Skip to main content

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 naïve 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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

So you made contact with the French operative?

Atomic Blonde (2017)
(SPOILERS) Well, I can certainly see why Focus Features opted to change the title from The Coldest City (the name of the graphic novel from which this is adapted). The Coldest City evokes a nourish, dour, subdued tone, a movie of slow-burn intrigue in the vein of John Le Carré. Atomic Blonde, to paraphrase its introductory text, is not that movie. As such, there’s something of a mismatch here, of the kind of Cold War tale it has its roots in and the furious, pop-soaked action spectacle director David Leitch is intent on turning it into. In the main, his choices succeed, but the result isn’t quite the clean getaway of his earlier (co-directed) John Wick.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Dude. You’re my hero and shit.

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (2019)
(SPOILERS) I was going to say I’d really like to see what Vince Gilligan has up his sleeve besidesBreaking Bad spinoffs. But then I saw that he had a short-lived series on CBS a few years back (Battle Creek). I guess things Breaking Bad-related ensure an easy greenlight, particularly from Netflix, for whom the original show was bread and butter in its take up as a streaming platform. There’s something slightly dispiriting about El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, though. Not that Gilligan felt the need to return to Jesse Pinkman – although the legitimacy of that motive is debatable – but the desire to re-enter and re-inhabit the period of the show itself, as if he’s unable to move on from a near-universally feted achievement and has to continually exhume it and pick it apart.

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013)
(SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

Who would want to be stuck in a dream for ten years?

Top 10 Films 2010-19
Now, you may glance down the following and blanche at its apparent Yankophile and populist tendencies. I wouldn’t seek to claim, however, that my tastes are particularly prone to treading on the coat tails of the highbrow. And there’s always the cahiers du cinema list if you want an appreciation of that ilk. As such, near misses for the decade, a decade that didn’t feature all that many features I’d rank as unqualified classics, included Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Tron: Legacy, The Tree of Life, The Guard and Edge of Tomorrow.

Don’t make me… hungry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m… hungry.

The Incredible Hulk (2008)
(SPOILERS) It’s fortunate the bookends of Marvel’s Phase One are so sturdy, as the intervening four movies simply aren’t that special. Mediocre might be too strong a word (although at least one qualifies for that status), but they amountto a series of at-best-serviceable vehicles for characters rendered on screen with varying degrees of nervousness and second guessing. They also underline that, through the choices of directors, no one was bigger than the franchise, and no one had more authority than supremo Kevin Feige. Which meant there was integrity of overall vision, but sometimes a paucity of it in cinematic terms. The Incredible Hulk arrived off the back of what many considered a creative failure and commercial disappointment from Ang Lee five years earlier yet managed on just about every level to prove itself Hulk’s inferior. A movie characterised by playing it safe, it’s now very much the unloved orphan of the MCU, with a lead actor recast and a main c…

The only things I care about in this goddamn life are me and my drums... and you.

Some Kind of Wonderful (1987)
(SPOILERS) The final entry in John Hughes’ teen cycle – after this he’d be away with the adults and moppets, and making an untold fortune from criminal slapstick – is also his most patently ridiculous, and I’m not forgetting Weird Science. Not because of its unconvincing class commentary, although that doesn’t help, but because only one of its teenage leads was under 25 when the movie came out, and none of them were Michael J Fox, 30-passing-for-15 types. That all counts towards its abundant charm, though; it’s almost as if Some Kind of Wonderful is intentionally coded towards the broader pool Hughes would subsequently plunge into (She’s Having a Baby was released the same year). Plus, its indie soundtrack is every bit as appealing as previous glories The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink.

Mention of the latter highlights Some Kind of Wonderful’s greatest boast; it’s a gender swapped Pretty in Pink, only this time Hughes (and his directing surrogate Howard…