Sunday, February 9, 2014

Frozen (Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee, 2013)


Frozen isn't quite up there with the magic of Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Aladdin (1992)—we're not yet back to the days of a single Disney movie meriting multiple "Best Original Song" Academy Award nominations—but it is by far Disney's best animated musical since its Renaissance, and Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez's "Let It Go," performed by Idina Menzel, should be a deserved lock for the Oscar. The film may be loosely based on Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tale The Snow Queen (1845), which Disney had been trying to adapt for decades, but Frozen feels almost a project that grew out from around this one song as much as the song itself was composed specifically with Idina Menzel's vocal range and performance ability in mind. As Menzel belts out lyrics like "I don't care what they're going to say" and "Here I stand in the light of day," the soaring anthem to proud, even defiant self-affirmation is an instant classic, yet one keenly conscious of today's audiences and concerns, and it sounds destined to conquer Broadway.

Frozen's other theme song, "For the First Time in Forever," is rather generic—derivative of, but inferior to, past wide-eyed classics, such as "Part of Your World" (The Little Mermaid, 1989) and "A Whole New World" (Aladdin, 1992). Nevertheless, it's instantly hummable, and Kristen Bell, most often associated with a more ironic acting style and off-screen personality, sings impressively and with surprising warmth. The reprise, actually sung in counterpoint with Menzel joining Bell, is another high point in the soundtrack and in the film. Meanwhile, the comedic number "In Summer" features in probably the best musical sequence in the movie—a hilariously absurd and dynamic cartoon daydream. "Fixer Upper" has some irritatingly infectious verses, though I felt it was oddly situated—a lighthearted group number sung by the movie's most underdeveloped characters right as the story rounds its final turn toward the more serious—and probably should have been left as an outtake. The remaining songs are more forgettable and unlikely to achieve any kind of longevity beyond the immediate context of the film.

Songs aside, Frozen confidently points toward a return to Disney's glory days with massive box office, renewed cultural relevance, and a story that is grand, enchanting, and fun. For a good decade there, following 1999's Tarzan, Disney actually seemed tentative about trying to live up to its own animated epics, and so it entered into a phase marked by lighter and/or more experimental fare that, although generally well-received, never captivated imaginations on the same scale as it had during its '90s heyday. 2009's The Princess and the Frog, Disney's first calculated effort to reclaim its animation throne with another princess musical, was a good movie, but commercially it lagged behind CG productions from Pixar, Dreamworks, Fox, and even Sony. They took another stab at it with 2010's Tangled, which performed much better while also coming across more conservative, less ambitious—a charming but slight film.

Like Tangled, Frozen is another CG princess musical, but it is better in every way. The cast of characters is much stronger, the story is more engrossing, and it possesses far more distinct a visual identity among the glut of CG-animated pictures in theaters these days. Where the animation stands relative to the hand-drawn films of the past is difficult to quantify. The different techniques inform different stylistic choices which, in turn, produce different effects on the viewer. The great images of the traditionally animated classics, such as Sleeping Beauty (1959), as well as of mixed works like Beauty and the Beast, affect and arrest one in the manner of a remarkable painting. Frozen, which commits itself to a fully three-dimensional look (as opposed to using computer animation in service of a still 2-D look, a la Beauty and the Beast), is maybe more comparable to sculpture, although, much more so than modeling the characters, most of the artistry here seems invested toward the production design—in this case, the splendid castles and majestic winter landscape—and the viewer appreciates it accordingly more for its spaces than its images. I do find it less opulent and less striking than Disney's traditionally animated films of the '90s (and also more minimalist than contemporary Pixar films), which is the main reason why I still can't regard the film as a whole as on that same magical level. The "Let It Go" sequence, for instance, I found to be disappointingly sparse and, ironically, flat, compared to any of the signature sequences from the Renaissance era, or even compared to The Princess and the Frog. That is not to say, however, that Frozen is without great images of its own. The climactic shot of the two sisters is truly gorgeous—framing, poses, costuming, use of color—it's just masterfully done.

Frozen's weakest aspect is its story, which is on the conventional side, even though at times it seems to promise more. The character of Elsa, based on the originally villainous Snow Queen from the Hans Christian Anderson tale, is potentially one of the more compelling heroines in Disney's canon. She gets the best song, obviously, and her ice powers also make her, no pun intended, much cooler than her sister, Anna (or pretty much any Disney princess ever). If you were to poll a bunch of young children—girls AND boys—you would find that Elsa is by far the most popular character in the movie—the one whose toy the kids want. So it's disappointing that, for long stretches of the story, she's consigned to play the classic damsel role, a la Snow White or Princess Aurora—maybe not always in distress, but nevertheless presumably literally waiting around off-camera and doing nothing while less interesting characters journey to meet her.

If it's not quite in that highest echelon alongside the likes of Beauty and the Beast, Frozen is nevertheless Disney's best animated feature in over a decade—a movie that, at the very least, reminds viewers of the studio's great epics, and both restores confidence and whets the appetite for Disney's next animated musical.

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