Monday, December 2, 2019

Turn away and slam the door


On the plus side, it's not preceded by a 21 minute Coco short.

Directed by Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck
Written by Marc E. Smith, Robert Lopez, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Chris Buck, and Jennifer Lee

Spoiler alert: moderate

I never loved Frozen, and while it's grown on me a little bit over the past six years, I'm still very much of the opinion that it's a movie whose fawning reception depended almost exclusively upon one single song, a song around which the entire film was built, if not built especially well: it's still awfully bizarre to think that arguably the best "I want" song to ever come out of the whole Disney princess factory is sung by a princess who is not actually her film's protagonist, and that the instant our non-protagonist princess is finished singing it, this means that the film is finished with her for almost the whole rest of its running time.  No doubt it adds to my personal peevishness that Tangled and Moana wind up considered the also-rans, despite being two of the greatest achievements of the 2010s.  Though maybe I shouldn't even complain: it means that my favorites are (comparatively) safe, while the mediocrity is the one getting watered-down by a lousy sequel.

Now, I don't want to come off as strident as that all sounds, because Frozen certainly has its finer points, too—many finer points, especially some very nice lighting and design, and I'm not, like, eager to take a shit all over its parable of sisterhood.  In fact, "never loving Frozen" became a reason for me to get excited about its follow-up.  After all, while Frozen II was no doubt going to retain all of Frozen's strengths (well, give or take a "Let It Go"), it never so much as occurred to me that a Disney film in 2019 could even have a screenplay more deficient than its predecessor.

Turns out I overestimated how much anyone at Disney was likely to sweat the details when they had a license to print money, while perhaps underestimating just how much contempt directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck and their storypeople were going to bring to the whole endeavor.  Frozen II was always destined to be 2019's biggest animated hit, and, even so, you can feel the absence of any joy in it.  This strikes me as a terrible charge to lay at Lee and Buck's and everybody's feet, but they don't really hide it very well; in fact, there are at least two moments that come awfully close to advertising just how over it they were.  The first occurs in a magical room populated by Elsa's (Idina Menzel's) memories,  featuring a sneering callback to "Let It Go" that is, interpreted charitably, a joke for the exhausted parents in the audience who got sick of that song back in 2013, but which seems so much sourer than any movie ought to be about the extraordinary thing that made its existence possible; the second occurs toward the very end, when our heroine quips "No, we're done" at a question that more-or-less explicitly asks if there will be any further Frozen adventures.  Which, yeah, you wish.  Anyway, even leaving aside the armchair psychoanalysis of two isolated incidents in a film that runs 104 minutes, they're still the kind of dweeby fourth-wall-breaking hi-jinx that a writing team might get up to when that writing team is bored as hell of attending story meetings for a different story than the one they wanted to tell in the first place.

Frozen II's story is the product of five writers (which includes, besides its directors and some other guy, its songwriters, Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, though crediting them as integral components of the process this time does not necessarily make it so), and the story they were collectively able to come up with over the last several years, and which WDAS Chief Creative Officer Lee's bosses up the chain at Disney Corporate found sufficiently anodyne, revolves around Elsa's origins, which I suppose is as good a starting place as any, though it seems to answer a question nobody ever asked.

It therefore begins where the first one did, in Elsa and Anna's (Kristen Bell's) childhoods, before they were locked away due to that ice-related mishap, if, oddly, not before they started wearing a half-pound of eyeliner apiece to bed, which is a weird design choice for a story theoretically about letting go (so to speak) of constraining expectations.  In any event, this night the princesses' kingly father (Alfred Molina, of all people) tells them the story of his father, who died during a mission of peace and friendship to the further north.  There he was betrayed by the Northuldra, a tribe native to the still-magical reaches of Scandinavia, nominally based on the Saami but rather more plainly based on Native Americans—including physically and including a clumsy line that may as well have had Elsa and Anna's dad say, "No, no, girls, they're not magical themselves, because that could easily be construed as racist.  They simply have a deeper connection with the natural world."  It's that kind of screenplay.  In any event, as violence begat violence, the deified elements (fire, water, air, and earth; nobody's getting creative in even small ways here) became displeased, and they cast an unbreakable spell over the Northumbrian Northuldran lands, with only Anna and Elsa's father escaped to tell the tale.  With this in mind, you'll have pretty much solved the story's mystery and unlocked its vague progressive resonance within minutes—in fairness, I don't think it was supposed to baffle adults for even that long—though a couple of days later you might find yourself wondering why, exactly, the king does tell his tale the way he tells it, except to allow for the plot.

