Monday, December 23, 2013

Movie Review: Frozen

Directed by: Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee.
Written by: Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck and Shane Morris inspired by The Snow Queen by Hans Christian ndersen.
Starring: Kristen Bell (Anna), Idina Menzel (Elsa), Jonathan Groff (Kristoff), Josh Gad (Olaf), Santino Fontana (Hans), Alan Tudyk (Duke), Ciarán Hinds (Pabbie / Grandpa), Chris Williams (Oaken), Stephen J. Anderson (Kai), Maia Wilson (Bulda), Edie McClurg (Gerda), Robert Pine (Bishop), Maurice LaMarche (King), Livvy Stubenrauch (Young Anna), Eva Bella (Young Elsa), Spencer Lacey Ganus (Teen Elsa).

Disney has taken a lot of criticism over the years – some justified – about how its animated movies about Princesses do little except confirm gender stereotypes. Many of their earlier classics – like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty were in many ways simply reflecting the culture in which they were made. While the 1990s saw a renaissance of sorts for the company – with new classics like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast – they did little to modernize their portrait of female characters. One thing you can say about their latest film Frozen is that the film is very conscience of the company’s history – and plays with those stereotypes throughout. While little girls can still watch Frozen and want to be a Princess, like the two sisters at the heart of the film, they’ll also see a different portrait of women than they have seen before. As the father of a two and half year old girl – with another girl on the way – I appreciated this, even while I will admit Frozen still has some issues.

The movie is about two Princesses – Anna and her older sister Elsa. Elsa is born with the power to create snow and ice out of thin air – and after an accident when they are children that almost kills Anna; their parents decide that Elsa must hide her talents from everyone – including Anna, who has the memory of her sisters powers wiped clean. After the death of their parents (they are Disney parents, so we all know they’re not lasting long), Elsa finds herself in line to be Queen. On the occasion of her coronation, they open the gates of the palace for the first time in years – and of course, things will not go very well.

In many ways, Frozen is a typical Disney movie – it’s full of beautiful princesses, in beautiful gowns and lots of show stopping musical numbers. There are also handsome princes, roguish young men, lovable animals, and a sidekick there for pure comic relief. While the film is now computer animation – forever leaving behind the hand drawn look of Disney movies of old, they do make an effort to make the film look as much like their classics in terms of character design and settings, as the animation style allows. It makes a lot of sense that Disney would continue with many of the staples that have made their animated movies so successful. After all, the basic outline was established all the way back in 1937 with Snow White, and it’s worked ever since. Why mess with success.

But Disney also knows that to avoid criticism, they must modernize their films in some ways – and Frozen does that quite well. Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee (who, amazingly, is the first female director on a Disney animated feature), Frozen continually approaches the same old clichés, and then at the last minute flips them. So while Anna does fall in love and get engaged to a handsome prince after only one day – she is also mocked for doing it. And when a key moment comes, and it looks like a male character is going to defend her honor, Anna makes it clear she doesn’t him to do that – she can do it just fine herself. And perhaps the best moment like this, which is seemingly just a throwaway moment – when we see Anna asleep in bed – her hair a mess, droll dripping out of her mouth. She may be a princess – but even she doesn’t look perfect all the time. The climax is also long overdue – as Disney finally acknowledges there is more types of love than romantic love.

I’m now realizing I’ve almost reached the end of my review, and I’ve spent most of my time speaking about gender politics. So be it – but also rest assured that Frozen is a tremendously entertaining movie. The songs may not quite be as memorable as the ones from the best Disney movies of this ilk – but they are all quite good – especially Let It Go, which benefits greatly by being sung by the wonderful Idina Menzel, who belts it out with the voice we all remember from Wicked. For the most part, they have cast Broadway veterans in the main roles (except for Kristen Bell as Anna) – and that works. The songs sound as if they were made for Broadway, and the cast belts it out to the back row with great energy. You also have to be a complete cynic not to like the lovable reindeer named Sven, or be find Olaf, the snowman voiced by Josh Gad, to be utterly charming and hilarious.

The heart of the movie is, of course, the relationship between the two sisters. While I admired that a great deal, I also have to admit it causes some problems with the structure of the movie. Of course, in the original Hans Christen Andersen story, Elsa is The Snow Queen – and the villain of the story. By turning her into a good character so they can concentrate on the sisterly love between her and Anna, it does rob the film of a memorable villain. They try to create a few bad guys, but none of them can come close to comparing to the best Disney villains – which often elevate their movies. This probably makes it safer for younger children – there will be no nightmares about a character like Cruella De Vile, Ursula or Scar – but also makes the film a little less interesting – and lacking in drama.

Still, I admired Frozen throughout – and also quite enjoyed it. The film shows Disney not so much at war with its own image, but acknowledging that times have changed, and so must the types of animated films they make. Disney has been moving towards this in recent years – in films like The Princess and the Frog and Tangled - which I think is a better overall film than Frozen, even if I admire the intentions behind the later even more. Frozen shows Disney animation in a state of transition. I cannot wait to see where they go from here.

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