Warning: This review may contain traces of spoilers, and may have come into contact with spoilers from other movies.
I asked my friend and fellow film scholar Grant what he thought about the Walt Disney company, and his response was an astute one: “Influential. Past its prime.” That’s pretty much how I feel about Disney these days, as it seems the House of Mouse has gotten lost amongst its subsidiaries. Disney’s got Pixar, Marvel, and soon Star Wars and Indiana Jones, but where’s the Disney that I grew up with – the Disney behind all those animated classics which set the tone for literally every other animation studio? I know I sound like a grouchy old man when I say that, but I’m not talking about some long-ago era. Depending on how you qualify whether or not a movie counts as one of the Disney animated greats, you could say that 2009’s The Princess and the Frog, 2003’s Brother Bear, or even Lilo & Stitch or Treasure Planet from 2002 were the last time we saw Disney attempt something similar in tone and style to the movies that made them famous. But since The Princess and the Frog didn’t do gangbusters at the box office, and Treasure Planet was widely considered a flop, it really seems to me that Disney has just given up trying to recapture the hand-drawn magic that most of the movie-watching world grew up on. Instead, they’re putting their stock into the Pixar movies, which started off being just as influential as Original Recipe Disney was back in the day, and of course the Marvel movie universe has Disney just rolling in dough.
But Disney’s still trying to keep its own, personal animation studio going, and in a bid to stay relevent they’ve switched to computer animation. The Walt Disney animation studio has released movies like Bolt, Dinosaur, Home on the Range, Chicken Little, and…what’s that? You barely remember any of those movies? That’s my point. Disney just doesn’t know what to do with its animation department anymore, which brings us back to my original statement: Disney is lost in its subsidiaries, and I’d even go so far as to say that it’s desperately trying to imitate its own imitators. See, way back in 1992, Disney released Aladdin, and it was a major hit. It did something that hadn’t really been done before in a Disney film by letting Robin Williams cut loose and throw lots of modern humour into an otherwise period-piece fairy tale. It was also around this time, maybe a little earlier with The Little Mermaid, that Disney realized there was lots of toy sale potential in adding in some cutesy animal sidekicks for the hero. I feel like Flounder from The Little Mermaid was the real trendsetter, and because of Flounder, we got the likes of Abu, the flying carpet, Chip the teacup, Timon and Pumbaa, the raccoon and pug from Pochahontas, the gargoyles from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Mushu the dragon and the cricket from Mulan, Morph the blob from Treasure Planet…the list goes on and on. These characters barely contribute anything to the movies they’re in, and all of them just look like obvious bids for Happy Meal toys in my eyes. Now, that’s not to say they’re unlikeable – I think Timon and Pumbaa, Abu and the flying carpet, and Mushu the dragon are all enjoyable (note also that these characters in particular actually contribute to their plots a bit), but they all felt extraneous to me.
Okay, so with that rant over, here is what I’m getting at: Disney doesn’t know what to do with itself, so it’s trying to mesh its old formula of animated moviemaking with the new standard form of animated filmmaking. See, by throwing modern humour into Aladdin and raking in millions of dollars with it, Disney inadvertantly paved the way for the Dreamworks style of animated feature. Shrek was the big debut of this Dreamworks style, with all its cocked eyebrows and meta jokes. Shrek did great, Disney had a couple of box office disappointments, and that, at last, brings us to Frozen. You can consider this review a quasi-sequel to my Tangled review, since Frozen is basically a quasi-sequel to Tangled, and I will try not to touch on too many of the same points, but this is what I’m getting at: Frozen, like Tangled, is Disney trying to evoke old Disney movies by telling a fairy tale story with lots of songs and giving the protagonist a cutesy sidekick who is completely pointless, but they’re also trying to cash in on Dreamworks’ success with the computer animated feature by throwing in a helping of modern humour and smirky raised eyebrows (Dreamworks face. Look it up.) Frozen is classic Disney by way of Dreamworks, designed by a committee, and as a result, it only half works. If that. Continuing in the style of my Tangled review, I’m going to review Frozen by listing a series of hits and misses. Let’s get started.
The protagonists – all except the cutesy sidekick Olaf the snowman. The two sisters at the heart of the story are great. They’re each well defined in their personalities, with Anna being hyper and excited to see the world, and Elsa being fraught with anxiety over her uncontrollable superpower that allows her to create and manipulate ice and snow. Their interactions are sweet and heartfelt, their conflicts believable. And to top it off, this is a movie where two women are the main characters, something that is seen far too little these days. What’s more, Kristoff the ice salesman and his reindeer Sven are both really likeable. I kind of wished that the movie was based more on them, because they’re a great duo. The way Kristoff talks for Sven in much the same way that a pet owner will voice their pet’s thoughts was adorable, and the movie could have used a lot more of it. Either way, Anna, Elsa, Kristoff and Sven were perfect.
