Friday, December 6, 2013

Disney's 'Frozen' Warm to the Touch

After nearly a decade of being left in distant third by Pixar and Dreamworks and seeing other rival animation studios surface worldwide, the once legendary Disney Animation has finally regained a serious foothold in today's crowded market. In Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph, they have created two of the absolute best family features in recent years (as I've pointed out, Wreck-It Ralph should have won the Best Animated Feature Oscar last year), and while they seem to be returning to a familiar formula with Frozen, directors Chris Buck (Surfs Up and Tarzan) and Jennifer Lee (who also penned the screenplay) show that Disney can still put on a kick-ass song and dance when given the opportunity.

Loosely based on Hans Christian Anderson tale "The Snow Queen", Frozen is about sisters Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel), princesses in the glorious kingdom of Arendelle. For a long time they've been cooped up in their castle, separated not just from the world, but for the most part from one another. This is particularly hard on the lonely Anna, who remembers sharing joyous relationship with her sibling in the past. On the evening of her coronation as Queen, Elsa accidentally reveals to the world a power to control the elements, and when this incident results in her running away and the kingdom being awash in snow (in July), it's up to Anna - alongside gruff mountain man Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his reindeer Sven and Olaf, a magical, living snowman (Josh Gad) - to becalm her sister and try to get the world back to the peaceful, sunny way things used to be.
Just your typical bubbly, overly-friendly, smart Disney princess... maybe...
For the first act, we are introduced to this land in the best possible way: a combination of lovely ice and snow and Broadway-quality song and dance. We're introduced to the sisters, the reason they drifted apart, and family tragedy, all to the enthusiastic harmonics of "DoYou Want to Build a Snowman" and "For the First Time in Forever". The musical score was assembled by Christophe Beck (whose impressive resume includes Pitch Perfect, The Muppets, and last year's Academy Award-winning short film Paperman) and written by Tony Award-winning songwriter Robert Lopez and his wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez, and their combined genius really shines in that first twenty minutes. Those amazing numbers (and to a lesser extent, Menzel's solo performance of "Let it Go") transfix the audience and combine with outstanding visuals to render the average viewer catatonic with emotion. It's the best example I can think of where a movie musical actually carries the charm of a Broadway play, without feeling like a cheap, misunderstanding castoff. It is here that Frozen is at its absolute best, as Beck and Lee make the most of their combined resources and start things off with an impassioned opening salvo of epic set pieces and glorious musical achievement.
No, you may not call him "Bumble".
But somewhere after this point, what makes Frozen truly an unique, prodigious treat is muffled a tad. It's not that the rest of the movie is without charm, or that it is not excellent in its own right; the directors do an amazing job of moving the story forward and keeping you rooting for our likable heroes. But in comparison to that astounding opening, the story just doesn't have the emotional momentum to overcome its limitations, from characters that aren't as deep as they are charming to a definite lack of story development. Besides the opening, Buck and Lee's biggest success is their treatment of the Snow Queen, which when all is said and done is nothing short of miraculous. Menzel's Elsa is not evil or even converted to evil by the fear of the other characters. She's simply misunderstood - more anti-hero than outright villain - and her character never really alters from the very good, very caring character that was established at the beginning. However, the quality of the musical numbers takes a downturn in the second act, and while they're all still quality songs delivered with spunk and dynamism, they don't get any better than those openers. There isn't even a final number - only a reprise of an earlier one - despite a relatively weak ending that would have benefited from a strong closing bit. Finally, despite subverting your expectations of the Disney Princess genre - no doubt due to Lee's work on the screenplay - the film prefers to skew uncomfortably close to that same style, and for the most part doesn't feel different from the Mouse's early, "Damsel in Distress" stories that really ought to feel old-fashioned in this day and age.
Because they have to make a billion dollars in merchandise, as well.
The dialogue is at least razor-sharp, and delivered by a surprisingly elite cast to boot. Sure, you have the unknowns, from Glee's Groff to Broadway star Santino Fontana (playing a seemingly prototypical Prince Charming) who deliver solid efforts. And the twin leads of Bell and Menzell are absolutely perfect, Bell a surprise as her career to this point isn't exactly rich with musical numbers. Nonetheless she does a great job as a charismatic heroine, fitting right in with the likes of Rapunzel, Belle and Pocahontas. Veteran Menzel has never had much of a cinematic career, her biggest effort to date coming in the adaptation of her iconic theatrical role in Rent. More known on Broadway, she takes her combined singing/acting experience and easily converts it to the big screen; some of the film's best moments feature either her understated yet powerful singing or her understated yet compelling acting. The cast is rounded out by veteran voices Ciaran Hinds and Alan Tudyk (though I wish they'd done more with both), and Gad fulfills the comedic sidekick role alongside Sven the silent reindeer. Though both provide laughs (Sven's antics are definitely inspired by Tangled's secondary hero Maximus), they're thankfully not overused, their humor providing just the right amount of levity comparable to their contributions to the plot. It's this excellent use of characters by the directors that keeps both the children and adults in the audience invested in the story through the final two acts.
Don't get in the way of her "Ice Fu".
And these strengths - alongside that stellar opening - are what make Frozen not only the best animated movie this year, but one of the best movies of 2013. There are definitely some gaffes when it comes to Disney's latest effort, and it doesn't come very close to the overall quality of Tangled or Wreck-It Ralph, let alone classics like The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, or The Little Mermaid. Or almost anything from Pixar, for that matter. Even when the movie actively departs from its Princess-y roots, it never distances itself enough to morph into anything distinctive (a defect highlighted by the Mickey Mouse short Get a Horse, which runs with it), and the movie as a whole never really lives up to that outstanding first act. But demerits aside, this is a strong, fun, funny, delightfully subversive and emotionally engaging story for children of all ages and a must-see for anyone who has ever had affection for their siblings. It may not end up being long-remembered, but it certainly ought to be fondly remembered in the years to come.

No comments: