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Saturday, December 7, 2013

Review: Frozen

Frozen (2013): Written by Jennifer Lee, directed by Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck.  Starring: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, and Santino Fontana.  Running Time: 108 minutes.  Based (very, VERY loosely) on The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Anderson. 

Rating: 3/4 

            Now this is more like it.  It’s been a tumultuous decade for Disney since the turn of the century and the end of what is coming to be called the “Second Disney Golden Age.”  Since 2000, Disney films have been largely hit-or-miss, releasing plenty of very good works (The Emperor’s New Groove, Princess and the Frog, Wreck-It Ralph), but also a fair number of lesser-caliber films (Brother Bear, Home On The Range, Treasure Planet).  I think part of the issues plaguing a number of these films was that they represented Disney’s efforts to move out of the musical-style princess fairy-tales that they’ve become synonymous with, in an effort to have more variety to counter the explosion of success Pixar and Dreamworks were experiencing during this time.  As a result, many of their projects over the past 13 years have felt a little schizophrenic, like the company has been trying to do too much too quickly.  With their latest entry into the canon, however, it looks like the studio has now firmly set their sights on returning to their “roots,” and if that is indeed the case, Frozen is a solid, albeit incomplete, step in that direction.    

            This time around, the story centers around two princesses, Elsa and Anna, daughters of the king and queen of Arendelle.  Through a brisk but well-paced opening montage, we learn that Elsa, the older daughter and heir to the throne, was born with the ability to create and manipulate ice.  While playing with her sister years before, though, she accidentally injured Anna with her power.  In order to keep Anna safe, Elsa and her parents decide to wipe Anna’s memory of her sister’s abilities, and Elsa soon locks herself away completely, refusing to play with her sister for years on end, even after their parents are tragically killed in a shipwreck.  This entire opening is effectively built around one of the movie’s signature song numbers, “Do You Want To Build A Snowman?”   

            Elsa is forced to end this self-imposed isolation a few years later when she comes of age and has to open the gates of the palace to visiting foreign dignitaries, once of whom wastes no time in introducing himself to the audience as Herr Evil McHeinous.  The only other side character here of note is Hans, a rote clone of every Disney prince every created ever, for whom Anna, desperate for pretty much any kind of affection after years of forced isolation, falls head-over-heels (of course).  Their instant engagement creates a rift between Anna and her sister, who finally releases all her pent-up emotions and, in an immense display of her very X-Men-esque power, throws the kingdom into perpetual winter and seals herself away inside a massive ice fortress halfway up the mountain.  This segment features the show’s other main number, “Let It Go,” easily the best show-stopper in a Disney film we’ve had in years, giving Idina Menzel the first chance she’s had to really show off her pipes on the big screen since Rent

            With the dignitaries and the regular citizens in danger of both freezing and starving, Anna immediately takes it upon herself to find her sister and get her to lift the curse.  During her trip through the mountains, she meets a young ice-seller named Kristoff, his reindeer Sven, and a talking snowman created by Elsa named Olaf (voiced by Book of Mormon’s own Josh Gad).  As they battle the elements, other not-so-friendly snow creatures, and sinister forces back in Arendelle, Anna’s devotion to her sister is put to the test as the dangerous consequences of wiping her memory become more and more evident. 

            In many aspects, Frozen is less of a direct throwback to the Golden Age films, and more of a spiritual successor to Disney’s other recent CGI princess/musical mashup Tangled.  Both are efforts to revive the Golden Age Fairy Tale formula, but in updated, 21st-century ways, with stronger, more active female characters, more pop-esque soundtracks, and touches of Shrek-style self-aware parody thrown into the mix for those disillusioned with said fairy tale classics.  I’m all for updating a tried-and-true formula whenever it starts to age, and in my opinion, Frozen succeeds at this far, far better than Tangled did.  Not to say that I didn’t enjoy Tangled, I did, but it was palpably trying to be a somewhat-serious version of Shrek, right down to the bar-room side characters swiped wholesale from Shrek 2.  

           The characters in Frozen, conversely, feel much more like their own unique creations.  Elsa and Anna are both deliberate breaks with the more traditional princess stereotype, but it's never in an in-your-face way- the film merely presents them as their own people, two individuals both ill-suited to lives of standing still and looking regal.  Kristoff is also a fun side character, whose nonchalant acceptance of all he sees (even talking snowmen) makes for a few good laughs.  Even the talking snowman has some great moments, including two of the funniest lines I have ever heard in a Disney film (and they even come up with a pretty creative reason for having him around).  There is romance, obviously, but it's downplayed- Kristoff and Hans never rise above side characters.  The focus here is strictly on the sisters.  It’s fascinating (and indeed encouraging) to see a Disney film with a focus on relationships between siblings as opposed to opposite-sex love interests, and I sincerely hope we get more of this in their next project.  

            Another part of Tangled that never sat well with me was the soundtrack, which stretched itself thin trying to include, by my count, four different genres of music (Guitar Pop, Broadway Classic, The Soft Love Ballad, and Barroom Comedy Romp).  As a result, each song felt like a perfunctory, check-list-mandated distraction, a screeching halt in the middle of an otherwise perfectly good story with perfectly functional characters.  To be fair, this issue is only halfway solved in Frozen- most of the songs are stuffed into the first half of the movie, and only about half of them feel like organic parts of the orchestral soundtrack (which, all on its own, is excellent), with the others feeling just as out-of place as those in Tangled.  However, even when they distract, they’re still all-around better songs- I’ve already given “Snowman” and “Let It Go” their dues, and “Frozen Heart” and “For The First Time In Forever” deserve mention as well.  All four of these tunes have been in my head ever since I left the theater.  I wish they’d spread the vocal local love around a bit more evenly, and gone for a more cohesive sound as a whole.  I'd have loved to see the "Let It Go" and "Forever" themes brought back once or twice more, or that the sisters had gotten their own unique duo at the very end.  Thankfully, the rest of the movie is so well done that harping on that feels like very determined nit-picking. 

            I’m still irked by the continued decline of traditional hand-drawn animation (at least, within the US), especially since it used to be Disney’s strong suit, but as a fan of any form of animation period, it would be remiss of me to not mention that this is a very, very beautiful movie.  It looks like the whole story is taking place inside a crystal ball.  And it’s not all white either-the animators succeed in bringing in some wonderful rushes of color at just the right moments- the red glow of a sunset, the sharp purple of Elsa's cloak or the green of Anna's on a white mountainside, or the sharp, clear blue of Elsa's post transformation, "I am the Ice Queen" dress.  It's some of the best CGI animation we've yet gotten from Disney, good enough to rival many of the better Pixar works. 

            I’m deliberately bouncing around going into more details about the plot at this point, which is frustrating, because while it’s easily the best part about the movie, and what makes it the first Disney film to truly rise above the company’s own princess “standard,” bringing it up would necessitate spoiling, well, everything, and like any movie that executes its twists properly, Frozen deserves to be seen sans spoilers.   Yeah, it’s that good.  Perhaps I'll do a follow-up reflection on the movie in a few months, after the insanity of Oscar season dies down.  With any luck, Frozen will be the first Disney film to beat out a Pixar work for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars (Monsters University was good, but not great), and I would not be surprised at all if “Let It Go” also manages to top “Fare Thee Well” for Best Original Song.  Definitely go out and see this one as soon as possible. 

-Noah Franc 

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