I’ve made a tradition of going to the movies Thanksgiving morning. This started a few years ago when I discovered that the movie theater was actually open normal hours; I had just assumed that the theater opened up Thanksgiving evening. While I felt bad for the poor kids that were forced to work on the holiday, it was a great experience – the theater was mostly empty except for me and what I’m assuming were some divorced dads who had custody of their kids and had absolutely no clue as to how to entertain these children before the big Thanksgiving feast. It was nice and quiet and I was able to enjoy my film in peace.
The one downside of going to the movies Thanksgiving morning is that I am somewhat limited in what I can see that will end in enough time for me to make my appearance at my family dinner table for some turkey and stuffing. It’s not a lot of time to work with once I factor in travel time, so I need a movie that starts early and isn’t particularly long. By default, that tends to wind up being kids’ movies. Over the years I’ve seen The Muppets and Wreck It Ralph before gathering with assorted family members. Kids’ movies are necessarily my first choice, but they fit nicely in my time constraints and there is usually a big animated film released about this time that somewhat appeals to me. Plus it gives me a jump on the Oscar nominees for Best Animated Feature. The more probable Oscar nominees that I can get out of the way ahead of time, the more time I can spend trying to track down the more problematic Best Foreign Film contenders. Those films are a pain in the butt to find.
This year, right on schedule, Disney released their newest animated feature, Frozen. I’d heard some good buzz about it going in, but I really didn’t know much about it other than Kristen Bell provided one of the voices and that she said that while she didn’t identify much with Disney princesses growing up, she related to this character. That sounded promising enough and the timing worked out perfectly, so I made my trek to the mall to see if Frozen would impress me. I have a spotty record with Disney films; while I love-love-loved Wreck It Ralph, I generally haven’t been too into Disney movies since the early 1990s when they released films like The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast. Like Bell, I haven’t exactly been too enthralled with the Disney princess paradigm either.
However, Frozen was quite charming and I enjoyed it immensely. In many ways it reminded me of the films that I enjoyed so much in the 90s, but with an updated point of view and more proactive princesses. Frozen is therefore a weird amalgam – in many ways it is a throw-back, but it also has a much more modern perspective that was refreshing to see. If this is what Disney is going to be churning out in the future, I may have to re-examine my hesitation in going to see these films.
Frozen, at its heart, is the tale of two sisters: Elsa (Idina Menzel) is the heir apparent to the throne who hides a secret and Anna (Bell), her spunky little sister. Elsa has the ability to create ice and snow, especially when she loses control of her emotions. After a near fatal accident with Anna when they are children, Elsa is hidden away until she can learn to control her powers. Anna’s memory of the accident is wiped clean and is unaware of her sister’s magic, so she doesn’t understand why her playmate and best friend has suddenly shunned her. The sisters are reunited at Elsa’s coronation, but disaster strikes when the pair gets into an argument over Anna’s whirlwind courtship with Prince Hans (Santino Fontana). Elsa loses control and covers the entire kingdom in ice and snow, thereby revealing her secret. Elsa flees to the mountains and Anna chases after her with the help of ice trader Kristoff (Jonathan Groff). There are love stories as well and lots of humor thanks to Olaf (Josh Gad), a snowman that has come to life, but the movie is really about one sister trying to save another.
Unlike a lot of other princesses, Anna is much more in control of her situation. She doesn’t ask the prince to save her sister; instead, she leaves the prince behind and she heads out into the wilderness on her own. Anna may be a romantic looking for love, but she’s also independent and willing to fight the elements to convince her sister to return home. She is no damsel in distress, which I liked and I appreciated that the love story took a bit of a back seat to Anna’s quest. Other Disney films seem to be primarily about the love story but Frozen strikes a better balance in my opinion. I think this film sends a better message to little girls and boys; in fact, Frozen indirectly cautions against the traditional notion of fairy tale romance in that it might be a good idea to get to know someone and not just get swept up in the moment. That’s not a bad message to pass along.
What I didn’t know about Frozen is that there are a ton of musical numbers; this should have been obvious had I looked at the cast of voice actors, since while many of these actors may not be “names” to most of American, almost all of them have some Broadway experience. Though Bell is best known for her work in television and film, she attended the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU and majored in musical theater and has appeared in some Broadway shows. This focus on Broadway folk is a smart one, because the songs in Frozen absolutely soar. There isn’t a weak singer in the bunch and it makes the great songs written by the husband and wife duo Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez even stronger. It was a little jarring at first, as I wasn’t expecting so many musical numbers, but the performances are so strong and the songs so catchy that I quickly adjusted to the frequent song breaks. Elsa’s song “Let it Go” particularly stuck with me and has been rattling around in my head since I saw the movie last week. The fact that I am still humming the song this long after seeing the film is a testament to the songwriting. In some ways it reminiscent of Idina Menzel’s song “Defying Gravity” in the Broadway show Wicked. All the songs are actually great, but Josh Gad’s “In Summer” is also noteworthy for its comic relief and playfulness.
The animation of Frozen is also pretty spectacular; I didn’t see the film in 3-D, but some of the snow sequences must have looked pretty majestic in 3-D as they were pretty breathtaking in regular old 2-D. The scenes in Elsa’s ice castle were especially noteworthy; snow storms and ice lend themselves nicely to beautiful animation. You’d think that a canvas of mostly white would be boring, but it was all really quite beautiful. And since I go into a deep depression as soon as snow hits the ground in real life, the fact that I’m praising a film that is full of the stuff is a testament to the artistic achievement.
This is not to say that Frozen doesn’t have its flaws; while the voice work and the animation are fantastic, the story could use a little work. It’s a bit jumbled and tried to incorporate way too many side characters. Alan Tudyk voices the Duke of Weselton, who is supposed to be a villain but isn’t really given enough screen time to be all that important to the proceedings. I almost forgot he was even in the movie until he randomly popped up again. I also didn’t find the trolls as amusing as I assume we were supposed to and could have done without them (though they did have a cute song). I would have liked a little more development of Elsa; Frozen is really Anna’s movie, but I would have liked to delve more into Elsa’s struggles. Some major points felt a little rushed. I also wasn’t as charmed as most people by the Mickey Mouse short Get a Horse! that proceeded the feature. It was fine, but I was glad when it was over and we moved on to the main event. It defintely was no Paperman. The after credit scene was cute, but wasn’t really worth waiting around for. Just Google it to find out what happens and save yourself 10 minutes.
Despite these shortcomings, I really enjoyed Frozen quite a bit and based on the reaction of the little ones in my audience, they dug it as well. I don’t go to enough kids’ films to know if this is normal, but many of the children in my screening burst into applause when the film was over and there were plenty of smiles as we filed out of the cinema. That seems like a good thing. But I think adults will enjoy Frozen just as much and will be impressed with the step forward that Disney is taking in their portrayal of their princesses. I don’t think that Frozen is necessarily as progressive as Brave, but it does a nice job of being entertaining and telling a story using a slightly different lens than earlier Disney movies. Frozen is a love story, but it is a story about the love of siblings, which seems like a pretty good message to share with children.
Frozen is currently showing nationwide.