Thursday, January 1, 2015

Film Review: Frozen

Previously on the SDP, I commiserated the Oscar defeat of Hayao Miyazaki's The Wind Rises to the Disney venture Frozen. Might as well be the bigger man and evaluate it on its own merits.

  • Publisher: Disney 
  • Production Studio: Walt Disney Animation Studios 
  • Genre: Fantasy, Musical 
  • Release: 27 November 2013 
  • Directors: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee 
  • Producer: Peter del Vecho 
  • Writers: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee, Shane Morris 
This article was updated on 8 December 2017.

Arendelle. A world where ice runs everything, if not in the summer. A world host to not one, but two princesses: Elsa (Idina Menzel), and her younger sister Anna (Kristen Bell). Elsa, for some reason, is a cryokinetic: she has the power to conjure up ice and snow. But one time while they were playing together with those powers, one of her ice shots hit Anna in the head. So, in fear of causing further damage, her family locks her up in the castle, and her powers are hidden from the rest of society. I'm not gonna lie, this film starts off on a really strong note. To see what I mean, check out one of the opening songs, "Do You Want To Build A Snowman", which contrasts Anna's optimism and Elsa's fears as the two sisters grow up side-by-side yet separated from each other.

Then Elsa’s coronation and 21st birthday happen, when she accidentally exposes her abilities during a party, and runs away from town. And things were going so well until then, too. Anna even found herself a strapping young marriage prospect in the form of Hans (Santino Fontana), a foreign prince. But good luck with that when you're dealing with an emotionally and magically unstable sister! Hey, Elsa! You ever thought of just explaining your powers on your own terms, when you're all cool, calm, and collected, instead of waiting for some accident to catch you off-guard, thus preventing you from thinking clearly? ...Heh, "cool". But seriously, folks, I can understand Elsa’s behaviour in this scene, as more than likely it comes from her having been forcibly cloistered for pretty much her entire childhood. The lack of social interaction, even with her own sister, has thus led to her growing her own problems out of proportion, which emphasizes the lesson to the viewer that if you’re dealing with problems of your own, you need somebody else to support you throughout it all. That doesn't mean I have to like it.
This film is at its best when it focuses on the relationship between Elsa and Anna.
Whatever. So when Elsa's instabilities force Arendelle into a permanent state of winter, Anna takes it upon herself to talk some sense into her. Along the way she meets up with Kristoff (Johnathan Groff), an down-on-his-luck ice trader, and Olaf (Josh Gad), a short snowman inadvertently turned animate by Elsa's magic. Olaf's gimmick is that he has a fondness and/or desire for warm things, blissfully unaware that they would cause him to melt. I honestly find this a funny schtick, but neither the character nor his gimmick serve any purpose in the plot to speak of. To me, he just smacks of a comic-relief mascot put into this film for the sake of having a comic-relief mascot. This is but one manifestation of the film's core problem, but I'll delve into that later on.

Anna and company make their way up to an ice castle Elsa had spontaneously built, now that there's no one around for her to hide her powers from. Anna tries to inform her sister of the plight their people are in and convince her to do something about it, only to take an ice-bolt to the heart. Okay, I'm gonna pause the review for a moment to do some nit-picking. Let's go back to the movie's intro, when the same thing happened to a younger Anna. Her parents were told that she survived the incident because the shot missed her heart. If that had been the case, her whole body apparently would have been frozen instantly. But when it does happen, the fatal freezing doesn't take effect immediately. You remember Back To The Future, where Marty had that photo of his family which faded away gradually until he set right what had become unstuck? Don't tell me you saw that and didn't think it strange. Oh well, I usually accept these sort of things because it lets the protagonists have a fighting chance against the plot, and I do like it when the good guys win. Who doesn't? But I do not like it when the movie sets up rules, only to break them later on.