That plot kicks in as we return to the present, some nebulous amount of months or years after the events of Frozen (it apparently takes place in the 1860s, which, okay), and here we are treated to the second song of the film, about forty-five seconds after the first song of the film, which seeks to outline the theme of impermanence that Frozen II is eager to pursue and terrified to stick to.  Not very long after that, the third song cues up, this being one of its two failed attempts at another "Let It Go," namely "Into the Unknown," which, like the second, leans mightily upon Menzel's ability to forcefully express high notes for a very long time to the exclusion of almost any other musical quality.  The upshot is that Elsa has been hearing a siren-like voice calling her to the Enchanted Forest where her grandfather perished, and after about three minutes and fourteen seconds of nominal ambivalence, a mysterious magical disaster strikes Arendelle, whereupon Elsa sets off for the north to find out why.  Anna goes along, because Anna is Anna.  Kristoff the ice-carver (Jonathan Groff) goes along, because he's been feebly attempting to propose marriage to Anna.  Kristoff's reindeer Sven goes along because he's an animal that can pull a cart.  And Olaf the snowman (Josh Gad) goes along because fuck you.

If it does nothing else, Frozen II at last clarified to me what my big damn problem with Olaf's been, when he is not much objectively worse than the average Disney comic relief character.  It's that this particular character design—a silly bucktoothed snowman with a big orange dick nose and a penchant for his constituent parts getting rearranged LEGO-style—belonged nowhere within a hundred miles of Frozen or Frozen II, a stark piece of frantic cartooning in a world of painterly lighting effects and either subdued colors or teals, purples, pinks, and forest greens, with otherwise "realistic" characters, and with backgrounds tending either toward steely blues and blue-tinted whites (the supernaturally wintry Frozen) or carefully-selected autumnal browns (the decidedly deciduous Frozen II).  It hit me in a crowd scene shot from about half a mile up in the sky—I could still make Olaf out, clear as day, and that's when I understood why every frame with him in it has always been like daggers, or extremely sharp carrots, plunging into my eyes.  But of course it doesn't help that Olaf is not very funny, or that Olaf has been saddled with the biggest thematic arc of the film ("impermanence" theoretically suiting a snowman perfectly, albeit maybe not a snowman that can be recreated at will by an ice goddess in a Disney film that is unwilling to grapple with death), or that Olaf is in this entire movie, rather than just half of it, like in Frozen.  In comparison, Kristoff's proposal antics are sweetness and light; in comparison, the beat that I would swear on my mother's grave is a road head joke is amazingly funny, intentional or not.

Anyway, this is actually only about the first fifteen minutes of the film, so for those of you keeping track there's been a lengthy flashback within a past-set prologue, three full-length songs, and a major first act turn, which is how I imagine that Frozen II gets to be borderline-manic in its insistence on getting to its plot right now at the exact same time it feels like absolutely nothing whatsoever is happening, as our leads traipse up to and into a forbidden forest while remarking what a pretty forest it is (and they're not even wrong) and interstitial "comic" bits occur, and massive amounts of Frozen's story is regurgitated at us in ugly, inorganic ways.  At significant length, the magical forest takes notice of its guests, and things do start happening, still slowly at first, until finally the film finds some kind of forward drive around the time it separates its characters and gives them all something to actually do.  (That is, it gives Elsa and Anna something to do.  Once again, despite some feints in the opposite direction, it gives Anna almost everything important to do, and it gives Elsa the coolest-looking things to do, in a strange, almost abstract journey across first a stormy sea, then into an ice castle built out of the secrets of the past.  It gives Kristoff an 80s power ballad to do, which is a choice, I guess, but honestly it feels like one of the few ideas in this film that anybody had pleasure engaging with, giving over a solid three minutes of screentime to a wonderfully apt recreation of 80s power ballad tropes within state-of-the-art WDAS computer animation, which is just weird and unexpected enough to be enjoyable even if Groff is fairly underwhelming as an 80s power balladeer.)

