|A French version of the movie poster, because I like it.|
A potential problem with the shift in the way we use the word "sacrifice" is that it is now becoming just another word for "trade." In baseball, a batter sacrifices something that will appear on his record to get another runner home. He hardly sacrifices himself in any significant way. That is, his act is only sacred to baseball fanatics in a stretched sense, and there is no immolation of a victim. Because of the inherent importance of the theme of sacrifice, and the challenges that if faces, including ones from the shift of language usage, I was happy to see the theme taken up by the animated film Tangled.
I quite liked Disney's retelling of Rapunzel, but there is one area that I found it unsatisfying. The film begins with a narrator identifying himself and other characters as he sets the story up, and he mentions that he died. The viewer immediately begins questioning, "How did he die? How is he speaking to us?" This is good story-telling, and it saves the kiddies the shock of dealing with Flynn Rider's death later. Of course, now you have the problem of how a dead character is narrating the film, but I'm more willing to simply accept that the dead can cinematically address audiences from faerie land than I am the nonsensical resolution that the film offers for Flynn's Easter.
You see, Flynn, the charming rogue, actually comes to care for Rapunzel, for her life and her freedom and happiness, more than for himself. In the final conflict, he offers himself to violence so that Rapunzel might escape the tower. Rapunzel herself was a victim to her false mother's quest for continued life and beauty, and Flynn's intervention substituted himself to Mother Gothel's violence so that Rapunzel could finally escape her fate and gain the freedom of self-determination in the outside world and reuniting with her true family. Flynn should have been allowed to make this sacrifice. He was robbed and so were we.
My objection is not that Flynn was raised from the dead: I could not make such a claim on this day, nor even as a rambling disciple of Prof. Tolkien. It is the way in which Flynn is raised. For Flynn takes up the priesthood not only in his heroic self-intervention, but in the moment of inspiration when he sees that by sacrificing Rapunzel's magical hair, she will be set free. At the crucial moment, he seizes her hair and cuts it off. Rapunzel loses her magic, then Flynn looses his life to the witch's rage.
Eucatastrophe* in fairy-tales leads us to expect the happy reversal at the end. If that reversal is to be Flynn's resurrection, it cannot come at the price of the inner consistency of reality that allows the fairy-tale to exist in the first place. Or to switch from Tolkien to Chesterton, Faerie must obey its own Law. In Tangled, the magic was in the hair and cutting the hair killed it. The magic that could hold back death has died. There either has to be some other magic or some way of restoring the magic. Tangled resorts to the canard of the true love tear bringing back the dead. If there's magic there, it has got to operate by established Law. Verisimilitude is broken and so our belief is sacrificed for Disney's bottom line. Tangled kicks us out of Faerie for the price of a happy ending.
Perhaps this could have been remedied with deeper thought and better story-telling, but the simple answer is to have let Flynn die. Instead of emphasizing the romance between the two characters, emphasize the moral growth of Flynn from his self-centered, immoral use of his freedom to his appreciation of what it would be like to be robbed of one's freedom. Emphasize Rapunzel's desire to be free and the negative consequences of her victimhood. Maybe even introduce the temptation to Flynn of profiting from Rapunzel's hair as something he has to overcome. Then when Flynn sacrifices the magic hair and himself, we cheer and mourn the hero, but the movie ends with Rapunzel's free life and gratitude to a thief who redeemed himself by saving her from a greater thief. This would have put Tangled among Disney's darker animated features, but it would have also made for a truer tale. I think there is a good chance that Tangled's success will get Disney executives to reverse their decision to move away from fairy tales, but hopefully they will learn from their mistake and produce better retellings, rather than simply reaffirm a happy ending at any cost. If children can deal with a story with death, and have to learn to deal with death in real life, then they can learn about the nobility of sacrifice. It's not so much that Disney needs to get out of fairy-tales, as it needs to get deeper into them and to get out of their formula. Not ever fairy-tale has to end in couplehood and not every fairy tale death has to wake from true love's kiss. Fairy-tales are, in fact, more tangled than Disney has made them out to be. But however they end, they cannot break the Law without breaking the Enchantment.
*Coined by Tolkien in this work.
Part III: Sacrifice in Gaming