Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Toon-arama: Frozen (2013)

by tryanmax

The latest animated feature from Disney has received enormous praise, and deservedly so. Disney hasn’t quite mastered CGI yet, but they more than make up for it in storytelling prowess. When it comes to serving up a story full of heart, no studio can top them. And this time they’ve really outdone themselves.

** Spoiler Alert **

The Story
My praise begins with the script, as it rightly should. It is compelling, generous and efficient. More after a brief synopsis.

Elsa, princess of Arendelle, has the magical ability to create ice and snow, but she must hide it to prevent causing harm or fear. Her sister, Anna, unknowing of Elsa’s powers, thinks she is responsible for the rift between them and is desperate to make amends. When Elsa reaches the age to take the throne, her emotions get the better of her and her power is unleashed at the coronation. Arendelle is thrust into a perpetual winter as Elsa flees into the mountains and hides herself in an enormous ice palace.
Anna pursues her sister, determined to bring her home and end the winter spell. She finds the palace with the help of a mountain man named Kristoff and Olaf, an enchanted snowman brought to life by Elsa’s magic. Anna begs her sister to return home but Elsa refuses and, in agitation, accidentally strikes Anna with an icy blow to the heart. Without an act of true love to melt it, Anna will turn to ice.

Meanwhile, others intent on destroying Elsa capture her and are set to kill her. Though Anna has fallen in love with Kristoff and believes his kiss will save her, she instead goes to defend her sister. In the same moment that she rescues Elsa, Anna turns to ice. But because her sacrifice was an act of true love, her heart and the rest of her thaw and Elsa learns that love is the key to mastering her gift.

Trust me, that was brief. I’ve found “synopses” for Frozen that are four pages long.
Relationships are the driving force of this story—a narrative essential that is overlooked with alarming frequency. You care about these characters because of the way they care about each other. Yes, action is important, and in this film engaging, but it must be meaningful, and that comes from the characters’ motivations to act. In fact, I only recall two sequences that fell short for me, and they involve bit characters that are basically unmotivated.

The plot is very layered, especially for a children’s movie. I only told you about two of the storylines. There are at least three more. Despite their number, it isn’t the least bit confusing for a couple reasons. First, everything works to the same end, coming together naturally with thrift and at a steady, brisk pace. Second, the character of Olaf is a naïve observer who can state the obvious without it coming off ham-handed, so an adult can laugh at the simplicity of his assertions while a child is gently ushered toward the moral of the story.

The crowning achievement of this film, however is that Disney has finally managed to produce what so many have demanded of them for the longest time: an anti-princess movie. Fairly or unfairly, the specters of Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty have hung over every Disney princess of the modern age. I personally feel that those three have been caricatured as less capable than they really were. Still, the ongoing demand is for heroines who are increasingly spirited, independent, and less interested in romance.

While romance still plays a big role in Frozen, the climax of action veritably spits in the eye of “true love’s first kiss.” That, in time, may become a mark against the film, just as the spunky princess who “gets the guy” was ultimately deemed unworthy even as she upended the trope of the prince who gets the girl. Still, I think the focus on sisterly love, an overdue reminder that love isn’t limited only to the romantic sense, is a real narrative coup for Disney.
The Music
Another area where Frozen has received lavish praise is on the music. Disney has taken a slightly different approach to the songs in this film than in previous musical features. Probably owing to the number of films that eventually found their way to Broadway, Disney tapped Broadway songwriters for the musical numbers and filled the cast with veterans of song and stage. The result is a distinctly modern musical sound. It also makes the film seem as though it was adapted from the stage instead of the (very probable) other way around.

The Broadway sound lends an instant familiarity to the music; there are more than a few earworms in the bunch. Having musical theater veterans on both sides ensures that the songs are packed and delivered with dynamism, power and expression. For the most part, the songs propel the plot while being able to stand just as well on their own.

The intro tune, “Frozen Heart” is easy to overlook but does a nice job of setting a Nordic tone for the film. The next song, “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” is absolutely wrenching with its mix of cheer and longing. All that angst is released by “For the First Time in Forever,” a swelling, expository piece that is easily the most “musicalesque” number. The quirky, guitar-strumming duet “Love is an Open Door” is also a stage number that forces a broad smile and is regrettably brief.

