Thursday, January 23, 2014

Review: Frozen

Version I Watched: Theatrical 2D screening.

History: While the actual production of Frozen specifically didn't begin production until recently (in a bit of a development hell, actually) the origins of this movie date all the way back to the 1940s. Walt Disney was in talks with Samuel Goldwyn to make a series of movies based on the works of Hans Christian Anderson. Goldwyn would do the live action sequences and (of course) Disney would do the animated portions. Some of these titles include The Little Mermaid, Thumbelina, The Red Shoes, The Emperor's New Clothes, and The Snow Queen. If you have even a general knowledge of Disney's history you'll know the fate of some of these stories as they either were produced years later by different means or not produced at all. The Snow Queen which Frozen is based on had it's own series of issues. One of which being that the snow queen character was considered too problematic for the time. While I've never read the original story, I've heard it is pretty dark. Not like that's stopped Disney before or ever again.
Later attempts weren't made until decades later. It wouldn't be til the 1990s when the idea came back and they even started production. Seeing as how they were seeing a string of success for many years it was easy to see it work. However problems came up again. Despite even having Michael Eisner's (the CEO of Disney at the time) support and suggestion of doing it with Pixar it was eventually scrapped again in 2002. Then in 2008 the projected was looked at again. This time it would be under the name Anna and the Snow Queen and would be traditionally animated, going against the newly popularized 3D animation. Having trouble making the story work it entered development hell again in 2010.
A year later Disney essentially started again from scratch with a totally new team and new approach. The animation style was changed from traditional animation to 3D, much like their recently successful Tangled. The story was also changed from having the snow queen as the villain to... well I'll get to that in my review. This new idea and concept was proven very successful. Frozen was released on November 22nd 2013 to an incredible success. It earned $110 million on it's opening weekend and so far has grossed a whopping $763 million worldwide.
I could talk all day about the production of the actual title. But there's so much and I thought the story that lead up to it was more interesting seeing as how, in a way, this movie has been waiting to be made for decades.

Personal History: First viewing knowing little to nothing about it walking in.

Review: Context. Yes I did grow up on Disney animated movies. However most people who grew up with them have greater admiration for them than I do. Yes I think many of them are fantastic pieces of animation. I adore Lady and the Tramp, Aladdin is super fun, and The Lion King is a modern masterpiece. But in the end Disney is to others what something like... I don't know... I guess Sega would be to me. I grew up with it and it's characters (like Sonic of course) and despite their downfalls from time to time it is still something I adore passionately. But that doesn't discount Nintendo. While I prefer Sega over Nintendo (as I try and finish up this gaming talk quickly for those who came here to hear about a talking snowman) it doesn't mean I don't like Nintendo. I've simply preferred and passionately enjoy other things more. So with that said you may be surprised by my review of this movie.

First thing I want to talk about is the marketing. I hate the marketing for this movie. The trailers and posters made it out to be similar to Tangled but now in the frozen tundra. Now I enjoyed Tangled for what it was, but that pretty much meant I was anticipating something cute and fun that would kill 90+ minutes of my time. Seriously, take a look at the most common poster used for this movie. The one where all the major players are up to their necks in snow and you'll think it was wacky slapstick starring a talking snowman. Is it a wonder why I chose the teaser for the top of the review? Still the movie was getting rave reviews. Like, way higher than I was anticipating. I knew it would be good in the same way many Oscar nominees are good (shut up most of them are!). Worth seeing at least once but maybe won't stick with you forever. But what I found here was leaps and bounds beyond what I could have ever anticipated.
As a quick side note I know there was a short before the movie started. It was a fun mixture of Disney's animated origins mixed with their modern animation style. But I don't have much to say about it. It did make me laugh but I wasn't overly crazy about it. Not like the Toy Story short that played before The Muppets just a couple years back.

