If I had my way, Alan Menken would score every animated film. He writes the kind of animated score I like–a traditional Disney “sound” mixed with a little Broadway razamataz. You know exactly what you’re going to get with a Menken score, and that brings with it a certain comfort level that I appreciate. That being said, the Disney formula that he perfected in the 1990s has had varying levels of success over the years as animated films moved away from the musical format. It’s been too long since Menken’s last “enchanted” Disney outing, so I was excited when his name was attached to Disney’s retooling of Rapunzel, TANGLED.
Rapunzel’s long-haired, freedom-dreamin’ heroine inspired Menken to incorporate the 1970s folk rock sound of Joni Mitchell and Cat Stevens for her music. Her main theme, “When Will My Life Begin,” may not be top-tier Menken, but damned if I could stop humming the tune. Mandy Moore brings spunk to her vocals though her head voice can’t quite hit Menken’s high notes.
Tony Award-winner Donna Murphy (Stephen Sondheim’s Passion) brings her unique vocal timbre and thrilling high notes to “Mother Knows Best,” adding further zest to the infectious melody, all set to a traditional Broadway arrangement that playfully and ironically contrasts with the lyrics’ cruelty.
The thugs get their own saloon song in “I’ve Got a Dream.” While the jokes in the lyrics aren’t as clever as they think they are, the song exudes charm in its use of barroom piano. (And who knew Jeffrey Tambor could sing?! Quite well, I might add.) Other than a brief “Healing Cantation” that also makes an appearance in the “Prologue,” the cornerstone of the song score is the duet, “I See the Light.” This is the only song being submitted for Oscar consideration, and its ballad formula is very Oscar-friendly, though the form and chord progressions are fairly predictable and Glenn Slater’s lyrics seem a bit stale. (I would have changed the obvious “here” and “crystal clear” rhyme that all-too-obviously recalls Menken and Tim Rice’s “A Whole New World” from ALADDIN.) Still, Menken knows his way around a good tune and it’s hard to get this one out of your head as well.
Menken has always cleverly reworked his song melodies into his underscoring. This time around, there is little quoting of entire melodies. Instead, Menken weaves chord progressions and three- and four-note motifs from Rapunzel’s songs into the orchestral score. In addition, he comes up with some memorable new themes that have nothing to do with the songs themselves.
There is a Celtic influence in the yearning flute theme of “Campfire” and the energetic jig of the “Kingdom Dance.” Cues like “Escape Route” go through a myriad of musical styles, obviously Mickey-Mousing with the action onscreen, yet still delightful as patchwork compositions on their own. The action sequences are standard Disney fare, but still bear Menken’s trademark compositional flare.
Because of Rapunzel’s folk rock feel, Menken employs more guitar in this score, especially in the tender theme that begins my favorite track, “Waiting for the Lights.” As the cue progresses through its changing moods, piano solo and the guitar crescendo to a full orchestral rendering of the theme, complete with chorus and a soaring French horn countermelody. Now that is how magic is scored!
The overall score reveals further layers and deeper enjoyment with repeated listens. The songs showcase Menken’s effortless (when you know damn well it’s not) hummability and Slater’s unobtrusive, character-driven lyrics, with lines like “…and then I’ll brush and brush and brush and brush my hair” that make me grin every time. Michael Starobin (songs) and Kevin Kliesch (score), with help from Danny Troob and Jennifer Hammond, provide sparkling orchestrations in the traditional Disney mold. Even Grace Potter’s tacked-on end title pop song, “Something That I Want” (with its hand-clapping accompaniment that reminds me of Toni Basil’s “Mickey”), isn’t as offensive as your typical bid for Radio Disney airplay.
If you’re looking for risky endeavors, then you’ve got the wrong studio and composer. Menken once again supplies hummable melodies that get under your skin and solid underscoring that tells the story with wit, humor and charm. There’s nothing particularly new here, yet taken on its own, TANGLED is a delightful addition to the composer’s canon that just keeps getting better and better with each listen.