So, anyway. Out of fear, Elsa chases her company off by conjuring a snow monster. When you get right down to the matter, it serves no practical purpose in the greater plot, which you may have noticed is becoming a running theme of this review. Once they reach safety, Anna and Kristoff high-tail it to some rock trolls. One pointless song later, and she learns that the freezing spell can only be undone by an act of true love. Meanwhile, Hans (remember him?) has more or less taken over the kingdom in Elsa's absence, has a couple of soldiers come over to Elsa's new digs to capture her, and upon her return, captures Anna as well. Olaf springs her, and she, Elsa, and Hans confront each other on the frozen sea. Hans goes to strike down Elsa, but Anna jumps in to block him, just as she freezes solid. But wait -- that constitutes an act of true love! So Anna is thawed, Hans is arrested and sent back to whence he came from, and Elsa learns to moderate her powers through the power of love. Now that’s just lame. Going back to my previous example, this would be like if Marty McFly was erased from time completely, only to come back after his future parents got together and kissed again. At a base level, it’s breaking your own rules again. Only this time, the rule is death which, in the real world, there is no coming back from.  Could you imagine if you’re a kid who has a loved one with a terminal illness or is otherwise close to dying, and then watching a movie like this? ...Have fun! Okay, now you are now free to turn off your TV.

So that was Frozen. If I had to pick out one specific problem which holds the film back -- and I do, because I have to present you with a decision somehow -- I would say the plot is a little scatterbrained. If the plot had been solely about the relationship between Anna and Elsa, as was set up in the beginning, then I would have been much more positively pre-disposed towards the film. Heck, I might even have been more supportive of its Oscar victory! (Or still not, considering the circumstances.) But as it stands, Frozen's attention is strained by having too many superfluous elements. As I mentioned, there’s Olaf the snowman, as well as the ice giant guarding Elsa’s castle, and the villain is… well, without wishing to spoil, that Weselton guy who is set up early on as someone who is obviously evil, promptly gets forgotten about.
Too many superfluous elements and an uneven tone drag this movie down.
With wishing to spoil, however, it turns out the real villain is Hans, that prince Anna hit on in the first act. My opinion on this development is… mixed. On the one hand, he has little development apart from his earlier appearance, giving us no indication whatsoever that he’s about to turn evil. But, on the other hand, he’s the kind of villain I wish I saw more often. None of this sneering, painfully obvious villainy, cf. Weselton. He comes across as a nice guy, even offering to help the people of Arendelle by going out to find Anna and Elsa, and then, bip, he flips the switch. You could call this a subversion of the handsome prince roles in many other Disney works, and I’ll agree that there’s merit in that argument. And given Disney’s recent tradition of being a little more genre-savvy, that very well may be right. But I prefer to look at it as lazy storytelling. Maybe it’s the story’s fault for jumping about all over the place and not giving us enough time to understand his character. So anyway, coming back to all those distractions I listed earlier, let me ask you readers a question: Do any of these affect the plot -- and by plot, I am referring specifically to the plot between Anna and Elsa -- in any way? Not the way I see it. And it's these distractions which keep Frozen from developing to its full potential.

I will say this in defence of Frozen: its animation, character, and set design are outstanding, and this matters more than you might think. First of all, the animation works on a technical level, as well, avoiding the spastic style of contemporaries like Dreamworks (especially the Madagascar franchise), and instead treating us with a smooth sense of motion. But the technical quality of animation is one thing; I can be generally counted on to opine that graphics don't make a good video game, for example, but that aesthetics do. And that goes doubly for non-interactive animated shows, because it is design which leaves an impression on the viewer. Think about it -- would Neon Genesis Evangelion, for example, have been as cool if not for the designs of the Angel monsters, the Eva robots, or the NERV base? I think not. And Frozen succeeds in this category. There's some downright beautiful set design to be had, especially in the case of the ice castle Elsa conjures up. And the characters are pleasing to look at, their faces and what-not stylised enough to steer clear of the Uncanny Valley. In fact, they even bear resemblance to the hand-drawn characters of Disney's past films. But that just begs the question: why couldn't Frozen have been a traditionally-animated film to begin with? I mean, they had to have drawn in that fashion for the concept art, storyboards, and what-not, so why not keep it that way? And would I have liked it more or less had that been the case? ...Hard to say.
The outstanding visual design makes this film fun to watch.
On the topic of aesthetic elements, the musical numbers didn't really do anything for me. It could just be me being jaded, but it seems like the types of songs presented therein are all the same styles of songs Disney's used for films past, and they're generally not catchy besides. For example, while I said some good things about "Do You Want to Build a Snowman" in terms of storytelling, it’s still very… talk-singy. And some of the other numbers, especially the one with the rock trolls, can make anyone with half a functioning brain scream, "Get on with it!" The only exception I would make is for "Let It Go", a standout number by Elsa which really accentuates the character arc she goes through at the time. Then again, the visual aspects of that scene also contributed to the positive feelings it left in me, so you could say it has an unfair advantage.