Oh god. Olaf the snowman. I feel like I’m in the minority when it comes to disliking this character, but man, he really got on my nerves. First off, he serves no purpose whatsoever. You could have removed him from the film entirely, and nothing would have changed. He doesn’t even pull out some revelation that saves the day or inspires the hero in the end…he adds nothing. Furthermore, his design is completely out of touch with the rest of the film, as are his butt jokes and musical number. Nothing about Olaf fits with Frozen, and his existence even brings with it a bigger question: can Elsa create…LIFE OUT OF SNOW?! It makes you wonder how that facet of her snow-based superpowers isn’t a bigger deal than her ability to plunge the land into a permanent state of winter.
The premise. Frozen had a really strong basis for a story, stronger even than the classic Rapunzel fairy tale that Tangled used as its basis. It’s a compelling idea – Anna grows up not knowing that her sister Elsa has ice-based superpowers that are potentially destructive. Once Elsa is made queen of the kingdom, the truth finally comes out and the townsfolk turn on her. Elsa flees into the wild, and in her anger and fear inadvertantly sends the kingdom into a state of winter. Only Anna can put an end to the chaos, since she is Elsa’s sister and her only family. This has all the makings of a good story: you’ve got lots of internal conflict as Elsa struggles with her guilt, Anna struggles with Elsa having kept this lifelong secret from her, and the kingdom rallying against the sisters because of their fear. If Disney had the good sense to keep this as a strictly fantasy film instead of trying too hard to make it a musical comedy, Frozen could have been a masterpiece.
The prologue. The first maybe ten minutes of Frozen didn’t need to be shown at all, and actually made some of the character motivations seem a bit nonsensical. The prologue sets the stage for the film, establishing why the two sisters are forced to stay inside their parents’ mansion instead of being free to play with other children (hint: it has to do with Elsa’s powers), the relationship between the siblings, and why the parents aren’t around anymore (hint: they’re dead). One of the key scenes in the prologue sees Elsa and Anna sneaking out of bed at night to play with Elsa’s powers and build a snowman indoors. Elsa accidentally hurts Anna with her powers, and so their parents decide to have the magic trolls that live in the forest erase all of Anna’s memories about her sister’s powers. The trolls also warn that Elsa’s powers will only grow and become more uncontrollable as she ages. This is where things started to get a bit illogical for me. If Elsa’s powers are only going to get more powerful, what’s the point of erasing Anna’s memories? It’s a confusing decision on the parents’ part, and I feel like it, as well as the parents’ abrupt off-screen deaths, would have been better served with a prologue like that seen in Beauty and the Beast. Just a short summary explaining how things got to be the way they are, told with some extra-pretty animation, and then we dive right into the plot. It may not be long, but about five minutes in, I couldn’t help thinking “Why am I being shown this? We could get this information in just a couple of sentences’ worth of exposition.” They even flash back to the prologue about halfway through the movie, as if they hadn’t spent enough time on it.
The snow. Much like Rapunzel’s hair in Tangled, I feel like the most effort in Frozen went into getting the snow to move, react, and behave the way real snow does, and man, they got it right. All of the ice and snow in Frozen is beautifully rendered, and even small details like the icicles on Sven’s antlers and the frost on Kristoff’s scarf when it’s over his face have clearly had lots of time spent on them. Between Frozen and Tangled, I’m starting to think Disney is naming these movies after the effects that end up costing them the most money, and much like Tangled, I bet that the snow is going to get its own special feature on the Frozen DVD.
