Rapunzel is one of my favourite fairy tales, mostly due to what is left unsaid and unexplained. It has an underlying sense of cohesion to it: a deal is made and followed through, a taboo is broken and duly punished, a miracle occurs that reunites a family, but at the same time we're given little understanding as to why all this happens.
Why does the witch want the infant Rapunzel in the first place? To raise a child of her own or to punish the girl's parents? Why does she lock the teenage Rapunzel in a tower? Is it a sincere attempt to keep her safe from the outside world, or because she's a controlling monster? And why is she so furious to learn that Rapunzel had been visited by the prince without her knowledge? Because her rules have been broken or because she's jealous that her daughter's affection has been bestowed elsewhere? Because she's projected herself onto her daughter's youth and beauty or because she once had her heart broken and can't bear to see anyone else happy?
We can make a vague guess at certain things, but never really know for sure. Whether we think of the witch as a cruel oppressor or a confused mother, the fact remains is that we know absolutely nothing about her true motivations. What remains are the bones of the story, and the ability to project what we like onto the characters involved (or at least one of them – unsurprisingly it is the villain who has the most agency, and therefore holds the most opportunity for different interpretations).
But in broad strokes, Rapunzel is a story of stolen childhood and twisted motherhood, in which a woman futilely tries to keep her daughter a child forever. So what does Shelley Duvall do with this template?
The episode follows the gist of the story pretty closely, embellishing a few things here and there, but adding in a lot of filler when it comes to Rapunzel's parents. Her father makes not one, but two trips over the fence to fetch his wife rampion (or rather – in a very bizarre change – blue radishes) though after the witch demands their child as payment I have to give the two of them credit for actually attempting to repel her from their home with several firearms.
The witch is given a solid reason as to why she wants to kidnap Rapunzel: simply, she wants a child of her own and doesn't think Rapunzel's father has the ability to raise a daughter (which is presumably a dig at him for voicing a preference for a son earlier in the episode).
However, there's also a scene which suggests the witch laid a spell over Rapunzel's mother, awakening in her a craving for radishes that leads to the unwilling child exchange. In fact a lot of time is spent on Rapunzel's mother and father, what with them played by Shelley Duvall and Jeff Bridges, who also fill the roles of Rapunzel and the prince in the second half of the episode. (Duvall isn't going to turn up in all of these, right? So far she's been in two out of three).
Quick bit of trivia that you probably already know: rapunzel is the German name for the English rampion, which is a type of lettuce whose roots can be used in salads. I've no idea what the episode was trying to achieve by changing the rapunzel/rampion in the witch's garden to blue-leafed radishes, but it renders Rapunzel's name a complete bewilderment. Not helping is that the radishes are occasionally referred to as "rapun", which just makes the change even more confusing and pointless.
As it happens, the Disney movie fell into the same trap when it completely removed the fairy tale's prologue from its setup. Without Rapunzel's parents stealing rampion from the witch's garden, there's no discernable reason as to why their daughter is named after lettuce roots.
Sorry, it's just my ongoing nitpick.
There's great set design for the tower, with a large raised bed in the middle of the room, and a half-hearted plugging of the plot hole as to why Rapunzel doesn't just climb down her own hair to escape (she's been told cutting it off will bring her bad luck). However, the episode doesn't bother to plant any briars around the base of the tower, which means that when the prince falls from its heights, he loses his eyesight like this:
There are usually two ways as to how the witch finds out that Rapunzel has been visited by a prince: either she's clued in by Rapunzel complaining that her dresses are shrinking (when in fact it's her expanding waistline during pregnancy) or Rapunzel stupidly commenting that the witch is much heavier when climbing her hair than the prince. This goes for a third option, in which the game is given away by a parrot that the witch gives to her daughter, one that repeats back everything that's been said in the room.
The exile to the desert and the birth of Rapunzel's twins is kept intact, but after her reunion with the prince, there's added a voiceover that assures us she was not only reunited with her parents, but that the witch perished soon after. It's an odd little coda, but one that gives closure in a way the fairy tale doesn't: according to that, Rapunzel never sees her parents again, and the witch just disappears for good.
It's a pretty faithful take on the original fairy tale, though with the expected thread of comedy that's prevalent throughout all of Faerie Tale Theatre. You can tell from Shelley Duval's otherwise pointless introductions that this was a passion project of hers, and she manages to capture some of the potency and symbolism of the fairy tale – even when it's presumably by accident (there's just no getting around the fact that as soon as Rapunzel hits puberty, her foster mother locks her in a giant phallic symbol in the middle of a forest).
The episode also throws in some interesting commentary on how the witch doesn't trust men, and Rapunzel's pushback against her mother manifests itself as barbs about her father (or rather her lack of one). Disney may have jettisoned some of the fairy tale's backstory by removing the entirety of Rapunzel's parents' "crime" in stealing from the witch's garden, but I can't help but feel someone on the writing team watched this episode of Faerie Tale Theatre: the subtle gas-lighting between Rapunzel and the witch is built on significantly throughout Tangled.
Ugliest Establishing Shot: How does this village even work?
Sneakiest Adult Joke: After asking for radishes, the woman's husband asks her: "Wouldn't you rather like a cucumber?" *wink wink*
Weirdest Set Design: Why is this tree growing cobwebs?
Funniest Cat: In the attempt to create a Cat Scare, the director has a cat run through the garden, only for it to careen into Jeff Bridges and scare itself.
Most Original Montage: Admit it, you've never seen an extended montage of a woman eating radishes before.
Biggest WTF Moment: Rapunzel's mother has a nightmare about radishes, in which this happens:
Why...why is the radish eating other radishes? Is she meant to be the radish?
Best Emotional Manipulation: Rapunzel's mother inflicts a triple whammy when she insists her husband go fetch her more radishes, telling him: "you don't love me," "you're afraid of a woman" and "my mother was right about you." Yikes. Tone it down, lady.
Worst Special Effect: The witch's laser beam eyes:
Or this terrible and pointless rainbow:
Or these tears of blood:
Most Eighties Hair and Makeup: Behold!
Calmest Response To Learning Your Child is the Price of Your Radish Cravings:
Surprisingly Biggest Stud When He Was a Young Man: Jeff Bridges:
Biggest Overreaction: The witch finds out her daughter has a boyfriend: