Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Ain’t no thing like me, except me.

Guardians of the Galaxy
(2014)

(SPOILERS) The smart money was on Guardians of the Galaxy being Marvel’s first underperformer. An unknown property (until everyone had Googled it) with a decidedly non Earth-bound setting and a focus on levity that made even the previously most frivolous exchanges in their previous movies look po-faced. And a talking raccoon. It was daring to be rejected. I certainly wasn’t convinced, much as I liked the idea of a talking raccoon. James Gunn’s Slither didn’t tickle me the way it did many a geek, and the first trailer failed to wow (again, it appeared I was in the minority) with an uncertain sense of scale and an all-too brazen, post-Tarantino approach to “cool” (plaster it with retro-hits). It looked like it was trying too hard. At times the finished movie is trying too hard, at others it isn’t trying hard enough, but it’s mostly great fun and very funny, and a much-need mould-breaker in terms of the places Marvel is willing to go. The main complaint is that it could go further; you can see the suits reining Gunn in, making sure he fits their template, when he should have been allowed to bust loose and fully deliver on the tale’s anarchic impulses.


It’s easy to be wise in retrospect, and the huge opening weekend of Guardians (with a sequel announced even before opening night; there’s confidence) now seems like a foregone conclusion amid an underperforming summer filled of all-too familiar tent poles. Guardians was something different, in tone and spirit if not in narrative, and that was surely enough to ignite interest above and beyond the Marvel brand. Marvel arguably laid the groundwork back with Thor, gingerly testing the waters for full-blown fantasy (Iron Man is – relatively – very grounded in comparison) and then successfully marrying accumulated disparate worlds in Avengers. But for all the smart-mouthed knowingness Joss Whedon brought to the studio (and he apparently recommended Gunn who, lest we forget, has two live-action Scooby Doos on his CV), Guardians represents a significant step further out there. It doesn’t actually break the fourth wall, but it is seriously flirting with the idea at times. How can it not, with a talking raccoon as a central character (whether or not its presence in the story can be “logically” justified)?


The unbridled nature of much of Guardians leads back round to the question of why the hell Marvel got such cold feet over Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man. What could have put the willies up them about his take that made it so beyond the pale when sat beside the near-wild abandon often displayed by Gunn? We know there were fundamental differences in the notes, which Wright didn’t accept somewhere along the way, and its probably safe to say these weren’t about sense of humour or visual style. With the former, they’re getting a funny man to do a rewrite and a comedy-associated director to pick up the fallen megaphone; with the latter, why would you employ the guy if not for his distinctive flourish? So no, it must be down to approach to story on some level. And that would make sense, because as far as story goes Guardians is about as generic and conformist as they come. You could pretty much prise the characters from the plot and refashion it as an instalment of Thor without anyone noticing. Big cosmic goings-on, a big nasty cosmic godlike being who wants to get hold of a big cosmic weapon that promises dominion, and an assortment of warrior underdogs rise to the challenge of beating him. It could be Thor: The Dark World.


As such, the movie probably has the most fun in the “assemble the team” first half. It certainly reels under the weight of the identikit grafted-on CGI battlefest that consumes the third act. But even from the off, it’s clear some elements won’t stick well. The prologue has young Peter Quill plucked from 1988 as his mother dies (it’s as nauseous as it sounds), before jumping 26 years to his piratical life and Indy-inspired theft of an orb of unknown properties. Which pits him against the bad guys, results in a price being put on his head and so leads to his imprisonment. Where the gang forms and (naturally) they slowly evolve from self-interested rogues to rogues acting for the greater good.


The attempts to furnish characters with serious motivation don’t really wash. Quill (Chris Pratt), or Starlord as he likes to be known (a running, almost anti-Snake Plissken gag where no one has heard of his preferred title), is devoted to the memory of the mother he lost, but it’s unnecessary junk backstory and only gets a pass because Rocket Raccoon (as voiced by Bradley Cooper) provides a withering dissection of such motivations later on. Very noticeably this isn’t directed towards Quill, but the less important Drax (Dave Bautista). Quill is also foolishly provided with a destiny, which detracts from the bit-of-a-jerk, bit-of-a-prat persona that Gunn would probably rather highlight. Quill has a very high opinion of himself, his ways with the ladies, a capacity for self-mythologising and a music obsession that treads the line between mockery and getting on board with him being “cool”. It’s an aspect where Gunn occasionally comes unstuck; when he’s mocking conventions he manages to make the movie itself cool, but when he attempts to do “cool” stuff he occasionally ends up with something faintly embarrassing. Look at the climactic confrontation, where Quill distracts the villain by doing a cheesy dance (why not, I guess; it’s almost quite clever, except that you feel it’s been done before somewhere) and then the Guardians join together to overcome the devastating effects of the Orb in a rousing moment that, well, isn’t really very. It’s moments like this when you realise how well Gunn has unified the picture visually and tonally, given the dictates of standard heroics.


Still, there’s a feeling that Quill, by falling midway between Indiana Jones, Han Solo and Jack Burton (and then, at the end, Luke Skywalker) is being all things to everyone. Really Quill is a cool guy, great at fighting, a hit with the chicks, with just a teensy bit of Jack Burton window-dressing. And, while Pratt is breezy and funny, the raves about him being the next superstar feel a little premature (Jurassic World will be attempting to cement this). He’s quick and witty, but he doesn’t have the encompassing presence that, say Kurt Russell. Added to that, many of Quill’s gags rely on pop culture references, which is aiming low and hitting the target. Maybe I’m being unfair comparing Guardians to Big Trouble in Little China, but that kind of genre deconstruction came to mind a number of times during the movie. Gunn and Marvel are content to allow the side characters to summon that sort of spirit, but when it comes to the lead they succumb to more traditional poses.


It’s the supporting cast, then, that make this the funniest Marvel movie so far. Leading the pack is Rocket Raccoon, perfectly captured by Cooper’s cocky verbal quick-fire and some wonderfully expressive CGI. A visual cartoon and yet at once “believable”, Raccoon’s an unapologetically free spirit (“You just wanna suck the joy out of everything” he tells Zoe Saldana’s Gamora when she instructs him that no one’s will be blowing up any moons), with a genetically enhanced intelligence only matched by his capacity for mischief (sending Quill off to fetch a prosthetic leg for a joke). And yet he also embodies the only real heart of the movie (in an affecting, rather than a cloying or artificially enforced manner), opining how he didn’t ask to be made, “torn apart and put back together over and over and overturned into some kind of monster” and breaking into tears over the loss of his beloved muscle Groot.


Most would probably agree Vin Diesel comes across a chipper chap (except those who accuse him of blood sacrifices, that is) but few would suggest he’s one of the brightest acting talents on the scene today. He has a certain inverted charisma, an extremely shiny baldhead, and he rightly recognises Riddick as a character to make the most of, but he’s done nothing to suggest much range over the years. So how is it he has delivered two great vocal performances as animated characters? First as the titular The Iron Giant, before anyone really knew his name wasn’t some odd brand name of a non-specific clothing range, and now as Groot, the eight-foot tall sentient tree that only ever utters three words (well, four by the end of the movie)? Vin’s dedication to his art has been noted by the director, that he wanted to make sure each “I am Groot” meant exactly what it was meant to mean. And to be fair, even if his multi-take passion was probably excessive (I’m sure Sir Tony Hopkins wouldn’t have laboured over it), Groot is a wonderfully expressive character, and his bond with Rocket is touching (“Well he don’t know talkin’ good like me and you” explains Rocket of his pal’s succinct nature), as is his wide-eyed innocence. At once joyous at dispensing with bad guys and upset at a bar game where small rodents are eaten, he has a vast quantity of soul. It’s a case of actively being happy his self-sacrifice turns out not to be final, although I could have done without the cabbage-patch kid look-a-like baby Groot bopping in the just-into the credits scene. It’s way too cute and annoyingly crowd-pleasing, almost as if it was thrown together after preview screenings yielded adoring Groot groupies responses.


