to the second part of this plan, so while they and the unfortunate Flynn are shipped off to prison for a bout of hanging, Rapunzel goes sheepishly back to the tower with her “mother”.
However, Rapunzel has put various subliminal messages together and worked out that she is the missing princess. She angrily confronts Gothel with this information, who reacts as any reasonable parent would do: she chains her up and says this time she will take her away somewhere where they will never be found.
Flynn has also realised this and is broken out of prison by some chums they met on their adventure, dashing heroically back to the tower to save his lady love. However, after climbing up her hair, he is greeted with a knife in the back by Gothel.
As he lies dying, Rapunzel promises to let Gothel lock her up forever if she just lets her heal him. Amazingly, Gothel obliges, at least she would do if Flynn didn’t take a knife and cut Rapunzel’s magical hair off.
This makes Gothel rapidly age, trip rather suspiciously over the pet chameleon, tumble to her death out of the window and turn into a heap of ash. Flynn turns into a heap of hurt and expires, so Rapunzel has lost her hair, her guardian and her new boyfriend in one fell swoop. Wow, Disney, you really can be bastards sometimes.
Gothel finds out about Rapunzel’s affair in a way that is much less dramatic but much more hilarious, in a car-crash sort of way.
One day when she visits Rapunzel, the girl asks her why her clothes don’t seem to fit her anymore. While she is utterly mystified at her bulging abdomen, Gothel realises something is metaphorically cooking, and, disgusted at her actions, cuts off her long blonde hair and throws her out of the tower (not literally this time), effectively disowning her.
For some reason Gothel holds on to the hair, and when the prince turns up for another visit, she throws it down to him so he can climb up. When he arrives, she rudely tells him that his Rapunzel is long gone and he will never see her again. In his grief, the prince throws himself out of the tower window and loses his eyesight in the fall.
Although Disney Gothel is angry and inconvenienced by Rapunzel’s escape and her new boyfriend, this isn’t the revelation that makes her snap – it’s the fact that Rapunzel has discovered her true identity, and no amount of chiding or manipulation can change the girl’s mind. For Grimm’s Gothel, it’s Rapunzel’s pregnancy, the one condition she was presumably hoping to avoid by locking her in a tower from the age of 12. She is also much less brutal in admonishing the party responsible; although she does trick the prince with Rapunzel’s hair and speak rudely to him, it’s by the prince’s own volition that he injures himself.
The Gothels also react differently to the revelation – the Disney version wants to limit Rapunzel’s freedom even more than before, whereas the Grimm version can’t wait to be rid of her once she has broken her rules. Now the Grimm version is finally free, let’s see how her time outside the tower compares with Disney’s.
Skipping back to a happier part of the story, as soon as Rapunzel’s feet touch the grass outside the tower she becomes deliriously happy and devastatingly guilt-ridden, depending on whether an odd or even number of minutes have passed. She soon decides that she likes the outside world, despite being afraid that hooligans and sharp-toothed men will jump out at her at any minute. Flynn decides to reassure her by taking her to an inn that is full of said hooligans and sharp-toothed men.
His plan to scare the girl home again backfires, because being part pure sunshine means that even the hardiest and villainous of ruffians can’t resist engaging in a sing-a-long, talking about dreams and even baking you sublime cupcakes.
They also break your boyfriend out of prison thanks to a horse that’s either telepathic or versed in human sign language.
It’s not all pastries and parties though; soon after Rapunzel and Flynn are pursued by the royal guards, bringing down a dam in the process and ending up trapped in a flooding cave. Fortunately, Rapunzel remembers her hair glows when she sings and this allows them to find the way out, as well as heal Flynn’s hand and utterly blow his mind.
Even Flynn’s most relentless pursuer, Maximus, said awesome horse who puts the entire army to shame, can’t resist Rapunzel and grudgingly agrees to call off his pursuit for 24 hours while they visit the lights. The three then find themselves bonding while shopping, dancing or eating apples (whichever is appropriate) in the main town before Flynn rows his lady love out on to the lake to watch the lights. Maximus, left behind with a sack of apples, is later able to warn their ruffian chums about Gothel and also rescue Flynn from prison, so Rapunzel’s influence seems to have affected everyone around her. What’s more, various signs around the town have left their mark on Rapunzel and allow her to piece together her origin.
Given that Disney Rapunzel has left the tower of her own choice rather than being thrown out for joining a certain club, it’s beyond evident that Grimm’s Rapunzel is not going to have so jolly a time, and likewise her prince.
Homeless, pregnant, with no real life experience and a bad hair cut, Rapunzel has a rough time alone in the woods. However, she must have salvaged her survival instinct from somewhere, as she is able to give birth to and look after a pair of twins. This is also without the help of any fairies, so take that, Sleeping Beauty.
