‘Frozen’ is a terrific movie that’s highly enjoyable through character, song and humor What it is, is just as impressive as what is has accomplished on a larger scale since its Thanksgiving debut. From box-office records to powerful girls and entertaining boys, ‘Frozen’ is already a new kind of Disney classic.
Minor spoilers after the jump.
It’s been a long time coming for Disney. ‘Frozen’ just passed the half billion mark in international box-office receipts. Half of which is from its national release, which is already five weeks underway. An unusual and admirable feat for any tentpole movie, let alone an animated one. It’s still shy of what ‘Tangled’ pulled in back in 2010, but despite breaking even, that movie was plagued with a costly production process. Disney effectively had given up before Rapunzel hit theaters, announcing it was done producing princess movies.
A decade earlier, in 2003, the Mouse House claimed it would no longer make traditionally animated movies. It backed out of that decision when John Lasseter and Ed Catmull took over and produced the endearing ‘The Princess and the Frog’ and the even smaller ‘Winnie the Pooh’. No news on future hand-drawn animation, but even the skeptics must be relieved that Disney doesn’t have a reputation of keeping to its word. Just like the pencil, princesses are here to stay.
‘Frozen’ proves many things. A princess movie can be a financial success. It can be a critical success. It can have musical songs, a romantic plot, star female characters and still attract a wide audience. Basically, it did what Tiana and Rapunzel, with their shortcomings in hand-drawn animation and a pricy bill, only suggested: Disney princesses can still rule in the 21st century.
Even as a secret admirer of classic Disney, I had a lot of reservations about ‘Frozen’. Was the movie, with its generic title, the fulfillment of ‘Tangled’s misleading marketing promise to appeal to boys? Was 3D animation truly the right path considering both ‘Frog’ and ‘Pooh’ had their artistic merits? Could the upbeat, fresh lightning of ‘Tangled’ even strike twice? Though it didn’t convince me on all aspects, creatively, Disney outdid itself with ‘Frozen’.
If ‘Princess and the Frog’ was the fond nostalgia for classic Disney films and ‘Tangled’ was sentiment wrapped in a modern package, ‘Frozen’ is the breath of fresh air through the open door to a new era. It broke down some barriers that were necessary to launch the Disney ethos in the new age of cinema, but it somehow managed to also respect its legacy. Most of all, it features not one but two kick-ass heroines, both of which prioritize family over romance. We’re even treated to the very first princess whose happy end doesn’t depend on a man.
Perhaps a Disney movie review isn’t the right place to deal with problem of women on film. But it’s probably the studio whose progress on the subject is the most important. Generations of girls grow up dreaming to be Snow White, Aurora and Ariel. For decades people are encouraged by desire to have a happy ending ‘like in the movies’. Disney isn’t to blame, nor is anyone in specific. But you’d be hard pressed to not track back some people’s insistence to find true love as soon as possible to standards set by Disney films.
Slowly we’ve seen the dependence on men fade to the background. From Belle to Rapunzel, Disney’s girls have learned to say “no”, sacrifice themselves for their kingdoms and fight for their own space in the world. But when you look at those who didn’t ultimately find their happy endings with a guy, you’d only really find Lilo and her Stitch. As realistic and relatable as the little Hawaiian is, sadly, there are a small number of girls who aspire to be her. Which is why it’s important, so, so important, that ‘Frozen’ took the image of Hans Christian Anderson’s Snow Queen and turned her into the dimensional, complicated but lovable Elsa. Her message to love herself for who she is, to not conceal her feelings, is on itself powerful enough. When she does embrace herself in the movies’ high note of ‘Let It Go’, when Idina Menzel shows off her unparalleled vocal range, she finally feels free. And, dare I say, she even looks sexy in all her self-confidence.
Luckily, the movie goes even further. Anna, the sister who does long for love (understandably so, as it was taken from her suddenly without explanation), is dealt a realistic hand. She falls in love with a prince, meet-cute and love-song included, like a Disney princess should. But instead of living happily ever after, she doesn’t get permission to marry him and, when she explains her situation to someone else, she gets some sense knocked into her for marrying a complete stranger. Thank you, Disney! Today, in a society of divorces, teen pregnancies and basically everything Snow White doesn’t endure, it’s a far stretch for anyone, boy or girl, to find the love of their life so young. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen, or it won’t, but it’s unlikely. More importantly, having powerful feelings for someone when you’re young doesn’t mean you should act upon those feelings through marriage. Because you are young and before you know it you have to travel cross country to get your estranged sister back and you meet someone else who might be an even better fit for you.
Then there are the boys. Hollywood doesn’t want to believe boys would go to princess movies. A cliche that’s so overwrought I doubt the audience even cares. Locally, there were little boys, not girls, in the theater clapping their hands and laughing, while bigger boys just enjoyed the film for the quality movie it is. Yes, boys prefer ‘Avengers’ over ‘Frozen’, but one doesn’t exclude the other.
Disney all but concealed Rapunzel from the ‘Tangled’ marketing campaign. Arguably, that worked well in terms of box-office success, so they repeated it once more with ‘Frozen’. It worked again, evident of the best opening ever for the studio. Though with such long legs, it’s safe to say the movie’s success has little to do with its generic marketing aim. Still, there’s a conviction that if the marketing shows off the movies’ princess roots, boys and large audiences in general, won’t turn up.
