Thursday, December 12, 2013
FROZEN Is Very-Nearly Magical
- There's so much to like about Disney's latest animated musical. It has all the trappings of vintage Disney animation, but the characters and story feel fresh and modern. The music is mostly fantastic, and from a visual perspective, the look and feel of the film is positively stunning. This is very nearly a new Disney classic. What's frustrating about Frozen is that it's got all the ingredients to be a home run, but it just misses the mark due to an overall feeling of incompleteness. The movie is packed with fantastic moments, but as a whole, it feels loosely-sketched. Still, Frozen's high points make it a must-see for animation fans young and old. And at it's best, the film summons that old-school Disney magic in a way that reminds you of what put Disney animation on the map in the first place.
I give Frozen credit for giving us a different sort of story than we're used to in a Disney fairy tale. This is a tale of two sisters - two very strong, well-developed female characters who have full-fledged personalities independent of any star-crossed romances. In a year when there's been a lot of talk about movies failing the so-called Bechdel Test, Frozen passes with flying colors. In princesses Elsa and Anna, Frozen presents two iconic-yet-relatable characters who both radiate personality. Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel) is the eldest of the two sisters - she was born with magical powers, able to create ice and snow from her hands. But those powers made her a danger, since she could not fully control them. After accidentally injuring her younger sister, Elsa is isolated by her parents - the king and queen of an ice-covered kingdom - and kept away from her sister, and from the rest of the world. Years later, when Elsa comes of age, it's her time to be anointed as Queen - she finally emerges from her isolation and nervously presents herself to her very curious subjects. Over the years, she's become a mystery and object of fascination. However, during the coronation festivities, Elsa's powers go haywire, and the people deem her a monster and a freak. Elsa retreats to an ice-palace far away in the mountains, and blankets the kingdom in a deep, unnatural freeze. It's up to Elsa's plucky sister Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) to find the Snow Queen and convince her to come home. Anna, too, spent years isolated from the rest of the kingdom. But while Elsa locked herself away with a grim and steadfast determination, Anna yearned to go outside and explore and interact with others (shades of Tangled). Now, Anna is out in the big wide world, on her first adventure, on a quest to find her sister.
Anna, really, is the star here. Kristen Bell makes her utterly likable - funny, brave, determined, dorky, and just a bit naive about the way the world works. Bell's singing is wonderful, but her overall performance is even more winning. This is probably the best the fan-favorite actress has been since her Veronica Mars heyday, and a reminder of just how talented Bell really is. What's more, the heart and soul of the film is likely Anna's relationship with rough-and-tumble Kristoff (Jonathan Groff). It's a relationship that works so well in part because, like I said, neither character seems defined by it. We spend a lot of time with Anna before she even meets Kristoff, and even then, there's nothing star-crossed about them. Just as Anna is an atypical Disney princess, Kristoff is an atypical Disney male lead. He's shaggy, schlubby, and occasionally prickly. That's what makes the song "Fixer Upper" a true highlight of the movie - it dresses down these characters to make them seem less like fairy-tale heroes and more like just a couple of crazy kids who might just have a certain spark between them, flaws and all. And yet, that ordinariness makes their eventual acts of heroism that much more resonant. Rarely have Disney characters had this much real-feeling personality.
Elsa, however, is much more of an enigma. And it's with Elsa that the movie seems unsure of what story, exactly, it wants to tell. Elsa's story starts as a familiar one for those who have watched any number of superhero movies in recent years: a child finds out that they're different, a "freak", because they have some sort of strange power, and hides away, keeping their ability a secret - until they eventually learn to control, master, and embrace it. It's a story we've seen before, but also one that is an undeniably effective storytelling device - a perfect metaphor for real issues of identity, individuality, and coming-of-age. And when Elsa does have her big moment where she embraces her true nature - singing the defiantly powerful "Let It Go" as she goes all glam-rock amidst her newly-erected ice-fortress - it's a transcendent moment - absolutely an instant classic and a defining moment for Disney in the modern era. But after the high of "Let It Go," the movie disappointingly seems to drop the ball on Elsa. She is finally comfortable with who she is, and yet ... she remains isolated in her remote palace, and seems to increasingly grow colder and less human. In a weird way, "Let It Go" is both the film's hero song and its villain song. The movie can't seem to decide which Elsa is. We barely get into Elsa's headspace after that moment. But we do see her attack her own sister via a hulking Abominable Snowman construct, and then mortally wound her sister with her powers.
