In the dark days of the early Aughts, when Disney animation was at its lowest ebb since the 1970s with critical and commercial washouts like Atlantis: The Lost Empire dragging the brand name down into the muck, everybody had an idea to save the company. Throw out Michael Eisner; re-commit to the most beautiful possible traditional animation; get the hell away from traditional animation; copy DreamWorks and Pixar; stake out a third way as far as possible from those companies; all in all, things were in the kind of chaotic panic that only the nightmarish disintegration of an iconic film studio could bring about.

Into all this confusion, legendary animator Glen Keane - the first member of the Disney Renaissance generation to attain superstar status, as early as his amazing work animating the bear in The Fox and the Hound in 1981 - went to his bosses with the most obvious idea ever: the films that people LOVE, the ones that first leap to mind when the word "Disney" is spoken, are the fairy tale movies. Every time a new Atlantis or Emperor's New Groove came out, that was the sigh of a significant portion of the audience and critical community: what Disney does best are folkloric princess stories, and why oh why don't they adapt another one? Keane's idea was glamorously simple: make another fairy tale movie.

Of course, it's a canard that Disney = fairy tales. Though the count depends on how you define "folklore", and even "based on", it's nevertheless impossible to plausibly defend more than about a third of the Disney features as based on folklore, and some of the most historically popular - Dumbo, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, The Lion King - are the farthest removed from that alleged Disney ideal. But nonetheless, Keane came at the executives with a solid enough concept - not just "make a fairy tale movie", but "make a movie based on Rapunzel, the most prominent Grimm story we haven't touched"- that he got the go-ahead to take the film into active development; it would be his first film as director. With one single proviso: Rapunzel Unbraided, as it was then called an irreverent, ironic adaptation in the Shrek vein, had to be a CGI picture. Sorry. But didn't you hear, we're killing traditional animation?

Unconvinced but willing to try, Keane - whose work in Treasure Planet on John Silver was the most innovative marriage of two generations of animation technology ever accomplished - gathered a symposium of 50 animators, partisans of both the computer and the paper pad, in April, 2003, and they discussed in detail the positive and negative aspects of what each technology offered. The end result left Keane feeling comfortable that CG animation had great storytelling potential, that it was not different from hand-drawn animation as he'd feared, and that Disney had computer-savvy artists who could create imagery with the impressionistic softness of painting and the environmental depth of a computer game. He committed himself to making Rapunzel Unbraided as a marriage of the two disciplines: the most advanced technology with the design mentality and expressiveness of pencils and pens.

A happy ending for all, except that in 2003, when this discussion happened, the technology needed to achieve Keane's vision didn't exist; and if it was ever going to exist, Walt Disney Feature Animation had to invent it. Which they did, and the years stretched on with Rapunzel Unbraided always popping up in stories about Disney's future even as films like Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons and Bolt came and went. Many changes happened: Keane was joined as director by animator Dean Wellins in 2007, and in 2008 they stepped down for story artist Nathan Greno and animator/writer Byron Howard; Keane stayed on to executive produce alongside new Disney poo-bah John Lasseter, while Wellins moved on to other projects. The snarky Shrek tone was diluted in every subsequent draft. Rapunzel Unbraided became simply Rapunzel, and its presumed company-saving resurrection of the classic Disney fairy tale princess got sniped when The Princess and the Frog zipped in and out of development and brought back the traditionally-style animated feature.

The grimmest effect that The Princess and the Frog had on Rapunzel's fortunes, however, was not to steal its thunder - as the rebirth of 2-D animation, it probably had the greater moral claim to bringing back the princess film anyway. Sadly, TPatF did only middling box-office at best, snuffing the 2-D Renaissance in its cradle, and the executives had one explanation for why: the word "Princess". The all-important preteen boys didn't want to see a girl movie, went the thinking; and it's sad to wonder if they might be right (the two highest-grossing Disney films of the 1990s, after all, were Aladdin and The Lion King). So Rapunzel was re-named again; this time given the unpromisingly sterile name Tangled, under which it was finally released. By the beginning of 2010, months before the film's committed starting date, it was too late to massively rejigger the plot - which was as old-school as any Disney film had been since the early '90s - but the admen did their very best to pretend they had, stressing the film's male lead and all the snotty modernist humor they could take out of context in what were surely among the most ill-considered and inappropriate trailers in several years.