Many of the characters that aren’t actually CGI or Chris Pratt are painted a funny colour. It’s an endearing recall to the days when aliens in movies and TV were just actors sprayed orange or blue, and it feels wholly right. Drax is lumbered with an Inigo Montoya-ish past and a quest for revenge that, as mentioned, allows for some amusing plays on conventions while toeing the expected line. Bautista (who also appeared in last year’s Riddick) deadpans his way through the proceedings with aplomb, but it’s the jokey character tick that really sells him to the audience (let’s face it, no one cares about his corny quest, as Rocket all but says). When Rocket announces, “Metaphors go over his head”, he responds, “NOTHING goes over my head! My reflexes are too fast, I would catch it”. That, and the line “Don’t ever call me a thesaurus”. The cod-Shakespearian style is a great touch, as he manages to be both erudite and literal (like Spock but less cerebral and more muscly).


The other painted Guardian is the only girl in the gang. Saldana’s Gamora is kick-ass, in true Whedon style, and Saldana is as likeable and lovely a screen presence as ever, but there isn’t very much to distinguish her character aside from some cool moves. It’s one of the Marvel problems. She’s – almost – in the Leia role of reacting to the dashing rogue. One might label it a “guy writing for girls” thing, but it was co-written with Nicole Perlman so Gunn can’t take all the blame (I did like “I will not succumb to your pelvic sorcery”). When it comes to the sequel, it’s the nominally “classic” male-female leads that need the work; the other three are great.


And it isn’t as if they’re the only problematic spots in characterisation. I’m not sure what Lee Pace is on at the moment, but with this and elves and vampires it appears that he is massaging his bank balance rather than his acting chops. Ronan is an utterly banal villain, but name a really good Marvel villain. No?  He can’t really be singled out then but if there’s one thing you can usually rely on in whacky movies, it’s whacky villains. Rodan is a mighty snooze, while the lantern-jawed Thanos (an uncredited vocal from Josh Brolin) is a no more interesting a boss just because he sits on a mighty throne. I liked ex-Amy Karen Gillan more as Nebula, not least because she looks quite alluring all blue and bald (the best bald female alien since Ilia in Star Trek: The Motion Picture… not that there have been a whole lot); unlike Gamora the failure to serve her sufficiently as a character at least appears to arise from an intention to have her as the silent, threatening type. Djimon Hounsou has absolutely nothing to chew on.


Again, though, it’s in the gaps between major protagonists and antagonists that Gunn has his fun. Michael Rooker as Yondu, the Ravager who ripped Quill from his home and treated him kind-of-not like a son, has a ball delivering an instantly recognisable Michael Rooker performance. You can tell Gunn likes the character as he gets one of the few memorable action scenes in the final act, taking out a horde of Kree with a whistle-directed arrow. Benicio Del Toro mugs like he hasn’t since Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as the Collector. John C. Reilly makes a rather dull good guy role upbeat and appealing. It’s not all good. Glenn Close is there to take a big fat cheque for a couple of minutes of prestige actor slumming it; she does the job. Peter Serafinowicz is a bit shit, really. He’s asked to play an Arnold Rimmer type and he does as he’s ordered. I’m sure it was funnier on the page (“I can’t believe I’m taking orders from a hamster” might be the worst line in the movie). He should stick to Darth Mauling in blockbuster sci-fi.


The by-numbers CGI overload of the last half hour or so is put in perspective by how creative Gunn is with his action in the first third. He not only pulls off some visually memorable moments in a “classic” sense (Quill first appearing in his mask, the freezing in space), and does so with a heightened colour palate and a zest and boldness in the framing and staging (the action is clean and clear throughout, so kudos to him), but conjures sequences that are both narratively creative and humorous to boot. The opening venture has Quill crooning to a reluctant lizard before escaping in an edge-of-the-seat and kinetic rollercoaster pursuit. When humour dictates the action, Gunn as director is onto a winner, because he knows just where his markers are.  Even the idea of a joke, rather than anything in the scene (Quill going back for his tape) is effective. So it is that the most satisfying sequence occurs early on, as Quill, Gamora, Rocket and Groot congregate for a batty slapstick back-and-forth as they attempt to capture the orb and/or Quill. It’s such a sustained piece of comedy and action, it reaches a rarefied plane of giddy enjoyment. The sort of thing Spielberg in his prime would have been proud of. It’s all the more disappointing then that the picture forsakes such visual wit long before the conclusion.


