Thursday, December 5, 2013

Ice, Ice, Baby

Year: 2013
Director: Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee
Cast: Kristen Bell, Jonathan Groff, Idina Menzel
Run Time: 1 hour 48 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

Frozen is the 53rd release from Walt Disney Animation Studios. It is the eighth film to rely entirely on computerized 3D animation (five of which bombed miserably) and the third to be based on a fairy tale by Danish author Hans Christian Anderson (after 1989's The Little Mermaid - yes it was that long ago - and the "Steadfast Tin Soldier" segment of Fantasia 2000). 

The fairy tale in question is "The Snow Queen," from which nearly every element has been excised except for the fact that there is a snow queen (sort of), the power of love being able to melt a frozen heart, and that there is a reindeer. In typical Disney fashion, everything else is sloughed off to the sides especially the heavy Christian allegory and the broken shards of the magical troll mirror that haunt your eyeballs.

So bad news for fans of "The Snow Queen." But for Disney fans (and I imagine there are a lot more of them), Frozen is a breath of fresh air in the dire 3D animation Disney canon. In fact the only film of higher caliber among the other seven is Tangled, which had Alan Menken so we really can't blame this film for not quite measuring up.

It also doesn't help that the entire first act of the film is more or less the plot of Rapunzel.

Yeah I went there. Faced!

In the far-off land of Arendelle, young princess Elsa (Idina Menzel of Rent and Enchanted and being awesome) starts to develop uncontrollable ice powers that can only be contained by special gloves. She is locked away by her parents because if society found out she was a sorceress, they would... I dunno. Call her names or something.

Her sister Anna (Kristen Bell) has her memory wiped of all magic after a dangerous incident with her sister and the two grow apart, Elsa refusing to come out of her room. When their parents pass away in a tragic boating accident, Elsa's coronation day goes horribly awry and she flees to a nearby mountain and lets her powers flow free, plunging Arendelle into an eternal winter.

Enlisting the help of Kristoff (Jonathan Groff of Glee and Spring Awakening and isn't it great a Disney musical hired actual broadway singers?), a down on his luck ice salesman and his trusty reindeer Sven. To animate Sven, the filmmakers spent weeks studying the movements of actual reindeer. Which seems counterintuitive because in the storied tradition of adorable animal sidekicks, Sven acts exactly like a dog.

I can't say it doesn't work though.

Along the way they meet Olaf the Snowman (Josh Gad of The Book of Mormon), who in an even grander tradition of odious comic relief characters is a shrill and annoying little punk. But who am I to judge? The herd of children around me were laughing uproariously reminding me that I am no longer in the central demographic for these kinds of shenanigans.

And to be fair, Olaf quickly grew less grating as time went on and although he never warmed my heart, I ended up accepting his presence. Also, his biggest comic moments are centered around his desire for summer, which he doesn't know will, in fact, turn him into a puddle. It was somewhat unsettling that kids were rolling in the aisles at prospect of this snowman's imminent demise like evil little demigods.

Perhaps I'm reading too much into it.

I laugh in the face of your mortality.

Did I mention it's a musical? And what a weird little hybrid it is, too. The songs are mostly bland and inconsequential, some of them combining modern slang and classical rhythms in an intriguingly anachronistic way, but few sticking in the memory past the end of the next scene. And one of them flat out stole the "finishing each other's sandwiches" line from Arrested Development. They didn't think I would notice but I did. I'm onto them.

They are enjoyable and simple, but you won't find me searching for the soundtrack. The obvious highlight is "Let It Go," Elsa's song about releasing herself and her powers from captivity. It's commonly referred to as her "Defying Gravity" and I don't disagree but it and every other time Idina Menzel opens her mouth is a sparkling moment of top notch musicality.

For some reason the velvet tongued Jonathan Groff isn't given a real chance to sing (unless you count a 20 second riff with a mandolin which I do not), and the disappointment is only made up for by the fact that Kristen Bell actually has a pretty good set of pipes. Which raises the question as to why the hell they put her in the Lady Gaga and The Muppets Holiday Spectacular and didn't let her sing a note.

Whatever. I'm over it.

For some reason, the whole musical conceit is pretty much dropped for the entire third act and by the end you kinda forget that it ever happened in the first place but the little ditties are cute and fun and mostly stay out of the way, occupying the space they fit into without feeling like they're wasting time.

Not that I could ever waste time when Jonathan Groff is around. Even in cartoon form.

All in all, Frozen doesn't quite deserve its massive reputation but it's a breath of icy fresh air in the barren wasteland that is Disney 3D animation. It's a quasi-feminist princessy satire that is too Disneyfied and sweet to be subversive, which they weren't really looking to be anyway.

There's a relatable villain and a very unique take on the "prince saving the day" stock situation. And any animated film that takes place in an environment as beautiful as the fjords deserves respect and the icy transformation sequences are top notch. 

Although some of the more emotional moments feel rushed and don't really land, Frozen is a lovable fluff ball - a good family film in a time where it's desperately needed. It won't change animation forever like some true Disney classics, but it's a fun and welcome presence in theaters that have seen a lot of grimness and decay over the course of the year.

TL;DR: Frozen is good holiday fun and one of the better Disney canon films in recent years, but mostly anonymous songs and shallow emotional beats drive it to the second tier.
Rating: 7/10
Should I Spend Money On This? Yes, especially if you have kids. Or are one of the 100% of people who are fans of Disney animation.
Word Count: 1117

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