Saturday, February 15, 2014

Frozen or "How Disney Got its Groove Back"

Hey guys! As promised, I'm going to review Frozen for y'all before flickering into near obscurity as I retreat into my cocoon of study and trying desperately not to flip out (aided by comfort food). I digress. Here there shall be spoilers, consider yourselves warned.

Now, this will be news to no one: This is widely considered a good film. It's all over the internet, the papers, the word on the street; Frozen is better than Tangled, less problematic than Princess and the Frog and, according to some, Disney's best work since the likes of The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast. It has 89-90% on Rotten Tomatoes and 8.1 on Metacritic.

What do I have to say? Oh, it's totally overrated. 

Hell, I can't keep up that lie, I loved this movie so damn much! It was just... the word "perfect" comes to mind but I want to believe that there's more on the way, so I won't jinx it. It's astonishing, breathtaking, progressive, engaging, subversive, relateable, funny, clever... the list goes on. On top of all that, it felt like Disney had taken the criticism of its other films and taken it into account. It was like a relative that you like but don't get to see that often giving you a Christmas present; you know you're gonna act like it's great anyway but it makes it that bit sweeter when it turns out to be exactly what you wanted. It feels like they cared. Disney, the giant faceless corporation that it is; Disney: where Dreams© are not just made but manufactured, boxed up and stamped with a little castle symbol before being shipped out in their millions. Disney cared when they didn't have to and that feels nice. Thanks Disney.

Anywho, the film. What's it about? Well, it's loosely based on Hans Christian Anderson's story "The Snow Queen" but loosely is kinda the operative word there so I'll just explain what they do with it. Anna and Elsa are sisters, and princesses of the land of Arrendelle. Elsa, the eldest sister, was born with the power to create ice and snow. One night, while she and her younger sister Anna are playing with the ice magic, Elsa accidentally hits Anna's head. Anna is taken to the local trolls (y'know, as you do) who can suppress the ice in her head by erasing all memory of Elsa's powers (but leaving the fun, doing like a search-replace thing to get rid of the magic and replace it with natural snow). In case of another incident or Anna remembering and the ice taking hold again, Elsa is made to hide herself and her powers away. Years pass and after the untimely death of both their parents (it is Disney, after all) Elsa comes of age to be crowned Queen of Arrendelle. The gates are opened to the outside world for the first time in thirteen years and everyone's happy (Elsa bearing in mind how essential it is that she control her erratic and potentially deadly powers). Anna meets the handsome Prince Hans and, after an immediate connection and, what else, a duet, she agrees to marry him. Anna tells this to Elsa and she reacts, understandably, with resistance to the idea of her sister marrying a man she just met. This causes her to lose control of her powers and she flees the kingdom for the mountains, cries of "Sorcery!" at her tail. In her flight, she ends up freezing the entirety of the country behind her. Anna sets off to find her sister and the rest of the plot revolves around her quest to find her and thaw the land. Along the way, Anna teams up with Kristoff the ice dealer (not a term I picked up from Breaking Bad, he literally harvests and sells ice) his reindeer Sven and a snowman called Olaf who likes "warm hugs".

Okay, this ain't no plot summary, I'll get to other stuff as I talk about the movie. One thing that is unmistakably clear from the beginning of the film is that this is much more music heavy than the average Disney flick. In the first ten minutes or so there are more songs than dialogue, starting off with a very "Les Mis"-esque ice cutting scene that seems to have no other bearing on the plot than to introduce Kristoff (and Sven) and remind us of Les Mis (minus Russell Crowe) and providing us with a nice little musical motif throughout the film. I have no problem with that. (Seriously though, take a listen and tell me they're not at least long lost brothers). Basically, it starts out the film with "hey guys, this is gonna be a legit musical". It really gets you pumped for what's to come. And the rest of the film sure as hell delivers.

The casting is absolutely perfect, the voices becoming the characters themselves where Tangled felt a little disjointed and distracting. One particular choice that I give my highest praise is that of Idina Menzel (best known as the original Elphaba in Broadway's "Wicked") in the part of Elsa. Why you ask?

Well let's see... a story told primarily through music, two female protagonists, one of whom has strange powers she can only partially control and that cause her to be feared and ostracised by others... Love interests take a backseat to political, social and emotional struggles and growth, a once idolised male figure turns out not to be all that he seemed... Idina Menzel...