The prince has an even worse time of it; injured in the fall and now blind, he now literally rather than metaphorically eats shoots and leaves everyday as he stumbles through the woods, mourning his lost love.
To inject more action into the film, Disney make Rapunzel leave the tower early on in the story, and life on the outside is both challenging, exciting and rewarding for her, mainly due to her inherent sunshine power. Although the reverse is true for Grimm’s Rapunzel, she is still able to survive despite her confinement and condition, and so both Rapunzels beat the odds by being able to take care of themselves without their guardian, growing up in the process. Both Flynn and the prince end up inconvenienced, either by knife or self-inflicted injury, after Rapunzel has left the tower, but this time it’s our respective ladies to the rescue.
Now that Rapunzel’s hair has been cut, she no longer has the power to heal Flynn – or so she thinks. A tear drops on to his face, and for some reason this proves to be just as powerful as her hair, reviving him.
Finally free of Gothel and reunited with her true love, Rapunzel now only has one last task – to double check that she is actually the lost princess and to meet her real parents.
For an equally unknown reason, Flynn is allowed back into the kingdom with Rapunzel and even granted access to the palace. The king and queen swarm her, recognising her as their daughter despite the lack of long golden locks, and the entire town rejoices for several days.
Several of the loveable ruffians find new and respectable jobs in the kingdom, and thanks to Maximus, the crime rate plummets, showing that a good ruler always makes their horse a public official.
Eventually, Rapunzel and Flynn (now known by his real name, Eugene) get married and live happily ever after.
It turns out that the prince has a better ear than his lover, because several years later, while stumbling through the forest, he hears and recognises Rapunzel’s voice.
Rapunzel goes to him and her tears of joy restore his eyesight to as good as before.
That’s all you’re getting from the original, so we don’t know if the prince is happy or mortified at the sudden appearance of their two children. But we can probably assume the reception the couple gave each other afterwards.
The original therefore clarifies a rather contrived plot point in the Disney film – Rapunzel’s tears are enough to restore eyesight or bring someone back to life.
Both families are also reunited happily ever after, but this happens sooner rather than later in the Disney version. Rapunzel’s return also affects the entire kingdom, whereas in the Grimm version, she, the prince and her children are very much alone and isolated in their group, in a decidedly non-extravagant setting. All they have is each other, but the implication is that this is all that they need.
Rapunzel is one of those fairy tales where bugger all really happens, so it’s no surprise that Disney decided to add more fantastical elements and action. In addition, there is more of a clue as to Rapunzel and Gothel’s motivations and feelings; Rapunzel is your average intelligent teenage girl verging on adulthood who wants to test her boundaries, and Gothel tries to keep her confined, both mentally and physically, in order to exploit her power (although what she does with her eternal youth is never fully explained). The love interest roles are also reversed, in that Rapunzel is the royal figure and Flynn is the peasant who sometimes needs rescuing. Regardless of their situations, neither character allows themselves to be a victim or dwell on the negatives, and this allows them to attain their respective dreams. The more severe version of Gothel is therefore a counterbalance to this success, and another example of Disney making their version slightly darker than the original.
Grimm’s Rapunzel is more about taking responsibility for your actions, albeit the parents stealing the rapunzel in the first place, or Rapunzel keeping her torrid love affair from the fairy. It is also about the effects of love, as the prince tries to kill himself when he finds out Rapunzel is gone, and his lover’s tears restore him again. Their relationship is also what makes Rapunzel break Gothel’s rules in the first place. However, by enduring through pain and tough times all by themselves, they are rewarded with happiness.
In essence, both versions of the story are about rebellion being a natural part of growing up. Each Rapunzel is a teenage girl who breaks a set of firmly defined rules due to her own curiosity. Despite her inexperience, and the disapproval of her parental guardian, she triumphs over adversity and in the end attains what she (presumably) wants out of life, simply by relying on herself and her own strength. This in turn helps those around her, especially the people she loves.
We can therefore conclude that you should never be afraid to spread your wings and try new experiences, as you are more than likely capable of handling any situation.
Even on a bad hair day.
1) Tangled, 2010. Film. Directed by Nathan Greno and Byron Howard, U.S.A. Walt Disney Pictures.
2) Ashliman, D.L., Rapunzel by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, a comparison of the versions of 1812 and 1857, 2000, http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/grimm012a.html
3) Connolly, Kate, 2012, Grimm’s Fairy Tales: 200th anniversary triggers a year of celebration, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/dec/19/grimm-brothers-anniversary-german-culture
4) Davis, John K., The Origin and History of Rapunzel, 2009, http://suite101.com/article/the-origin-and-history-of-rapunzel-a148496
5) Grade, Ananda, The Brothers Grimm: Freaks or visionaries? 2012, http://www.dw.de/the-brothers-grimm-freaks-or-visionaries/a-16465915
6) Header image: http://static.zerochan.net/Rapunzel.%28Character%29.full.1150659.jpg