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Wednesday
Nov272013

Review: Frozen (2013)

Tim here, to talk about the last big animated release of 2013, and easily the best to come from a big studio all year: Frozen, the 53rd film in the Walt Disney animated feature canon. Adapted very loosely from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen”, it’s a fairy tale about two sisters, princess of the small kingdom of Arendelle: Elsa, first in line to the throne, voiced by Broadway icon Idina Menzel, and clumsy Anna, voiced by Kristen Bell. Elsa was born with a touch of magic to her, and can create snow and ice from her hands, and when this terrible secret reveals itself on the day she’s to be crowned queen, she flees the kingdom in terror, leaving behind a thick blanket of endless snow.

Let’s clear out the low-hanging fruit first: “best Disney movie in 20 years” is just plain silly. It’s the best Disney movie since Tangled, maybe. Except for the instantly-forgotten but wonderful Winnie the Pooh. Anyway, let’s not get all daffy and pretend this is a movie at the level of achievement reached by The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, or Aladdin. It has some very wonderful elements, and a gorgeous song in Elsa’s “to hell with y’all” anthem “Let It Go”, which is absolutely every bit the “Defying Gravity” knock-off that Glenn identified, though I’m inclined to say that it’s better than its evident model. In fact, there’s probably nothing about Frozen I don’t like, up to and including the comic relief snowman Olaf (Josh Gad), who is incorporated into the movie far more elegantly and with far less gruesome “buy this toy!” stridency than the trailers suggested would be remotely in the realm of possibility.

 

But liking is not adoring, and for all its charm and handsome craftsmanship, this is a by-the-books animated feature in a lot of ways. There’s the expected glut of ot of anything-but-timeless comedy – from Anna especially, much too vividly a young woman of the 21st Century in her vocal inflections and vocabulary to stand alongside Ariel or Belle as a terrific fairy tale heroine. And there’s the de rigueur “bouncy adventure than emotional sequence then chase scene then emotional finale” structure that has a stranglehold on pretty much everything that credits John Lasseter among its producers these days.

Conventions being conventions, though, Frozen makes much stronger use of those conventions than a lot of things – like I said, it’s almost indisputably the best American animated this feature this year (if you want to throw down for The Croods or Monsters University in comments, I admire your pluck if not your taste). The characters are nicely personalized, the work of the late addition of Jennifer Lee as co-director (the first woman to ever receive a directing credit on a Disney animated feature), particularly Elsa. In fact, if I had one nagging complaint that started after “Let It Go”, about 35 minutes into the movie, it’s that Elsa is so transparently a more interesting character than Anna, and a story centered on her would be richer and more dramatic.

 

Even so, the story that Lee and co-director Chris Buck (last seen ‘round Disney way with 1999’s Tarzan) chose to tell is a pretty fun one, adventurous and brightly-paced, anchored by a pair of playfully unserious performances from Bell and Jonathan Groff as Kristoff, the marginally-insane ice salesman and reindeer-lover who helps her find Elsa. “Fun” sounds like a bit of a dirty word in comparison to more artistically-suggestive adjectives, but it’s an entirely important quality for a movie to have, and Frozen is an excellent delivery system for some of the best fun that any movie has offered all year.

It’s also really, unbelievably beautiful. It’s not quite as game-changing as Tangled, with its exquisite painterly colors and textures, but the lighting, or “lighting”, or whatever you want to call it, is easily the best in any CGI movie that Disney has made yet. And not even the obvious stuff, like the way that the snow reflects and softens light, a keen example of animated realism, though that’s certainly nice to look at.

 

Something as simple as a dusky interior room is uncommonly beautiful and lovely in Frozen. And it points to something else the movie’s doing that’s pretty exceptional, which is that the film has an unexpectedly muted look to it, a rarity among rarities in contemporary animation, which is typically driven with urgent, unstoppable force towards making everything hyper-saturated and poppy and practically glowing with colors that dominate the eye rather than draw it in. In contrast to that general trend, Frozen is unusually soft, and unusually pastel, and this ends up nicely augmenting the feeling of a placeless fairytale. It is dreamy-looking and abstracted, to its great benefit.