For Tangled, the all-important 50th feature released by Walt Disney Animation Studios - a fact it proudly trumpets in gigantic text that fills up the screen during the leader - is in not the slightest way an attempt to run from the tradition of the Disney fairy tale, like it had seemed from every one of the gruesome ads; though it is true that it is a film looking both forwards and backwards, this is solely in terms of technology and aesthetic. In narrative terms, Tangled couldn't be more of a self-satisfied throwback if it tried, adding a breezy sense of contemporary humor (but not at all in the smirky, insincere manner of Chicken Little doing its best DreamWorks impersonation) to a story that is so utterly steeped in Disney lore that a dedicated viewer could probably trace almost every single plot element backwards to some place in the canon.

It makes for a fascinating companion piece with The Princess and the Frog, which is tonally more like a classic Disney film, but has a great deal of fun messing with the tropes governing the form; while Tangled, despite its loose, jokey aimlessness (that makes a not-wholly-earned dive toward achingly sincere romance and then pronounced horror in the rushed final 20 or so minutes), is such a typical Disney film in every other respect that it seemed even as I was watching it for the first time that I'd already seen it and was merely revisiting it now in a spirit of nostalgia. A wicked hag, Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy) is hoarding the power of a magic flower all to herself, when the king's guards take it in the hope of curing the queen during a difficult pregnancy. That means the magic is now in the little girl, whose hair glows and grows at a scary pace from the day she is born, which is why Gothel steals the girl and locks her in the top room of a tower in a hidden glen, keeping the youth-granting power of the hair all to her evil self.

Shortly before her 18th birthday, the girl Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) sings an "I Want" song to her toy-ready animal companion, a chameleon named Pascal, in which we find that she just wants to leave the tower once, to see the floating lights that appear every year (this is the kingdom's tribute to the missing princess. Gothel comes along to sing the cloying, seductively cruel villain song, in which she lays out the thicket of lies which have kept Rapunzel in her thrall. Elsewhere, a vagabond rogue named Flynn Ryder (Zachary Levi) is hiding from the palace guards, and the surpassing determined guard horse Maximus, and his flight takes him right to Rapunzel's tower. After beating the young man into a coma, Rapunzel realises that he's her ticket to that one night of the floating lights, if only she can trick Gothel into leaving for a few days. The story pretty much takes care of itself from there, although there is at least one musical number that I was genuinely not expecting, whatsoever, the "comic routine involving burly men and fey sight gags" song that I hope becomes a new Disney tradition, ideally beginning with next year's Winnie the Pooh.

Of course, this pronounced lack of narrative freshness is a feature, not a bug: Tangled doesn't work because of the specifics of its story, or even of its characters (Rapunzel is no more specific than any other yearning Disney heroine, while Flynn is an infinitely blander variant of the charming hero-thief played by, among others, his namesake Errol Flynn), but because of the enthusiasm and commitment with which it knows that it's a Disney fantasy. Tangled is a fun movie, and even more than it is fun, it is joyous: an almost unnerving lack of cynical distance pervades every moment, beginning almost as soon as the plot properly begins with the first of Alan Menken and Glenn Slater's rock-inflected songs, a bright ditty called "When Will My Life Begin" (the "I Want" song) that doesn't rank among the truly great Disney tunes - it's not a patch on its obvious precursor, "Part of Your World" - but gets the action kicked out of the gate with marvelous energy, with Menken returning to the thing he does best three years after putting his name to the functional but sleepy tunes from the Disney princess parody/homage Enchanted. The song also plunges us headfirst into the movie's humor; mustn't forget the humor. After all, it's as a comedy that Tangled is perhaps the rarest: relying not on the knowing wink-wink gags of Shrek and Enchanted, movies that invite the audience to laugh for being smarter than the audience; nor the barrel-scraping tedium of most family-friendly humor, in which oblique references to shitting are the height of wit. It's a movie that is funny simply by being funny, which seems more and more bold to me the more I sit and think about it. How else to describe the decidedly un-hip approach taken by these lyrics, which open that song:
Seven AM, the usual morning line-up
Start on the chores, and sweep till the floor's all clean
Polish and wax, do laundry and mop and shine up
Sweep again
And by then
It's, like, seven-fifteen

