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

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 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.

I'm reliable, I'm a very good listener, and I'm extremely funny.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I wrote my 23 to see in 2019, I speculated that James Cameron might be purposefully giving his hand-me-downs to lesser talents because he hubristically didn’t want anyone making a movie that was within a spit of the proficiency we’ve come to expect from him. Certainly, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Miller are leagues beneath Kathryn Bigelow, Jimbo’s former spouse and director of his Strange Days screenplay. Miller’s no slouch when it comes to action – which is what these movies are all about, let’s face it – but neither is he a craftsman, so all those reviews attesting that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be right, but there’s a considerable gulf between the first sequel (which I’m not that big a fan of) and this retcon sequel to that sequel.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

The more you drive, the less intelligent you are.

Repo Man (1984)
In fairness, I should probably check out more Alex Cox’s later works. Before I consign him to the status of one who never made good on the potential of his early success. But the bits and pieces I’ve seen don’t hold much sway. I pretty much gave up on him after Walker. It seemed as if the accessibility of Repo Man was a happy accident, and he was subsequently content to drift further and further down his own post-modern punk rabbit hole, as if affronted by the “THE MOST ASTONISHING FEATURE FILM DEBUT SINCE STEVEN SPIELBERG’S DUEL” accolade splashed over the movie’s posters (I know, I have a copy; see below).

You guys sure like watermelon.

The Irishman aka I Heard You Paint Houses (2019)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps, if Martin Scorsese hadn’t been so opposed to the idea of Marvel movies constituting cinema, The Irishman would have been a better film. It’s a decent film, assuredly. A respectable film, definitely. But it’s very far from being classic. And a significant part of that is down to the usually assured director fumbling the execution. Or rather, the realisation. I don’t know what kind of crazy pills the ranks of revered critics have been taking so as to recite as one the mantra that you quickly get used to the de-aging effects so intrinsic to its telling – as Empire magazine put it, “you soon… fuggadaboutit” – but you don’t. There was no point during The Irishman that I was other than entirely, regrettably conscious that a 75-year-old man was playing the title character. Except when he was playing a 75-year-old man.

This is one act in a vast cosmic drama. That’s all.

Audrey Rose (1977)
(SPOILERS) Robert Wise was no stranger to high-minded horror fare when he came to Audrey Rose. He was no stranger to adding a distinctly classy flavour to any genre he tackled, in fact, particularly in the tricky terrain of the musical (West Side Story, The Sound of Music) and science fiction (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain). He hadn’t had much luck since the latter, however, with neither Two People nor The Hindenburg garnering good notices or box office. In addition to which, Audrey Rose saw him returning to a genre that had been fundamentally impacted by The Exorcist four years before. One might have expected the realist principals he observed with The Andromeda Strain to be applied to this tale of reincarnation, and to an extent they are, certainly in terms of the performances of the adults, but Wise can never quite get past a hacky screenplay that wants to impart all the educational content of a serious study of continued existence in tandem w…

They literally call themselves “Decepticons”. That doesn’t set off any red flags?

Bumblebee  (2018)
(SPOILERS) Bumblebee is by some distance the best Transformers movie, simply by dint of having a smattering of heart (one might argue the first Shia LaBeouf one also does, and it’s certainly significantly better than the others, but it’s still a soulless Michael Bay “machine”). Laika VP and director Travis Knight brings personality to a series that has traditionally consisted of shamelessly selling product, by way of a nostalgia piece that nods to the likes of Herbie (the original), The Iron Giant and even Robocop.

Look, the last time I was told the Germans had gone, it didn't end well.

1917 (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I first heard the premise of Sam Mendes’ Oscar-bait World War I movie – co-produced by Amblin Partners, as Spielberg just loves his sentimental war carnage – my first response was that it sounded highly contrived, and that I’d like to know how, precisely, the story Mendes’ granddad told him would bear any relation to the events he’d be depicting. And just why he felt it would be appropriate to honour his relative’s memory via a one-shot gimmick. None of that has gone away on seeing the film. It’s a technical marvel, and Roger Deakins’ cinematography is, as you’d expect, superlative, but that mastery rather underlines that 1917 is all technique, that when it’s over and you get a chance to draw your breath, the experience feels a little hollow, a little cynical and highly calculated, and leaves you wondering what, if anything, Mendes was really trying to achieve, beyond an edge-of-the-seat (near enough) first-person actioner.