The mood turns sharply with “Let it Go,” the show’s triumphant keystone song, sung powerfully by Wicked’s Idina Menzel. (Sorry, Demi Lovato, but you just don’t hold a candle.) This is where Elsa flees and feels free for the first time and is accompanied by spectacular visuals as she builds her ice palace. It arrives a bit early to be an Act I closer, but maybe they’ll work that out before it hits the stage, because it would be perfect.
Another sharp turn comes with “Reindeer(s) are Better than People,” a faux-duet novelty. It is little more than an extended one-liner set to music that is predictable and oh, so worth it. The introduction of Olaf the snowman leads into “In Summer,” another humorous piece (basically, Olaf longs for summer) that sets up a running gag for the rest of the show.

The only song I don’t care for is “Fixer Upper.” It feels contrived and formulaic, like it is trying too hard to be cute. But you can’t win ‘em all.

The Animation
This is the only aspect that offers a mixed bag. The animation certainly does not deserve a thumbs-down, but Disney doesn’t hold the mastery over CGI that they hold over hand-drawn animation. There is something of an unfair comparison embedded in that critique, but that’s a topic for another day.

You may have heard some slight controversy over the two main characters’ design, that they looked too much like Rapunzel from Tangled. Below is a comparison; I’ll let you be the judge.
Frankly, Disney has never labored toward diversity of appearance for its animated ingénues. The hand-drawn ladies all have acorn-shaped faces and tiny pencil-flick noses. This is par for the course. Plus, such criticisms conveniently overlook Merida from Brave.

The real disaster of character design is Olaf. Don’t get me wrong. I love the character, he’s adorable. And I understand the need to make a snowman who looks unique. But, really. Look at him.
Otherwise, the character designs are well done. There is nothing terribly original about any of them, but the characters look like Disney characters. The animation itself is not quite there yet. It is fluid (rarely a problem for CGI) but there is something robotic and weightless about some of it. It is not distracting, at least, no more than the visible sketch lines in Disney’s rush-projects of yesteryear. It is merely a sign that there is work to be done.

Conversely, the settings are magnificent. The backdrop of the Norwegian fjords is beautifully rendered, as are the snowy mountains. The kingdom of Arendelle is replete with quaint Nordic flourishes, and the CGI technology is really in its element as we witness the formation of Elsa’s ice palace.

Frozen is a huge win for Disney and it shows just how the company can compete and lead in the CGI arena. They delivered what people expect, a strong narrative, enjoyable music, and colorful characters. To keep moving forward, they only need to stick to those along with some technical ironing and, of course, a little luck.

24 comments:

Kit said...

Tyranmax,

Could not agree more! And "Let it Go" is Disney's best at since the 90s. I remember when I watched it my jaw dropped. And so much character development in one song. Holy crap that is a great song. It better win the Oscar. And you are right, Demi Lovato's cover does not hold a candle to Idina Menzel's version.
"Frozen Heart" is great too. And listen to the lyrics, they establish not only the mood but the themes of the story perfectly and at times seem to be describing Queen Elsa.

Oh, and Queen Elsa is my new crush. Wowza!
LINK

Kit said...

Some more things. Going in I thought Olaf would drive me nuts. But I came to love the little guy.

Oh, and click on the link tyranmax gave you for "Let it Go". I promise you will be singing it for the rest of the week. At a minimum. And then buy the soundtrack. Its worth the cost. Trust me.

"Cold never bothered me anyway... "

Paulman said...

"Love is an Open Door" rewards a second viewing after you've seen the film. Encouraging love opens all sorts of doors...
Speaking of which, not sure whether this film has more doors in it than Mulan has reflections, but it's got to be close.

tryanmax said...

Kit, I had the same fear about Olaf going in and was so pleased to be wrong. He is the embodiment of the story's heart, but you'd never realize it during the show.

tryanmax said...

Pullman, good observations. This reaction is only after one viewing, though I can tell this bears repeated viewings. I'll have to keep that in mind the next time I see it.

Anthony said...

My kids loved Frozen and I enjoyed it quite a bit, but I wouldn't say its success gives Disney leadership of CG animation. There are a lot of talented developers working on kid's CGI movies and a lot of them are finding commercial success (the Lego movie which I haven't seen yet just put up insane numbers at the box office).

Olaf might as well have 'comic relief sidekick' written on his face, but my daughters thought he was cute and funny.

I honestly didn't pay much attention to the music (not a musical guy) but it didn't get in the way the way musical numbers do in some films (nods towards the Chipmunk movies).

