Wednesday, December 4, 2013

But what if it had music by Queen?


I didn't have half the issues I expected to have with it, but Frozen doesn't disappoint: it's still a deeply problematic, rather frustrating film, that through lovely imagery and basic entertainment value takes a spot just barely on the right side of wrong.

Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee
Written by Jennifer Lee, Chris Buck, and Shane Morris (based on the story "The Snow Queen" by Hans Christian Andersen)
With Kristen Bell (Anna), Idina Menzel (Elsa), Jonathan Groff (Kristoff), Josh Gad (Olaf), and Santino Fontana (Hans)

Spoiler alert: moderate

I've never entirely warmed to CG animation.  Ha.  Ha.  Ha.

It can be fine; it can be great.  But I'd say I've loved it rarely, whereas nothing in me rebels against even rather crappy cel animation; and I've only ever found it equal or superior to what could have been done with well-executed 2D in four movies, during the first third of WALL-E and in the Toy Story trilogy.  The obvious connection is that the CG in those examples was used, principally, to render objects, which moved due to science and the black arts, respectively, rather than properly living, breathing organic life.

My mild antipathy is partly because three-dimensionality has three problems, rendering figures that are a combination of 1)too weighty to be enjoyed as cartoons, 2)usually too deformed to look like actual humans, and 3)too uncannily detailed to serve as iconic images in any event.  Scott McCloud's Pretentious Triangle, built for comics but just as applicable to animation, just hasn't worked all that well with a third dimension added to it.

There is no doubt that the other part of my bias is, however, my unresolved anger over CG animation's accidental destruction of traditional (and not-so-traditional) 2D animation in America.  I'll probably never quite forgive it; nor will I stop regretting that The Princess and the Frog was not successful enough to convince Disney and others to continue making marquee 2D films (nor, also, regretting that it was notfacing factsparticularly good).  But we can live in hope that the 2D-on-3D CGI technology which was unveiled and perfected (as far as I'm concerned) in "Paperman" will, sooner rather than later, form the foundation of a feature film.

But Frozen is, as it happens, a beautiful example of 3D cartooning, and it definitely represents the CG animation medium closing in on its cousin.  It paints its picture with an austere palette of whites, blues, purples, and more whites for its wintry environments, and with a beautiful array of mostly secondary, Lex Luthor colors for its costumes and urban backdrops, while deploying computer modeling of the highest order to create the fantastic, phantasmogorical ice effectscouldn't do this with traditional animation:1

The Laser Floyd show that tends to come with the magical generation of ice sculptures in Frozen is, it's true, both unnecessary andI suspectserves as a cheat, to bound the edges of the effect with glowy showiness, which is annoying anyway because light shouldn't be generated by a reduction in temperature, but also (and less nerdily) does us all the disservice of often obscuring what would be the most interesting-looking part of the process, atmospheric water crystallizing suddenly into ice.  But it looks better than fine even so.

And I'd feel terrible if I didn't mention the montage where our heroine sings and dances in front of paintings and the movie turns into Barry WTF Lyndon for what is its most impressive forty-five seconds, with not a single snowflake in sight.

Indeed, more important to Frozen's overall aesthetic success than its backgrounds is the figure work.  With a few unfortunate (but awful) exceptions, here the characters are less plastic-faced monsters than they are odd- but pleasantly odd-looking humanoid aliens.

Maybe I'm just getting used to it; maybe they're getting better at it and in fact great at it; and maybe I don't need to avoid Tangled2 and Wreck-It Ralph3 anymore.  But, if Frozen is the "really good one," because it is being hailed in some quarters as such, maybe I do, because I also found it only marginally enjoyable otherwise.

Frozen is incredibly loosely based on "The Snow Queen," in that both involve female monarchs with command over the cold, both are set in a vague, Hanseatic northern Europe, and both use trolls as key, but radically different, plot devices.

In this movie, instead of being warped by elemental demigods, children are warped by their parents and their own inborn traits.  Just like in real life!

Our tale opens in Elsinore Isengard Arendelle, beginning in earnest with the early childhoods of its two principals, younger Princess Anna, a copper-topped, spritely girl, and her slightly older sister and heir to the throne, platinum-haired Princess Elsa.  For entirely (and, yes, wisely) unexplained reasons, Elsa has powers.  Explicitly, she only has one superpower, the ability to generate cold.  Implicitly, however, violating thermodynamics and destroying energy is not enough; she might actually be omnipotent.  A list of her powers, that may or may not be exhaustive, would include the abilities to control wind and precipitation generally over a large geographic area (requiring the creation or destruction of energy equivalent to several large atom bombs), to create ice constructs that cannot possibly exist (without also generating matter ex nihilo), to transmute existing matter (what happened to her original dress? and I think she also created lipstick), to control one of the fundamental forces of the universe (namely gravity), andlet's not ignore it, because once the movie gets to this point, I could not ignore it for a secondto forge souls and create life.

