November 27, 2013
Sisters…Sisters…There were never such devoted sisters…
This sentiment of Irving Berlin’s lyric from an older Christmas classic is what is at the heart of the new Disney movie being released just in time for the Thanksgiving holiday.
Frozen, which is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s 1854 tale, “The Snow Queen”, gambles by celebrating traditional old-school Disney while at the same time tossing them on their crowned heads.
They succeed mightily, creating what will no doubt be an animated blockbuster with this thoroughly modern story beautifully told and rendered, with heroines audiences will embrace and songs they will remember. Lucky for the movie-going world that Disney held on to their love of this tale, an interest which goes back to 1952. They have found a way to bring it into the 21st century, and still keep a bit of the original intact.
Optimistic fast-talking Anna and eventual queen Elsa are sister princesses in the kingdom of Arendelle. Elsa has a magic ability to create ice and snow, and as children, they experience a near-fatal accident while playing, when Elsa’s magical ice leads to a fall for Anna.
Their parents sequester Elsa to keep Anna safe, and even after their mother and father (Disney trope alert!) die in a shipwreck, they grow up lonely, away from each other, and divided by a closed door.
Years later, on Coronation Day, love-starved Anna falls within hours for Prince Hans and announces their engagement to the new queen. Displeased and mostly level-headed Elsa says no, and pulls the Disney Ice Capades version of a Carrie in front of her coronation guests. Embarrassed, the new queen runs off into the wilderness, throwing the whole kingdom into eternal Winter.
Fearlessly, Anna goes out to save her kingdom, bring back Summer, and get her beloved sister back. On this trek, she meets and gets help from mountain jock Kristoff, his trusty reindeer Sven, a magical snowman Olaf and a bunch of trolls.
A number of aspects of this movie come together to make it so successful…
Nothing about classic Disney heroines, or their story arc, is trotted out in the same way. There are two heroines to choose from, not one. There is no real villain. Romance is not the focus of the story, nor is a romantic happily ever after the goal. Here, just plain happy will do nicely, thanks very much.
Frozen drives right past “Damsel in Distress” and instead takes a sharp turn at the corner of “Independence” and “I Can Do It” avenues. These girls are strong and complicated, and are figuring life out as they go along. Here, the focus is on love of family, on siblings and their undying connection.
Much of the credit for Frozen’s contemporary spin on an old fable, with its authentic and positive female role models and more fully fleshed out characters both literally and figuratively, goes to Jennifer Lee, a screenwriter and the first-time female animated feature director in Disney’s 76 years.
She showed up at the perfect time. Adolescence and womanhood have always been far more complicated than ever portrayed in a Disney princess story. Blame the strict archetypes in fairy tales. In Frozen, Lee breaks it down and builds it back up in just the right way.
Yes, Anna falls in love in hours. But later, when Kristoff teases Anna about falling in love so shallowly, we know we’ve found a new hero, however their relationship develops. All of the sudden, we want romance, because they are so genuine and real with each other.
Frozen knits together a 2D artistic aesthetic with 3D computer animation in an exciting way that only animation geeks will truly understand, but from which all audiences will benefit. A great deal of experimentation and new software development was required to make the snow and ice look real, as well as to give the characters more believable expressions, and, as always, better hair. There were many new programs designed and redesigned, some with names like Tonic (for hair) dRig (used mostly on Olaf) and Snow Batcher (for when characters make contact with snow).
They even created a new program for the layers of clothing required in a Scandinavian wardrobe. All this results in a sort of “real life” or “truth in acting” believability never before seen in 3D animation.
The biggest downside to Frozen is the decided similarity between Tangled’s Rapunzel and Frozen’s Anna. Apart from being near dopplegangers, on the continuum of spunky female characters they land in the same place.
It’s like they are Steve Austin, from the ’70s show The Six Million Dollar Man, with Anna being rebuilt as the better, stronger, faster and wiser of the two. It’s as if they knew with better software they could revisit their recent work and go beyond the limitations of just a few years ago. Using hair as an example, Tangled’s Rapunzel had 27,000 very long hairs, whereas Frozen’s Elsa had 420,000.
