Friday, December 6, 2013

Frozen (2013) – Review

Review: Frozen is a Disney film that feels both classic and modern. The film is about two sisters, Anna and Elsa. As children they were very close, but after an accident involving Elsa’s magical ability Elsa is hidden away by her parents and the two are forced to grow up isolated from one and other and the world. Their parents die tragically, leaving the girls alone. Years pass until Elsa is of age to ascend to her role as Queen. The gates of the palace are finally opened for the ceremony. Anna is so excited to finally be allowed into the world, while Elsa fears that her abilities (which she views as a curse) will be uncovered. Leading up to the proceedings, Anna meets Hans, a charming Prince, and they fall in love immediately. At the evening ball following Elsa’s coronation, Anna and Hans ask Elsa for her blessing, but she is unconvinced by their sudden engagement and denies the marriage. This upsets Anna who loses her tempter with Elsa, pestering her why she does not believe in love and why she had abandoned her so many years ago. All this emotion gets to Elsa and she cannot control her magic, sending the seaside town into a deep frozen winter (when it really the middle of summer). Elsa is proclaimed a monster and she flees up into the mountains. Anna decides to go after her, leaving Hans to look after the kingdom. Anna needs help however to brave the harsh conditions and enlists Kristoff and his trusted reindeer Sven to aid her in traversing the mountain. She also meets Olaf, a snowman come to life. It is up to Anna to talk to her sister and restore summer to the land.

With Frozen, writer-directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee have brought back what very much feels like the classic Disney style to their animated films. The film succeeds on its great blending of comedy, adventure, romance, drama, and involving musical numbers. More so than any of the relatively new-founded Walt Disney Animation Studios’ films (which began with Bolt in 2008), Frozen matches the grand style of Disney’s best work (of the late 1980s/early 1990s: The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King) using big musical numbers to really sell the emotions of the narrative and characters.

But on top of the classic style, Frozen also feels very modern and presents Disney’s first truly feminist character and narrative (if you are willing to dismiss both Anna and Elsa’s body shape, as they look like Barbies). Like many of the Princess narratives, this too involves a romance plot, but unlike the rest it is the secondary narrative, as Frozen is mostly a story about sisterhood. In many ways Frozen takes on many of the genre stereotypes and has fun with them, turning them on their head. Most noticeably is it treatment of the concept of ‘true love’. It is extremely refreshing to see a Disney heroine who truly does not need a man to save the day, and is strong all on her own – that is true of both Anna and Elsa. Kristoff and Hans are also used interestingly in the narrative, playing with the concept of ‘Prince Charming’.

Buck and Lee do a great job with the overall narrative structure as well. The film is paced very well, with each scene building on the last. I particularly like the act one prologue, showcasing Anna and Elsa as children. It is touching, funny, and ultimately very sad. It brilliantly pulls the audience into the story and allows them to embrace the characters. Buck and Lee also structure the film almost as a Broadway style musical, with big emotional moments told through song, while still keeping the lyrics fresh, modern, and conversational. Let It Go is a showstopping number that is a level above any recent Disney musical moment. The rest of the songs are strong as well. In fact, Frozen is one of the best musicals of this decade so far (if not the best).

The film is not without faults however. There are a few issues that do detract in minor ways. Chiefly, the film’s sense of humor in moments is really goofy and tonally awkward in that there are moments that do not fit the rest of the film. For example, the Duke is one of the film’s serious villains and yet he randomly behaves in a very silly/slap stick manner, almost seemingly to garner giggles from small children. Tonally, the character just does not work because these brief goofy moments do not match the rest of his character. There are few other moments that just seem out of place comically as well (involving the trolls and Olaf – but he is played with the perfect blending of creepy, sweetness, and wonder that his overall strangeness is forgiven).

Other issue arises from the rather weak romantic development between Anna and her romantic attachments. But really, this comes from the narrative focusing more on the bond between Anna and Elsa than the prospect of true love between Anna and her suitors, so this issue is easy to overlook.

Visually, Frozen is very impressive. It is maybe Walt Disney Animation Studios’ most ambitious undertaking visually so far, and it really comes off well. The film is a treat to behold. The animation and character design works well, but it is the overall production design that takes center stage. It is great work.

Frozen very likely could have been a big mess, as it is surprisingly ambitious in every aspect. Buck and Lee try to do so much with the film. It is both a return to Disney’s classic style and very modern, bringing the classic style to a new generation. It produces big musical numbers that are vital to the plot and emotional arcs of the characters, but keeps everything feeling relatable and fresh. The characters themselves feel this way too. They are modeled to be similar to classic characters, adding to Disney’s Princesses line, but feel modern (something that worked well in Tangled as well). The comedy is very broad, almost touching on every kind of joke, pratfall, and style – to varying levels of success. And yet, everything comes together extremely well. Frozen is one of the great Disney adventures.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee have both worked their way up through the ranks at Disney. Frozen is their breakthrough moment. Buck comes from an animation background, which seems to have paid off in the impressive visual look of the film, while Lee has shown herself to be a strong writer (having also written Wreck-It Ralph).

For Walt Disney Animation Studios, this is also an achievement. Disney’s animation wing was reborn in 2008 with John Lasseter of Pixar taking over. The studio’s first film was the safe bet adventure comedy Bolt which they followed up with The Princess and the Frog, seeing the studio’s first attempt to revive Disney’s classic Princess style, but both films just do not work despite some great moments. Disney’s animated films proving to still be far behind Pixar story and character wise. With Tangled, however, they had a hit commercially and critically, producing one of Disney’s best films (and one of the funniest). Winnie the Pooh saw sort of a return to Disney’s more young-children oriented films, but it still has enough of an appeal and quality to work for adults as well. And then with Wreck-It Ralph, Disney showed that it was not afraid to go big with its story ideas. Now with Frozen, it seems as if the studio has found a winning formula, and is again making films with great characters, stories, and music. Honestly, with Pixar’s dip in quality in their recent output (particularly Cars 2 and Monster’s University), Disney is probably on the same level now (and may have even surpassed them, if only for the moment).

The music in Frozen is great. It does a wonderful job of feeling classic and new all at the same time. This is due to the great music and lyrics from Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez. Composer Christophe Beck also delivers one of his best scores.

Another aspect that works very well is that the voice-actors who play the characters have musical backgrounds (for the most part). Ciaran Hinds and Alan Tudyk seem somewhat out of place in their vocal performances for characters that feel weird in this narrative. Tudyk (who I normally really enjoy) just plays the Duke with tonal disregard. Santino Fontana is good as Hans. He comes off very charming, perfectly inhabiting the stereotype of a ‘Prince Charming’-like character. Josh Gad is fantastic as Olaf. He plays up the awkwardness of the character, which really works well comically. Gad owns all the film’s best jokes. Jonathan Groff is a very strong singer, and while he does not have the best numbers to work with, he still emerges with some great stuff. His Kristoff, much like Anna, succeeds on his being uncomfortable in certain situations (basically, being around Anna). Groff plays him as being very sweet. Idina Menzel in many ways steals the film with her powerful voice. Let It Go is a great number, as is For the First Time in Forever. She really captures the pain and struggle of Elsa in these songs. Kristen Bell is probably the film’s best surprise. She is wonderful as Anna. She brings her great zest and spunk to the character and her singing is very good as well. She has such an inviting voice that the audience cannot help but be drawn in. Her voice-work/performance in Frozen is the best of her film career so far (in any role, animated or not).

Summary & score: Frozen (building off Tangled) reestablishes Disney as an animation powerhouse with a fantastic new adventure. 8/10

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