Also: superhuman architectural skills... well, you tell me where they came from.  I never saw her read a book.

But let's pretend, like the movie more-or-less does, which is more-or-less fine, that Elsa is simply a cryokinetic and not our living God.  Unfortunately, young Elsa's power is not adequately under her control.  Emotional distress weakens her control further, and one night, her ordinary kid mutant shenanigans with her flatscan sister turn lethalElsa accidentally beans Anna in the head with a snow beam and gives her the old brain freeze, which is a depressingly accurate way to describe this scenein contrast to the numerous inaccurate descriptions I read before I saw this movie. Without the dialogue that establishes the fact, it is far from clear or convincing that Anna is actually mortally wounded or dead.  I suppose if you had the power to freeze the inside of someone's skull, it would stone-kill them without leaving any outward marks of having been Vanilla Skied, but it's not how Elsa's abilities are usually represented, and, lacking in what you would call an index, it's not very cinematic, either.

It's not like I'm asking for her body to collapse into a thousand shards of frozen debris like the T1000 every time she gets cold.  I just want to see something.

Their parents rush Anna to the trolls, whose magic can heal her. In an odd line that I reckon calls back in some wise to the mirror shards in "The Snow Queen," and which I assumed was metaphorical but it turns out is not, the trollish mage says it's lucky Anna only suffered a head injury, because it's much easier to repair brain tissue shattered by the expansion of water ice than it is to fix a frozen heart.

Well, thanks to superior Scandinavian health care, they not only bring Anna back to life, but also perform some medically-unnecessary memory surgery, leaving the fun times she's had with Elsa but erasing the knowledge of Elsa's powers.  Elsa, in the aftermath, is confined to her room, until such time as she can master her abilities.  Meanwhile, Anna, for entirely (and no, not wisely) unexplained reasons, is also locked in the palace.  The result is that Anna does not see her sister againnor pretty much anybody elsefor over a decade. For obvious reasons, she is sad.

I was supposed to see the Oldboy remake tonight right after Frozen; I didn't have the chance, but even so I still got to see not just one but two people confined and deprived of human contact until they went completely insane.  Or, at least, I should have: it is entirely possible that reading about Frozen's premise takes longer than it does for the film to set it up, and if there is anything you don't want to handle in completely summary fashion, and basically dismiss for at least one of our protagonists as soon as its plot purpose has been served, it's a lifetime of nearly solitary confinement.  So, can fifteen years of imaginary training be put to use?

They can't.

Oh well. Anyway, while we get to see Anna display a character through conversation in the film, Elsa's first scene as an adult involves her throwing an ice tantrum and fleeing for the mountains alone, and she stays alone in the mountains for most of the movie, like some kind of Disney Princess Colonel Kurtz. Unfortunately, she remains very much a cypher, defined in the broadest possible terms by her character song, "Let It Go," a unspecific affair even by the standards of its species, past-looking and unclear of its object in a way that no I Want song I've ever heard before has been.  (It is, however, a damned fine thing to listen to.)

We learn, at most, that she's tired of burying her feelingsand what feelings, exactly, does Elsa have?  What about?  Who about?  Well, I guess you can't expect that someone who's been locked in a room, whose only conversations have been with her parents, and which were about not freezing things, to have the communication skills to tell us about her inner life.  It's lucky that she has top-flight animators to do that for her; Elsa's dreams seem to largely revolve around creating imposing ice constructs and generally being Dr. Manhattan on Mars, if, sadly, without a fraction the character depth.

"But you'd regained an interest in human life."
"No, I didn't." 

It's very much a shame, because Elsa is, in principle, substantially more interesting and more relateable than her (almost, but not, annoyingly) unscarred, untraumatized, uncrazy sister.

At worst, Anna is just devoid of instructive life experience.  The setting for Elsa's blow-up is the party held the night of her coronation as queen; the inciting incident is Anna's Sleeping Beauty moment, when she meets a handsome princely dude (named, somewhat inappropriately, Hans) and they decide to get married after what initially seems like at least a whole night's meeting-cute, but, upon returning to the party after their romantic montage, can be confirmed to have lasted absolutely no longer than thirty minutes.

Even a nearly feral person like Elsa knows this is an outrageously stupid thing to do, and when she and her sister fight, Elsa loses emotional, and temperature, control.  Of course, she's still right, and this all can be seen as a subversion of ye olde Disney princess formula, but it is beaten into the ground with such violence and, frankly, contempt, that I'd have been happier to see the tropes ultimately played straight.  (The other, only slightly less fiat romance in this Disney princess animated musical doesn't really get what I would call a proper song.  I mean, it gets a song.  Everything in this movie gets a song.  But it's nothing you'd want to hear.)

