4 out of 5.
by Callum Petch (Screened: @jackanderson, Twitter: @CallumPetch)
I am going to let each and every single one of you lovely readers in on a little secret with how I go about reviewing movies. The way that this process normally goes is that I pick a film, I go and watch that film at the cinema, I then take the hour-long bus-ride back home and then I sit down and spew whatever thoughts I have on that movie onto virtual paper, in a process that takes about two-to-three hours. This means that the opinions I share with you are my immediate thoughts on a movie and the reason I do this is because, 9 times out of 10, my opinions are absolute and they don’t change. I know exactly how I feel about a movie after I’ve finished watching it and said feelings frequently hold amongst subsequent viewings.
There is a reason why I am telling you this. You see, Frozen is different. I came out of Frozen completely uncertain in my opinions. See, avoiding all spoilers, the first 70-or-so minutes of Frozen are absolutely fantastic and the best thing that modern Disney have ever done. An endlessly charming throwback to classic Disney films (it is a musical fairytale about two princesses and is not in the slightest bit ashamed of that fact) that’s full of heart, often very funny and packed with great songs and absolutely gorgeous effects. Then, however, around about after minute 70 or 75, something happens and that charm just kind of... goes. I’m not sure if it’s something to do with the plot or whether it’s down to the introduction of another character or a very problematic song or something completely different and entirely on my end, but the film suddenly stopped operating on my wave-length and I spent the remainder of the run-time, including what should have been an emotionally-draining finale, furiously trying to get back on its wave-length.
Consequently, I have held off of putting in a formal review for Frozen until now, roughly 24 hours after I’ve seen the movie. I wanted to figure out why the third-act bothered me so, in then hopes that you, the reader, can get where I’m coming from and then contrast my issues with your experience. Because, make no mistake, you should still see Frozen, those opening 70 minutes are godsdamn revelatory, and I feel the problems come from my side instead of the film. In any case, I think I’ve figured out the problem, so we’ll get to that later. Let’s talk about the good stuff, first!
Based very, very, very loosely on the Hans Christian Anderson fairy-tale The Snow Queen, Frozen tells the tale of two royal sisters Elsa (played by Idina Menzel who, yes, absolutely kills her musical numbers) and Anna (played by Kristen Bell whose performance you could turn into a weapon of mass adorkableness). From a young age, Elsa has had the ability to create snow and ice with her hands but a freak accident causes her to retreat into seclusion at her parents’ request. Taught to hide and conceal her powers at all costs, the two sisters drift apart as the years go on, made only worse when their parents both die in a shipwreck at sea. Fast forward a few years and the castle doors are re-opened for Elsa’s coronation but with both sisters stuck in opposite ends of arrested development. Anna is endlessly optimistic and naive, having never been exposed to the outside world before, and falls head-over-heels in love for stand-up guy Prince Hans (Santino Fontana), so much so that they’re prepared to get married not more than 20 minutes after having first met each other. Elsa is extremely guarded and unwilling to literally and metaphorically let anybody into her life, for fear of what may happen when her powers are revealed.
Then everything gets shot straight to hell. Elsa’s powers are exposed and the people act exactly as she feared they would, causing her to flee to the mountains and, due to her powers also being strengthened by her emotions, accidentally plunging the land into eternal cold and winter. Anna sets off to find her sister, dragging along an ice seller and his trusty reindeer, Kristoff (voiced by Jonathan Groff who is way better in the role than it sounds) and Sven, in the hopes that she can safely talk down her sister before it’s too late. Meanwhile, Prince Hans is left in charge of the kingdom whilst Elsa is away and has to deal with individuals who would much rather see a quick end to Elsa than her return.
It seems that I say this more and more as the days go on, but that honestly sounds like an extremely busy movie on paper; the definition of overstuffed. In practice, though, that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s a busy set-up and a stuffed premise because everything factors into the film in a big way and it’s all paced so brilliantly that it’s not until I actually started typing up that plot synopsis that I realised that Frozen has so much going on. All of these various plot-threads factor into the character development of the cast and, despite the traditional trappings that are all over this film, the standard Disney story tropes are just as frequently upended as they are followed. A big part of the story and characters interaction with Anna from the end of the first act onwards actually involves calling out her desire to rush straight into a marriage under the guise of true love. Elsa technically gets what would traditionally be a villain song, but its lyrics are equally as much about the liberating experience of having your secret outed and not having to live in fear of what people might think anymore. And then there’s the third act which I will mostly keep schtum on except to say that it does not go the slightest bit how you’re expecting it to.
Speaking of, I have been made aware of the fact that the marketing of this film has been atrocious, focussing primarily on wacky comedy and the action sequences, painting it like Disney’s attempt to have a nice slice of that DreamWorks pie (because, as we all saw withChicken Little, that has worked so well for them in the past). In reality, the film has its roots in the renaissance age of Disney, owing various debts to The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Mulan. It feels like a lost classic from that era, too. The humour is along those lines, the songs are as catchy and brilliantly melodramatic as those from that era (the build in “Let It Go”, as it starts off as a downer self-pitying ballad and ends as an absolutely soaring and triumphant anthem, is stunning) and the Time To Tears (the true watermark of a good Disney film, let’s not kid ourselves) is about equal to that of Pixar’s Up (if there is a dry eye in the house at the end of “Do You Want To Build A Snowman?” then that person is probably a sociopath). There’s that sense of boundless optimism too, that feel-good sensibility that a classic Disney flick instils in me. This honestly feels like a script that’s been pulled out of the 1990s Disney vault.
