Veronica Mars (2014)

2014 #22
Rob Thomas | 108 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

If you hadn’t heard of Veronica Mars before 13th March 2013, you almost certainly did soon after. That’s the date Rob Thomas, creator of the six-years-dead TV series of the same name, launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to pay for the long-mooted continuation movie. Aiming for a whopping $2 million, it raised that in just 11 hours, going on to bag $5.7 million by the end of its 30-day campaign. In the process it became the fastest Kickstarter project to reach $1 million (and $2 million), the highest-funded film project ever on the site, with the most number of backers for any campaign, and inspired countless think-pieces on how it was ruining/saving the movie industry, or at least completely changing it forever. In reality, very few (if any) big-name Kickstarter movies have come along since, and those that have haven’t inspired the same fervour as Veronica did three years ago.

The film itself picks up nine years after the end of the TV series. A quick opening montage reminds/informs us that Veronica (Kristen Bell) moonlighted as a private investigator while she was in high school, making plenty of enemies in the process and enduring more than a few tragedies, but she eventually managed to drag herself out of that life and start afresh. Just as she’s about to begin a career as a high-flying lawyer in New York, she sees on the news that her one-time on-off love interest Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring) has been arrested for murder. Then he phones asking for her help. Just when she thought she was out, etc. So Miss Mars heads back to little old Neptune, California, just in time for her ten-year high school reunion and a murder investigation involving all (well, most of) the familiar faces from the TV show.

There’s no denying that this is primarily a film for fans of the TV series — well, they did fund it, after all. The best way to get the most out of the film is to have watched all 64 episodes of the show first; preferably soon before, in fact, so you can remember who all the minor characters are. However, creator-cowriter-director Rob Thomas is no fool: you don’t produce a successful movie that continues a little-watched TV show by making it a requirement that you’ve watched 64 hours of TV first. (I mean, Joss Whedon knew that with Serenity, and there’s only 14 hours of Firefly.) So Veronica Mars: The Movie is accessible to neophyte viewers. You might sense there’s references and whatnot that are passing you by, but everything that’s relevant is explained.

The long gap between series and continuation actually works to the film’s advantage, too, because this plays as the story of someone revisiting an old life, in a place that’s in some ways different and in others exactly, depressingly the same. The hook here is of Veronica as a kind of addict, but instead of being addicted to booze or drugs, it’s private investigating — she may be nine years ‘sober’, but now she’s being tempted to indulge. Again, this makes even more sense if you’ve watched the TV show, where a subplot deals with Veronica’s mother’s alcoholism, but the general conceit works standalone.

Plus, this is a crime drama — there’s a case to be solved, and that’s self-contained within the film. Okay, most of the players are characters from the series, but everything is introduced and explained within the film. Heck, there are even characters Veronica knew in school who weren’t actually in the TV series, which might give you a flavour of how it works both for fans and newcomers. The case itself isn’t a bad mystery, but at the same time it’s a little subservient to the other goings-on. I suppose you could argue this is really a comedy-drama about a woman reconnecting with her past life and past friends, and she just happens to have a murder to investigate at the same time.

For fans (who will have watched this years ago, hence why I’m focusing on the newbie experience), the film is immensely rewarding. Obviously, because it finally gives some closure to the cancelled series’ dangling elements; but also, it feels like Veronica Mars, not like something from older people that’s only claiming to be what it once was. There’s the sparky characters, the funny repartee, the raft of neo-noir allusions. As cheesy as “teenage private eye” sounds, one of the reasons Veronica worked was because it really used those noir elements, just grafted on to the high school experience. The town of Neptune is practically a throwback in this regard, with rich kids and businessmen who can buy their way out of trouble thanks to a thoroughly corrupt police department, while the poor schmucks at the bottom of the pile get by as best they can, which often is not well. It didn’t even cave to the usual youthification of adding happy endings; in fact, more often than not, things didn’t end well. The movie isn’t quite as bleak as the TV series often was — there’s clearly an awareness this might be a one-time deal, so Thomas wants to leave things suitably wrapped up — but not everything comes up roses. (Where’s the sequel at?!) And to pay things off fully, there’s a tonne of fun references, not just to the show but also to real life (not least the Kickstarter campaign).

To bring up Firefly/Serenity again, I think there’s a reasonable parallel between how those relate to each other, and how they can work for newbies, and how Veronica Mars the TV series and Veronica Mars the movie relate. To wit: in an ideal world, you’d watch all of the series and then the film; but TV series can be long commitments, and for a spot of ‘dipping your toe in the water’, you can also start with the movie and go back to the series for the full picture. Sure, some things are going to be spoiled doing it that way round — but hey, not everyone who’s in the series but not the film ends up dead, I promise.

When I first watched the movie, it was at the end of a first-time binge through the TV series, where it sat very happily. To finally write this review, I watched the film again in isolation. I have a memory, so obviously I’m not coming at it from a totally fresh perspective, but it was as entertaining in isolation as it had been as “one more episode”. Fans will get the biggest kick out of seeing old characters resurface, out of learning what’s happened to them in the past decade, out of seeing big-name cameos alongside familiar faces, out of all the callbacks and nods, out of certain things finally being resolved. But that doesn’t mean newcomers can’t get joy from meeting these characters for the first time, from the self-contained mystery and storylines, from the fresh gags — indeed, from all the things that make the TV show entertaining if you started there. And then, if they like it, there’s the joy of there being 64 more instalments to discover.

More than just a nostalgia trip for people who were there first time round, the movie is a strong addition to the Veronica Mars canon — as someone who didn’t discover the series until the Kickstarter campaign, I thought the film was a heck of a lot of fun, and a wonderful capstone to a mostly-great series. That said, there’s plenty of room for further cases… someday… hopefully…

4 out of 5

Veronica Mars is available on Amazon Prime Instant Video in the UK from tomorrow.

