Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, December 8, 2013

Series Report Card: Disney Animated Features (2013)

52. Frozen

Animation is more of a business now then it’s ever been. Every month, a new CGI cartoon is crapped out, many of them unmitigated shit. Witness last month’s “Free Birds” and next month’s “The Nut Job.” In this increasingly crowded market place, how does Disney get their Animated Features to stand out? The most iconic of animation studios still has one ace up their sleeve. Nobody has the claim to animated adaptations of classic fairy tales like Disney. Other studios either have to parody the classics, like in the lucrative and increasingly mediocre “Shrek” franchise, or are dismissed as imitators to the throne. This is why “Tangled” was an event while “Wreck-It Ralph” or “Winnie the Pooh” were (unfairly) overlooked. As a life-long lover of Disney’s traditional adaptations, I found myself far more excited for “Frozen” then someone my age perhaps should be.

“Frozen” started life as an adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen,” an adaptation of which Disney has been kicking around since 1943. It spent so many years in rewrites, turn-around, and development hell that the final product resembles the original story in only the barest way. The story centers on two sister princesses, naturally, of a Norwegian-inspired kingdom in a vaguely 19th century time period. Anna is a normal little girl while Elsa was born with the ability to control ice and snow. After an accident involving her powers, the older sister withdraws from her life. Even further after the king and queen die. (Naturally.) After a life time of withdrawn, Elsa on her coronation as queen looses control of her power in public, retreating to a shelter in the mountains, forcing Anna to go after her. A love story involving a prince, a pauper, and at least two comic relief animal sidekicks (Naturally!) follows.

“Tangled,” which “Frozen” is blatantly modeled after in its character designs and style, distinguished itself from previous fairy tales with its focus on humor and action-adventure. “Frozen,” perhaps more interestingly, instead subverts conventions in its story. The film does feature a love story between a princess and a prince, as well as a villain. However, the movie isn’t really about either of those things. Instead the focus is squarely on the relationship between the two sisters. Anna’s love for her sister and Elsa coming to grips with her isolation and self-loathing are what drive the story. Even when the two split apart, Anna reaching out for her sister’s love is what informs the entire film. In a time when women’s role in pop culture is under more focus then ever, this is an especially bold, logical move. It roots all the comedy and high-level hijacks in an emotional truth. More importantly, both are lovable characters. Anna is clumsy and awkward, making her relatable and likable. Elsa, meanwhile, has a character arc that the viewer quickly becomes invested in.

Another clear influence “Tangled” had on this film is in its love story. The relationship between princess-on-an-adventure Anna and simple ice farmer Kristoff is model obviously on Rapunzel and Flynn Rider’s relationship. The two band together strictly out of necessity. They snipe at each other with sarcasm. However, as their adventure goes on, a bond is formed. Neither exactly realizes how important they are to each other until a key moment at the end of the second act. The characters have a nice chemistry, even if voice performers Kristen Bell and Jonathan Groff don’t have the repor that Mandy Moore and Zachary Levi had in the latter film. Certainly more so then Anna has with Prince Hans, her other love interest, which turns out to be intentional. Thankfully, the film doesn’t play up a cheap love triangle and it also knows when to shift the focus back to the two sisters.

But what about the humor and action-adventure? Ever since “The Little Mermaid,” every Disney Animated Feature has to have at least two comic relief animal sidekicks. Here, we get two. Kristoff has his reindeer Sven which, like “Tangled’s” Maximus, acts a lot a dog. Kristoff and the creature play each other nicely, the man frequently voicing the animal’s thoughts and concerns. Sven is cute and all but is quickly overshadowed by the film’s other comic relief, Olaf the Snowman. The character is voiced by Josh Gad, whom I’ve never particularly liked, always considering him a louder, more obnoxious Jonah Hill. However, Olaf turns out to be a brilliant comedic device. A snowman who loves summer and the sun could have been a one-note joke. Instead, Olaf is most characterized by his unfailing optimism. When walking through a giant ice sickle or attacked by a giant snow monster, Olaf remains upbeat and happy. Gad frequently delivers his line in a hilarious deadpan manner. The character’s status as a snowman allows him to be gleefully dismembered, which proves a surprisingly durable comic device. Olaf is a lovable, inspired critter and one of the film’s best elements.