Right off the bat Frozen shines with all it's beauty. In the first few minutes we're introduced to most of the key players as children in one of the cutest ways possible. Kristoff and his reindeer Sven are working with the ice merchants in the dead of winter. While off in another land Anna and Elsa are out of bed playing when they shouldn't be like most kids do at one point or another. The relationship between these two sisters is beautiful but also comes off very natural. They play in the middle of the night using Elsa's ice powers but talk about it like it's a secret similar to what boy they think is cute or that one of them took a cookie before dinner. The winter wonderland they create in the ballroom is also VERY beautiful just to look at. During all this excitement Elsa accidentally zaps Anna in the head, freezing her mind. After being taken to and saved by the rock trolls by replacing the ice power memories with natural winter memories. Also since Elsa's powers keep getting more intense and out of control it is crucial that Anna never knows of Elsa's powers. Effectively shutting Anna out of her life completely. Of course the parents are killed within minutes per typical Disney fashion leaving these girls on their own, one of which feels abandoned and doesn't know why. All this during a song that starts out cute as a button and ends in heartbreak watching them grow up without each other.

Once again Disney conveys stronger emotions and character in three minutes than some stories do in full features, franchises, or more.

Speaking of music. Despite being in musicals/choir in high school and dramatic theatre in college it takes something really special to grab my attention. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy musicals as is. But when it comes to musicals my favorite isn't something whimsical like Wicked. As a matter of fact my favorite musical is Ragtime. A story about racism and civil rights in early 1900's America. I'm more for the dramatic and not the over the top whimsy. With Frozen I loved every single song sung. From the beginning with Frozen Heart that is reminiscent of Nordic Madrigals all the way up to the instant classic Let It Go. I'm actually on youtube while writing this listening to the soundtrack... again. Within the first 24 hours of seeing the movie I've listened to the soundtrack at least five or more times on youtube. I fell in love with the music that quickly. I've never fallen in love with music from a Disney movie this much. It is even in my opinion that this is some of the best music Disney has produced in years, maybe decades. It is on the Broadway level of quality. I never knew Kristen Bell had such a beautiful singing voice. The only disappointment I had with the music is that most of it was over and done with before the first half of the movie was done. By the third act there was little to no singing. And I guarantee you that is something I rarely think to myself. Musicals are not an automatic win for me. They have to win me over. And this music had me worshiping every step it took.
These are also some of the strongest and well fleshed out characters I've seen in a Disney movie. I'm probably not saying anything you haven't heard already when I say the female characters are finally the strongest in a Disney movie. It's a known fact they're usually damsels in distress waiting for prince charming. But here they took the bull by the horns and conquered. I barely remember the male characters because of how much I adored Anna and Elsa. Anna being abandoned by her sister and not knowing why. Elsa living with the guilt and pain of knowing how she almost killed her little sister and has been protecting her ever since. Anna may be goofy and have elements of the clumsy girly girl seen in other Disney, but she never hits it 100%. She's strong and well overpowers her male counterpart, Kristoff. Elsa is definitely seen somewhat as the bad guy (until we see the REAL bad guy in the third act) after her powers overtake her at the end of the first act. But her pain and humility are never gone from her character. I also love how we never lost sight of her love for her sister and their past despite all the bad that happens along the way. Which brings me to Olaf.
Yes. The talking snowman. At first I felt Olaf was so out of place in what was really a deep and at times dark Disney story. I knew he had a place for the kids and comic relief (plus In Summer was really funny). At first I didn't care for him. Low and behold he grew on me. Especially since he was created unintentionally by Elsa which shows her childhood love and innocence was still present. Really the wacky slapstick did have a place overall. Like Sven, the reindeer who I initially thought would be like the horse in Tangled. I was wrong. While Sven was dog-like, like the Tangled horse I felt it was played down a bit making it less obnoxious. I also loved how Kristoff would sing and talk in a Sven voice. Somewhat poking fun at all the talking animals that have made Disney what they are today. Still a good departure.
Really Frozen is an amazing departure from what Disney usually does while still retaining the charm they (almost) always have in their movies. So many modern fairy tales have been called departures but those are primarily comedies through and through. I got really tired really quickly of "It's a fairy tale with a twist" concept that Shrek unfortunately birthed and plagued the world with for many years. Frozen took the idea of a fairy tale and actually turned it on it's head in a legitimate, respectable way. A little like what Cabin in the Woods did to the horror genre a few years ago (I may have just alienated some of you). Even though I knew how the movie would end by the start of the third act it didn't detract from the experience. The way they executed it was a bit different than I expected (no spoilers).