 

Even if it’s not a flat-out masterpiece of family fantasy, or the wonderful return to musical form some of us might have hoped for (there’s a lot of perfectly listenable dross on the soundtrack), this is still a pretty great animated picture. Like Tangled before it, it’s hemmed in by its allegiance to narrative tropes that it’s attempting to criticize, and it’s too obvious how much it wants to be thought of in the same breath as Disney’s 1990s films. But more than its problems, what comes through is its beauty and charm, and a sense of epic scale missing from most children’s films. It’s not quite the Disney of yore, but it makes it clear that the Disney of today is in pretty good shape. B+

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Reader Comments (13)

I haven't seen FROZEN yet (so why are you reading this review, everyone responds) but I just have to ask - and this might sound churlish so apologies, Tim:

What is with essentially all acknowledgements or critical responses on it tied to previous animated features? I've noticed this really odd circular amalgamation of writing on it where like it or not like it or love it everyone seems to be considering it against immediate past, or distant past, animation which seems so immediately counterproductive to (attempts) at strides in animation. As if a contemporary animated, especially one from Disney (admittedly a studio with farreaching historical weight) will never be able to exist independently in and of itself but instead always be tied to everything's that's come before.

What's up with that?

(As I said, possibly churlish, but I'm truly nonplussed about it. Is it an animation thing or a Disney thing?)

(Also, I really didn't like TANGLED which is the only thing giving me pause with this one.)

November 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew K.

@Andrew K - I think it's an animation thing tied into a primarily Western audience used to thinking of animation as children's entertainment, which is also tied into how animated movies in North America are primarily made for children. We all seem to think that the only thing to compare an animated film to is another animated film, even if a live action film could also serve as a useful parallel or comparison. It's become habit, and I thought for a while that the Pixar wave had gone some way in making a dent, but I don't think the Pixar wave will have a visible effect on how animated movies are reviewed until the generation who grew up with them begin to write reviews themselves. That generation has a bit less of the animation bias that we all share due to the culture we were raised in.

It's interesting to note that the reviews for Studio Ghibli movies also go through this, and it's fascinating to see some critics visibly, with seams showing in their writing, review the visual and thematic intricacies of a Miyazaki film into something digestible for their American audience. Many inevitably go back to comparisons of a new Ghibli film and where it fits on the Disney-Pixar spectrum, and if not there, the Mononoke-Totoro-Spirited Away spectrum.

All that said, the review that Tim wrote above is very useful, particularly since I have nieces clamoring to see this. Thanks, Tim!

November 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterFlickah

I'd actually say that it has to do with critics (and boy, am I ever guilty of this) having an addiction to using auteur theory in any and all contexts. With animation being such a collaborative artform, it doesn't usually make sense to talk about the specific director (Miyazaki and Bird are two obvious exceptions), but it's easy to latch onto studios as the "auteur", and use that history to guide one's reaction to the new movie. And as Andrew observes, Disney has a whole lot of history for the auteurist to refer back to.

All that being said, in the specific case of Frozen, it's so unmistakably clear that the filmmakers were deliberately stealing from the 1990s Disney playbook, it's hard to think of anything else. A lot of the film is like being poked in the arm repeatedly: "Are you thinking about The Little Mermaid yet?" *beat* "What about now, are you thinking about The Little Mermaid?" *beat* "Hey, The Little Mermaid, does this remind you of that at all?" It's not an animation ghetto thing, it's that the film effectively bullies you into approaching it with a reference pool of a half-dozen cartoon musicals.

November 28, 2013 | Registered CommenterTim Brayton

I was going to answer for Tim here (bad habit) but he's just said what I was going to. Frozen is trying so hard to be the new infant sister of the classic Disney renaissance of 1988-1994 that it's hard to NOT think about that.

i agree with this review muchly. I dont love it quite as much as Tangled -- i think mostly because the music isn't as good --but it's adorable nonetheless. already cant wait to see it again.