The big action set pieces emerge organically out of the material, while also being exciting and memorable in their own way. Which is all you can ask for when it comes to action scenes. A sled chase from a pack of wolves humorously reflects on our characters’ personalities while placing the camera directly at the front of sled both involves the audience in the scene and makes great use of 3D. The big fight with the ice golem is nicely orchestrated, making good use of the film’s visual scope. The finale, a race across a crumbling ice lake, is certainly exciting stuff, especially when a shifting, crashing ship is involved. Maybe “Tangled” made better use of its action scenes but “Frozen” certainly shows the Disney team evolving when blending genres.  

What I’m most pleased about concerning the newest wave of Disney features is that so many of them are openly, undeniable a musical. If there’s one thing where “Frozen” is obviously inferior compared to its immediate predecessors, it’s the music. The songs are written by Robert Lopez, famed songwriter of ribald Broadway hits “Avenue Q” and “The Book of Mormon,” and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, who also worked on 2011’s “Winnie the Pooh.” The Lopez duo writes in a conversational style that frequently characterizes Broadway musicals… That I don’t like. Instead of the songs being solo numbers, the cast of “Frozen” sing dialogue back and forth a few times. It takes a minute to get use to and is sometimes deployed awkwardly, “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” being the most obvious example of this. The lyrics are sometimes awkward as well, trying too hard to squeeze in wacky, comedic one-liners. The biggest mistake a musical can be is songs that don’t advance the plot. “Frozen,” disappointingly, suffers from this. Olaf’s number “In Summer” is cute but derails the story. Even worse is the number from the Norwegian trolls, “Fixer Upper,” which stops the plot dead in its place. It even winds up costing the characters precious time. It’s not a bad number but probably should have been excised.

Anna’s “I Want” theme “For the First Time in Forever” and romantic duo “Love is an Open Door” are fun. They don’t stop the plot, are perfectly listenable, but aren’t hugely memorable. The only time the music of “Frozen” really comes alive is Elsa’s big solo number, “Let It Go.” And, oh man, is that one awesome. It’s a first time Elsa comes out of her shell as a character, breaking loose for the first time. The music is uplifting and powerful, even the overly simple lyrics not distracting from the strength of the song. Idina Menzel not only sings the songs fantastically but incorporates her performance into the music. The audience is as uplifted by the number as the character is. The Academy notoriously goes for the big love ballads but Disney seems to be, rightfully, positioning “Let It Go” as their Oscar-favorite, given pop star Demi Lovato’s over-the-credits rendition. If the AMPAS known what they’re doing, they’ll agree.

Not quite a year ago, I predicted that the icy, snow-covered landscapes of “Frozen” would look gorgeous in full CGI on the big screen. Yep. “Let It Go” proves a stand-out for another reason. During the sequence, Elsa raises her ice palace from the mountain side. The clear, angled ice emerging from the snow sure looks pretty. That shimmering, crystal clear ice proves visually lovely, something the film takes full advantage of. Frozen fountain waters and crystal chandeliers prove especially memorable. Naturally, sympathetic weather is a reoccurring feature of the movie. The snow storm at the climax stands out for me, the characters appearing as specks among the huge walls of white. Animated films continue to be the sole sure-bet for 3D viewings and Disney knew that. “Frozen” looks beautiful and the depth of the frame are especially well-suited to 3D presentation. The amusingly-meta, fourth wall breaking CGI Mickey Mouse short, “Get a Horse,” that precedes the film does too, characters literally running around towards the audience.

You’re likely to see the conclusion to “Frozen” coming but, at the very least, the film earns that emotion. A likable cast, lovely visual presentation, and great sense of humor makes the film a pleasant viewing experience. The story attempts to push Disney forward into new territory, and mostly succeeds, which is film’s biggest attribute. It’s not quite as good as “Tangled” or “Princess and the Frog.” However, it’s another good effort from the Mouse Factory. John Lasseter-era Disney continues to make good films, doing their best to reestablishes the studio’s legacy. [Grade: B+]

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