On the surface, there's a witch who kidnaps a princess and holds her prisoner in a tower, the princess escapes, high jinks ensue, witch dies, princess is reunited with parents. But they seemingly went out of their way to undercut that narrative without ever acknowledging that they were doing so.
Firstly, the film begins with the pregnant queen dying and the king sending out his men for a cure. They find this magic flower that the witch has been keeping secret and using to stay forever young. Now you might think she was being selfish by keeping the flower to herself, but given that the first thing that happens when someone else finds out about is that they immediately steal and destroy it, it seems she was actually quite justified in not sharing.
And yeah, even though the witch knows how to use the flower's magic without damaging it, the king doesn't bother to ask for her help or find out anything about the flower, he just has it made into a potion to cure his wife. The magic is somehow transferred into the baby (Rapunzel), specifically her hair.
The witch breaks into the castle, intending to steal some of the hair, but discovers that it loses its power when cut, so she takes Rapunzel instead. Obviously kidnapping a baby is bad, but I'm still kind of on her side here. She'll literally die without this magic, and the royal family clearly do not give a shit about her or anyone else.
So Rapunzel grows up in the witch's tower - which, by the way, is not far from the capital city or well hidden at all, so how much did the king even care about his daughter? Did he even look for her? - but the witch actually seems to be a pretty good, loving mother to her. She could perhaps be criticised for keeping her daughter locked up; you might say that her earlier experiences made her overly paranoid. But it turns out she was right. The world is full of terrible people who would do far worse things to Rapunzel than just keep her in a gilded cage.
One of those people is
Meanwhile, the witch discovers that Rapunzel is missing and joins forces with Rider's betrayed companions to bring Rapunzel back, offering them revenge on Rider for their help. They try to kidnap Rapunzel in order to profit from her magic, but the witch saves her and brings her home.
Rider escapes and comes to... rescue Rapunzel? It seems like it's supposed to be a rescue, but he is a terrible person and we've just seen how all of the witch's fears are 100% justified and Rapunzel really does need to be protected. The witch stabs him, Rapunzel tries to save him but he cuts her hair off instead so that... no one will want to imprison her any more? And then a comic relief character brutally murders the witch. Rapunzel discovers that her tears are also magic so she can save Rider and they go back to the castle and get married, the end.
This is all played out like as though the good guys have just won and everything's fine, but to me it's pretty much the opposite. The witch was the wronged party all along, and although she did kidnap a baby, the baby's parents were selfish arseholes and the witch actually seemed all right. And Rider is rewarded at the end for basically doing one unselfish thing in his whole life, despite all his past transgressions.
I will say that Rapunzel is basically innocent in all of this and was in a terrible situation, but on the other hand she is absolutely cavalier about the death of the only mother she's ever known, a mother she certainly loved and respected at the start of the film. The witch does tie her up near the end, but she's just planning on taking her away to a more secure location, which she honestly should have done a long time ago. It hardly seems enough of a betrayal to outweigh a whole lifetime.
This film is really weird. It seems like it was almost deliberately set up to allow for a mirror version where the witch is the hero and Rider is the villain, but it's almost too obvious. There'd be nothing novel or subversive in that take, because it's basically already in the film, just never acknowledged. And I'm not sure what message it's supposed to send to its target audience, either. Dangerous criminals are actually really nice once you get to know them, and if your parents say they want to protect you they're just being selfish and mean? It's weird, that's all I can say.