Monday, December 2, 2013

'Frozen' (2013) directed by Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee

When Disney bought Marvel Comics in 2009 many feared the worst. Would Spider-Man become tinged by Disney's everything's-just-peachy attitude?  Would The Punisher wind up with a smartass talking bird sidekick?  Not quite.  The opposite has happened: a Disney Princess musical complete with loveable singing sidekicks and floppy fringed Prince Charmings has wound up infected with Marvel superhero DNA.  Frozen is essentially fairytale princess romance by way of X-Men: a weird cocktail of classic Disney animation, Marvel superhero sensibilities and a contemporary fascination with genre subversion.  With so much packed in it's a miracle that Frozen works at all, let alone that it's actually really good.

Frozen takes inspiration from Hans Christian Anderson's The Snow Queen - though the stories share little in common beyond a broadly similar plot and characters.  The centre of Disney's film is the relationship between two sisters; Elsa and Anna.  They're young princesses of a vaguely fantasy tinged Scandinavian country named Arendelle, and Elsa is next in line to the throne.  Not only that, but she possesses magical powers, able to conjure ice and snow at will. One day while playing. she accidentally seriously injures her younger sister, resulting in her parents placing her seclusion in the castle until she learns to repress her powers.

Damn good looking CG snow.
We skip forward in time the two sisters' teenage years.  Anna has no memory of her elder sister's powers, assuming that her distance and seclusion is a result of some personal slight she committed. Eventually the time comes for Princess Elsa's coronation.  Placed before the nobility of the kingdom she desperately tries to control her powers, almost freezing the rod and sceptre she's asked to hold.  Later, at a ball she finally loses it, lashing out in a dramatic icy rage, leaving the castle and heading off for a life of seclusion in the mountains. Unfortunately a side effect of her icy rage is that the kingdom is frozen solid, and so Anna must venture into the freezing peaks to try and thaw both the land and their relationship.

Princesses in peril is Disney's bread and butter.  If they couldn't knock this sort of material out of the park there'd be something dreadfully wrong in the House of Mouse.  Throughout the film there's a constant feeling that you're in a very safe pair of hands, a confidence borne of 80ish years of making animated musicals.  But what elevates Frozen above merely being an alright Disney film is that its fully aware of the audience's trust in Disney, mercilessly exploiting our expectations from start to finish.

Don't assume by that I mean it's an Shrek or Enchanted style piss-take of genre cliches. For example, Frozen plays it straight when it introduces developments like the magical properties of "true love's kiss".  It's more that the film assumes that the audience is familiar with past Disney animations, allows us to draw conclusions about what's going to happen and then slyly subverts them.  There's an understated intelligence to the way things play out: the script unpredictable and written with classical fairytale sensibilities.

Elsa in her rather Dr Manhattan-y ice palace.
Emotionally the film's onto a winner from moment one.  The dilemma over Princess Elsa's ice powers is taken wholesale from the classic Marvel playbook; her relationship with them a symbol for repressed desires and guilt - a parallel to adolescence.  The furore over whether she's a monster or not is straight out of X-Men, and while she's undergoing her dilemma she ends up dressing a bit like Magneto - leading me to wonder if she was going to go full-on supervillain for a bit.

If Elsa has been created with an eye towards Marvel, Anna has a more Disney outlook.  With her mop of ginger hair and charismatic chattiness she's instantly charming, ably voiced by Kristen Bell, her every expressive motion expertly animated to accentuate her personality. As the one that sets out on a quest to save her sister she becomes our de facto protagonist, teaming up with a quintessentially Disney group including a hunky ice-cutter, his cute reindeer sidekick and a smart-talking enchanted snowman. 

Let's talk about this enchanted snowman for a moment.  His name is Olaf and his gormless buck-toothed grin leers out of every piece of marketing material.  Not helping matters is his disturbing resemblance to the demonic Gabbo from the classic Simpsons episode Krusty Gets Kancelled.  I realised not far into Frozen that it was going to be pretty great, yet at the back of my mind I was dreading the arrival of this hateful looking creature, who I just knew would throw a dampener on the whole thing.  Astonishingly Olaf is not just tolerable - he's actually really funny.  If this film can make that thing funny, ice-powers are far from the only magic on display.

The only real slack element are the songs.  There was a lot of hype about these as they're written by the lethally clever song-writers behind Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon.  It's not that they're particularly awful, just that they're so damn boringly produced that they contrast unfavourably with the obvious imagination everywhere else in the film.  That said, they're not completely awful, just mediocre - though a particularly dire ditty called Fixer Upper comes painfully close.

Right up the end Frozen continues to impress, concluding with a touching ending that affirms the special bond between sisters.  It's perhaps a fool's errand to argue that a film about pretty magical princesses has a feminist outlook, but at the very least the film's heart is in the right place when it comes to gender politics.  The two sisters in the film are allowed full autonomy within the plot, rescuing each other rather than kowtowing to the attentions of the buffly handsome men.  

With Frozen Disney proves that despite stiff competition from Pixar, Dreamworks and myriad others, there's still some intangible magic that only they're able to reliably summon.  


Frozen is on general release from December 6

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