Wednesday, December 25, 2013


 3 / 5 

Hans Christian Andersen has long held an allure for Disney animators, but not surprisingly his long, complex, often melancholy and heavily religious stories have proven difficult to adapt.  Still, after their successful, groundbreaking retelling of The Little Mermaid, there's little wonder Disney animators took a second look at a concept that proved too much for even Walt Disney to tackle.

The story is "The Snow Queen," and for Frozen, screenwriters have taken a few bits and pieces from Andersen's story and grafted them to a more traditional narrative.  Instead of two little children from a village, we're presented two princesses (the more cynical among you may already determine some nice merchandising opportunities) who live in the mythical, more or less Norwegian kingdom of Arrendale.

One of them, Elsa, has been born with an odd power: She can conjure up snow and ice at whim.  This delights her younger sister, Anna, but after Elsa accidentally harms her sister during childhood, she shuts herself away and refuses to let anyone know of her abilities, lest she cause more damage.

This is just the setup, and its complexity reveals the film's biggest flaw: It's emotionally a bit icy.  A mermaid who wants to be human, a beast who wants to be a man, a lion who needs to accept his responsibility, a young girl who wants to be released from her forced imprisonment -- they all engage the heart as well as the head.  A princess who has to find her sister who has run away because she turns things to ice and has never learned to control her power but is nonetheless ashamed of it … that's a bit more complicated.

Frozen is a visually masterful film, possibly the best-looking movie Disney has ever created.  Those millions of bubbles under the sea and the march of the animals toward Pride Rock may have been previous high points, but they're nothing compared with the snow, ice and shimmering, frosty beauty of Frozen (which is a movie that looks just fine in 2-D, by the way).

Voice casting is spot on, with an alarmingly good Kristen Bell as Anna and Wicked star Idina Menzel as Elsa.  Menzel makes a fantastic impression, but anyone who's seen Wicked will be hard-pressed not to hear more than a few reminders of Elphaba and Glinda in the soaring duets.

Musically, the movie is all over the place; combining musical styles can work well (think about the calypso beats and Broadway standards of Mermaid), here the pop-rock love ballads don't quite mesh with the more standards songs.  The music is merely fine rather than spectacular.

Best of all are the supporting characters, especially the endlessly amusing, thoroughly adorable snowman named Olaf, who longs to know what summer is like; and a helpful-if-dim reindeer named Sven.  It's also enjoyable to see the standard gender roles reversed -- even in female-driven movies like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and even Tangled, the women wanted to please the men.  In Frozen, the men are strong, interesting characters but secondary to the movie's two females.

It's a shame, then, that the plight of Anna and Elsa doesn't quite feel as strong as it should.  In a visually ravishing sequence, Elsa flees her kingdom and vows never to return -- but her selfishness is presented as a sort of declaration of independence, and unlike, say, Elphaba's key "Defying Gravity" moment, it feels pressured by plot contrivance rather than character.

Similarly, Anna's determination to find her sister struggles for justification.  Her kingdom is under a snowy permafrost, but Anna is less concerned about that than being snubbed by her sister for the umpteenth time.

These aren't small flaws: Frozen struggles to find a story that is genuinely compelling on a purely emotional level.  Still, it gives us some genuinely engaging characters, great performances, and looks absolutely extraordinary.  It's an exquisite film, and on that level ranks up there with the best work Disney animators have ever undertaken.  It's just odd to discover that for all of its great strengths, Frozen left me a little cold.

Viewed Dec. 25, 2013 -- AMC Promenade 16


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