Tangled, Nathan Greno & Byron Howard, 100 mins (PG)
Barney's Version, Richard J Lewis, 134 mins (15)

Action, humour, happy ending – Disney has a good hair day

By Walt, I think they've got it. After years of blundering around as if they had no idea what they were doing – the years of Treasure Planet, Brother Bear, et al – the people at Disney have remembered how to make a Disney cartoon.

Their joyous "Rapunzel" retelling, Tangled, is a fairy tale with a winsome princess, a handsome hero, a scheming baddie, a sheaf of show tunes by Alan Menken (Little Shop of Horrors, Beauty and the Beast), and enough action, humour and romance to keep it galloping along all the way to the happy ending.

Last year's The Princess and the Frog wasn't far off classic Disney, but its muddled plot reeked of too many rewrites by too many writers. Tangled, too, may be slightly too twisty – although not twisty enough to vindicate its annoying title ("Rapunzel" was rejected as too girly) – but there's a satisfyingly primal story underpinning it. A wicked stepmother keeps Rapunzel locked in a tower because her magical hair will lose its power if cut, but when a roguish thief scales the walls, she can finally escape.

It's not as grim as the Brothers Grimm – no one gets blinded by a thorn bush – but Tangled isn't all sweetness and light, either. As Rapunzel aches for her independence, and her deliciously haughty custodian maintains that she's just not strong enough for the big bad world, we're given a villain for the ages, as well as one of the most acute portrayals of mother/daughter chafing in recent cinema. It's like Natalie Portman and Barbara Hershey in Black Swan, only with jokes, songs and a chameleon.

That's just one of the ways the film feels contemporary. The swashbuckling set pieces, the knowing badinage, and the radiant 3D animation all reflect the influence of Pixar, Dreamworks and the other new kids on the cartoon block, but at least Disney has the confidence to update its time-honoured formula, for a change, rather than torching it. Tangled is the company's fiftieth animated feature, and it's far better and far more Disney-ish than the last 15. The sting in the tail? The studio boss has just announced they're not planning to make any more fairytale cartoons. Typical.

Paul Giamatti won a Golden Globe for his wonderfully obnoxious yet vulnerable performance in Barney's Version, adapted from Mordecai Richler's comic novel. It's well-deserved. Playing the same man over 30-plus years, he's first seen as a bohemian in 1970s Rome. After an ill-fated marriage, he returns to Montreal to set up a TV company, Totally Unnecessary Productions, and to pair off with the motor-mouthed Jewish princess (Minnie Driver) selected for him by his uncle. It's only when he's getting married to her that he catches sight of Rosamund Pike and realises that she's the woman of his dreams.

Pre-Pike, Barney's Version is a raucous shaggy-dog story of drugs, guns, bad TV and bad behaviour, but one that's as pointed and poignant as it is filthily amusing. Giamatti gets robust support from Dustin Hoffman, as his straight-talking dad, and Driver, who does her best Janice-from-Friends impression. But when he turns his attention to Pike – more a shimmering ideal woman than a real person – the film settles into a rut, exchanging the outsized mistakes of youth for the quotidian niggles of middle age. It also sentimentalises its anti-hero. Having spent an hour showing us that he's a walking disaster it's disappointing to be told that we should get out our hankies, because he's actually a misunderstood saint.

Also Showing: 30/01/2011

How Do You Know (121 mins, 12A)

It's hard to pin down what this James L Brooks "comedy" is about, but it's got something to do with Reese Witherspoon's retired softball Olympian humming and hawing between Owen Wilson's baseball star and Paul Rudd's Wall Street wimp. It's grindingly slow. Every scene is clogged by navel-gazing, self-help psychobabble in which no one can say, "It's a nice day," without stopping to ask themselves what they mean by "nice", and whether it's acceptable to say such a thing, and whether they should just get on with saying it, anyway. If I had a bit more hair, I'd have torn it out long before the end credits.

The Mechanic (92 mins, 15)

Jason Statham stretches his range by playing an emotionless assassin. It's got its quota of explosions and punch-ups, but it's still a forgettable B-movie even by Statham standards.

Zebra Crossing (92 mins, 18)

The favourite subject of every low-budget British film-maker – violent teenagers hanging around council tower blocks – gets the black-and-white art-house treatment.

Men on the Bridge (87 mins, 18)

Low-key Turkish drama about three men who work on Istanbul's traffic-jammed Bosphorus Bridge.

Next Week:

Nicholas Barber bites into Rowan Joffe's Brighton Rock

Film Choice

Peter Mullan's Neds is an energetic, imaginative evocation of growing up tough in early 70s Glasgow; Conor McCarron, right, registers a hit as the young anti-hero. And, still at London's ICA, The Portuguese Nun is a luminously individual film-about-film by Euro-eccentric Eugene Green, with Leonor Baldaque as the actress stepping into a nun's habit.

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