The odds are definitely stacked against rational thought. But with Jennifer Lawrence and Sandra Bullock pulling double shifts with successful movies starring women recently, there must be some change on its way. In any case, the film’s more feminine traits shouldn’t alienate anyone. Not just because Anna and Elsa’s sisterly bond is recognizable for everyone, but also because the movie offers a character that prides himself in being a guy. Kristoff is not a perfect, well groomed prince. He admits to picking his nose, he prefers his pet over humans and tinkles in the woods. If Eric, Philip, and yes, even Adam, showed the ideal image of what girls want guys to be, Kristoff is the guy most boys grow up to be. Throw in a good sense of humor and a giant snow man and suddenly nobody is being alienated at all.
Feminism, marketing and financial security aside, ‘Frozen’ wouldn’t work without its wonderful story. Using superpowers as a way to portray a social outcast is always an interesting feat, but using it to split two close sisters up is very strong dramatic hook. It adds that much layers to the natural process of growing apart, knowing Elsa’s motivation is to protect her little sister while Anna just doesn’t understand. ‘Do You Want to Build a Snowman’ is such an endearing example of that and the first in many songs that exemplify character over story.
The movie’s framework is also admirable. In a relatively small arena, the characters move quickly and individually. Everyone’s actions influence each other without the unnecessary interactions. Not all of those influences are logical, especially towards the end when the cast is fractured and everyone shows up everywhere. Yet, even in the most eventful scenes, the struggles of Elsa and Anna are emotionally grounded. Elsa’s fear of hurting her sister and Anna’s courage are so evident for everyone but each other, that the love story that unfolds between sisters outshines any romantic one in recent years.
Supporting the sisters and Kristoff is the perfect-guy Hans, who is plagued by having twelve older brothers, relating immediately to Anna as a neglected sibling. The lovable sidekick is Olaf, the snowman. A beacon of childhood affection for the sisters, Olaf’s personality mostly consists of a craving for summer, unaware of its effect on snow. Despite not escaping the standard requirements of a sidekick, including a thorough loyalty to the protagonist, breaking the ice with funny one-liners and being generally a little dumber than the others, Olaf still works. Even he manages to surprise once in a while. There’s also an army of trolls, whose role is severely downplayed as the movie goes on, for unclear reasons. In any way, the ensemble is highly entertaining. Mostly because they fluctuate between drama and comedy so effortless. Lead Anna, voiced by the ever so quirky Kristen Bell, is clumsy, incredibly awkward while also being brave and pro-active. Reindeer Sven is of course adorable, but Kristoff’s “converstions” with him are genuinely funny. For a decade now, animation has aimed strongly at the comedy factor. It’s been a while since it blend this well with drama.
Then of course, there is the soundtrack. The duo Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez may miss some of the subtlety that elevated so much of Alen Menken’s words in earlier classics, but even when Elsa, Anna or Josh Gad’s Olaf literally sing about what they want, it still makes up for a wonderful song. Both ‘Love Is an Open Door’ and ‘Fixer Upper’ are full-on charming love songs with comedic beats. But the standout is Bell’s ‘For the First Time In Forever’ reprise that mixes with Menzel’s ‘Let It Go’, climaxing the sister’s personal goals while demanding everything from their voice actors. Even a seasoned fan like myself, who repeated the soundtrack while anticipating the movie, thought the songs followed each other rather quickly. But then, they push the story forward enough to warrant their existence. An unfortunate victim of the story’s active progression and the quick sequence of songs is Christophe Beck’s score, which has trouble standing out. The character’s themes are recognizable but, even when having listened to the full album multiple times, the movie doesn’t rely on its score enough to truly let any distinct, unique passages through.
A more pressing issue is that of animation. Make no mistake, ‘Frozen’ looks good. Its animated snow is marvelous, basically engulfing the audience in it, leaving them disappointed to find none outside the movie theater. But concerning characters, there’s still an argument for traditional animation. Right now, the only upper hand CGI has is that it still feels new. We haven’t finished developing computer animation. Not the way hand-drawn animation settled in near the turn of the century. ‘The Princess and the Frog’ looked gorgeous, but also very familiar.
When the sisters look upon a ballroom full of people dancing, one can’t help but reminisce of other famous ballroom dances in animation. It looks as though the people here are still somewhat balloon shaped plastic objects. In combination with the princess vibe, it reminded a little of those terrible Barbie movies from last decade. In a major animation production, especially from the studio that has an honorary degree in creating magic, that feeling shouldn’t be there. When Elsa throws her ice across the screen, it shows that action and computer animation work well together. But traditional animation does so too. Just ask legions of anime fans. Personally, there’s a reasonable doubt the movie looked its best today, let alone ten years from now. It’s the exciting promise of progress versus the familiarity of established beauty. Right now, it doesn’t feel like ‘Frozen’ had either.
‘Frozen’ isn’t the best movie of the year. It might not even be the best animated one. But that hardly matters. On a studio business level, on a cultural impact and on the personal scale of entertaining and moving cinema, it hits all the right notes. Disney presents another princess movie with a warm-hearted story of love, only this one aims at the love normal people like ourselves know all too well. It successfully ushers in a new era of animated movies. The ones that have girls as protagonists and still show the lead packing a punch to the bad guy. The ones where modern values are applied to the image of romance. The ones that are just as hilarious as they are emotionally compelling. This winter ‘Frozen’ will melt any icy heart with a refreshing take on its studio’s legacy: an act of true love.
Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee
Produced by Peter Del Vecho
Screenplay by Jennifer Lee
with Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel and Jonathan Groff
Released November 27, 2013