It’s peculiar to think Disney Animation Studios took a risk by returning to their ‘Princess’ style of storytelling with Tangled, a retelling of the Brothers Grimm tale of Rapunzel. But we live in the age of the ‘ironic’ kids’ film, what with Shrek skewering the fairy-tale genre, and most animated features peppered with pop culture references. Directors Nathan Greno and Byron Howard were tasked with bringing the story of the longhaired heroine to the big screen (sans snark). I spoke to the directorial duo about the prevalence of irony in family films, and the way in which they are inspired by live-action pictures such as (believe it or not) Inception, The Social Network and The Bourne Identity.

SM: First up, can you tell me what it means to co-direct an animated film? Do you divvy up the duties, or is it more collaborative than that?

BH: It happens more often I guess … well, I’m not sure if it ever happens in live-action, if they have double directors … but with animation these films are so huge, they usually take four years to make – we did this one in two – that a lot of times these directing pairs form. Nathan and I worked together on Bolt – Nathan was our amazing Head of Story on Bolt, and I was one of the directors – and we found that we really liked working together. So we sat down early on and had lunch, like the first day that we took on the project, and we said: “Well, there are two of us, let’s really try to stick together and go from meeting to meeting and let’s do this film as a pair instead of splitting it up.” Because a lot of the production people initially said: “Oh, two directors, that’s great. We can split you guys up – divide and conquer – and cover twice as much of the material and save time.” And we were like: “Well, that’s not going to happen.” We really wanted to stay together and stay unified as a team. The best part of being a directing pair is you constantly have someone there to challenge you and help you make the film better, you know? That’s ultimately the goal. It’s not about whose ideas are the ones that get used in the movie, it’s about the best idea to tell the story.

SM: The two of you took over the project in 2008. What state was the film in when you came on board?

NG: The movie has been at Disney Animation Studios … the idea has been around since the 1940s; it was on Walt Disney’s original list of films to potentially make. So there have actually been, throughout the years, bits and pieces of things. What we got to do when we came on was look through everything that had been done and we said: “As long as people have done all this work, maybe we can cherry pick a little bit, and pick things out that we like.” And there were a few things that definitely we were able to get from all the research and everything that had been done. But from that point forward, we cleared the deck and just started building anew. I think one of the things we wanted to do … there were a couple of things we had brought to it. The movie has been around for that long, and I think it had been around for that long and never gotten made because that original story of Rapunzel is about a very passive girl, she’s sitting around a tower waiting to get rescued. It’s so small, and it all takes place in one room. We wanted to open up that world, and I think that was one of the keys to getting this movie made – to get her out of that tower and get her on this wild rollercoaster of an adventure. That seemed to be what the movie really needed.

SM: With Tangled, and The Princess and the Frog before it, it seems like Disney are heading back to – for lack of a better term – the ‘Princess’ style of storytelling. And that style hasn’t been around since, I guess, Shrek, which came along and made fun of that type of film. What I liked about Tangled is that it’s earnest and unironic, but also very smart. I was wondering how you felt about the prevalence of irony in kids’ films these days?

BH: That’s a very astute question, and a good observation. Because we really did go into this film knowing that we wanted to tell the story in a very genuine and sincere way. I think when people heard Nathan and I wanted to change the title to ‘Tangled’ from ‘Rapunzel’, I think they thought we were doing a cynical telling of this. And really that was never the case. It was always our intention to tell this story with a lot of respect to Disney’s past, because we love our legacy. But at the same time – as you said – we wanted to make a very smart film, a very contemporary film, with winning dialogue and real situations, and characters that felt relatable. It was very important to us that it didn’t feel outdated or something that you’ve seen before. So at every opportunity we had, we tried to turn the clichés on their head, so audiences would be met with something fresh when they went to see the film.

SM: You mention that mild backlash against the title. Was there a moment of real apprehension when you wondered if the audience would reject an earnest animated film, and particularly a musical one?

NG: Yeah, you know, there were definitely fears about that. Because, like you’re saying, there are other studios – like with Shrek – they’ve kind of been poking fun at movies like this and there was a bit of a fear: “Well, do audiences want this kind of a movie anymore?” I think that’s one thing that we’re so excited about – they do! And it’s fantastic that people want emotional, sincere movies. I think there are all different types of movies – we shouldn’t be making, between all the studios and everything, we shouldn’t be making the same types of movies. – it’s fantastic that this movie has been so well embraced. We’ve had a very healthy box office, and it just speaks to the fact that there’s still a very large audience that want this kind of movie. Here’s the thing: Tangled is hilarious; it’s a very funny movie, there’s a lot of action, and so much drama to it – but I think that warmth and that sincerity and that heart is something that makes a Disney film truly a Disney movie. And it’s great to know that there’s still a large audience for that.

SM: I assume you were inspired by a lot of the early Disney films, but I’m interested if there were any live-action films you were taking inspiration from?

BH: Definitely. Nathan and I, in addition to being huge fans of animation, we go to all these contemporary films that come out. We see great things in live-action films that we try to absorb and put back into our own work – things like Inception and The Social Network. Just seeing great scriptwriting. Early on, when we were developing the movie, we told our story artists, when they were drawing the horse chase for example: “OK, go look at The Bourne Identity, and go look at Casino Royale – the new James Bond movie that was out at the time – and look how they use their cameras, look at what lenses they’re using, and look at the pace and the cutting style.” All of this is great, because now with CG, Nathan and I have access to all the tools that live-action directors have had available to them for years, like hand-held cameras and different focal lengths, and different lighting situations. It’s so unlimited; it’s great. We’re like kids in a candy store.

SM: So now you can bring that Paul Greengrass style of action movie into animation now.

BH: That’s exactly right.

SM: It seems to be the in-thing right now for animation directors, like Andrew Stanton and Brad Bird and Jimmy Hayward, to move into live-action themselves. Would you ever consider doing that?

NG: You know, I really don’t think so. Respectfully, if that’s where those guys want to go, that’s cool. But I think for us, there’s a real power with animation that potentially your film – if you do a good job with your movie – can live on forever. When you think of Snow White – which is very much a movie that is still around, and I have little nieces that dress up like Snow White – to this day, that movie is just as fresh and relevant as it was in the 1930s when it came out. When you think about it, you can’t name that many other movies that came out in the 1930s, or even the 1940s. But these [animated] films really connect with people, and maybe it’s just because of the way they’re created or whatever, but they’re timeless. It’s the way they look and everything, they’re charming. If you do them right, they just don’t go out of style. And I think that’s something that we want to just keep working at in animation. It’s such an amazing thing. The idea that this film will potentially be around much longer than us; it’s kind of a cool thing to create and that your audience will always be there.

SM: To that point, is there a particular moment your most proud of as directors? That timeless moment?

BH: That’s funny; a lot of people ask us for our favourite moment. The way Nathan and I work is early on, as the movie’s developing, there will be moments that poke their heads up and become the pinnacle favourite moments. And our job at that point is to look at the moments around those and bring everything else up to the same level of greatness, so to speak. So at the end it’s very hard for us to choose a favourite. That said, I think we’re really proud of the … it’s a very funny movie; Tangled’s got a lot of great comedy and great animation. But as well as the comedy, we have these terrific emotional moments, especially in the final third of the film that I don’t think people are expecting when they go into it. Just the subtlety that we were able to achieve with our animators, I think we’re really proud to have achieved. We’re very, very proud of the work they’ve done.