Monday, December 2, 2013

Frozen

Pixar, you guys really gotta step up your game.  For the past three years the Walt Disney Animation Studios productions have been making Pixar look bad.  After about a decade of mediocrity, Disney has been reborn seemingly stronger than ever, starting slowly with a heartfelt return to the classics with "The Princess and the Frog" and "Winnie the Pooh", and then moving forward into full-force explosions of entertainment with "Tangled" and "Wreck-it Ralph".  Meanwhile Pixar has been playing it rather safe, with sequels and franchises being their main focus, with "Brave" being the valiant but misguided exception.  Not that there's really much competition between Pixar and Disney, they money all goes to the same corporate bank account in the end, but its unusual that has Disney's fortunes have risen, Pixar seems to have forgotten that spark that made it such a juggernaut.  Either way, Pixar's "Monster's University" is a movie that worked in its own way, and was a lot of fun.  "Frozen", however, is a homerun, smashing right to the fences, cementing the permanence and importance of Disney's Second Renaissance.

Basically since I've started this blog, Disney has been working their hardest to rebuild the classic fairy tale musical that forms the core of the Disney Canon.  "Frozen" seems to jump directly into the Nineties Renaissance Formula:  we got the catchy music, love at first sight, the fantasy adventure, the annoying side kick (minus terrible pop culture puns), its all there.  This was exactly the kind of movie that Disney used to churn out to impressive effect back when I was a little kid, and it was great at the time:  "Aladdin", "The Lion King", "Hunchback of Notre Dame", "Tarzan", "Beauty and the Beast", these are all masterpieces.  And it worked perfectly for the time, until Disney's competitors released a flurry of hideous far inferior copies.  Anyway remember "Quest of Camelot"?  Let's hope shit like that remains forgotten forever*.  There's a reason they stopped making movies in the vein of "The Little Mermaid" over a decade ago, but watching "Frozen", I can't quite remember what it was.  The formula is back, as tried as ever, but done so well here, I feel like its 1996 all over again, only better than before.

"Frozen" is an adaption of the Snow Queen fairytale by Hans Christian Anderson, though only really in the way that there are trolls and there's a queen who has ice powers.  The rest is an entirely original tale involving two fantasy Princesses, Anna and Elsa, having their happy childhood separated by Elsa's Mutant-X powers, a dangerous ice-based superpower.  Elsa, the storied Ice Queen, remains shut off from her kingdom and upon her coronation unleashes a plague of ice that dooms the world to endless winter.  Anna alone has to separate herself from her new fairytale fiance and brave the frozen mountains to reach her sister and save the world.  It has all the elements of the classic fairy tale:  love, music, villainy, but done with a wonderful twist that makes it all feel so much more real and alive.  This isn't quite the princess stories of Walt Disney and the 1940s, but its our princess tale, and I'd say looking at "Frozen", we're a much more advanced people.

But let me interrupt because as with all Disney releases, we must discuss the short film:

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This one is called "Get a Horse", a specific homage to the classic 1920s to 1930s theatrical animated shorts that Walt Disney began with, starring no figure less mythical than Mickey Mouse himself**.  Its the usual slapstick affair of that time, rather charming and silly... up until the twist.  While Pete goes to kidnap Minnie, he manages to throw Mickey literally out of the film, tearing open the screen to reveal a 3D stage upon which stands a colorized computer-animated Mickey Mouse.  From here Mickey and his pals use the reality-warping gimmick to beat up Pete and save Minnie.  I found the short actually to be the funniest back when it was just a typical 1930s cartoon, though I believe I was the only person in that whole theater laughing.  Am I the last man on Earth who loves Golden Age of Animation slapstick anymore?  I guess so.  The 3D mixed with 2D stuff was clever, but I thought the short would have been better as just a pure homage, without any of literally breaking of the fourth wall.  Then again, I'm probably the only person who would seriously advocate seeing Silly Symphonies and Merrie Melodies return as a regular feature in cinemas.

Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

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Before I begin properly, me and the Disney Marketing crew need to have a chat.  What the hell is the matter with you people?  Who decided that "Frozen" was a spunkier title and thus better than just calling this film "The Snow Queen"?  Probably the same knucklehead who thought "Tangled" was a better title than "Rapunzel".  If these guys were running the show back in the day "Sleeping Beauty" would have been called "Drowsy".  Plus the advertising of this movie has been completely bizarre.  Princess Anna and Queen Elsa seem to be missing entirely, when you'd think Disney would want to set these up properly.  We now have two more additions to the Disney Princess line of toys, there are so many dolls to sell.  Instead the only trailer I've seen of this movie has been a goofy comedy scene between the snowman comic relief and the reindeer as fight over the snowman's carrot nose.  A scene that seems to have been made entirely for the trailer since it doesn't exist in this movie at all.  Are we afraid of our own heart and soul now?  You have a great movie here, show it.  SELL IT.  Don't assume that every filmgoer is an idiot who is afraid of their own emotions and just wants the stupidest entertainment possible, show your audience some respect.  Play Indina Menzel's amazing voice and sell the movie properly.

Luckily nobody at the marketing team actually had anything to do with making this movie, they were too busy making "Free Birds".  I don't actually know if "Free Birds" is a piece of shit, but it sure looks like one, and I'm going to trust my judgement there by not seeing it.  Its title is a pun off a fucking Lynryd Skynyrd song, for God's sake!

Anyway, "Frozen" is a gorgeous movie, built upon the engine of "Tangled".  The movie really makes the most of the ice effects, creating huge pretty northern landscapes, pale pink sunsets, and entire ice castles.  Their focus this time seems to be on the exact precision of how light refracts through glass-structures like ice, and their work is clearly on the camera.  Like "Tangled" the art design is seamless from classic 2D animation, this film could have suddenly lost a dimension and I doubt it would have changed very much.  The computer work though is not wasted as the heroines of "Frozen" are more expressive and dynamic than anything Disney has created yet, really cementing the personalities of the characters.  Princess Anna and Elsa are the basic Princess template - they actually have the very same face separated only by haircut - but their body language are so distinct it would be impossible to confuse them.

Almost more impressive than the animation is the music direction.  "Frozen"'s songs are composed by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, who previously did the music for "Winnie the Pooh".  Robert also composed "The Book of Mormon" and "Avenue Q", two of the best Broadway shows in recent memory.  This means that "Frozen"'s music pops out and is memorable in a way that tragically the music of "The Princess of the Frog" and "Tangled" simply were not.  Can you remember a single song from "Tangled"?  Its been a few years since I've seen that movie, but even when I wrote my review of that movie I had already forgotten its entire score.  "Frozen", however, stars Kristin Bell but more impressively, Elphaba herself, Indina Menzel, as Queen Elsa.  "Let it Go" is easily a top ten in terms of Disney music, it is the kind of stunning song that you just have to play over and over again until it is entirely sketched into your memory forever.  2013 has been depressingly empty in terms of great music in movies, but finally "Frozen" is here to fill that spot. 

Story-wise, "Frozen" is, again, what you'd expect from a classic Disney fairytale, but with the terms changed ever so slightly.  Elsa would typically be the horrible one-dimension supervillain, plotting the good Princess Anna's destruction using her superpowers.  But now Maleficent is Aurora's beloved sister, and their bond, finding a way to come back together, is what really drives this movie.  The good prince that Anna falls for is basically a side story, and the 'love at first sight' trope is mercilessly slaughtered, hopefully for good this time.  Anna spends most of the movie on an adventure with Christophe, a well-meaning but more fleshed-out and capable male figure, somewhat similar to Ryder Flynn/Eugene from "Tangled" but never in a way that feels like a retread.  "Frozen" is curiously one of the very few movies that actually is about women, not just women looking for men or love stories separated by bizarre twists of fate.  I'm not going to use the word 'feminist' because I don't want to bring in a truckload of very unnecessary political jabber into this pleasant fun movie, but if you've ever had a problem with the typical Disney princess lore, you will be pleasantly surprised here.