It's in those last thirty minutes or so that Frozen II manages to get somewhat interesting, with all its neatest imagery and almost all its actual adventuring, as well as what I might as well call its best song, the second "Let It Go" successor, "Show Yourself"; though all of this is much too little and too late.  It's also where all the sourness makes itself the most explicit, which still beats the listlessness that's dominated previously, though the film never quite overcomes the feeling of something cobbled together the night before it was due.  This feeling is less intense in the visuals than in the script, but it's there as well; Frozen II has a massively incoherent design scheme for its antagonistic elemental spirits.  One's represented by a watery incarnation of a terrestrial animal, one's represented by a whole gang of lumbering stone giants, one's represented by literally just the fucking wind as-is, and one's represented by a cutesy palette-swapped Charmander.  It's insane that a concept so prefabricated could be executed so sloppily.

The cobbling is just about impossible to miss in that script, though, which continues one of the less-agreeable trends in recent big-ticket animated films (it's exasperatingly apparent in Pixar's Toy Story 4, as well as in DreamWorks' How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World) of being a total story development salvage job, which I guess is indeed keeping in the best Frozen tradition, since the first one bore similar scars, and I don't believe it's reaching too far at all to suggest that the perfunctory anti-colonialist yarn that Frozen II stole from the least-effective part of Thor: Ragnarok was at best only a backdrop for the character arc they started out with, wink wink, nudge nudge.  Like, obviously I mean that Elsa was gay at some point in this film's development, at least long enough for "Show Yourself" to be written (this isn't forensic lyrical analysis or anything—it's not even trying to hide its origins as a coming out anthem); and, jarringly enough, I think Elsa's love interest is still a character in this movie, though now she serves no function.  "Elsa is gay" isn't a story, of course.  (It would be an extraordinary milestone, but not a story.)  It's still closer than what Frozen II has, and I tend to suspect there are traces of other discarded ideas here too: a pyromancer, whether Anna or Elsa's girlfriend, would be easy and thoughtless, but also much cooler than the plushy animal we got, particularly since the loveliest stuff in the movie is the interplay of Elsa's blue ice and the purple-pink of elemental flame.  It couldn't have hurt to have leaned into the 80s album cover-ness of it all a whole lot more than in just that one scene where Anna leaps into flames to... well, save her sister, the living fire extinguisher.

Which leaves Frozen II as a solid piece of animation qua animation, not that we expect any less from Earth's premier animators.  Once again the most noticeable successes are in the effects and in the lighting, above all in Elsa's clever dash across a sea, highlighted in the trailer.  It's a definite improvement over its predecessor in character animation, too, maybe in character rendering, as well.  On the other hand, it's arguably a little skinflint in some other ways: Arendelle remains just strikingly underpopulated, and so does the enchanted forest, which is no big deal in a fairy tale but is at least a moderately-sized deal in a movie that makes us want to take resource competition between people groups seriously, despite each people group appearing to number in the dozens and having a fair amount of Norway between them.

But at this point I am clearly nitpicking a movie I just didn't like, and which for the first half or more of it either actively bored me or actively annoyed me.  (It depended on how much dialogue Olaf was getting at any given moment, and so on balance Frozen II is more annoying than it is boring.  Pick your poison, I guess.)  The silver lining is that this is not in any way as soul-crushingly terrible as Ralph Breaks the Internet.  But "better than Ralph Breaks the Internet" is not exactly encouraging, and frankly Frozen II made me sadder about Disney animation's future direction than Breaks the Internet did.  That film was never going to be great, and its shittiness was never going to cut to the core competency of the studio.  Frozen II, though, is right smack dab in the middle of that core competency, a Disney princess musical adventure, a genre that I have been underwhelmed by in the past, but have never, ever disliked until now.  Frozen II is not just the worst canonical Disney princess film, it's a bad one.  The idea that this is even a possibility means Frozen II is a depressing disappointment, even if, as failures go, it's a comparatively soft one.

Score: 5/10


  1. Elsa was never ever going to be queer, but you're absolutely write that the skeleton for such a story is just sitting RIGHT THERE. It's irritating, but I'm so far beyond believing in Disney's commitment to depicting LGBTQ narratives. Every time they make a big announcement about some queer character or other, the content is so tame it makes the "John Cho touches a man's shoulder" scene from Star Trek Beyond look like a Colby Keller video.

    1. I had actually tricked myself into believing that they'd go for it, because Disney these past few years has sought credit for their intermittent wokeness, and Frozen II was financially and culturally bulletproof, so they could (theoretically) do whatever they wanted, and it seemed pretty clear they wanted to do this. But, yes, I do get tired of being wrong all the time.