Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Reviews: Frozen

            I was kind of hesitant to see Frozen. Everyone seemed to be raving about it, but certain rumors had reached my ears that indicated it might not be the kind of thing I would enjoy. Now that I’ve seen it, I’d say that my fears weren’t exactly confirmed, but I found it disappointing all the same.
            Since it’s already won two Academy Awards, been a huge hit with audiences of all ages, and practically entered the lexicon of Disney greats, let’s admit it has some very real strengths: the animation is gorgeous, the female lead is adorable, the comic-relief sidekicks are delightful, there are at least a couple good songs (including one knock-out), I thought a final-act twist was a delightfully devilish piece of writing, and the climactic moment of self-sacrifice was beautifully done.
            But these are mixed in with serious flaws: it’s unfocused, it suffers from jarring tonal shifts, the male lead is pretty much strictly comic relief, some of the songs are just kind of lame, and it lacks any of the symbolic power that it ought to have. It’s like a movie that doesn’t know what it wants to be when it grows up, except that it knows it doesn’t want to be Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen or anything like it.
            The film opens with a haunting song about the power of the ice, sung by a baritone chorus of icemen. The ice, the song says, is as beautiful as it is dangerous. During the song we meet young Kristoff (voiced as adult by Jonathan Groff) and his pet reindeer, Sven.
            From there we cut to two young princesses, one of whom, Elsa (Idina Menzel), is quiet and shy, but has the power to make ice and snow with her fingertips, the other, Anna (Kristen Bell), is energetic and carefree. Their playtime in the snow that Elsa creates in the ballroom is cut short when an errant blast strikes Anna, leaving her unconscious.
            Frightened by this close-call, their parents separate the two (after taking Anna to a local troll for magical healing and memory modification to hide her knowledge of her sister’s power), leading to years of confused, plaintive isolation for both of them while Elsa’s powers grow swiftly harder and harder to control.
            Then their parents die at sea, Elsa has to assume the throne, and all hell breaks loose, causing her to flee into the mountains and inadvertently leaving her kingdom in a state of perpetual winter.
            So, Anna, leaving the visiting Prince Hans (Santino Fontana), her ostensible fiancée, in charge, sets out to find Elsa and convince her to come back and take away the winter. She’s aided in her quest by a now-grown-up Kristoff and they’re soon joined by the talking snowman, Olaf (Josh Gad).
            From there, the film stumbles in a rather aimless way through Anna’s journey to reach her sister, both physically and emotionally, which is levied by a number of crises that feel less apiece with the story and more driven by the need to have something happen, including a curse with a strict timeline, a betrayal, and a Beauty and the Beast-like siege scene that isn’t remotely as exciting or inventive as its inspiration.
            That’s really one of the chief problems with the movie; the story simply isn’t tight enough. It wanders among its disparate elements and can’t seem to make up its mind what it wants the story to be about: is it about sisterly love, about the thawing of a frozen heart, a romance, a journey of discovery and growth, the need for self-expression, what? There’s no clear goal present, just a vague notion of “find Elsa, shut down the winter, try not to die.” Everything presses and jostles together, the tone shifts wildly (sometimes right in the middle of a scene), and none of the various plots and subplots come to a really satisfying conclusion.
            For instance, when Elsa runs away and builds herself a gorgeous ice palace while singing the film’s best song – Let it Go – it seems to be setting up for her to be a defiantly isolationist Snow Queen…but she doesn’t really. She just acts exactly the same as she did before, in a different outfit and location. Her self-made palace and proud declarations of independence all come to nothing except an awkward interview with her sister and a single tepid action sequence. There’s nothing triumphantly independent about her once the song is over.
            Where do Elsa’s powers come from anyway? Are they, like one character says, a curse? If so, who cursed her? Are they just somehow natural to her? Has anyone else in the kingdom ever had them? Being able to build ice palaces and sentient snowmen with your mind really seems like something demanding an explanation. But the film isn’t interested in this; Elsa’s powers drive the story, but the story itself is oddly blasé about them, to the point that she can’t even use them effectively or consistently. When the bad guys are storming her icy fortress, why doesn’t she just whip up a few more icy minions to fight them off? The one snow-golem she makes is pretty effective, maybe she could make more? It doesn’t seem to cost her anything. Maybe she could freeze the doors shut, or pile up snow and ice to make a barricade or…well, a lot of things. Having given its heroine ill-defined, but clearly overwhelming power, the film then clumsily tries to put her in danger from obviously inadequate foes (seriously; she built an entire palace with a thought and creates abominable snowmen with a wave of her hand, but has trouble taking on two guys with crossbows?). 