Oh fanart, you are so useful.
I'm not gonna draw this out any more. There are obvious comparisons to be drawn with Wicked here, but in the best possible way. Those of you who read my blog will know that Wicked is one of my absolute favourite pieces of art, or theatre, or work in general of all time. Seeing that Frozen took loving cues from the musical made my heart glow. If we never get a "Wicked: The Movie" (which seems slightly doubtful considering how successful it is, but I digress) I shall be content with "Frozen: The Almost Wicked (the movie)".

Then we move on to Anna, our protagonist. Anna is one of those rare examples of filmmakers deciding to make an "awkward" character and actually doing it well. for one thing, there's an actual reason for her awkwardness, which is severely lacking in the case of many other "awkward" heroines (*ahem* Bella Swan *ahem ahem*). Anna has been living in near total social isolation from the age of around six. After the little incident with Elsa, their parents locked the gates, reduced the staff, the whole shebang. Anna can't even talk to her sister anymore and she doesn't know why, she just knows that, to quote the movie "[they] used to be best buddies, and now [they're] not". There's a beautiful and heart-wrenching "I want" song at the beginning of the movie, "Do You Wanna Build a Snowman" which effectively gets us up to speed on what both Anna and Elsa are going through as they grow up, both isolated but dealing with it in different ways: Elsa by repressing her feelings, and Anna by making her own fun.

One thing that bugs in media is when a character is a certain way without cause. One example I find (and this is by no means shared by many, Ima just throw it out there) is Shakespeare's Macbeth (you didn't think I'd go for a non controversial example, did you?) Macbeth's thing is ambition, his fatal flaw, his hamartia, his driving force. However, we are given very little reason for this ambition other that "he's gotten to a certain status and he wants more". No inadequacy complex, no cases of his family being in line for the crown and getting passed over, no nothing. He's just ambitious, no further explanation necessary. Sorry, Billy, that's not a complex character, that's a piece of lazy writing. I love Shakespeare but, damn, he's not half put on a pedestal. No one is above criticism, not even the Bard. What am I trying to say with this? I liked that both Anna and Elsa have reasons for their defining traits/flaws. Now Disney is, to their credit, very good at this but here it felt particularly poignant as they could have quite easily made Elsa inexplicably evil and left it at that. Also, Rapunzel, their last socially isolated heroine, was relatively normal for her situation, with I found slightly off-putting. I appreciated their attention to detail with Anna's character. Believe me, as much as I hate the principle, prolonged time alone does build character. If you don't turn into a total misanthrope or anthropophobe, you will at the very least be self centred and have a lack of mental filter when talking to others, traits which Anna rather clearly displays. You will probably cling to anyone and everyone who shows you the slightest bit of kindness, cling tighter still if they show themselves as being in any way like you, as Anna does with Hans. This kind of thing is reassuring and relateable, and in a day and age where every
emotional-baggage unladen, well liked and surrounded by friends, above average looking kid is like 
it is nice to see a character who has a genuine reason for it. *Steps off soapbox* 

Let's move on, shall we? Pretty much everyone has spoken on how great the music in this film is. I am no exception to this popular opinion, it's freakin awesome! Where to begin? We have"Let it Go", a kind of halfway mesh of "No Good Deed" and "Defying Gravity" power ballad, "For the First Time in Forever" a sort of hearkening back to "The Wizard and I" (seriously, take a listen and tell me they're not effectively the same song, in both tune and message).

(Edit: Skip to 1:25 on the latter and play them at the same time, it's uncanny)

"Do You Wanna Build a Snowman" is expertly crafted to send you on an emotional rollercoaster (and probably make you cry). "Reindeer(s) are Better than People" is short but sweet and just sheer awesome in my book, along with "In Summer" in which we can see the Avenue Q songwriter Robert Lopez at his comedic best, with clever wordplay and timing. I'm also partial to "Love is an Open Door" for it's pure charm and quirk (and at this point I've mentioned pretty much all of the soundtrack, is it too much for me to say the score is amazing too? Screw it, it's awesome, look up "Marshmallow Attacks", it's one of my favourites)

While Frozen is probably one of the best animated films I've seen in years, that doesn't mean it's without it's flaws. I could literally go on for pages and pages about the witty dialogue or how they got around having totally unbearable comic relief (Olaf is only occasionally annoying), the stunning visuals for the winter scenes (the "Let it Go" ice fortress scene is freaking beautiful, compounded with the song it is one of the greatest things I have ever seen) or the subversion of Disney tropes (without just rehashing "Enchanted"), I'm going to talk briefly about what was wrong with the movie. Spoilers ahead, folks!