Frozen (2013)

2014 #64
Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee | 102 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

FrozenFrozen is a grim single-location thriller about three college kids trapped on a ski-lift overnight, battling hypothermia and worse over a hundred-foot drop. Or at least it was until last year, when Disney went and released its all-consuming mega-musical. The 2010 thriller has been forgotten now, if it was ever that well known in the first place (it wasn’t, clearly), but when all the hype started to build around Disney’s super-hit, it was all I could think of. I wonder if, now that Disney’s version has made the transition to DVD, Blu-ray, on-demand and (from tomorrow) Sky Movies, anyone’s mistakenly sat down to the wrong version? I hope no one’s bunged it on and left their kids in front of it…

Anyway, Frozen — 2013 vintage — is an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. I don’t know the original, but this version of the tale sees Nordic princess Elsa develop magical icy powers, nearly kill her younger sibling and best friend Anna, and be hidden away so as not to hurt anyone else. Years later, their parents have died and Elsa (now voiced by Idina Menzel) comes of age, so the royal world gathers for her coronation. It all goes wrong, she freezes the whole country, and treks off to create an ice palace. Anna (now Kristen Bell) goes after her, to save the kingdom and all that, teaming up with Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and his reindeer Sven (the latest in Disney’s long tradition of silent animal sidekicks). Oh, and there’s an incongruously-designed talking snowman, Olaf (Josh Gad).

You don’t need me to tell you that Frozen is a phenomenon, adored the world over. A woman in Japan even filed for divorce because her husband didn’t like it (I kid you not). All your criticisms make Elsa sadUnlike the best Disneys, however, I think its appeal resides firmly with little girls — you don’t actually have to go very far on the internet to find people baffled by its success. Plenty of people think the music is bland, the characters underdeveloped, the moral and emotional arcs not fully thought-through, the visual style a rip-off from Tangled, and more. While they do have some points, they’re also being a tad harsh.

The much-discussed, and Oscar-nominated, songs Do You Want to Build a Snowman? and Let It Go are certainly overrated by the film’s fans. Neither compares to even the weakest numbers in films like The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast, and while they’re not bad — the latter in particular is quite hummable and liable to get stuck in your head (including Mendel’s whiningly nasal delivery) — I wouldn’t say either belong among Disney’s real classic tunes. In fact, I enjoyed almost every other song in the film more. That’s partly expectation I guess (there was less pressure on the others), but I also think the remainder are just more entertaining. That said, there’s sadly no villain’s song. There’s not really room for one, but regular readers will know how much my preference tends to extend to those tunes. (It did originally have a villain’s song, but that changed when the storyline was re-written. It’s still in the final film, though: it’s Let It Go. No, really.)

Not Jar Jar BinksThe lack of villain’s song is attributable to the fact that, for nearly the entire film, there are no nasty characters. A villain emerges right at the end to give us a climax, but for once that works — a genuine twist! It’s almost a shame it has to resort to that, but how else do you end a Hollywood movie other than a big dramatic confrontation? Plus, aforementioned snowman Olaf confounded my expectations, pulling off the quite remarkable feat of not being the most irritating CGI character since Jar Jar Binks. (I don’t know who is the most irritating CGI character since Jar Jar Binks, but Olaf is alright.)

Said characters deliver some funny bits, engage in some action sequences… Like the songs, everything’s fine without being exceptional. I don’t think this is a Disney film that lives in its moment, as it were. By which I mean that some of their weaker efforts rely on Good Bits to keep you entertained, and even those which are wholly marvellous still contain stand-out songs, jokes, or sequences. I’m not sure Frozen possesses many of those, but it does function well when regarded as a whole piece. That might mean you don’t head for the DVD chapter menu to jump to a favourite bit, but then this is a film, not a YouTube clip — “working as a whole” is a better goal to have achieved.

Musically, comedically, and in the quality of the animation, I’d put the whole experience on a par with other recent CGI Disney musicals, not any better — and considering Tangled is a few years old, the lack of improvement in the animation is perhaps disappointing. It's snow jokeIt’s not bad — it’s adequately cartoony — and actually the ice and snow effects are very, very good. It’s the character animation that I felt let it down, especially some of the more minor roles — there were points where their style and movement looked little better than you’d find in a video game cut scene.

However, thematically it does excel. There’s a dearth of good moral messages for little girls in modern cinema — heck, cinema of all eras, really, because the older messages tend to be along the lines of “true love = happiness” — find a man and get married, that’ll do ya. Frozen forges forward, but without descending into the man-hating feminism that would make it a target for the kind of old-fashioned conservatives who’d prefer little girls only heard the old messages. Without meaning to ruin the ending, the princesses fall back on their own abilities to save the day, rather than relying on their One True Love to ride in and rescue them. Elsewhere, there’s strong stuff about accepting who you are even if others don’t; about not living in fear; about the perils of falling in love too quickly… None of it is as heavy-handed as it sounds when spelled out — like all the best moral messages, it’s going to seep in rather than be forced upon people. If Frozen is a film that appeals primarily to little girls, at least it’s doing something good with its power.

Not letting it goFrozen is by no means a bad Disney movie, and it does have a lot of favourable aspects. Whether the internet’s right and it’s not as good as Tangled, I wouldn’t care to say (I enjoyed Tangled, but at this point have largely forgotten it); conversely, the sometimes-rabid fan base are perhaps being a little over-enthusiastic. There’s nothing wrong with a kids’ movie being beloved by kids, though; and with all the dreadful things the media churns out for little girls to obsess over and centre their life values around, this is undoubtedly one of the most positive.

4 out of 5

Frozen is on Sky Movies Premiere from Christmas Day.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.