            In a way, Elsa’s character arc reminded me of Wicked (lonely and different girl with powers she doesn’t understand, forced to hide and bottle them up before bursting free in a completely awesome song that the subsequent story doesn’t really deliver on, played by Idina Menzel), which might be fine, except it also makes Wicked’s mistake of leaving its heroine too much of a light-weight for the role she’s supposed to be playing. Elsa’s not my idea of a Snow Queen; she doesn’t have the force of personality, let alone the icy demeanor that such a role should call for. At best, she’s a Snow Teenager.
            Anna, the other sister and main protagonist, is a much better character; sweet, endearingly optimistic, naïve, and courageous, she’s a worthy heroine by any stretch. Most of the film is seen through her eyes, and she’s a large part of why the film works to the extent that it does. The moment you meet her, you just want to cuddle her up in a warm blanket and make her a nice mug of hot chocolate.
            Rare for this kind of movie, there are two male leads, just as there are two female leads, though this doesn’t factor in the way you might expect. Only one of the guys is playing the role he seems to be, while the other assumes a different character later in the story, one that I thought worked pretty well, though it’s jarringly at odds with how he’s behaved up to that point. I don’t just mean that he seemed different, I mean that his whole manner and actions seemed contrary to what is ultimately revealed about him to a distracting extent, less like he was putting on an act and more like he was just doing what the script told him to do. In particular, his actions in a key moment of crisis are the opposite of what, in retrospect, he ought to have done. I mean, his whole scheme would have succeeded if he had just ‘not noticed’ something for one more second: why would he sabotage himself like that (except to fool the audience for a few more scenes)?   
            The other male lead is a decent enough sort, though he’s more or less extraneous to the story and is almost entirely relegated to comic relief. Unlike most Disney films, this one isn’t primarily a romance but a story of sisterly love. Still, the fact that the love interest is almost entirely a source of humor and never gets to affect the story appreciably or really do anything heroic means that what romantic element it does have falls flat. He’s just another element that is set up, but never pays off in an interesting way.
            (Hmm, this may count as a spoiler, but I would like to note that in a film that at least broaches the possibility of a romance between a princess and an iceman, no one ever so much as points out the social gap between the two. I guess in today’s world nobody cares, but A). the movie isn’t set in today’s world, B). you’d think said iceman would at least comment on hanging out with a princess at some point, or the fact that they had a secret encounter as children that she doesn’t know about, and C). this robs the relationship of a lot of its potential fun, since half the joy of a fairy tale romance is precisely that it’s so uneven: peasant and princess, maid and prince. The fact that no one even seems aware of the difference makes the characters seem disinterested in their own relationship, and if they don’t care about it, why should we?).  
            Then there’s the snowman, Olaf. I’m a little torn on him. On the one hand, he seems to have wandered in from another movie entirely and his existence is never adequately explained (so, Elsa can create life? How does that work?). On the other hand, whatever movie he wandered in from was a very funny and endearing one, so I’m glad he’s here all the same. The movie gets a lot of mileage from his piecemeal body and loveable innocence, making for a weird, but effective combination of dark humor (as his body parts go flying and he eagerly longs to know what ‘heat’ feels like) and real sweetness.
            The humor here works, for the most part. Olaf’s hilarious and charming, and Kristoff the iceman gets a lot of good jokes, both himself and in connection with his reindeer, Sven (with whom he holds hilarious one-man, two-sided conversations). Anna is likewise as charming as you please, and she and Kristoff play off each other well. I thought an early dance scene with a visiting bigwig was both a cute sisterly moment (one of the few they get) and one of the funniest bits in the film (“let me know if you’re about to swoon!”). Another great bit is a scene set in a local trading post (“I sell ice! “Oh, wow; that’s about the worst job you could have right now.”).
            As for the songs, I found really only two to be at all memorable: the opening Ice number, and, of course Let It Go (although I thought the latter ended on an almost comically weak note compared with the rest of the song. Like as if, say, The Imperial March ended with an extra couple notes on triangle). The rest range from forgettable to lame, though some of this might be the fact that, for the most part, they’re bizarrely at odds with the larger dramatic context, almost as if they wrote the songs separately and then shoved them into the plot. The worst of these is when they stop to have a comedic/romantic number while the heroine is dying of a curse. Granted, the characters at least make a few efforts to bring this fact up, but from the audience point of view it’s the film’s biggest “what the hell were they thinking?” moment. It’d be like Aladdin putting A Friend Like Me in the scene where Jaffar gets control of the Genie.
