The titular protagonist of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries, an affable and astute priest, has a penchant for crime-solving. And while he always catches the perpetrator, the really fun thing about Father Brown is how he solves the mystery. More often than not, he does it by noticing the obvious—the things that are so overt they often go overlooked. In “The Secret Garden,” for instance, where a body and a decapitated head is discovered in a back yard garden at a dinner party, Father Brown is able to track down the murderer when he is the first one to notice that the decapitated head does not belong to the body with which it has been placed.
I bring Chesterton into the discussion for two reasons. The first is that if you have not read any of the Father Brown stories, you truly must do so … and soon. Second, is that I had my own Father Brown moment the other day. It happened when—for the I-don’t-know-how-many-eth time—my wife and I sat down to watch one of our favorite Disney movies, Tangled. Even though I have seen the movie multiple times, I—like so many of Father Brown’s laymen—missed one of its most astonishingly biblical motifs. Making my oversight all the more laughable is that it is announced in the opening scene (and not in a subtle and mysterious way).
Tangled begins with a voiceover by Flynn Ryder (Zachary Levi), a notorious thief who’s is depicted on a wanted poster. “This is the story of how I died,” he says. Those of you who have seen Tangled will recall (spoiler alert) that Flynn does indeed die after he is literally stabbed in the back by the villainous Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy). And while it is possible to take Flynn’s opening dialogue solely at face value, meaning that he was physically dead for a period of time in the film, I’m convinced that there is something much more significant—more spiritual—happening. Flynn’s line brings to mind the words of Christ: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). It seems to me, then, that Tangled is a story about death and rebirth.
Flynn Ryder is introduced to us as a self-obsessed thief, a swindler and braggart. The first time we actually see Flynn, he is waxing eloquently to his companions, dreaming of a time when he will have enough stolen goods to live a life of luxury. He then proceeds to rob a castle and betray his friends by taking the horde for himself. Later, when Flynn and Rapunzel’s (Mandy Moore) lives become intertwined, his initial plan is to use her to help him accomplish his goals. But he changes. He begins to die. Slowly but surely, we see Flynn turn from his narcissism, pride, and greed, as he learns to love someone (Rapunzel) more than himself. Christ said, a grain of wheat only bears fruit if it dies, and so Flynn learns that true life—life abundant—comes paradoxically through self-denial. And his transformation culminates in his literal physical death, from which he is raised to walk in newness of life.
But why does Flynn change? What is that causes him to rejoice, singing, “at last I’ve seen the light?” Simply put, he discovers what the Puritan Thomas Chalmers called “the expulsive power of a new affection.” Flynn looked upon Rapunzel and found her to be exceedingly beautiful, kind, selfless, and everything else he was not; and his love for riches, fame, and his love for himself was overwhelmed by a greater love for Rapunzel.
Flynn is right; Tangled is a story about death, but not the kind of death we might first imagine. It’s about a man who dies to his old way of life and is born anew. In it we see a picture of the greater, transformative and saving power of Jesus Christ.