Friday, December 6, 2013

Review - Frozen

Casual moviegoers with kids to entertain for an hour or so can be forgiven for thinking that the latest animated effort from Walt Disney Studios is little more than a slapsticky romp about an impish snowman. That is, after all, the only clue they've been given by the TV ads and movie posters, but those only represent the tip of the proverbial ice berg. With Frozen, Disney actually makes as earnest an attempt as they have in the last 15 years to recapture the magic of their 1990s musical heyday, with a Broadway pedigree cast and not one, but two new Disney princesses front and centre.
The story, written by Shane Morris and co-directors Jennifer Lee & Chris Buck, is based very loosely on Hans Christian Anderson's The Snow Queen, although its vague Scandinavian setting seems to be all that was retained from Anderson's original 19th century fable. This re-imagining tells of two princesses in the fictional land of Arendelle. Elsa, the eldest and therefore first in line to inherit the crown, was born with the magical ability to form ice and snow with the slightest gesture. Anna, the youngest, adores frolicking in the indoor winter wonderlands her sister can conjure, until a near-death accident convinces their parents that the girls should be separated and Elsa's powers kept under wraps.

Elsa grows up a cold recluse, terrified of the harm she could do to her loved ones, while Anna grows up starved for a connection with her beloved sister. Years pass, and as much as Elsa has practiced controlling her frosty touch, she cannot prevent an ill-timed outburst on her coronation day. She exiles herself to the mountains (in an ice palace that would make Superman jealous) whilst the kingdom becomes locked in permanent winter. Only Anna is brave enough, optimistic enough, and foolhardy enough to follow, confident that she can persuade Elsa to return the land to its summery splendour.

From here on in, Frozen settles into the time-tested conventions of both fairytale classicism and mainstream animated movies, and that's not a bad thing. All the familiar patterns and elements are there: The spunky heroine, her dangerous quest, her unlikely love interest (a now out-of-business ice seller named Kristoff), her amusing comic relief sidekick (a na├»ve snowman who dreams of living the sunny summer lifestyle) – but all are applied to enjoyable effect.
At the same time, there's definitely an underlying sense of modernization that the studio initiated a few years ago with the similarly styled Tangled. Sure, the dialogue patterns are “like, totally” so colloquial that they threaten to undercut the timelessness of Frozen's fantastical reality, but it's refreshing to see the narrative formula play out with more progressive gender politics than Disney usually affords its leading ladies. It even puts a nifty feminist twist on the old “true love” trope, avoiding the common fairytale pitfall of measuring female characters' worth only by their capacity for romance. Frozen underlines that romance and true love are not necessarily one and the same. Parents should also appreciate its worthwhile messages about the perils of repression and the importance of accepting others' love.

As a musical, however, Frozen's structure is nowhere near as flawlessly crystaline as Queen Elsa's fortress of solitude. Almost all the songs composed by the husband-wife team of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (the former of Avenue Q and Book of Mormon fame) are crammed into the first half of the film, after which it pretty much ceases to be a musical anymore. Space 'em out, guys! That said, most of tunes are cleverly penned and function nicely as cogs in the narrative machinery – even if some lyrics seem to be to spoon-feeding subtext to their younger audience. Idina Menzel's much ballyhooed power anthem "Let It Go" will get the lion's share of attention (and an Oscar come next March), but the MVP of this score is the quieter, simpler, and remarkably moving "Do You Want to Build a Snowman". More so than any other number in the movie, it takes full advantage of the potential of the musical genre, using its medium to elegantly define character, progress story, and evoke the passage of time.
The look of the film is even more sophisticated than its sound. As Disney has demonstrated in recent years, their character animation is superior to every other studio in the business (even their adopted sibling Pixar), and will undoubtedly reward repeat viewers with all sorts of nuance to discover. The production design is imbued with a lovely colour palette that is far more selective and less cluttered than most cartoons tend to be these days. But avoid 3D screenings; the glasses do a disservice to the film's utterly gorgeous CG lighting, although 3D is the only way to truly appreciate the inventive new short Get A Horse! that plays beforehand.

While I cannot share quite the same enthusiasm as those who say that Frozen can legitimately stand alongside the likes of The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast
(I mean, let's not go nuts), it's still a more-than-adequate family entertainment, and handily the best of what has been a weak year for American animation. It certainly managed to melt my icy heart in spite of numerous faults; faults which, if it's anything like its Disney kin, will become more and more forgivable with time.

*** out of ****

1 comment:

  1. To me, Frozen looked like a clone to that of Tangled, which I loved, but it would be very interesting to see this. The problem is that my "Disney movie buddy" that I usually go see a movie like this with just had a baby, so I may have to go by myself (a young adult man going to a Disney-Princess movie by himself...), still I wouldn't mind seeing it if the Disney geek inside me mans the helm.