Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee | 102 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG
Frozen 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). Unlike 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.)
The 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 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.
Frozen 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.
Frozen is on Sky Movies Premiere from Christmas Day.
This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.