The good-natured shrug of that final line -and the unexpected "like" - is playful without being above the characters, the scenario, or the viewer; and that's the dominant mode of comedy throughout the film, whether in the bantery dialogue that stands in for a relationship between Rapunzel and Flynn, or in the pantomime and mugging expressions of Pascal and Maximus - the former of whom is as appealing and charismatic as any Disney sidekick animal designed for the toy stores has been since the early 1990s. Without being silly, clever, or sarcastic, Tangled is simply damn pleasant and "up"; a completely guileless comedy, and when was the last time one of those was attempted?

There is, of course, a problematic flip side to all of this, which is that Tangled sort of lacks thematic depth or psychological insight. It succeeds so extremely well at being sincere while not taking itself seriously that things go off the rails during the passages when it's supposed to be sincere and urgently meaningful, as for example the de rigeur love subplot, which is marked by an appropriately soaring ballad (much the most anonymous and disposable song in the movie), and lots of sensitive glances and such, and it's not that I didn't want Rapunzel and Flynn to get together, really, but since it was so obvious and pre-determined that they would, it didn't seem fair that the movie had to get all serious and not-lighthearted comedy about it. On the positive side, the love ballad is paired with a sequence in which the two lovers are surrounded by a sky full of floating paper lanterns, one of the moments where Greno and Howard and the animators show off exactly what CG animation can do that traditional animation really can't, in the process creating one of the most singularly beautiful passages in the history of the American animated picture.

Or, take the matter of Mother Gothel: an excellently broad personality whose bored evilness is in its own was as psychologically scary as anything any Disney villain has ever attempted (she doesn't just treat Rapunzel like crap in the manner of wicked stepmothers throughout history: she actually claims to be Rapunzel's birth mother, largely because it delights her to be manipulative), given arguably the film's best songs in the trilling pair of "Mother Knows Best" and its reprise, numbers in which her venality dances with lyricism, performed by a magnificent find in Donna Murphy, a Broadway icon, or so I am told by those in the know, who gives unquestionably the best performance in the film, swinging from swooning faux-sincerity to thin-lipped nastiness in the space of a syllable or two, and generally being just as large and hammy and fake as the character demands. Gothel should by all rights be one of the new best Disney villains ever; but it's really, really hard to take her as a legitimate threat, even at her most intense, despite the efforts of the animators to convince us by lighting her with glaring whites and foul greens. Her attempts to control Rapunzel, based as they are solely on lies, are plainly going to disintegrate the moment Rapunzel gets a sniff of the truth; and her final scene is as bland and routine as any Disney villain's climax has ever been. Just a year before Tangled, The Princess and the Frog gave us a bad guy with the blend of caricature and deadliness that Gothel ought to possess, in Dr. Facilier; so it's not like they didn't know how to do it.