Those of you who've seen the film will know that the stereotypical "Act of true love" to save Anna is not, in this film, true love's kiss but a selfless act by Anna to save her sister from the dastardly Hans (hey, you said you'd seen it, that's shouldn't be a surprise). It's after this and a couple of seconds of stunned and super effectively used silence (another plus, sorry I'll get back to being critical) Anna thaws and Elsa realises that love was the key to her powers the whole time. "Of course, love!" she says, and quickly magics the ice away (and somehow magics a boat underneath them, as the weren't standing on one before the ice thawed...). I personally felt that this resolution was rushed. There should have been some kind of adjustment period from "I can't control my powers" to "Now I can unfreeze stuff". Maybe a hug between newly thawed Anna and Elsa, and they notice that the ice is starting to melt below them (because they were standing on ice and not a boat justsayin) or even starting slowly then getting the hang of it, instead of just "Poof! Snow's gone, happy fun time".

Secondly, and this is also to do with pacing, the reveal of Hans as a villain was lacking in build up. Yes, they mention that he has twelve older brothers but he never displays any desire for the crown, even if he'd said that to Anna before their duet it would be a better build up than what we got. There's also one line in "Love is an Open Door" where he says he's been waiting his whole life to "find his own place" which I suppose could be construed as "I want my own kingdom" but it is definitely a stretch. I'm not saying a twist such as this is easy to do, it's isn't. I'm not saying they should've had a moment of evil laughter from Hans just after meeting Anna, or that he should monologue or something. All we needed was a motive or even for him to say something a little off when Anna and Elsa are both gone. Were the sideburns meant to be enough of a hint? Was that it?
Look into my eeeeevil sideburns!
One thing that I will say about Hans (and I'm going into praise mode again when I said I wouldn't, sorry bout that) is that I'm glad they didn't go for the stereotypical "nice, handsome, bland guy" thing they always have with love triangles. They put effort into the two having actual conversations and actual chemistry, which was appreciated.

Lastly, and I'm sure you've heard this around the internets already so I'll keep it concise, yes, the character design is pretty eh. I didn't particularly like it for Rapunzel and I don't particularly like it here. The guys look like actual humans, as did Flynn Rider, but the women... Why is it that the bridges of female characters' noses are virtually nonexistent? Seriously, it's distracting as hell! You catch a glimpse of Anna from the side and it's like "Dude, when did we arrive in Whoville?". It's creepy and unnecessary, and we all know full well that the Disney animators are better than this. They are perfectly fine at giving the male characters fully formed noses. I know I'm fixating but look at it! Geez, who thought this was a good idea?
Look at Anna's nose! What even is that?!!
I know why they made their eyes so big and their faces so plastic looking (moychandising) but this is Disney we're talking about. They're gonna sell toys regardless. They're selling toys for movies that came out over 20 years ago, ones that you can't buy in shops except for when they let them out for limited periods of time. They have consumers at their beck and freaking call and they know it. So don't you think they can afford to have a little artistic integrity every now and again? Hell, if you can't have some degree of artistic freedom and integrity when you reach Disney's heights, I don't know why anyone would want to! All I'm saying is, Disney, you have this great movie that a lot of people love, including me... don't you think next time you could try to make it even better by not being so... blatantly money grubbing? We'd really appreciate it- Sincerely, the internet.

Anyways, I highly recommend going to see Frozen. I got a couple of rants in but I truly do adore this film and hope for bigger and better from the dream factory in the coming years. And with that, I bid you farewell. Until July, my friends.

(Edit: I forgot to mention the names. Oh, the names. The subtle tribute to Hans Christian Anderson is so clever, with three of the four main characters being called Hans, Kristoff and Anna. I felt clever for noticing, thought I'd share it with you so you can look just as clever. You are welcome)

Embrace the Madness

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