Thursday, 12 December 2013

Frozen Review

Walt Disney Animation Studios, reborn from the ashes of the early two-thousands, still haven't figured out how to make the songs work. Tangled came the closest, but neither The Princess and the Frog or now Frozen quite capture the magic of the old classics.
I'm not sure what it is, exactly, but the songs don't gel with the rest of the action the way they did in, say, Aladdin or Beauty and the Beast. It might be as simple as the type of music; where Tangled has a fairly traditional feel, Princess had its jazz thing and Frozen is more of a modern pop musical - it's no coincidence that one of the leads is Idina Menzel from Wicked. It might also be a pacing issue; Frozen crams all its songs into the first half, leaving the second half feeling kind of empty, and the last song we hear is a jokey comedy number which just doesn't seem right somehow.

It's clear, though, that Disney is truly passionate about keeping the animated musical alive, long after it was declared dead, and that is a wonderful thing. Maybe they haven't nailed it yet - there's bound to be a few hiccups in this early stage - but they've come damn close, and the fact they're trying at all is a triumph in itself.
Besides, while the songs may not blend seamlessly with the rest of the film, they're still great songs. There's a couple I'll be humming well into next year.

Their real strength, though, is how earnest and heartfelt they are. Every number, bar the aforementioned comedy one, crackles with emotion and really lets us into the hearts of the characters. What we find there isn't always obvious, either. A cute song about building snowmen suddenly becomes incredibly poignant, an even cuter song about snowmen is surprisingly bittersweet, and a duet combines the excitement of one character with the dread of another. The single best sequence in the entire film is when we're expecting one kind of song but get the complete opposite - it's just so unexpected and powerful!

That's sort of Frozen's entire philosophy; to be moving in unexpected ways. We have the traditional Disney setup of a princess with no parents, a handsome prince, a magical curse. But the unexpected part is that there's two princesses, sisters Elsa and Anna, and every part of the story - both the warmth and the conflict - comes from their relationship. Except for one snivelling ambassador, there's not even a villain, and it's amazing how well that works.

When they were younger the sisters were extremely close, as you'd expect, but one day Elsa, the oldest and heir to the throne, suddenly shut herself away and they've barely spoken since. The reason, unbeknownst to Anna, is that her sister can magically manipulate ice and snow. When, as children, those powers almost got Anna killed, Elsa became a recluse to keep her sister safe and try to repress the magic. All Anna knows is that her best friend suddenly shut her out and she misses her deeply.
When Elsa's secret is eventually revealed, in the most explosive and public way possible, she flees to the top of a mountain, accidentally trapping the country in an unending winter. This leaves Anna as the only one who can follow her up there and make things right - and that double meaning of "make things right" is basically the whole point. It's a quest to save the country, sure, but it's equally about saving their broken relationship.

While this sounds pretty heavy - and it is, particularly for Elsa - the film stays light and fun, with Anna almost hyperactive from being cooped up in a castle her whole life with no-one to talk to or play with. The side-characters help with this too, as Anna collects a small posse on her way up the mountain - Kristoff the hunky ice-farmer, Sven the reindeer, and Olaf the comedy snowman (he likes warm hugs) are all very funny and bounce off each other nicely.
While every character is important and has something to do within the story, including a handful of townspeople and the dashing Prince Hans, all of it's ultimately incidental to the central tale of two sisters. We never lose sight of the film's heart.

As a result it's a very touching film but, like Brave last year, the intimate focus leaves everything feeling quite small. There's only a few locations, and travelling between them seems to take very little time (Elsa's mountain must be quite a short one). But, like Brave again, the lack of scale allows for a very fine level of polish, and the emotions are anything but small. Though the finale in particular is technically tiny, it feels big - it's such an emotional moment for the sisters, and it staunchly refuses to take the obvious or traditional way out. It works brilliantly.

In the end, Frozen fully embraces everything that makes Disney musicals great, centring itself around a heartwarming family story, and balancing fun with genuine feeling. But, importantly, it always finds ways to mix those things up - from the number of princesses to the direction of the songs - becoming something unusual and special. This slightly subversive streak runs through everything, right down to the message of the film, which basically boils down to "most Disney movies have a stupid message." Add to that the only Disney song that will ever contain the word "fractal" and it's worth the ticket price already.