Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Frozen

Alternate Title:  The Ice Queen Singith

One sentence synopsis:   The younger sister of a frost-cursed queen must rescue her sibling from solitude and her kingdom from endless winter.


Things Havoc liked:  My process for selecting films is not particularly elaborate. I watch the trailers and decide what is and is not likely worth seeing based solely on the materials I am given by the studios. I tend to avoid reviews of films ahead of time, lest I be misled or wind up simply repeating what someone else thought. It also means that, good or bad, every film I see is one that I independently decided there was likely to be some value in. Good films are a product of my discerning intellect, while bad ones are, at least in part, my own fault. On the whole, I'm very happy with this system, as I have no interest in extending this project of mine to films like After Earth or Lone Ranger, or some other catastrophe preordained from the first teaser. But try as I might, I'm not immune to the opinions of other people, and when a film I've dismissed as irrelevant starts garnering something approaching universal acclaim, I will, on occasion, revise my schedule to see what everyone's talking about.

Thank god.

Based (very) loosely on the Hans Christian Anderson story, Frozen is a revelation, a fountain of good ideas from an animation studio that has been notably thin on them for the last twenty years. The story is that of two princesses, Elsa, and Anna, the former empowered (from birth, we're told) with the magical ability to create frost and ice, an ability she is barely able to control at the best of times. Following a near-fatal accident involving these special capabilities, Elsa and her parents are convinced of the need to bottle her magic up, avoiding contact with the outside world prior to the death of her parents and her coronation. But when in the course of the celebration of the new queen's ascension, her powers spiral disastrously out of control, she flees for the solitude of the mountains, and her younger sister must find her and a way to reverse the damage her powers have done, aided only by such people and fantastical creatures she meets along the way.

The above might sound like a fairly generic Disney premise, but it is nothing but. For one thing, both sisters are drawn far more fully than any Disney heroine I can remember, including Belle. Anna (Assassin's Creed's Kristen Bell), our real main character, is young and foolish and possesses that quality of bravery often seen in those too inexperienced to know that they're supposed to be terrified out of their minds. Bottled up in a castle thanks to her sister's curse for nearly her entire life, she is visibly exploding to get out of the life she knows by whatever means necessary, and if curses, ice monsters, political intrigue, rabid wolves, and hypothermia stand in the way, then so be it. Far from the old "Princess who wants 'MORE'" gimmick, this is a Princess who wants very precise things, her sister, a cure to the ice storm burying the kingdom, and freedom, in that precise order. And though it's probably inevitable that the film begins to build a romance between her and mountain man Kristoff (Glee's Johnathan Groff), this development is presented in probably the most believable fashion of any one of the Disney romances I've ever seen. The film even goes so far as to have Anna fall head over heels in love with a dashing Prince in a single day (she's young and foolish, it happens), only to have literally everyone in the movie (including the scriptwriter) remark and even demonstrate that deciding to get married after knowing someone for a single day is stupid.

But there's also Elsa (Rent's Idina Menzel), the Queen, who presents something of the opposite quality, trained from a young age to hold herself in check, and whose barriers of iron and ice finally give way before the catastrophes her powers begin to unleash. Having been forced to flee into the mountains, she finds herself for the first time ever able to finally give reign to her capabilities, constructing soaring cathedrals of ice, and animating snowmen and ice golems with a wave of her hand. The sheer sense of liberation she experiences is vividly portrayed through music and showcase, and yet when everything goes wrong, she is portrayed not as a typical Disney villain (not that I mind those), but as a fellow victim of circumstance and situation, reacting in mounting horror and desperation as the situation spirals wildly out of control. The movie gives her no easy way out, no dashing hero to swoop in and solve her problems for her. And when the solution does finally present itself (this is a Disney film, don't look at me like that), it's not the usual Beauty and the Beast answer of marital bliss as the solution to all conceivable problems. Indeed, Elsa has no love interest whatsoever in the entire film, a staggering departure from Disney's general policy vis-a-vis their heroines. There's even a wonderful inversion of the Disney classic "love conquers all" theme, one which sets the concept at a right angle from how the concept generally works, all without cynical denigration. Well done.

That's not the only departure in this film, indeed it's almost easier to describe what isn't improved. The writing is sharp and modern without being contrived or overwrought, interspersing comedy and drama beautifully, without any of the seams that some of Disney's lesser films evidence. Even the obligatory comedic side-character, in this case an animated snowman named Olaf (Jobs' Josh Gad), is not the idiocy the ads seemed to indicate, providing a lighthearted diversion without ever becoming annoying. As to the music (a key element of a Disney musical, after all), the majority of the songs work very well in the context of the film's flow. You have to get used to the whole Disney-musical vibe, something that I at least was out of practice with, but once settled in, several of the songs are easily worthy of inclusion in the Disney canon. The twinned "Do You Want to Build a Snowman" and "For the First Time in Forever" are particularly good, to say nothing of the showstopper "Let it Go", already a sensation with the internet and the Academy. The songs are concentrated in the beginning of the film (as is customary for Disney), leaving the latter half of the film for plot and characterization, and the pacing is just right, maintaining every sequence just long enough and no longer. Disney, the originators of the feature animated film, plainly still know what they're doing when it comes to the mechanics of animated films. Finally the animation itself is as good as any I've seen, Disney, Pixar, or otherwise. The snow effects in particular, specially-made for the purpose of the film, look as realistic as a rotoscope, falling, clumping, sliding, and floating just the way it should.