The side characters. I’ve already mentioned the magical trolls, so I will start with them: HOW. BORING. Call me crazy, but if you’re going to show me magical trolls in an animated movie, I expect them to have unique designs, maybe be a bit mysterious or scary, and at least one of them should have a personality. Instead, these trolls only get two brief scenes, they have nothing in the way of personalities, and, I hate to keep saying it, they just look like Happy Meal toys. You may be shouting at me through your screen as you read this “But Gill, this is a movie for kids!” Well, so was ParaNorman, but look at the unique and interesting designs for the zombies in that movie. The trolls in Frozen serve very little purpose in the plot and are forgettable overall. I bet the same person who came up with Olaf the snowman came up with these guys. Another completely pointless character was the Duke, whose name I don’t really remember. He looks like the Monopoly guy, has a toupee, and is evil. That’s really all there is to him, and it seemed as though he was supposed to be more of a villain character at one point, but his inclusion in the movie is pointless. There are only two side characters who I actually enjoyed: one was the Swedish owner of a trading post and sauna, who was funny without having to resort to butt jokes or modern humour. The other was…
Prince Hans. Now here is a character who is both given an interesting update, but who also evokes the Prince Charmings of old Disney. Hans turns up very early in the movie and he and Anna fall quickly in love. He even proposes to her on the day that they met, but shortly afterwards, the whole business with Elsa forces Anna to take off after her sister. She leaves the kingdom in Hans’ control. All of this affords Anna plenty of time to fall for Kristoff and start questioning the fairy tale romance she has gotten herself into with Hans. It’s neat to see Disney turning the Prince Charming character that it made famous on his ear. Hans is also a pretty well-rounded character: he’s funny and likeable, and he seems confident, competent, and kind. I actually liked what they were doing with this guy…until…
His twist. Spoiler alert: he turns out to be evil! I…guess. After Anna finally returns from trying to negociate with Elsa to bring back the summer, Hans reveals that he only proposed to her so that he could get control over the kingdom by being married to the princess! Haha! Wait, what? First of all, it makes no sense from a character perspective, as we’ve never even been given a hint that Hans might be evil. In fact, he was one of my favourite characters up until this point. I fully expected him to wind up married to Elsa (not Anna) at the end of the movie, but then he had this bizarre monologue, which comes out of nowhere. Not only is it out of place, but it makes no sense – if all he wanted was to marry Anna for power, why would he tell her? How does it serve his plan in the slightest for her to know that he’s evil? This monologue happens after he and Anna nearly kiss, because only an act of true love can save Anna’s heart from being frozen. Rather than have the two of them kiss and have the kiss not work, thereby causing Anna to question whether her love for Hans is true or not…they just don’t kiss and Hans declares that he’s evil. This was the biggest disappointment of the entire film. They could have made people think about the Prince Charming trope and the notion of true fairy tale love. But no, he’s just evil, and he was all along. Sucker!
The songs. This is the big one. The songs in Tangled were a problem, and they are in Frozen as well. Whereas Tangled had too few songs to really feel like a musical, at least it had one or two memorable numbers. It has only been a couple of days since I saw Frozen, and I couldn’t hum a few bars of any of the songs if you held a gun to my head. There wasn’t a single memorable song in the whole movie, and all of the lyrics were just blatant statements of what characters were thinking (with one exception – more on that in a bit). There was no depth or nuance, and all except one song felt like it was just one person singing next to one person playing either the piano or the guitar. After massive Disney musical numbers like Be Our Guest, The Circle of Life, or I’ll Make a Man Out of You, I expected lots of characters to be involved in at least one big song and dance, but nope. Nope. There is one song of note, though, and that’s the opening number. I know I said that the prologue is extraneous, but at least it had the best song in the movie: a tune reminiscent of Hi Ho, It’s Off to Work We Go. I expected the ice cutters singing it to factor into the movie more, but alas, they were only there for one rousing tune, and it was all pop-sounding, bland music from then on.
It’s a tragedy, since one of the things that Disney is best known for is its animated musicals, and seeing as there are barely any animated musicals coming out now, the studio could really soar if they just got someone who could carry the torch from the likes of Elton John or the Sherman brothers. Go big or go home, Disney, because if I don’t leave the theatre humming one of your songs, then your musical has failed.
Much like Tangled, Frozen isn’t a bad movie, but when held up alongside the bulk of the Disney catelogue, it’s definitely on the lower end of the quality scale. It’s clear that the team behind Tangled and Frozen are trying to recapture what we love about old Disney in the form of a modern computer animated film, but the result is a mish-mash of ideas. As I said in the intro, Frozen feels like it was designed by a committee – a cobbling together of ideas in need of someone with a clear, singular vision. As I watched Frozen, I was struck by the potential on display. This could have been a pure fantasy film with interesting creatures, thrilling action sequences, and some unique conflicts at its core that both paid homage to the tropes that Disney made famous in its animated films while also putting a new spin on those tropes. Unfortunately, Frozen has emerged as something that feels like it was made with marketing and focus groups in mind rather than a good story and a good presentation. It’s not a total loss, and I’m sure kids will love it. I wouldn’t be offended if I had to watch it again. But much like Tangled, Disney’s legacy is its own worst enemy, and these recent attempts to rekindle our love in the studio’s fairy tale films have failed to achieve that same level of imagination and fun. Allow me to channel Gene Shalit for a moment: Frozen has left me cold.
3 out of 5