Also, there’s the acting. It’s at least pretty good across the board, but some characters, especially Kristen Bell as Anna, sound a little too… contemporary for a setting like this. She uses words like “totally” way too often for a fantasy princess, and in one scene, she and Kristoff talk about his sleigh like it was a new car! I suppose my problem with that kind of writing is that it breaks my immersion in the world they’ve created. You can be a gripping drama or be a farcical comedy, but the moment you start switching between those two modes is when things get awkward.

Oh, and by the way, do you remember when I barred "Let It Go" from the top spot of my 2014 music list, purely as an act of protest? Well, let me set the record straight: No, "Let It Go" would not have been my number 1 even if I hadn't pulled that stunt. As I said back then...
However, a good chunk of the lyrics are a little too specific to the song’s scene in the movie, so its utility as a personal anthem for those going through the same struggles as Elsa does in the movie suffers a bit.
At the same time, I wish to assuage your minds at this point and remind you that I still think "Let It Go" is a good song. It would've ranked in my top five, were the circumstances different. But even if the circumstances were different, it's still not without its flaws. ...Which is a fitting metaphor for Frozen itself.

But in the end, I tend to judge a work of art based on whether it deserves to be watched, played, read, or listened to. I mentioned that I would show Kaleido Star to my hypothetical children, as a shining example of characters overcoming adversity and what-not. Would I give Frozen the same treatment? Well, I wouldn’t hide it from them or anything. For all its moments of shallowness, it does bring up valuable life-lessons now and then, and quite subtly, too. When Doug Walker, a.k.a. the Nostalgia Critic, discussed this movie for one of his “Disneycember” specials, he pointed out Elsa as a lesson on what can happen if you shut yourself away from other people all the time, and on the flip side, Anna as a lesson on what can happen if you share yourself haphazardly with other people. Both very important lessons in today’s age of social media, I must say. Oh, and to be fair, Doug did like The Wind Rises too, so he's okay in my book.

After all I've had to deal with since Frozen's release, all the negativity I've associated with, what do I think of the movie itself? Eh, could be better, could be worse. All in all, it's just... rather safe, like a Pierce Brosnan 007 film. It's about princesses, for one, and we know how many times Disney's dipped into that wishing well. Granted, it's about two princesses, one of them's technically a queen, and they drive the plot themselves, by their own actions, but it's still all-too-familiar territory. If you want a better, more focused film about a two-girl non-lesbian relationship, I would instead recommend any number of Studio Ghibli films, but especially their last one, When Marnie Was There, which right now potentially stands as the last feature film they may ever make, so please, check it out while you can. Still, Frozen is not terrible, and it's certainly easy on the eyes, unlike that Shrek garbage. It is proof that American animation is on its way back to respectable standards after its low point in the last decade, although it’s still a hundred years too early to compete with the Japanese, if you ask me. And while I still will never forgive the Academy's voters for what they did and why they did it, I suppose the best course of action would be to love the player, and hate the game.

+ The relationship between Anna and Elsa offers great potential for a plot.
+ Gorgeous animation and visual design.
+ Olaf’s scenes were kinda funny. Hey, I’m not made of stone.

- Too many extraneous elements for us to concentrate on its main plot.
- None of the musical numbers stand out, save possibly for "Let It Go".

Acting: 4 snowmen out of 5
Writing: 3 snowmen out of 5
Animation: 5 snowmen out of 5
Design: 5 snowmen out of 5
The Call: 80% (B)

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