November 28, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Well, I'm one of the those that you talk about (that wrote about how this is the best thing since Beauty and the Beast) and I stand by that. This was EVERYTHING that a Disney musical should be, and two days after seeing it I still believe in all the hyperbole. I absolutely LOVED this, from start to finish. It may have more to do with seeing the faces of my children as they consumed this the way I did way back in 91 when I was the same age sitting in the theater with my parents...so there is a tinge of nostalgic bias there...but really, this is the most cohesive, original and charming film Disney has done in a long time.

And 'Let it Go' is easily one of the best ballads a Disney film has ever produced.

Here is my review, if you're interested: http://afistfuloffilms.blogspot.com/2013/11/the-magic-of-disney.html

November 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew

This is an excellent review, Tim. I feel like it really helped me put words to some of the things that I was feeling about the movie. You're right-- Anna is a little too 21st Century to become a timeless icon and a story around Elsa probably would have been more resonant.

I didn't love the film as much as you it seems, but I only really disagree in your comment about the animation. The movie was superb at rendering beautifully lit interiors, but I think it did get a little oversaturated in the outside portions of the movie. I imagine that part of that is due to the need to have so much white on-screen to represent snow.

But speaking of, that art gallery was magnificent, no? I love that the art had just ever so slight changes in the character's faces to make them seem animated. It reminded me of a fact I had read once: Fragonard's The Swing, one of the recreated paintings in the gallery, was the stylistic basis for Rapunzel and her dress in Tangled.

And about the songs, is there anyone else who was most moved by the song "Do You Want to Build a Snowman?" It's such a quiet, beautiful number that expertly sets up the conflict of the movie. I've listened to it fifty times since seeing the movie.

November 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

Thanks for the answer Tim (and Nat, and Flickah). I'll be on the lookout for the references to their previous works when I watch it. That does lead to another musing on Disney's part, though, in backward, joking nods to their previous works. It ultimately seems to be not very much in their best interest when they do that because you're always watching their films through such a tainted lens. One of the reasons, I'm sure, they've been often criticised for not evolving.

(I sort of grinned at Nathaniel mentioning TANGLED score which was one of the most disappointing aspects for me apart from "Mother Knows Best" and "I see the Light" to a lesser degree.)

November 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew K.

Nathaniel having agreed with me, I'm right back to agreeing with Nathaniel: the tiebreaker in the Frozen vs. Tangled race for me is that I like the music in Tangled better. Basically, I'd put it as "Let It Go" > almost everything in Tangled > everything else in Frozen > that comic tavern song from Tangled that I've never warmed up to.

November 28, 2013 | Registered CommenterTim Brayton

I thought it was terrific, apart from the music, which continues to be the weakest point of Disney's 00s revival of fairy tale movies. Alan Menken in his prime supplied even the generally-regarded-as-inferior post-Lion King 90s films with superb soundtracks, but this, Princess and the Frog and Tangled really have one or two really memorable songs and a bunch of others that are functional, but nothing more. Here, "Let It Go" is head and shoulders above everything else.

Two things I hope happened in Arendelle after the film ended:

1) Elsa gets payback on those supposedly wise trolls, whose terrible advice totally screwed up her life and was responsible for almost everything bad that happened in this film.
2) After getting bored of creating skating rinks, Elsa decides to use her godlike powers to make Arendelle a global superpower.

November 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSean C.

The movie and songs are fine, but I only wished they were as strong as the "Let It Go" showstopper.

December 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoJo

Really looking forward to your full review of Frozen!!!

December 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJen

Why does Elsa remind me of Michelle Pfeiffer? She looks like her and her diva walk in let it go, blue/green dress with the split on the same side INSTANTLY made me think of Michelle's entrance in scarface. Am I the only person who see's this?

December 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBrittany

This is the most balanced review I've read so far, and you make fair points.
Here's my review, if you want to take a look (it's more one sided, though):
http://may-theforcebewithyou.blogspot.hk/2013/12/only-love-can-thaw-frozen-heart.html

January 2, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMay

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