(In fact, the entire story of Tangled might well be "just a hint less than The Princess and the Frog: Rapunzel is less distinct and interesting than Tiana, Flynn has the same jerk-to-hero arc that Naveen does, but it's slicker and less convincing; the Ruritanian setting is a disappointing follow-up to a fairy-tale New Orleans; Menken and Slater's songs aren't as wide-ranging or as evocative as Randy Newman's - a controversial claim to make, I don't doubt, but "Down in New Orleans", "Friends on the Other Side", "Ma Belle Evangeline", "Dig a Little Deeper": all of them explore the film's world with greater curiosity and sense of place than "When Does My Life Begin (Reprise 1)", "When Does My Life Begin (Reprise 2)", "Mother Knows Best (Reprise)", or the infinitely bland love song "I See the Light". Though Menken's amazing score, combining Medieval motifs with standard adventure cues and some pop notes on the edges, far outpaces Newman's anonymous incidental music in TPatF).

Still, while Tangled lacks something in dramatic and tonal consistency, and thematic heft, it shares this trait with a number of other Disney movies; it also makes up for it just by failing entirely to be the horror show promised by the trailers. And it makes up for it even more by being a triumphant achievement of CG animation, the film where WDAS has finally matched in 3-D their best work in 2-D; by moreover being the first film ever produced by a studio other than Pixar to match that company's incredible control of imagery that began to peak in 2003 with Finding Nemo and has never stopped. One could put it this way: Tangled pays of the promise of the Disney/Pixar merger by taking on the one hand the technical aptitude of Pixar, the uncanny attention paid to the littlest things and the perfect execution of all the smallest details, with Disney's house style and design mentality. Rapunzel herself is one of the closest copies of Ariel from The Little Mermaid that the studio has ever braved, no small feat considering how much of Ariel there has been in the design of nearly every subsequent protagonist. Since the movie is so overwhelmingly Glen Keane's - he was one of the character designers, and one of the supervising animators (frustratingly, the animation team is not identified by character in the film's credits, making it a mystery for the ages what exactly Keane or anyone else supervised), and Ariel was one of his great successes. He might not have directed it, but the movie owes a great debt to his animation style.

But Tangled isn't a old-fashioned Disney movie with new-fangled techniques just because of the character design. All the guiding principles of the film's visuals are much in keeping with Disney's traditions, a mixture of realism and the otherworldly best exemplified by the crazily ambitious design of Sleeping Beauty. It is in this way that the film makes its most definitive break with Pixar; for Tangled is not photo-realistic in the way that Pixar films tend to be, and it took a great amount of work to get the film to look as unrealistic as it is - the years of tech development that stretched the film's pre-production over a decade were largely devoted to finding new ways to give the backgrounds the texture of oil paintings - a huge step forward from the 3-D painting technology Deep Canvas that premiered to such acclaim in 1999's Tarzan - to giving the characters an impossible "glow", an internal illumination that has nothing to do with realism and everything to do with painterly nuance, to making Rapunzel's thirty yards of hair move not with fidelity to physics but out of the need to explore character and emotion.

In a nutshell, Tangled looks about 80% like every other CG animated film out there, about 15% like the platonic ideal of a Disney Renaissance princess film, and that leaves 5% to make up all the difference in the world: it seems familiar in every possible way, and still the film as an X-factor that leaves it looking like no other movie in history. As the numerically all-important 50th Disney feature, it ranks among the very top of that list in terms of pushing the medium forward into new places that could not have been imagined five years ago; as worthy as successor the groundbreaking Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as anything has ever been. It is a damned shame that the script attached this this great technical and artistic achievement couldn't have been stronger, less effervescent and more consistent; that the songs couldn't have been brilliant instead of awfully good and catchy; that the villain's robust villain could have exploded, rather than being muted by the film around her. But still, a pretty good Disney film is, well, a pretty good Disney film, and Tangled looks amazing enough to make up for much greater flaws. It is a more-than-fine addition to the Disney family, conservative in all the right ways and adventurous when it should be. Of course I, like all of us, wish it were an instant classic; but there's nothing wrong with being a gleeful entertainment, and it's certainly good enough to make me eager to see what Walt Disney Animation Studios can do with the next 50.