It’s a good sign a movie will do repeat business when you know there are so many funny moments you can’t even begin to list them (there are also more than a few duds, of course). A few choice ones include the cosmonaut dog (who, obviously, survives; Gunn knows not to actively alienate his audience), the “percentage of a plan” scene, the Howard the Duck cameo (Seth Green uncredited; now, making a Howard the Duck movie a hit, that would say something about Marvel’s Midas touch). Although, if the Howard cameo had come at the end of Winter Soldier I’d have been really impressed; after 120 minutes of a talking raccoon, one more anthropomorphic motor mouth doesn’t really astound. In contrast, I think it’s a safe bet no one will come away from Guardians raving about the final battle Marvel threw millions at.


So, in its unique way, Guardians of the Galaxy exemplifies the possibilities of Marvel while emphasising its most restrictive elements. When so much is so creative, it wouldn’t really be appropriate to try to excuse the blandest of Marvel movie plots so far as intentional (so as to hang so much craziness on it, presumably). It didn’t need to be. Where does this leave the superhero stock of the year so far? Well, Winter Soldier was great until it lost its nerve, Spidey I know has been announced as the new Batman & Robin but I liked it even if trails in a distant last pace, and Days of Future Past achieved that rare thing; a really solid storyline. Perhaps that’s why it peeks out just above, despite being part of a tired franchise. Guardians may be wisecracking rodent face of things to come, but if so it needs to let its writer loose on the story beats and not just the characters and dialogue. Push the envelope, guys. All third acts don’t have to be same. One day, a Marvel movie might actually surprise with what transpires.


***1/2

Monday, 11 August 2014

Been communing with the dead?

Odd Thomas
(2013)

Writer-director and all-round auteur Stephen Sommers’ latest movie wasn’t greeted with the box office reception that he’s used to. It wasn’t greeted with critical acclaim either, although he ought to be familiar with that by now. Sommers is one of Hollywood’s most unbridled “talents”, unleashing attention deficit disorder puke of unmartialled images and edits onto cinema screens and then having the cheek to advertise the results as coherent movies. Odd Thomas is visually of a piece with this typical lack of restraint but, in contrast to the resto of his post-Mummy output, the big thing it has going for it is that Sommers didn’t originate the idea. It comes from a novel (since a series of novels) by Dean Koontz, and there are more than enough intriguing ideas and twists and turns during this 90-minute adaptation to make it the director’s best movie since Deep Rising. Which isn’t necessarily saying very much, given the quality of those intervening movies, and its not to say that Odd Thomas couldn’t have been a whole lot better in the hands of someone with a basic grasp of tone and pace, but it’s still fairly close to a recommendation.


Odd Thomas didn’t have an easy time of it getting to screen or being released. It completed production in 2011 on a modest budget of $27m (a sixth of his previous picture, G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra), so I think it’s safe to say this was something of a passion project for Sommers. A lawsuit followed in respect of a prints and advertising budget that was never forthcoming, explaining its straight-to-DVD status (some very limited shows and film festival screenings aside). All of which is undeserved and unfortunate. It’s a decade since the unholy abomination that was Van Helsing, and the best one can say about Rise of the Cobra is that it didn’t stand out as terrible (or particularly memorable). It’s clear from Odd Thomas that Sommers is incapable of adjusting his style to fit the material, but there’s potential, should he stick to adaptations, for him to deliver something vaguely palatable on occasion.


Odd Thomas (Anton Yelchin), who is actually called Odd, announces himself via a voiceover in which he explains his special abilities; he’s a kind of psychic private detective and dispenser of justice (and a short order cook). As he says, “I may see dead people, but then, by God, I do something about it”. His girlfriend Stormy (!) Llewellyn (Addison Timlin, a vision in tight shorts and prominent camel toe) and police chief pal Porter (Willem Dafoe; always nice to see Dafoe in a nice guy role) know of his gift, and the latter reluctantly covers up the loose ends caused by Odd doing his own thing.


Odd also sees bodaks, CGI-demon thingies that feed off carnage and bloodshed (but don’t cause it – although it seems they’ll kill anyone aware of their presence; go figure). A conflagration of them leads Odd to “Fungus Bob” (Shuler Hensley), a man who appears to have an obsession with serial killers, and Odd develops a growing conviction that a bloody massacre is soon to take place. There are twists and turns and fake-outs along the way to learning who exactly is up to what, many of which would be more effective if Sommers didn’t approach every shot with the same relentless enthusiasm. The supernatural mystery combined with arch humour and knowing narration initially recalls the superior John Dies at the End, but Sommers lacks the deftness to really play up the weird and accentuate the intrigue. Odd Thomas bowls along so breathlessly that inevitably the storytelling loses out along the way.