Of course, my daughters also love the Chipmunks movies so perhaps the lesson is that kids don't yet have all the experience/cynicism of adults thus find it easier to enjoy what an adult might find over-familiar or even just poorly done.

Kit said...

"not sure whether this film has more doors in it than Mulan has reflections, but it's got to be close."

Good observation! :)

djskit said...

One of my bad habits it to re-work plots to my liking when I feel they fall short.
As I was watching the coronation scene, I thought to myself - "wouldn't it be awesome if she stormed off the the mountains, built an ice palace and brooded." And that she did.

It's rare that a movie can craft a plot and script that are both compelling and emotionally satisfying, this one covers them all.

The only other animated production that held the same level of satisfaction is "The Next Avengers: Heroes of Tomorrow". But that's another story.

tryanmax said...

Anthony, I'm not handing Disney any laurels just yet. But Frozen serves as evidence that they can compete and (possibly) lead in the CGI arena. They'll have to pop out at least a couple more at this level and continue to improve technically before they can claim leadership. It also shows that a good story is more important than the technical stuff. And it never hurts to give the people what they want.

ScottDS said...

Didn't this recently become the biggest-grossing animated film in history? I don't follow Disney stuff much, so movies like this tend to creep up on me.

But it's nice to know the House of Mouse has still got it!

(That's all I have - I didn't see the movie.)

AndrewPrice said...

I just realize that I totally forgot to comment on this. Sorry about that!

I have no seen this, but everyone who has has raved about. So I am intrigued very much. I may even break one of my rules and buy it when it comes out rather than waiting for a big sale.

I've seen a couple of the songs at the links now and I like them a good deal.

Thanks or the review!

AndrewPrice said...

P.S. In response to Anthony's mention, I am truly excited about the Lego movie. :)

tryanmax said...

Scott, I had to look it up. Assuming Wikipedia is current (which is about its only dependable attribute)

It is the twenty-eighth highest-grossing film,[88] the sixth highest-grossing animated film, the third highest-grossing 2013 film,[89] the second highest-grossing 2013 animated film,[89] the third highest-grossing non-sequel animated film,[90] and the second highest-grossing animated film produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios, behind only The Lion King.

All the same, it is excellent. You should see it. If I could reserve my tickets for the Broadway version now, I would.

tryanmax said...

Andrew, I fully intend to own this one. If my gf doesn't snap it up first.

Backthrow said...

Don't know it, can't vouch for it.

tryanmax said...

Backstroke, no worries. Just add it to your list. Thanks for chiming in.

Kit said...

Again, I second Tyranmax.

Oh, and here in the South, Queen Elsa is paying us another visit.

Yes, I intend to make it a thing that whenever there is bad winter weather people say "Queen Elsa is visiting us" or "Queen Elsa is mad at us."

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I've placed an order for it. This one sounds too good to pass up.

BTW, I understand that both this film and Wreck-It-Ralph were written by Jennifer Lee. If so, then Disney needs to pay this woman to work for them exclusively. IMO, Wreck-It-Ralph is perhaps the best animated film to come along in many decades. If Frozen is as good as you say, then she's behind two amazing films. Impressive.

tryanmax said...

Kit, good call. Let's make that a thing.

tryanmax said...

Andrew, that is correct. Other than Walt himself, Disney has never really had any powerhouse writers under steady employ. I have a feeling that might change.

Koshcat said...

I haven't seen it but my wife and kids did. They all stated that is was very good. I found this interesting as based on the commercials, I had NO interest in seeing it. My wife had reservations as well going in. Probably to worst advertised movie in Disney history. They way the presented Olaf was a complete turn off and it said nothing about the main characters or what the film was about. From the ads, it looked like a stupid movie with a poorly drawn snowman filled with potty jokes.

Thanks for the review.

tryanmax said...

Koshcat, I agree, the marketing made this thing look like Disney's attempt at Ice Age. Yuk! Fortunately, I've finally learned to ignore the promotional items, as they are almost always entirely unrepresentative of the film in question.

Koshcat said...

I agree except usually they try to make a crappy movie look better. I saw the ads and thought "wow, this is the best part of the movie?"

tryanmax said...

Koshcat, actually, I'm starting to see it go both ways (and maybe it has longer than I've seen it) where they just try to promote all movies the same and everything ends up looking middling. I've seen a lot of movies that have turned out better than the previews. About the only thing the promos are good for anymore is telling who's in it, what genre it is, and the approximate CGI ratio.

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