Things Havoc disliked:  Not every song works, as is usually the case in a musical. A love song by the name of "Love is an Open Door" is fairly boring, and I could have done without "Fixer Upper", a semi-serious song that appears out of nowhere midway through the film to largely no purpose (except possibly misdirection, the jury's out). Yet musically, the worst sin of all is actually the absence of a Disney tradition, the Villain Song. From Little Mermaid to Hunchback of Notre Dame, some of the greatest songs Disney's movies ever produced (at least in the Renaissance period) were songs where the film's villain got to extoll the wonders of his own decrepitude, and while this movie has a villain (ultimately), it never gives them the chance to express themselves in song. I entered Frozen hoping to find something to place in the great pantheon of songs like Be Prepared, Hellfire or Poor Unfortunate Souls, only to find no such thing available.

Prosaically, though, there is a concern with the ending, one which I will try to refer to obliquely. I understand this is a Disney film, based on a fairy tale, and that happy endings are mandatory, and I do not object to such things generally speaking, but one of the larger issues raised by the film, a driving force behind most of the plot and almost all of the characters actions, is more or less hand-waved away at the end of the film, as though, having arrived at the end of the movie, it was decided that everything should be made all right all of a sudden. Without getting into too many details, I seriously doubt that a character previously established as being unable to perform a task would be suddenly able to perform that task with perfect reliability simply because another character mentioned a few words of encouragement, nor that, given the previous establishment, and the importance thereof, the rest of the film's cast would spontaneously accept that this person is now an expert in the subject. I recognize that the previous statement means very little to anyone who has ever seen a film, but consider an analogy. Would you, aware that a certain person has crashed their car eight or nine times, destroying vast amounts of property and threatening the lives of all and sundry, trust that person to become your personal chauffeur simply because someone came along to give that person a pep talk? There is a difference between Fairy Tale logic and total illogic, something Disney is usually very good at maintaining, but not this time.



Final thoughts:   Frozen is a masterpiece, a tremendous achievement from a studio I had long-since written off as incapable of producing its like, and well worthy of the acclaim (and box office receipts) that it has been garnering since December. Not merely one of the best films Disney has made in a long time, Frozen is far and away the best animated film I have seen from any studio since Pixar's Up, a film which sadly seems to have been the last masterwork that Pixar had in store for us. With Pixar falling into the trap of sequels and merchandizing tie-ins, Disney has recently been on something of a upward turn with films like Tangled or Wreck-it-Ralph, but Frozen eclipses all of these aforementioned works the way the Disney Renaissance did Song of the South. Blending the timeless core of Disney's best films with a modern re-imagining of a classic fairy tale, Frozen, if we are very lucky, may well represent the beginning of a second renaissance for the grandfather of all animation studios, something that, in the wake of Pixar's eclipse, the world of cinema sorely needs.

Welcome back, Disney. We missed you.

Final Score:  8/10

1 comment:

  1. So I was thinking about this movie a lot yesterday--mostly because I was playing "Let it Go" on repeat to try and get "Everything is Awesome" out of my head--and I was thinking about your observation that there isn't a "villain" song in the movie. I've also read a couple other reviews that commented on the same thing. But as I was thinking about this yesterday, I had a strange thought:

    "Let it Go" kind of *IS* the villain song in the movie.

    Hear me out on this.

    First, lets deconstruct the villain songs and what they represent: they're sort of like the "thesis statement" of the main antagonist, a time where their power and motivations are fully revealed for the first time. They often occur about halfway through the movie and represent a major tonal/plot shift and/or an acceleration of tension that continues through the movie till the resolution at the end.

    That's....kinda what we see here. Elsa and her powers are fully revealed to the audience--and herself--for the first time, and these powers are awe-inspiring. Yes they are doled up in pretty colors, but put in the right context and they could be just as frightening as Scar pontificating in front of legions of Nazi-hyenas. Like so many Disney villains before her, she is not only astonished at her powers, she is **reveling** in them. After this point, she and her motivations are fully revealed to the audience, she has accelerated as a character, and the whole tone of the movie shifts around her.

    Which brings me to my next point: although she is not villainous in a traditional sense, her actions and choices still represent the main antagonistic force in the movie. They played around with this in an interesting way when the guards were coming to capture her and she was forced to defend herself. One can easily see how almost any other character's perspective on that scene might have resulted in a different interpretation of her motives entirely. But even though she is not some ubermensch looking to destroy everyone on purpose, but her *absence* is still the main force threatening the town. Also like a villain, she is also the main focus of the protagonist, Anna, only instead of the climax revolving around defeating her, it revolves around (metaphorically) saving her.

    I think the filmmakers made a smart choice by not having a third antagonistic force (at least, for most of the movie) that would have functioned as a traditional villain because that would have just taken away from the main narrative. And, ultimately, I believe it would have been unnecessary, since that narrative is sort of a chiral representation of a traditional heroic fairy tale already.

    But this is mostly me thinking outloud, which is hard to do with THESE SONGS ECHOING AROUND MY HEAD NON-STOP FOR DAYS NOW!!!!

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