Disney’s “Frozen” has been subject to criticism long before it came out: as soon as it became apparent that the plot will only be very loosely based on Andersen’s “Snow Queen”, fans of the original fairytale began to complain; in addition, Disney’s Head of Animation shot himself in the foot quite spectacularly by telling journalists that his team had a hard time with the film’s two female protagonists because women are hard to animate and be kept pretty at the same time, which prompted a debate on sexism. (http://www.cartoonbrew.com/disney/frozen-head-of-animation-says-animating-women-is-really-really-difficult-89467.html) Now that the film is finally being released, all the controversy seems like much ado about nothing: it’s a perfectly benign entry in the Disney Princess canon. The only people who will be disappointed will be those who expected anything more than that.
It is indeed true that the connection to Hans Christian Andersen’s tale is almost inexistent; in fact, the only thing the two stories share is a woman with magical icy superpowers, but by that standard we could just as well say that “Frozen” is based on Blossom from the Powerpuff Girls. In Disney’s version, the snow master is Elsa, a princess (duh! It’s a Disney film!) and the only person with magical powers in her family. Elsa’s parents cope with the strangeness of their child by teaching her to treat her gift as a curse and to isolate herself from everybody, including her loving sister Anna. When Elsa is crowned queen and the truth is revealed, she plunges her kingdom into eternal winter and elopes to an ice castle on a mountain top; it’s up to Anna to solve the problem with the help of a mountain man, his reindeer (who behaves more like a dog) and, at some point, a talking snowman (who I feared could turn into a “Mushu from Mulan” situation, but was actually quite funny and used sparingly, much to my relief). Various adventures ensue, songs are sung, heartwarming stuff happens, and sisterly love is being celebrated above romance, which is a nice touch. It’s a mostly pleasant film, if not innovative or groundbreaking in any way.
With “Frozen”, Disney continues its attempts (best displayed by “Tangled”) to have its cake and eat it too by bringing the Princess genre into the 21st century: the protagonists are still conventionally attractive and crazy about pink gowns, tiaras and other sparkly things, which allows Disney to continue selling its pink sparkly merchandise, but they are now proactive agents in their own story. The formerly celebrated force of “true love” at first sight that powered the old Princess stories is now derided as foolish and rash; the new kind of Disney romance is based on friendship and actually seems to make sense. The characters are likeable and have personality; Elsa in particular was an interesting tortured loner without being a villain, and I would’ve liked to see more of her. As far as I’m concerned, the highest victory I would count for “Frozen” is the fact that they managed to make me wish I had a sister. A close second are, of course, the beautiful visual effects associated with Elsa’s ice power. And I’m sure children will love the reindeer and the talking snowman.
It has to be said though: the “musical” part of the film was rather unnecessary and removing it would have improved the film quite substantially. “Frozen” – which is mostly an adventure story- is not really a good fit, plot-wise, to be a musical. As a result, most of the songs were awkward and felt shoehorned in, displaying that old musical movie characteristic of having people just burst into song and dance out of the blue, without furthering the plot. The mostly song-free third act of the film is, therefore, the best part. Nobody is telling Disney to give up musicals, it’s their thing- but perhaps a way of modernizing them is in order. Another problem may be the music in itself. Some of the musical numbers are nice: Elsa indulging in her powers for the first time (“Let it Go”), the snowman daydreaming about summer (an homage to Hans Christian Andersen’s tale about the snowman who fell in love with a stove, I would guess). Others, however, are cringe-worthy, and most are at best pedestrian 1990’s show tunes that very few people would listen to on their own. Songs like “Everybody wants to be a cat” from The Aristocats, or “The Bare Necessities” from The Jungle Book are classics because they constituted legitimately good music. These issues aren’t new to “Frozen”, of course (the songs in “Tangled”, for example, were far worse). In the end, I guess it all depends on your tolerance for old-fashioned musicals.
Since we’re talking negatives and downsides, I should also mention that the reservations about character design were mostly justified: Elsa and Anna look exactly the same except for their hair color, and their huge heads with huge eyes are creepy and distracting at times, like plastic dolls. It does seem indeed that the Disney animators sacrificed expressive design for the sake of “prettiness”. But then again, this has always been true of princess characters.
I can’t end the article without mentioning “Get a Horse”, the Mickey Mouse short that opens the theatrical screening for “Frozen”. It’s another entry in Disney’s recent revival of 2D Mickey shorts drawn in the style of early rubber-hose animation, and, like “Frozen”, it tries to combine self-referential nostalgia and modern sensibilities. The result is a non-stop racket of frantic, sadistic slapstick like in the good old times, mixed with color CGI, but I found it a bit too fast-paced and chaotic for my tastes. I couldn’t laugh because I could barely figure out what was happening, and the voices were too obviously re-used from old recordings. The search for the perfect balance between old and new must continue, I suppose.
In Romania, “Frozen” will be released on December 27.