Sunday, December 1, 2013

'Frozen' is Hard to Warm Up To

As I watched Frozen, I couldn't help but imagine a checklist of story elements crossed off line by line by the filmmakers as they worked their way through the production.

  • Empowered Disney princess--no, make that two--check.
  • Misunderstood main character yearning for acceptance, check.
  • Early tragedy that sets the first act in motion, check.
  • Good-hearted comic relief sidekick, check.
  • Evil plot twist that sets the third act in motion, check.
  • Love conquers all resolution, check.

(l. to r.) Anna, Olaf and Kristoff 
Fairy tales (and the films they inspire) by their very nature are formulaic. They follow a tried and true template of need, conflict, peril, rescue and redemption. But, the best ones (think of Disney's The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast) don't draw attention to the formula. They have a rhythm and flow to their stories that magically transport you to other worlds and introduce you to richly developed, relatable and complex characters.

Frozen tries to reach that level. It really does. But, it just doesn't pull it off.

The story takes place in the mythical Nordic kingdom of Arendelle, an idyllic community reigned over by a benevolent king and queen with two young daughters. The eldest, Elsa (Idina Menzel), has magical powers that enable her to create snow and ice out of thin air. The youngest, Anna (Kristen Bell), is sweet, idealistic and she adores her older sister. Elsa keeps Anna entertained with her wintry talents, but when she starts to lose control of her powers and Anna is injured as a result, the king and queen resolve to close the castle gates to keep Elsa hidden away (Anna gets locked up too--one of several plot points in Frozen that makes no sense).

As the two princesses grow up, Elsa isolates herself from Anna, fearing her unwieldy powers will further harm her younger sister. Years pass until Elsa comes of age and is due to be coronated at a gala event in her honor. The castle gates will be opened and Elsa will be tested to keep her powers in check. Anna, on the other hand, will jump at the opportunity to live the life she's always dreamed of outside the castle walls and to possibly meet the man of her dreams--who conveniently presents himself as the handsome and courtly Hans (Santino Fontana).

Hans and Anna
All does not go as planned, of course. Elsa loses her cool, literally, at the coronation and unleashes an icy barrage in the crowded ballroom. Labeled a freak and a monster, she flees Arendelle, leaving it covered by her snowy wake, a permanent winter that cannot be undone. Anna gives chase, determined to save her sister and bring summer back to the kingdom.

On her quest, Anna finds assistance from Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), a ruggedly charming mountain man with a mangy pet reindeer named Sven, and Olaf (Josh Gad), a walking, talking snowman created by Elsa. Olaf is by far the most entertaining and interesting character in Frozen. He's a naive innocent who likes warm hugs and loves the concept of summer, even if the reality of it means his demise. Olaf could've easily become an annoying character, but directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee (who also wrote the screenplay) are smart to give him just enough screen time to not wear out his welcome. Olaf gets the best lines in the movie and provides Frozen with some very welcome comic relief.

Aside from the sweet snowman, though, there's not a lot in Frozen that feels fresh and fun. The film is beautifully animated, it moves along briskly and there are certainly entertaining moments, but so much of the story is by rote. This is Fairy Tale 101 stuff without a lot of innovation or originality. Frozen was originally supposed to be released in 2014, but Disney moved up the opening date. They should've waited. A few extra months of story development would've only helped the movie.

Also a letdown are the songs. I had high hopes for the husband and wife songwriting team of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, especially considering the way Mr. Lopez tweaked musical theater conventions with his work in the award-winning Broadway hits Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon. The songs in Frozen are a mishmash of big theatrical and bubblegum pop tunes that never really gel. Even the film's intended showstopper Let it Go seems to exist only because Idina Menzel (known for her larger than life Broadway performances in Rent and Wicked) needed a big Idina Menzel song to perform. Let it Go doesn't fit in the flow of the narrative so much as it's just dropped in because it's time for Elsa's big number.

As I noted in The Mouse Castle Lounge, I was skeptical about Frozen for a number of reasons. But, since I don't like to make up my mind about a movie before I see it, I kept an open mind. I came away, though, feeling cold. Given the talent involved, Frozen needs to be a much better and far more original movie than it is.

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