Its the two leads though that really bring things together for me, not just the calculated story decisions.   Anna is a chipper klutz who tries her hardest to be a romantic lead, but manages to come off more awkward and adorable than a stoic classic princess.  Her sister Elsa is forcibly measured and closed-in, her life still in an adolescent fear of connection and interaction.  When Elsa finally breaks free to let herself be who she is, to let go of the armor and defenses and cut loose, its incredibly stunning cinema.  They work well together, and even though they're separated by plot difficulties for most of the film, its their relationship that drives us forward.  Beyond the music and the animation and the snowmen and the magical powers, its these two girls learning to connect again, that's what really what makes "Frozen" great.

"Frozen" is a very fun movie.  Its a journey of amazing visuals, strong emotions - I was getting tearful within the very first minute - and beautiful songs.  I could have used a slightly more action-packed finale with the final villain, though my dreams of a superpowered battle probably are unnecessary to this story.  It does feel like in the final stretch of the movie we could have used another song, and the comic relief snowman is... well, not as bad as the goddamn gargoyles from "Hunchback" or the two-headed grotesque of Eric Idle and Don Rickles, but still annoying.  But none of that really matters, it hardly cuts away from the perfection that Disney has managed to pull together here.  "Frozen" is certainly the high point of this Second Renaissance, making me very excited to see what this production studio has coming down the line.

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* 'If I Didn't Have You' is possibly the worst song written in the history of sound.  First off:  Eric Idle and Don Rickles were two men who were never meant to ever sing a song together.  But it gets worse, this whole song is an explosion of 'witty' pop culture references, basically just the Genie's act from "Aladdin", done far worse.  If you can survive that link all the way up to the finale, you'll get to hear two old comedians, one British, attempt a bad Elvis impression duet.  By that point I usually find myself involuntarily screaming in agony.

** I believe the last time Mickey Mouse was on the big screen was back in "Fantasia 2000", and that was only thanks to that film retaining the Sorcerer's Apprentice segment from the original 1940 "Fantasia".

6 comments:

  1. HOLY SHIT MY GIRL INDINA MENZEL IS IN THIS MOVIE WOW

    TICKET STATUS:

    [ ] NOT BOUGHT
    [x] BOUGHT

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  2. Oh, man! I saw that f*cking trailer (in German for some reason) and thought it was just about a moose (stag?) and some snowman. Now I kind of feel like watching it.
    Speaking about the competitors, did they never realeased a film you actually liked? I enjoyed the first Shrek, the others not so much since they started to see themselves as a huge deal.

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    1. As for the 90s Disney Formula Copycats. Some of them are pretty awful like Quest for Camelot, but then again, by that point even Disney's own movies such as Hercules or Pocahontas weren't exactly coming out too hot.

      DreamWorks, who made Shrek, have actually made a couple of films I've liked, they've definitely gotten better over the years. And since this year has seen a variety of decent animated features from other companies: Despicable Me 2, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, Evangelion 3.0, Wolf Children. It just so happens that all of Disney's competition focused on sequels, so Frozen feels much more fresh and impressive, mostly because it is that impressive.

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  3. I'm glad to hear that turned out better then what I expected. I was hyped to learn that they were going with the Snow Queen fairytale, but then they started showing trailers and they were focusing HARD on that thing. Not saying that a movie shouldn't have sidekicks, but when they focus too much time on them in the commercials I take that as a bad sign. But if it got a good recommendation from you Blue, I trust it'll be a damn good movie especially you say the music is good.

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  4. Nice review. The type of animated flick that can be entertained by anybody in the family, but especially the kids, who really do matter the most.

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  5. There's probably gonna be a super-powered action-packed final battle in the new Kingdom Hearts game or something. It's not impossible.

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