Nevertheless, this indiscriminateness occasionally leads to a successful wrong-footing that wouldn’t occur if one was forewarned by diligent direction; the number of occasions in which a character interacts with Odd only to be revealed as dead, for example. I didn’t get wise, even with the most crucial one. The constant barrage of crazy camerawork (never, ever, keep it still), the scene transitions with complementary sound effects; they’re sure signs of a director eager to utilise a box of tricks; there’s no doubt Sommers has a skillset, but he clearly lacks the confidence to sit back and apply it with measure and judiciousness. There’s also the CGI, which is as cheerfully slipshod as ever in his movies (which means that on this meagre budget it is comparatively more successful). A lurid mixed bag about sums up Sommers’ direction.


Yelchin is just old enough now that he doesn’t look as if he’s about to get ID’d, but he's always acted with a maturity beyond his years. Odd has a cocksure quality that could become annoying in a performer lacking a modicum of vulnerability, particular under Sommers’ merciless gaze, and fortunately Yelchin brings that, and an open likeability. Odd is breezily charming, and Yelchin has rapport with the deadpan Timlin and benign Dafoe. Patton Oswalt also shows up. He always does. While the movie is often funny, sometimes the dialogue is overly smart-arsed, which has the side effect of making the film look like it thinks its cleverer than it is (highly unusual for a Stephen Sommers movie!) Yet at other points Sommers manages to nail an appropriate off-kilter quality (the opening encounter with a murderer, and the line “Her blood is in your pocket”), even given the Day-Glo over-saturation of Mitchell Amundsen’s cinematography (he perpetrated the first two Transformers, if that’s any guide, but also the rather good Premium Rush).


Koontz seems quite happy with this adaptation, but then he’s generally had a rough ride with movie versions of his work. You probably have to go all the way back to Demon Seed to find something truly compelling. As Sommers movies go, Odd Thomas is as frenetic as ever, and the score and soundtrack respond in kind. While the results may induce motion sickness, he’s actually managed not to ruin a reasonably intriguing plot or completely overwhelm some decent performances (there’s even a nice little cameo from Arnold Vosloo as a one-armed apparition who carries his severed appendage about). It doesn’t look as if we will see any further big screen adventures for Odd, at least for the time being, which is rather a shame. It would certainly be a more productive use of Sommers’ time than yet another overblown, visually incontinent blockbuster.


***1/2

Some people are worth melting for.

Frozen
(2013)

(SPOILERS) I should probably have caught this ages ago, but instead I just let it go. Does Frozen mean something extra in terms of quality, or have added resonance, because it turned out to be such a huge hit? After all, whilst it was generally well reviewed, no one anticipated the movie as the enormous crowd-pleaser and cultural phenomenon it became. Talk comparing it to the Disney renaissance, which included a Best Picture nomination for Beauty and the Beast, can only account for it being a hearty success, not one of this magnitude. Surely this was just the latest in a long line of reinvented fairy-tales, sticking closely to the formula of the retitled mix-up with a modern sensibility that was Tangled? A good, solid, sassy, smart update, but nothing really ground-breaking. Clearly, though, it struck a major chord, which is why so many column inches have been devoted to analysing and debating its particular merits and its political and/or sexual mores. But that doesn’t de facto make it a greater or lesser beast. Frozen is a good movie, and (obviously, John Lasseter exec-produced it) an extremely well-made movie, with a central relationship that is affectingly, if obviously, played out (at least until the smart twist on classic reversals that come with enchantments), but I’d be hard-pressed to argue its case as the best thing since The Little Mermaid ushered in a new age of animation in 1989 or one that nuzzles comfortably with the best of Pixar.