And on that note: SWEET HAIRY MOSES, FROZEN LOOKS ABSOLUTELY STUNNING! The film is a technical powerhouse, again none moreso than during the “Let It Go” number: as Elsa shakes off her restrained appearance and slowly crafts her ice palace in the mountains, the level of detail in the scene is, arguably, only matched by Rango. The camera swoops and dives whilst the ice glimmers and Elsa’s magical sparks shoot about the place like an unrestrained fireworks party; a sequence in terms of obvious-prettiness only matched by an even more gorgeous moment in the climax. But the film is almost always operating in the region of its standout sequences especially in regards to snow which looks insanely lifelike, doubly so when characters are walking through it. Facial animations and body language, though, are on another level; everything about Anna’s first awkward meet-cute with Prince Hans is sold totally through her harried and nervous movements and an almost permanently cowered posture, as if even she’s not totally confident in what she’s saying. That however, is just one example in a movie full of them. Pay attention to the animation as you watch in this one, folks, you’ll thank me.
It’s not all good news in the first two acts, though. See, at the 50 minute mark, Olaf, who has apparently been dominating the marketing materials prior to release, enters the film and Frozen is subsequently saddled with a one-joke, one-note, unfunny and pointless comic relief character. Olaf’s entire joke is that he’s a snowman who wants to see Summer, comically unaware of what happens to frozen things in Summer (in a musical number that’s so pointless it’s only redeemed by Anna and Kristoff’s reactions to it), and sometimes, if the film is feeling particularly daring, the various parts of his body become detached and he has to ask to people to grab his butt. 90% of the time he’s not in the slightest bit funny and he’s only relevant to the plot for one scene in the third act. It’s even more annoying because there’s already a great comic relief character in the film in the form of Sven the Reindeer, but he’s underused and basically pushed out of the film once Olaf and a supposedly comedic third act reveal about Kristoff comes about. Olaf, quite honestly in my opinion, could have been excised totally from the film and it would be better as a result. Kids in my screening loved him, though, for what that’s worth.
But now I must attempt to explain why the third act of Frozen left me conflicted about the film as a whole. It comes just after a spectacular action sequence at the Ice Castle (incidentally, there are only about three action sequences in the film but they’re all great) which closes the second act. After that sequence the film’s magic kind of... goes. I’ve spent a long time trying to figure out why exactly. Initially, I thought it might be down to the final action sequence lacking something. It’s visually spectacular and very emotionally heavy, but it didn’t connect with me for reasons that elude me, especially considering the fact that I had totally been wrapped up in Anna and Elsa’s story beforehand. But I don’t think it is. Then I thought that it was down to an extremely ill-advised final number before the third act really kicks in called “Fixer Upper” which kills the pacing completely dead and is pretty much the kids’-film equivalent of “Blurred Lines” (no, I am not kidding). But I don’t think it’s that either. One badly thought out and poorly placed musical number is not enough to derail an entire film. It might have been the restless kids in my screening who were determined to ruin any emotionally impacting third act shenanigans, but you could say that about seeing any kids’ film in a cinema screen. Now, though, I think I know what it is.
There is a twist. Frozen has a big third-act twist. It has a giant third-act twist that may be one of the biggest “gotcha!”s in kids’ film history. It comes out of absolutely nowhere and left my entire screen in a state of collective shock. It makes perfect sense, turns what were seeming to be the film’s messages completely on their heads... and left me feeling betrayed. It takes a fair bit for a film nowadays to sneak a twist by me, the trope-savvy film fan I am, and a lot for a film’s twist to actually impact me in some way. Frozen manages that, it’s a real humdinger of a twist... but I don’t think I actually like it. Again, it makes perfect sense and helps to craft a more realistic set of messages than these films usually do (in a similar vein to Wreck-It Ralph and Monster’s University), it’s just that Ipersonally don’t seem to like it. I want to, but every other part of me is refusing to accept it. I had sat down and bought into a traditional Disney film with all the tropes that entails... only to see that film ripped away from me and for, as loosely as one can use this term in Frozen’s world, reality to ensue. That twist hurt me.
Yet, the further away I’m separated from Frozen, the more I’m (no pun intended) warming up to it. Last night, when I got home, I classified this with a low-to-middle 3 stars. As time goes by, however, I’m starting to accept Frozen more and more. My opinion keeps shifting; not enough to forgive “Fixer Upper” or Olaf, but enough that I am desperate to see it again in order to see if I’ve judged the film all wrong. I want to give it a second chance because, now that I know that a third-act twist is coming and what it is, I think I may be able to actually stick with that third act, instead of falling off for reasons I’m not totally sure of.
Consider those 4 stars, then, a sign of trust, good faith and a full-blown recommendation for you, the reader. You will probably loveFrozen. I will probably love Frozen the second time through. For me for now, though, it’s a stunning first hour and a strangely unsatisfying second. But, by all means, go and see this movie, my problems are almost totally down to my various personality hang-ups than any faults with the film itself.