Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Cinema File #280: "Frozen" Review

If there was ever a more misleading advertising campaign than the one that preceded the new Disney animated feature Frozen, I can't remember one. A long stalled project beginning as a traditional 2D cartoon until it was retooled into 3D a la Tangled, Frozen at first sounded like it might be something really great considering how much time and effort was being put into its production (fun fact: Disney's been trying to make a movie based on The Snow Queen since the 1940s!). That is, it had potential until the first trailers hit, and audiences were treated to a wacky ice skating short focusing on a comic relief snowman and a silly moose. Oh how the hopes of every animation aficionado were instantly dashed, my own included. And yet, far from the painful stupidity of those early teasers, Frozen instead proves to be easily the best animated film of 2013, and were it not for last year's Wreck It Ralph might even qualify as the best non-Pixar example of Disney animation since the 90's renaissance.

Frozen is the story of two sisters, Princesses Anna and Elsa, who are split apart at an early age by a curse that leaves Elsa with the power to freeze the world around her, endangering the people she loves. After a rare day out in public causes her to accidentally freeze the entire kingdom, Elsa flees to the mountains and Anna embarks on an adventure to reconnect with her sister and save her people in the process. When I say that this is a movie about sisters, I want to stress the importance of that relationship, if only because this is a Disney fairy tale after all, and until you see it play out you can't imagine how refreshing it is to have the main character dynamic of a movie like this be something other than a boring love at first sight romance. We get that too, sort of, but like many things in this movie, its a plot device used to subvert the conventions of Disney films past in increasingly clever ways.

The film is aware of the mechanics of fairy tales without being so self-aware as to be cloying, never breaking the fourth wall, but still deconstructing the formula that too many Disney classics were too timid to question. This is most prominent in the arcs of the two sisters, who seem to be deliberate swipes at the cliche Disney princess who yearns for definition only to find it in the first man she meets. Anna is a direct parody of this trope, literally getting engaged to the first man to show interest in her after years cloistered in a castle, and as Elsa discovers her independence after her secret is revealed, she might as well be singing about the joy of escaping her provincial life like Belle from Beauty and the Beast. And most importantly, both women come into their own without the need for a man to guide them through anything, with the magic always found in true love for once revealed in a context other than romantic love, with the actual romantic subplot feeling almost like an afterthought.

Perhaps the greatest praise I can lay at the feet of this movie is that it has the most satisfying and rewarding message of any Disney animated film to be targeted largely at a young female audience. Frozen is a movie that expresses the idea of female empowerment in a way that no other Disney Princess-centric story ever has, being the only one I can think of that actually feels like it was going out of its way to pass the Betchdel Test. After so many insulting portrayals of female characters set up with independent thought only to lose it at the first promise of a boyfriend, Frozen feels like the first 80% of Mulan before it crapped out by having the title character give up a royal commission for her father and B.D. Wong. What Brave tried and failed to do in one montage of rock climbing and arrow slinging, Frozen does pitch perfectly. Even more impressive, I was able to enjoy it pretty much from beginning to end in spite of its unabashed girl power ethos and even sing along to most of the songs with all of my man parts remaining mostly intact.

Speaking of singing. the music of Frozen might be the biggest surprise of the whole movie. Its strange to think how rare the animated musical has become considering how much they dominated my childhood. Even as we have seen more and more animated movies with the advancement of CGI, the new medium has seemed to consciously eschew the musical format, either deliberately distancing itself from what came before, or perhaps simply hewing too closely to the music-less Pixar blueprint that started it all. Though some of the songs have a bit of a Les Miserables quality slipping in and out of dialogue, almost every song in the movie works wonderfully. The first song scores a montage that nearly rivals Up in terms of its heartfelt depiction of the passage of time, and if "Let It Go" doesn't get cemented in history as a classic along with "Part Of Your World" and "Belle" than this generation has lost more appreciation for magic and whimsy than even I've feared in my darker moments.

Even the comic relief snow man and the silly moose are freaking delightful! These are characters that could have so easily been insufferably bad, and yet they managed to do what so few wacky Disney sidekicks have been able to do over the years, actually enhancing the movie instead of just falling on a scale of more or less annoying. Credit must go to Josh Gad, who infuses so much understated charm into this goofball golem, a man made of snow who can't wait for summer because he has no experience with what happens to snow in heat. Even as he falls apart in slapstick pratfalls and constantly looses his butt, my eyes were vigilantly prepared to roll, and yet never did. The moose has a much smaller role, but when he "talks," I couldn't help but see another sly swipe as Disney tradition, poking fun at the random talking animals of yore. The Trolls are a bit too much, and arguably have the one song in the movie that could have and probably should have been cut, but by then I was on board enough that it didn't matter.

Apparently, the thing that made this story so hard to crack for so long was that they couldn't figure out a way to craft a relatable story when the main antagonist was an inhuman, cold hearted witch. The solution also doubles as the first and best twist on the formula found in Frozen, taking the Maleficent of the movie and making her the most sympathetic character on display. Casting Idina Menzel, most well known as the Not Quite Yet Wicked Witch Elphaba is maybe a little too perfect, but then I might say that about the film as a whole. The purest in me would have wanted it to remain a traditionally animated movie, and part of me wants to take this script back in time with me via the Free Birds time machine and shove it in the faces of whoever thought Treasure Planet was a good idea in a last ditch effort to save that lost medium, but if the only way to get this story is with CG, than I'll take it. Being a throwback to a bygone era of Disney films with a structure almost alien to contemporary animation aside from the modern CG visuals, it doesn't quite fit in enough to justifiably compare it to anything Pixar or Dreamworks has done in the last decade or so. The best comparison is a few years older than that, back to the last time Disney still knew how to stoke the child in all of us, and even on that score, its probably one of the better ones.

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