Elsa is a fascinating character because of how completely she breaks the mold for a Disney animated film. But she's also a problematic character because the movie gives her this tragic - but ultimately inspirational - origin story, only to make her less and less sympathetic as the movie progresses. Instead, our attention increasingly turns to girl-next-door Anna and her sweetly-scripted relationship with Kristoff. All the while, I kept waiting for some kind of twist to occur with Elsa. Would the movie go full-villain with her, and make her into the film's true antagonist? Or would it be revealed that she was being manipulated by some as-yet-unrevealed uber-villain, whispering in her ear and making her turn against her sister? Ultimately, Elsa gets exactly one half of a great story. Frustrating, because the build-up through "Let It Go" is so incredibly well-done.
Frozen, therefore, ends up conspicuously lacking a great villain. Sure, there's some sleazy scheming from deceptively charming nobleman Hans. And there's some politically-motivated skulduggery from weaselly Duke of Weselton (voiced amusingly by Alan Tudyk). But the movie has no equivalent of an Ursula, or Jafar. Hans is sort of like a wannabe Gaston, I guess. But as a character, he's a bit flimsy and unmemorable. And his true motivations are revealed so late in the film that it all feels a bit rushed. In general, the movie seems to have a number of things mysteriously missing. We get hints of an intriguing origin for Kristoff - raised by Trolls, away from other people - but we never get the full story. Olaf - the wacky Snowman who becomes Anna's companion - is interesting, and thankfully non-annoying, but it feels like a major story beat between him and Elsa is missing from the movie. It definitely feels like we're getting a chopped-up version of what was once a longer and more complete (and presumably more satisfying) story.
Back to Olaf for a second. As voiced by Josh Gad, he's a funny and fun comedy-relief character. I will say though - Olaf's big song, "In Summer," is a bit weak, in my opinion. Definitely not a classic on the level of other Disney-musical "fun" songs like Hakuna Matata or Under the Sea.
The music as a whole though is quite good. The high points are really, really good, with the standouts being the aforementioned "Fixer Upper" and "Let It Go." I'm also partial to the mood-setting opening number "Frozen Heart," which has a folk-chant ominous quality that reminded me a bit of The Little Mermaid's "Fathoms Below."
And visually, it can't be understated just how eye-popping the animation is in Frozen. The majestically ice and snow-covered landscapes give the film a dark-fantasy fairy-tale look that I really dug. And when the movie cranks up its visual fireworks - like during the "Let It Go" number - it really becomes total eye-candy. I also continue to be blown away by just how expressive Disney's CGI characters are these days. Similar to Tangled, Frozen's characters are slick, ultra-fluid computer-animated figures that nonetheless have facial animation deliberately designed to evoke the kind of expressive hand-drawn animation of the older Disney classics. It really does feel like an evolution of the old Disney style. Overall, Frozen's visuals are truly epic - some of the best yet in an animated CGI film.
Frozen feels like only 3/4 of a classic, but I think that fans will really embrace it despite its faults. For one thing, there's the stunning animation. For another, there's the strong female characters and progressive-seeming storyline - big picture, Frozen rather brilliantly combines classic fairy-tale trappings with very modern themes and characters. On top of that, while the music isn't as consistently great as in some of Disney's best, the movie's best songs are undeniably fantastic, catchy, and bound to be beloved by kids and adults alike. Frozen's complex themes have and will provide a lot of interesting discussion fodder, but I'm also not sure if the movie will hold up as an all-time Disney classic. There's just a lack of coherency to the plot, and a feeling that the movie isn't quite sure what to do with its theoretical lead character, Elsa. For that reason, the movie's lasting impression is that of a film with a handful of magical moments, but one whose parts are stronger than its whole.
My Grade: B+