Thursday, November 28, 2013

FROZEN - The New Hotness

Disney Animation has had quite the streak lately. It hasn't gotten the sort of notice that the Disney Renaissance did back in the 90's (understandable, since that saved the animation wing of the studio from being shut down), and hasn't received the same level of critical acclaim and Oscar accolade that Pixar's 2007-2010 run garnered, but they've been quietly recapturing much of the House of Mouse's former glory. Since 2008's BOLT, Disney Animation has had five straight home-runs, including 2010's TANGLED and last year's WRECK-IT RALPH.

And now FROZEN makes six. At some point we may need to dub this a Second Disney Renaissance. Because yes, they've definitely still got it.

FROZEN is another of Disney's fairy tale adaptations, this time taking broad inspiration from Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen," but is even more liberal with making changes to the original story than its predecessors. The titular Queen of the original here is Elsa, a young woman born with exceptional powers over ice and snow. After an accident puts her beloved younger sister Anna in danger, she retreats from the world, hiding her power and keeping her magic a secret from her sister. With no memory of her sister's gift or the accident, Anna is left confused and shut-out and just as lonely as her sister.

Years later, Elsa is crowned queen of Arendelle only to have Anna's impulsiveness bring out her powers during her coronation celebration. Panicked at the idea of hurting anyone again and self-conscious at being "outed," Elsa flees to isolation in the mountains. But her whirlwind of emotions causes a storm that envelopes the entire kingdom of Arendelle in an unseasonable winter, causing a worried Anna to chase after her to try to set things right.

These broader strokes have probably made clear by the film's advertising, but what the trailers have mostly avoided showcasing is that FROZEN is a genuine fairy tale musical in the same vein as the 90's greats, with characters pouring their hearts out to potential love interests by song or belting out declarations of independence. And the animal/mystical sidekicks that go along with this well-worn formula certainly feature in the "Make it look like a Dreamworks movie" ad campaign (the same one TANGLED used as well, oddly enough), but they're far more interesting in the actual film. Olaf the snowman, a creation of Elsa's, actually has a long-standing emotional meaning for both sisters, and isn't anywhere near the annoying bit of pandering that you'd expect. Neither is Sven the reindeer (who, worry not, does not talk).

In fact, FROZEN features arguably the strongest ensemble cast of any Disney animated effort since THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME. Anna is joined in her search by Sven, his human ice salesman companion Kristoff, and Olaf in a foursome very reminiscent of the companions in THE WIZARD OF OZ in how well their chemistry solidifies even after so short a time together. Helping round out the cast is Hans, a young prince that Anna met at the coronation and fell for at first sight, and the scheming Duke of Weselton. All are shaped into memorable characters who get great moments and help drive the narrative.

But the real stars of the movie, and the emotional core of the central relationship, are Elsa and Anna. Both are incredibly strong women, defined by their strengths and desires, not their positions in society or male potential love interests. Kristen Bell conveys a boundless energy and feisty warmth as Anna (she's as strong as Merida, as loyal as Esmerelda, and as kind as Belle), which contrasts nicely to the tightly reserved - but just waiting to cut loose - Idina Menzel as Elsa. And frankly, while the entire voice cast (which is rounded out with broadway vets and character actors as opposed to "big name" movie stars) is great, I really can't oversell just how amazing Menzel in particular is. Breaking out as Elphaba, Wicked Witch of the West in "Wicked," Menzel is no stranger to gifting towering emotion to powerful sorceresses through big song numbers, and she gets the major showstopper here as Elsa. If "Let it Go" doesn't win the Oscar for Best Original Song, I'll be very surprised.

In fact, the songs are all really good and amusingly varied (there's arguably more Broadway influence here than ever before), so much so that they manage to overshadow the actual score by BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER and THE MUPPETS alum Christophe Beck. Not by much though, because while Beck is no Alan Menken ("The Best Day of Your Life" from TANGLED remains absolutely flawless, if anyone was wondering), he brings a unique sound and sense of culture to the Arendelle soundscape, which helps differentiate FROZEN from its animated brethren.

What's more, the film pulls no punches in biting the fairy tale hand that feeds it, pointing out the ridiculousness of tropes like "love at first sight" and taking some very clever turns to subvert familiar character types. But unlike the SHREK films this still comes from a place of love, and - as in 2007's ENCHANTED - these tweaks on the nose serve the larger purpose of underlining the real story and character connection that spans the entire film. A story of fierce, unconditional love between two very different, but still very caring sisters.

FROZEN shows that Disney's really found its groove for the "modern" approach to adapting fairy tales. The formula that began with THE LITTLE MERMAID needed to change slightly after Dreamworks and their mocking gauntlet game on the scene, but now Disney's found the happy medium between loving odes to classic fairy tales and bringing them up to date for a modern audience in meaningful and character-driven ways. I can't say that FROZEN is perfect, but it's closer than many, and its quality makes 2013 the second year in a row that Disney has bested Pixar at their own game.

And while I try not to use this blog as a podium, I think that not only is this a movie worth seeing, but everyone who has a young girl should make it a point to see FROZEN as soon as possible. If you have sisters, take them. In spite of the four-quadrant lowest-common denominator marketing, FROZEN is easily the most unabashedly girl-powered Disney films since MULAN. And that's a great thing.

There, I got through the entire thing without a single ice/snow/temperature-related pun. So to make up, here's a pull-quote:

"FROZEN is fairy tales made cool, possesses a sharp sense of humor, gives oppressive patriarchy the cold shoulder, has moments that will give you serious chills, is stuffed with animation so beautiful that there are moments you might not believe what you thaw, and is just a really ice time at the theater.

And that's snow joke."

Okay, got it out of my system.

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