Of course, the best of Pixar is now an increasingly distant reflection in cinema’s rear view mirror. Frozen was released at the tail-end of a very average year for animation, one in which nothing from the major studios pushed the boat out in terms of creativity or originality. Even given the positive advanced word, Frozen shouldn’t really have been much different. An adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen had first been mooted as part of a biography of the author back in 1937, then failed to take flight in the 1990s before being re-embraced post-Tangled. Even then, it took Lasseter to steer it from the traditional tack of a villainous Queen towards something more nuanced. If the ‘power of love” message of the original story remains intact, the conversion from a traditional boy-girl focus to that of estranged siblings is revealed as a surprisingly potent and accessible one. Hey, if only Disney had known there was this much money to be made from sisterly strife! Cue numerous imitators, none of which attain a sliver of Frozen’s impact. I’m not sure there’s any other straightforward way to explain the success. You can cite the songs, which apparently are recited ad infinitum by young moppets to the distraction of any in the vicinity, but they aren’t going to get on board with them if they don’t care about the central relationship.


Speaking of moppets, I wasn’t overly convinced by the opening passages of the picture. The attempts to establish the setting stumble somewhat, overloading with cutesy kid versions of Anna and Elsa, concerned parents and wise trolls (wise trolls? Now that’s an inversion). Understandably, writer-directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee are trying to get to the point where the story proper begins as quickly as they possibly can. Yet this seems to consist of Anna (voiced by Kristin Bell) knocking on sister Elsa’s (Idina Menzel) bedroom door for about a decade, to no avail. Parents are dispensed with in the blink of an eye and before you know it, it’s Elsa’s coronation.


From here, up to and including Let It Go, the picture is at its most vital and that’s wholly down to the focus on Elsa. It’s not quite a stroke of genius, but nevertheless a fairly perceptive one, to evoke sympathy for the traditional villain (it seems Disney’s attempting something of that ilk again with Malificient, but I haven’t seen it yet to comment; still, there’s another fairy tale villainess who has gone great guns when shown to be simply misjudged), and Elsa is a much more interesting character than Anna. At this point it appears all the fears presented by her parents, the trolls (Ciaran Hinds as their king), and most of all herself are actualised; that hiding one’s true nature is best. And maybe it isn’t so bad; she is granted a glam makeover, like the lead singer of Roxette only with more hair. It’s only later that the theme of love conquering crystallises (still, what this means for the next time Elsa’s emotions are piqued, Carrie-like, is left unexplored; probably best to wrap things up while the going’s good).  Her flight from the palace, to the cries of “Monster!”, evokes Frankenstein’s unsympathetic villagers and so encapsulates the misunderstood innocent theme. It’s one Disney is usually far too black-and-white to get behind, no matter how hip and jive they makes the surface baubles.


Let It Go is a decent tune; the only memorable one in the movie (sorry to all those who have been cursed with recitals of the entire repertoire, so proving me wrong), in a Eurovision power ballad kind of way. It has a lot of gusto, and gusto is good, and more importantly it doesn’t fall into the typical musical trap of half-arsed spoken songs where the tune seems like an afterthought to the plot-advancing/thematically-burdened lyrics.  Most importantly it has emotional clout; fear and repression can be dispensed with in Elsa’s solitary retreat, but loneliness must also be wholly embraced. Everything else here sounds like typical Disney song writing maths, right down to the chipper Snowman number.


What of the suggested subtext of coming-out versus repressing one’s sexuality? It’s an easy-to-appreciate interpretation (when shorn of the negative spin brought by the Christian evangelical movement), and it’s difficult to believe it didn’t at least occur to the directors (although they are consistently non-committal), but it doesn’t really hold up against the broader brush of being allowed to be who you are (indeed, it arguably gets a bit tricky if Elsa is positioned as the nominal antagonist; until she is accepted for who she is). Or of just feeling different; since most kids tend to see themselves at odds with the world at some point, Elsa’s situation has more relatability than Anna’s simpering virtue.