Of course it wasn't perfect. No movie is. But my complaints are very few and very far between. While there were many jokes and slapsticky things I laughed out loud at, some of them were pretty groan worthy. One thing I've always liked about Disney and by extension Pixar is that their humor tends to stay within their world. Unlike the method Dreamworks tends to take where they use modern or real world references and jokes that don't always belong in their world. This is gonna sound very picky but there were a few here that I didn't care for, like the ongoing joke of treating and talking about Kristoff's sled like a modern car in a world that clearly hasn't invented cars. Very picky things like that bugged me.
Also I know we've come a long way with 3D animation. And this movie was absolutely beautiful to look at majority of the time. A lot of the scenery and clothing was very realistic looking. But keep in mind that is paired alongside the very cartoony faces of all the characters. It was a little odd from time to time to see Elsa (for example) singing to herself when she first flees her kingdom and she's in this beautiful snowy mountain wearing a flowing realistic looking dress. Then it closes in on her face which is large, round, with big eyes and a teeny tiny nose. It was jarring from time to time. Never took me out of the experience as a whole. Simply bugged me from time to time.
And that might be the only bad I have to say. Olaf felt a little out of place as did some of the slapstick humor. And some of the animation bugged me.

In the end this movie was crazy well written, super strong characters, and amazing music. It doesn't go with the cliches usually seen in fantasy fairy tales like this. It know what it is, what it needs to be, and it sticks with it. I don't care what you say to this opinion but... this is not just one of the best Disney movies I've ever seen but also one of the best movies they've ever made. I will continue to listen to the music over and over again, when it hits home video I will buy it and watch it again and again. I really loved this movie that much. I went to this with my wife who is more likely to be into movies like this over me. I think I loved it more than she did and she was nutso over Tangled.
To put my thoughts in a quick finish and to give you context. One of my favorite genres is horror. Most of the movies I own are either violent, insane, depressing, or overall not the most wholesome thing in the world. I'm not big into musicals as a whole. Even with Disney I don't fall head over heels for everything they make. My favorite movie of all time is The Shining, a dark and violent story about isolation during the harsh Colorado winter in the mountains and the cabin fever effects that happen as a result. This last year for Christmas when I was asked what I wanted I said my number one choice was the recent re-release of Shoah via Criterion. A 9 1/2 hour documentary about the holocaust. What I'm trying to say is that my tastes tend to be darker or less whimsical. They tend to be based on realism or the harsh nature of humanity.
BUT! One of my other favorite genres IS animation. Although it is usually traditional drawn animation or stop motion that I go for. So 3D is probably last place for me. Yet Frozen got through to me. Even in the high ranks of Disney classics, Lady and the Tramp, which has been one of my favorite Disney movies since I was barely a year old. Even compared to that I adored Frozen. This is an instant classic that I think will stay with people for a long time. I can't remember the last time I enjoyed something Disney made as much as this. It may have been Lady and the Tramp, and that was almost LITERALLY a lifetime ago that I saw that. I urge you to go see this if you haven't. It is a shining example that even after all these decades Disney still has it in them to knock it out of the park and make you forget dang near everything they made before this.
It might be the Nordic themes, the snow, everything about it that is already placed in my blood from birth (Half Norwegian, quarter Swedish). But so much of this was so well done that I think if a similar story happened almost anywhere else in the world (maybe not England, they've had more than enough of their fair share of fantasy) I would have still loved it. Yet the snow and the environment are so crucial I can't see it working many other places. Plus then we may not have had the gorgeous Nordic winter wear that is seen throughout.

Screw modern fashion. I want to see more women in clothes like this!

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