Monday, December 9, 2013

Frozen (***)

Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee


The last decade and a half of film animation has been so thoroughly dominated by Pixar studios that at times it has seemed like no one else has even put up a fight, least of all it's parent company, Disney, which has its own legendary studio Walt Disney Animation. I feel like that has shifted ever so slightly in the last few years. Sony Pictures Animation has the Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs franchise, which is very slight, but unbelievably adorable. Dreamworks has had a rough patch lately, but they're still the studio responsible for 2010's terrific How to Train Your Dragon and at least the first Shrek film was terrific. And last year, Walt Disney Animation produced Wreck-It Ralph, which may have possibly been the best animated film of the year (even though it lost the Animated Feature Oscar to Brave which was produced by - you guessed it - Pixar). None of those movies are as splendid as Frozen, though, which is Disney's best non-Pixar film since 1998's Mulan. And it's that good because Disney got back to its bread and butter.

Walt Disney Animation had a formula built upon young female protagonists (many have christened them the "Disney princesses", though not all of them are actual royalty and some of them may actually be accused of acting particularly un-princess-like) that blessed the studio with decades of material and provided then with several Carnival Cruise ships filled with cash. But it's something they abandoned after Mulan and didn't come back to until 2009's ill-fated The Princess and the Frog which boasted Disney's first black princess, but felt more like a ham-handed obligation than return to form (full disclosure: I've never seen the film). It was essentially the Intolerance of the twenty-first century, and the film became a commercial disappointment. Tangled, Disney's reworking of Rapunzel, was a solid hit, and Brave was a brazen film that dared to have the princess without the Prince Charming, but Frozen is the first Disney movie in a very long time that has felt like a Disney Princess movie. There was something incredibly nostalgic about this film, and it uses the audience's familiarity with their romantic past to its advantage.

One thing Frozen provides the audience with is two princesses instead of one. There's princess Elsa (voiced by Broadway legend Idina Menzel), the rightful heir to the kingdom of Arendelle, who possesses the special power to create ice and snow with her hands. The second is Elsa's little sister, Anna (Kristen Bell), a little sparkplug of a girl who loves sliding around on the mountains of snow that Elsa can create on a whim. As children, the sisters were inseparable, but when Elsa's powers become too strong, their parents feel that Anna may be endangered. They erase Anna's memory of Elsa's abilities and separate the two girls for the rest of their childhood. While Anna is left to wander the Arendelle palace alone, Elsa is locked away inside of her bedroom, her separation anxiety causing her to further lose control of her powers, trapping her in an arctic tundra for essentially all of her formative years. When their parents are killed at sea during a massive storm, Elsa fears that the coronation of herself as queen will reveal her severe powers to the entirety of Arendelle.

Elsa gets through the coronation without much incident, but when Anna approaches her to approve a marriage to Hans (Santino Fontana) whom she'd met only hours before, Elsa is so upset by her sister's actions, that she unleashes her powers - revealing her affliction to everyone - before fleeing the town. In her absence, Arendelle is left in a brutal, permanent winter, giant layers of snow encompassing everything around the palace. Anna becomes fixated on finding Elsa and convincing her to bring back the Summer. The harsh conditions almost immediately impede Anna's journey into the forest, if not for running into Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and his trusty reindeer, Sven, who agree to help her find Elsa and stop the endless winter. As an ice salesman, Kristoff has a lot to gain from getting an end to all of the snow. Anna and Kristoff have quite the adventure as they go about tracking Elsa, while the ice queen herself has built an ice fortress in the middle of the forest where she can spend her life away from all of the people who find her powers a form of sorcery.

Frozen does not split time between Elsa and Anna, even though Elsa is the one with the juiciest moral dilemma and, you know, the power to create giant ice monsters and turn entire cities into glorified igloos. No, this is mostly Anna's story, and the eventual love triangle dealing her with Hans and Kristoff makes up most of the meat of the second act. Elsa's story takes more of a backseat once she leaves Arendelle, with the exception of one show-stopping musical number, "Let it Go", which is sung by Menzel with such theatrical zeal that it purposefully stands out amongst the rest of the songs - comparisons to "Defying Gravity" seem inevitable. There is one more addition to the film, which is the snowman Olaf (Josh Gad), that comes to life in the surprise winter and joins Anna and Kristoff on their journey. Perhaps the only story opportunity that Frozen doesn't tap into is allowing Elsa's character be equally expanded, but it's quite the relief that the safer, less complicated story of Anna is presented in a manner that's more charming and sweet than it needs to be.

I don't mean to place Frozen in the same realm as Beauty and the Beast or The Little Mermaid, because it doesn't quite reach that level of quality or charm. But the fact that Frozen wants so badly to be like one of those films makes the film much more endearing than it would have been otherwise. This films strikes a terrific balance between the romantic idealism of classic Disney films, while still subtly including the sardonic insincerity of the humor within the more contemporary animated films of Dreamworks and Sony Animation. A good example is the character of Olaf, which could have been a Jar Jar Binks-level caricature of lowest-common-denominator jokes wrapped around a thinly veiled toy selling ploy. In 2013, we're a bit more aware of just how ridiculous a character like Olaf is than we were in, say, 1995, and the film is willing to acknowledge that. Olaf is rarely presented as anything more than a silly, devoted comedy generator that is much funnier than any of Frozen's trailers would lead you to be.

Another thing that the trailer seems to hide is just how much of a musical Frozen is. Not only that, but it's songs are large, heavily crafted numbers that feel like stage productions in terms of scale. The centerpiece being "Let it Go", which is so grandiose that the audience in my theater actually started clapping once Else finished singing. I may be the only person that felt like "Let it Go"'s transparency as the ultimate musical number made it feel a little too obvious, and it's certainly been a hit with audiences and is a near guarantee for a Best Song Oscar nomination. Frozen is currently making a ridiculous amount of money, even in its third week, making it Disney's most popular non-Pixar film in quite a while. The film is no masterpiece. It's plot flows in the directions that you expect it to and even its plot twists are easy to predict. Calling the events in the film's final act "convenient" is being kind, but it's a refreshing nod to Disney's idealistic past. Like all of Disney's best films, Frozen is not a film that can entertain both adults and children, but a film that allows adults to feel like children again while they watch it. And the songs are pretty good too.

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