Anna is pretty much your averagely typical modern Disney fairy princess. Even if she’s allowed to be headstrong and (ultimately) non-motivated by the desire for a mate, she is rewarded with a good strong honest-and-true partner for her pains. She can be a little shallow (getting engaged on a first date), but her good intentions are never in any doubt. We can see easily enough that the all-important act of true love thawing a frozen heart will be a case of misdirection in respect of Hans (Santino Fontana), so the double twist that it isn’t Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) either is a sprightly one. The hat trick is that neither is it Elsa called upon to express the love she holds within for her sister; Anna must sacrifice herself. Frozen manages to successfully subvert expectations in this regard at least, which is some achievement for a family movie. Anna’s act further emphasises the theme of self-empowerment; rather than receiving salvation and affirmation from another, it is giving that instils completeness (albeit, Elsa needs some small help along the way to actualising her feelings of self-worth). It’s about as responsible as a Disney moral gets. Still, making Anna more of a character in her own right might have been an added bonus; she only becomes so when reflected by Elsa; she’s so good and kind and pure, despite de rigueur attempts to make her forward and impulsive etc.


So, when it all comes out in the wash, this still manages to be a wholly traditional piece. The Queen isn’t rewarded with a partner; she has to make do with platonic love. Anna gets the prize for undiluted wholesomeness. Even the reveal of the villain isn’t all that subversive.  Hans’ unveiling as the bad guy seemingly comes out of nowhere. One might suggest it’s a neat but unsubtle commentary on the Prince Charming myth; but Anna don’t need him since she’s a princess already. She can afford to opt for a whacky guy who talks for his reindeer. To be fair, this also signifies the roots of the story wherein Anna ends up with the simple peasant lad since she wasn’t a princess in the first place (but we’re all princesses in Disneyland!) Hans’ turnabout is more understandable in context; the script changed from not featuring him at all, to his being there but not a villain, to becoming an outrageous psychopath. The final choice works thematically, and it’s clear the writers had figured out and justified it, but as delivered it’s a bit Scooby Doo.


As ever, the comic relief is note-perfect. This is probably because most animators’ hearts lie with the fun, properly “cartoonish” characters they grew up drawing. The downside of this approach is something like the expertly crafted but one-note Get a Horse! short that preceded showings of Frozen. It’s a nostalgic hearkening back to original Mickey Mouse hand drawn stylings mixed with up-to-date CGI, as the characters break through a cinema screen. But there’s nothing to it beyond the technical prowess, certainly not enough to take up six minutes (it isn’t a surprise in retrospect that it didn’t garner the Best Animated Short Oscar). In Frozen itself, the humorous goods are delivered by Josh Gad’s na├»ve snowman Olaf, a cavalcade of facile charm, “And I like warm hugs”. We also meet silent Sven the reindeer, who isn’t allowed to talk (Snowmen doing yakking is fine, but the line has to be drawn somewhere) so Kristoff has to do it for him.  It’s a sign of an undernourished animation if the funny supporting turns become the sought after respite from unengaging leads or a drowsy main narrative (a prime example of this is the Ice Age series, with Scrat valiantly keeping the boat afloat). In Frozen the laughs have their place and aren’t required to do more than their fair quota.


Wikipedia reels off a string of box office figures telling you how Frozen is just about the best of the best, including the highest grossing animated feature ever worldwide. A stage musical is imminent and no doubt Frozen fever will pervasively consume theme parks shortly, if hasn’t already. It’s the aftershocks that appal; one only has to dip into the (limited) extras on the Blu-ray release to be greeted by the sickeningly upbeat Disneyfication of every element, from an all-singing, all-dancing “Making of” to the deification of dear old bigot Walt himself.  There has been reticence over plunging straight into a sequel, which might be regarded as an indication of standards until one considers the usual Disney practice is to churn out straight-to-video knock-offs so bypassing expectations of quality. Lee at least wants to make something different; she’s working on the screenplay of A Wrinkle in Time.


So what makes Frozen so special? Is it really so much better than Tangled? Or the underrated Brave? Without the benefit of being one of the target audience I’d say no. But then, like Dr Evil, I may have been partially frozen. Perhaps it’s down to the slap in the face to traditional “good” heroines (although it still has one). Maybe it’s the universally recognised sibling tension (which can extend to any BFF of course, if you’re an only child). Disney have a handle on livening up their fairy tales, but Frozen explores something that is likely extra-normative; Brave couldn’t muster the same repeat visits for its mother-daughter relationship (and okay, it wasn’t a musical either). Nor Tangled for its essentially trad-romance. One thing is certain; if the Mouse House could put this animated alchemy on tap, they’d be pouring out a Frozen every year.


***1/2