Frozen “is latter day Disney’s best attempt to recapture the spirit of the Disney Renaissance” but does it measure up to the classics? MacDara Conroy isn’t so sure
Disney’s latest animated blockbuster is preceded by a ‘Get A Horse’, a modern-day Mickey Mouse short that’s to me less remarkable for its technical prowess than its unusually edgy humour, owing massively to the anarchic streak running through the Warner Bros canon – which, let’s face it, we’ve always preferred over Walt’s tamer fare. (And before anyone argues: Who Framed Roger Rabbit? wasn’t released under the Disney banner, so it doesn’t count.)
I’m not sure how I feel about seeing Mickey and Minnie partaking in such unwholesome activities, even if I’m totally fine with Bugs, Daffy et al doing the same, and as a lead-in to the feature presentation it makes an odd impression. In fact it left me actively concerned about what to expect from Frozen, Disney’s extremely loose take on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, and a film that already has a lot to live up to, considering the success of Disney’s previous Andersen adaptation, the beginning of what would come to be known as the Disney Renaissance (if a certain song pops into your head when I mention the words ‘Under The Sea’, that’s testament enough).
And it’s a Disney musical – the genre that was the studio’s creative bread-and-butter in the early nineties but suffered a sharp decline as the decade wore on, thanks in part to far too much reliance on the box office magic weaved by their techno-wizard partners in Pixar. Everyone’s fond of Toy Story, but who gives a hoot about Hercules? Or Tarzan? Or The Emperor’s New Groove? Recent years, however, have shown signs of improvement: the Rapunzel-inspired, smartly written Tangled in 2010 was Disney’s first non-Pixar CG feature to garner the plaudits of yesteryear, despite its lacklustre High School Musical-style songs garishly slapped onto an underdeveloped medieval fairytale setting.
We’re back in the fairytale world for Frozen. In the faintly Nordic kingdom of Arendelle, young princess Elsa delights little sister Anna with her supernatural gift for creating ice and snow out of thin air. But when Anna is accidentally harmed by Elsa’s powers, the royal family shuts itself off from the kingdom, while the frightened Elsa hides away from an increasingly frustrated Anna, who can’t remember the incident nor understand her family’s behaviour. Fast forward many years, past the death of the king and queen, and Elsa comes of age, emerging from seclusion to assume the throne – and attempting to mend the rift between her and Anna, who’s beside herself at finally escaping the confines of the castle and weak-kneed at the attentions of the dashing Prince Hans.
But the course of Disney heroines’ destiny never runs smoothly. As Queen Elsa’s worst fears come true at the coronation party, she flees in panic into the wilderness, oblivious to the permanent winter she’s wrought on the kingdom. It’s up to Anna to find her sister and turns things around – aided along the way by rugged ice trader Kristof and his trusty reindeer Sven – before another party from the kingdom, some with more sinister motives, can reach the feared ‘Snow Queen’ in her fortress of solitude.
The plot complications only grow from there as the restless story morphs into something quite different from what you’d expect. Wreck-It Ralph co-writer Jennifer Lee (here writing solo and co-directing, in a female first for Disney) shows a marked improvement on that poorly conceived effort with a girl-power fable that upends the conventions of the typical some-day-my-prince-will-come routine. Her dialogue is smart without being too snarky, and she throws in just enough nonsense – enter Olaf the talking snowman sidekick and Oaken the trading post proprietor, both future theme park attractions – to strike that delicate balance between what’s funny to kids and parents alike.
On the technical side of things, Frozen looks outstanding on the face of it, with the 3D version shown to the press really making the most of the film’s wintry environment and breathtaking vistas. On the downside, closer viewings of various clips available online reveal a lack of detail (flat, smooth surfaces that should be more textured) that’s hardly forgivable this far into the computer age. Moreover, the round-faced, oddly proportioned character design is a copy-and-paste job from any recent CG Disney flick you could care to mention, though it suffers marginally less from the glazed figurine look that detracted from Pixar’s otherwise accomplished Brave.
As for the songs, the magic ingredient of any musical? Frozen’s come courtesy of husband-and-wife duo Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson Lopez, the former with a list of credits that includes stage hits Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon. That shows in the playful lyrics, a reflection of what’s currently filling seats on Broadway, though the songs themselves (bar one modern pop number that’s wholly out of place) are in the mould of the traditional big Disney numbers, sung by a cast of Broadway belters – plus an able Kristen Bell as the sparky Anna.
Still, the tunes don’t linger long in the memory, with only Queen Elsa’s (Idina Menzel) will-to-power anthem ‘Let It Go’ having much staying power. Music aside, the story also lacks a proper villain to haunt the imagination like an Ursula or a Gaston, a Scar or a Jafar. To its credit, Frozen makes up for this somewhat with the natural interplay between its main characters, which is genuinely endearing, and creates enough emotional depth to bring real resonance to its tearjerker denouement, which recalls the bittersweet climax of Beauty and the Beast.
But not necessarily for the right reasons. Frozen is latter day Disney’s best attempt to recapture the spirit of the Disney Renaissance, but to compare it to those classics is to show up its flaws. Jennifer Lee’s screenplay tries to do too many things while missing a strong central theme, and falls back on a bait-and-switch tactic of the kind that’s been plaguing blockbuster filmmaking. It’s also being oversold (like Brave was) on its feminist qualities, which ignores the fact that Disney’s animated leading ladies have always tended to be capable, independent go-getters running against the grain. Besides, is it really that feminist to give your main female characters such ridiculously narrow waists?
Frozen’s biggest problem, though, is that it’s a postmodern, a post-Pixar product. The songs and snappy repartee are very now, but perhaps too much so; as entertaining as it is today, Frozen won’t age well. The same could never be said of Disney’s run of truly timeless pictures from The Little Mermaid to Mulan. We’re still watching and loving those films, in many cases more than two decades on. Will we look back on Frozen with the same fondness 20 years from now? Probably not.
Frozen opens at cinemas nationwide on December 6th