Frozen (2013)

Before I go into my review of the newest Disney feature, let me talk a bit about Tangled (2010), its predecessor in the fairy tale genre. As a long-time Disney fan, I followed its arduous production fairly closely, and that process didn’t yield a great amount of optimism for the finished product: Numerous story retoolings, scale-backs of the visual style, the replacement of animation legend Glen Keane in the director’s chair (twice, basically), and an unnecessary title change later, the bad vibes climaxed with a horrid trailer that made the film look like a not very good Shrek-esque parody and a desperate appeal for boys and teenagers.

However.

When I actually saw the film in December 2010, compelled by a release of the catchy soundtrack, good reviews and some slightly less loathsome trailers, I wasn’t just very pleasantly surprised. I absolutely adored Tangled. It had a thin veneer of modern “hipness”, sure, but what lay underneath was a really very traditional fairy tale plot with solid situational and character-based humour and a distinct lack of pop-culture references or insufferable pop songs. It wasn’t a radical shift at all, but a minor evolution of a formula Disney mastered in the early 1990s (and then kinda ran into the ground, sure, but never to the degree critics like to claim). If it was a rejection of anything, then of the Disney company’s previous attempts to break out of a perceived fairy tale ghetto.

Flash-forward to three years later. Disney played Frozen very close to the vest, with only dribs and drabs getting released or leaked:

What was worrying about this was less the material that was coming to light and more the fact that nothing particularly inspiring was being released. The hope was always that the marketing was intentionally trying to mislead the audience, much like with Tangled (particularly with the first trailer), but what if Frozen was just… bland?

Then the “Elsa trailer” came out, which touted the film as the “greatest Disney animated event since The Lion King“, a bold claim if ever there was one. It was easy to dismiss the statement as marketing hyperbole, but it soon became apparent that Disney had justification for their confidence: early reviews were highly positive, and that glow did not fade much once the film went into wide release and audience reactions were added to the mix.

Long (long) story short, does the film live up to the late-blooming hype?

Kinda.

Now, having only seen it once, I do not at this point consider Frozen the greatest Disney film since 1994, nor the most ambitious and certainly not my favourite. But the Lion King comparison may be apt in another way, in that that fairly dark film followed the more broadly comedic Aladdin (1992). Tangled has a lot of heart and some mature undercurrents in the emotional manipulation of Rapunzel by her mother, but it’s mainly a funny romantic comedy. Frozen definitely feels more substantial and less reliant on humour.

The film, so loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen that it can’t really be called an adaptation at all, stars two princesses who have grown up both together and apart: After an accident wherein Princess Elsa’s mystic (and never-explained) ice powers almost kill her younger sister Anna, the two are separated from each other. This results in two damaged protagonists who are both lonely, but deal with it in different ways. Elsa emotionally walls herself off, hoping to avoid another incident by bottling all emotions up inside; Anna jumps on the first opportunity at companionship and agrees to a proposal from a man she’s known for less than a day when her attempts to reconnect with her sister are rebuffed. The princesses clash and Elsa flees to the mountains where she thinks she can be alone (and therefore free from the pressure to control her powers, free to truly be herself), unaware that her magic has started an unseasonal winter storm threatening the entire kingdom.

This kind of relationship between two female main characters has been praised for its uniqueness regarding not just the Disney canon, but mainstream (family) cinema as a whole. But what may be more revolutionary than that is how the dynamic doesn’t just add flavour to the main characters’ personalities, but prominently informs and drives the plot. Until almost the very end, it seems like all of the conflict in the film stems from the royal family’s perhaps questionable parenting decisions. No villain necessary.

—Forecast: some vaguely spoilery precipitation from here on out—

The fact that Anna’s initial love interest – the one whose marriage proposal she accepted after a brief montage of him paying attention to her – turns out to be the only real antagonist is something I didn’t really like when I watched the film in the cinema. Directors Chris Buck (co-responsible for one of the better late-90s Disney features, Tarzan) and Jennifer Lee had been doing so well until that point that I didn’t want them to sully their story with a bad guy. I’m still not convinced the face-heel turn was necessary, but I have to admit that his actions do make sense from that point of view, and it drives home the lesson to Anna that love-at-first-sight is a juvenile fantasy and certainly no cure-all for diseases of the heart both magical and mundane. He’s not a complete cardboard cut-out of a mustache-twirling villain, at any rate, which is something, I guess.

However, I stand by my first impression when it comes to another plot element: the trolls, beings who possess boundless magical knowledge and who the humans turn to when in dire need of exposition. Both of their appearances are unnecessary, but especially so their second one, where they seem to be the justification for another musical number. I really like most of the songs in the film, composed by husband-wife team Robert and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, and they do a good job of illuminating the characters and moving the story along. Except for the troll song, which tells us nothing we don’t really already know, unsubtly restates the film’s theme, and stops the movie dead in its tracks.

I get that they were probably intended as another means of lightening the mood (both troll scenes occur at a point where an important character has been injured), and the kids in the audience certainly responded to them, but I just found the creatures annoying and the scenes, well, very rocky. Truth be told, the film’s non-dialogue-based attempts at humour are a mixed bag in general. The dreaded talking snowman, featured so prominently in the trailers, is actually a surprising and surprisingly restrained bright spot. Other “funny” elements range from bland (the reindeer) to highly grating (a visiting duke).

One more minor complaint before I reach a conclusion: The film’s pacing felt a little off at times, particularly at the beginning, where the exposition is gotten out of the way very quickly, without giving the audience time to process some rather important developments (like Anna’s accident and the resulting years-long separation from her sister). I may feel differently about this when I watch the film again. Also, most of the songs are concentrated in the first half of the feature, with barely anything at the end, which is unfortunate given the high quality of the musical numbers.

On the whole, though, Frozen was a very enjoyable experience, a mostly successful mixture of old traditions and new approaches. I don’t know that the pre-release hyperbole was quite justified, but my appreciation for the film has actually grown since I saw it in early December. So who knows what I’ll think of it a year or two from now.

Images added 2016-07-31

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