            There are a lot of potentially  interesting themes here: the birth of the Snow Queen, the love between diametrically opposite sisters, a romantic triangle of prince, princess, and iceman, the dangers of moving too quickly in relationships, love melting an icy heart, and so on, but almost none of them are played out. The film hits one and moves on to the next without doing anything with the idea.
About the only one of these themes I’d say the film really does anything with is the dangers of quick romances, but even with that I’m not sure the events of the film really jell: as noted above, the bad guy acts too heroically for the first three-quarters of the film, making the twist when it comes feel like a last-ditch effort to give the film a little extra drama. I like the twist itself, I just think it could have been better integrated into the story (I can’t resist: contrast this with Wreck-It Ralph, where the ‘hidden bad guy’ steadily became more and more overtly villainous, while a seemingly-unrelated element is quietly set up elsewhere, only to bring the two together in a genuinely unexpected revelation that not only makes sense, but which is in perfect synch with the film’s central theme). 
Sisterly love also fairs comparatively well, though the structure of the film means it mostly plays out in a single spectacular moment. Before then, we only have the opening (adorable) scene of them playing in the snow and a few strained conversations scattered through the rest of the film. It’s more about Anna’s desire to have a relationship with her sister than it is about the actual relationship. You certainly could make a film about that, but to really spark interest it would need something more than what we have here: a greater sense of real (as opposed to imposed) distance between the two sisters, a more serious obstacle to reconciliation than just “I haven’t figured out my superpowers yet.”
            Part of the problem, I think, is the fact that there’s no real disorder present in the main plot; just a series of misunderstandings with tragic consequences. There’s nothing for the heroines to push up against, no evil power that needs to be overcome. There’s just one heroine’s out-of-control powers that she can’t shut down and another heroine’s attempts to…have her shut them down. The whole plot basically hinges on an issue of proper handling with a few related complications, which makes it feel oddly aimless and impersonal. The whole thing could be straightened up in five minutes if just one character had any kind of solid information, and that doesn’t really make for gripping drama (oddly enough, there is a character who seems have that kind of information available, but no one bothers to ask him about it: “hey, Mr. Troll, you seemed pretty knowledgeable about my ice powers when I was a kid, do you have any suggestions how I might control them better?”). 
 You might think that prejudice or unreasoning fear would be the antagonizing force, but it really isn’t. That sort of thing is set up as a threat, but basically limited to a few completely-reasonable terrified reactions on the part of the citizenry and the actions of a minor bad guy, while the chief villain’s evil scheme is only tenuously related to the main plot at all.
            I really think the film would have benefited from making Elsa an honest-to-goodness villainess; someone who finally turned against the people who imprisoned and feared her, and coldly sees their sufferings as just punishment for what she herself suffered at their hands. It might have been more difficult to pull off maintaining sympathy with her (though I’m not so sure; no one has trouble sympathizing with the Phantom of the Opera for instance), but I think it would have made for a much stronger and more satisfying film, as well as being closer in spirit to the original fairy tale (and how cool would it be to have a Disney villain that is redeemed at the end of the film? I don’t think we’ve ever seen that).  
            Which brings me to the fact that the symbolism here is all wrong; there’s no ‘icy heart’ that needs melting, except in a bluntly literal sense. Elsa isn’t cold; she’s just scared. Anna is the very reverse of cold. They might have had some interesting winter/summer symbolism here between the two sisters, but I couldn’t detect any except superficially (since Elsa isn’t being herself for most of the film, so we don’t get much sense of her real character). There is a genuinely ‘cold heart’ present, but it never gets melted. The symbolic power of the original fairy tale of love thawing a frozen heart is completely gone: the climactic act of love might as well be healing a heart murmur.
            Actually, this revised version could be said to be conveying a very nasty message: that really cold hearts can’t be thawed, and that only a heart that was never frozen to begin with can be melted by an act of love. The truly cold-hearted are simply bad and worthless: a kind of Calvinistic/Gnostic predetermination, or in other words, the exact opposite of Anderson’s theme. I doubt very much that this is what the filmmakers were going for, but there’s nothing here to contradict such an interpretation.
            On the other hand, the film’s climax, even shorn of the tale’s symbolic power, is unexpected, extremely moving, and a beautiful vision of selfless love that gives all for the beloved. That’s the moment the whole film is structured around, and it’s almost glorious enough to make the film worth seeing just for that moment.   
            In summary, Frozen has all it needs to be a great film, but it just doesn’t come together. A lack of focus squanders its potential and it ends up being merely okay where it might have been superb.

Final Rating: 3/5: Gorgeous visuals, endearing characters, and some strong material are wasted by a tepid, unfocused storyline that largely fails to live up to its potential. 

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