The question, though, is why make Rapunzel and Anna have such similar facial features and other characteristics? As an audience member, the advancement is immediately evident in Anna when put next to a slightly less advanced character with similar basic design. It could have been a considered choice. Advanced rigging used for all the characters in Frozen allowed for far more nuanced facial expressions to be utilized to show emotion, making them all, including Anna, more sympathetic and lifelike.
This is a problem that 3D computer animation has continually faced when aiming for the expressiveness conveyed by animation artists in the characters of Disney’s 2D films. They are finally bridging that gap.
It’s rather odd that in most of the promotion of Frozen, the musical aspect of the film isn’t featured prominently as one of its best strengths.
Disney “Broadway is our sequel” Studios knew what they were doing when they went to the songwriting team of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez. Robert is a Tony-winning composer and lyricist, for co-penning “The Book of Mormon” and “Avenue Q.” Kristen, his wife, created music with him on the 2011 Disney film Winnie the Pooh. They committed to working on Frozen after seeing an early concept image of Elsa and Anna on two sides of a closed door, which captured their imagination, especially since they have two daughters themselves.
There are some very fun or sweet ear-worm inducing songs, as well as several that are quite poignant, but in every case these expertly crafted tunes move the story along.
“Do You Want to Build A Snowman?” is sung by Anna as a child growing up trying to get her sequestered and beloved sister to come and play with her. “Love Is An Open Door” is Anna singing about falling in love with the first person who has paid any attention to her after her long struggle for attention from her sister.
“In Summer” is a wonderful soft-shoe by the eternally optimistic embodiment of childlike joy Olaf (inspired voicing by Josh Gad) who, truth be told, seemed obnoxious in the trailers, and is anything but when experienced in the film. What a delight he is in every frame, but especially during his song, where he fantasized about sunbathing and drinking in the hot sun.
The audience completely falls for him, as they should if their own heart isn’t made of snow. The centerpiece of all the songs is “Let It Go,” which is the first song accepted by the filmmakers that the Lopez team wrote. Sung by Idina Menzel as Elsa, it is both a vocal tour de force as well as a gorgeously lush and poignant ode to independence.
This show-stopper is the perfect time to show all the greatest advancements in special effects animation, as the character lets loose, creates her palace of ice, allowing her true self and her power to shine. There is no competition at awards time against this monster of a song.
There is something with which Cinema Siren can assist, that will alter your potentially conflicted response to the movie’s composed score. Prompted by confusion about Christophe Beck’s music, some of which recalls the drumming and vocalizing in The Lion King far more than any Nordic music I’d imagined, I discovered both the Frozen character design team and the composer found inspiration from the indigenous people of the region.
I declare a former ignorance of the culture of the Sámi, the Finno-Ugric people of Norway, Sweden and Finland. They are coastal fishermen, fur trappers and reindeer herders. Their traditional clothing include beaded leather boots, leather coats and fur-lined shawls with embroidery. While Kristoff’s costume and design is most Sámi influenced, Anna’s attire also has elements taken from them. Their traditional music is based in a cappella singing, accompanied by hand drums.
Christophe Beck, with the help of Sámi yoiker Frode Fjellheim, uses yoiks, or Sámi song chants, and the drums that accompanied them, as framework for the film’s opening music. He also employed a variety of other regional traditional instruments and vocal techniques. Anyway, now when you hear and see Sámi influence, you’ll know! Kudos to Disney for including that aspect of traditional culture, and by extension, educating film fans.
Frozen is, above all, an entertaining and charmingly poignant tale about love overcoming fear. Absolutely worth your time and money, this is perfect fare for families looking for a night at the movies. Though you can skip the 3D glasses, seeing it on the big screen will feel like visiting your own classic Disney memories, while enjoying all the best the studio has to offer in the 21st century.
4 out of 5 stars