To her credit, Anna doesn't wait a moment to pursue Elsa after she's gone into self-imposed exile.  She believes she can talk Elsa down, and that although she's in the process of unleashing an eternal winter on her kingdom, Elsa is not really dangerous.  She bases this upon her last interaction with Elsa, fifteen years ago, which she does not clearly remember.

A little amazingly, it takes an obvious villain to suggest a killing mission, but that's because there are no other adivsors to the Queen or her newly-ascended Regentin fact, Anna leaves Hans, a foreign prince, in charge, because the kingdom has virtually no state apparatus whatsoever other than the royal personages, which is really weird (and not a little lazy).

On her way into the mountains, Anna picks up Kristoff, an unemployed ice seller (a real pre-industrial job and an interesting economic situation), as a guide.  She also finds an broken mockery of humanity, a living snowman that Elsa somehow created and granted sapience to.  It's so fucked up.

His (its) name is Olaf, and he was featured prominently in the trailers and, fortunately, not nearly as prominently here.  In fact, Olaf isn't totally abhorrent; he's even occasionally the funniest thing in a reasonably funny picture ("I don't have a skull" being a really standout linebelieve it or not).  And yet, his mere demoniac presence is entirely out of placehis rounded form, far-too-multifunctional snow body, and especially his fire orange carrot nose don't fit the generally severe aesthetic, let alone does his full-on cartoon existence fit this film's sort-of darkish tone.  Thus every scene he's in feels artificial and wrong.  It doesn't help that no purpose he serves, functionally, is not also already fulfilled by Anna and Kristoff, as they're already a pair of quirky weirdos who each have well-developed senses of humor of their own.

The fantasy montage that Olaf gets is the only such sequence in a film that has trouble characterizing one of its leads.  The I Want song he sings during it, as he imagines himself in tropical climes (he doesn't understand what summer is—ugh), is also Frozen's absolute zero, stopping all molecular motion dead.  Frozen already stumbled with its too-brief, too-sketched prologue, but it did recover; it never totally makes up the time after Olaf shows up.

The person I saw it with asked me if he reminded me of Jar-Jar Binks.  I wouldn't go that far, but the comparison's not inapt: even though everyone in this movie is already a computer creation, Olaf still feels very much like a poorly considered digital insertion.  You know, like a prostate exam. Not since those execrable gargoyles in Hunchback of Notre Dame has a Disney sidekick been this tacked-on and poorly considered.  Yes, including Mushu.

Can't we just put all this nonsense in its own short film?

I did, however, enjoy the reindeer, which was a very pleasant surprise.

The more systemic problem with Frozen—it was always there, but now I finally discern it consciouslyis that the obvious, in fact seemingly necessary, solution to the Elsa Problem is exactly what the villainous side character proposed: that she die.

It's true that the calamity she's causing is not entirely her fault, but that's a side issue.  Personally, I think it's a mistake that she only evinces the merest whiff of any real malicethere's a single line in her song, going "The cold never bothered me anyway" as she unleashes the full force of her powers on the world.  However, she doesn't actually freeze the whole kingdom on purpose, despite any lyrics stating otherwise; she's never quite properly motivated to do so since she has so few human interactions, and in any event she's completely ignorant of the far-reaching effects of her power, becoming aware of the apocalyptic state of her kingdom only when Anna, having reached her, tells her so.

The problem is that Lee and Buck never decide whether Elsa is a good witch or a bad witch.  Instead, we get an indifferent witch.  Which is frankly maddening.

Her response to being told that she's slowly killing hundreds of thousands of people (or, as a line of dialogue suggests it may be happening across the world, hundreds of millions!) is to not really respond at all.  She just sort of ignores it, attacking anyone who comes to her, whether they be friend or foe, but taking no active steps of her own, which makes for frustrating, static drama.  She doesn't have the ability to stop the cold snap once it's started, but since one expects some kind of heroism or villainy or at least tragedy at some point, depressive isolationism isn't very compelling on a narrative level.  Certainly we've all sat inactive when action was direly needed; however, we in the audience, thank God, don't have to be redeemable human beings.

Elsa, of course, still does.  And since she is causing untold harm, at what point does it become absolutely morally necessary that she at least consider suicide?

Since this is a Disney movie, absolutely never.  But since this is also a movie about someone unable to stop herself from destroying the world, from roughly about the end of the second act forward, at the latest.  This was hardly impossible; you probably shouldn't utter the word "suicide"; but call it "self-sacrifice" and you've got yourself a picture.

Or you could have gone another way entirely; there's a late third act event that, had it but occurred a bit earlier, would have obviated all this, and would have motivated a truly fearsome, fully agent revenge, yet still left Elsa plausibly worthy of our affections and our hopes, and the film could have ended in basically the same fashion as it does.  Unhappily, the ending is instead a bit of logistical mess, if remaining moving on a basic level.

Frozen, then, by its very structure and the constraints of its genre, studio, and intended audience, denies itself its most narratively palatable options, and is still yet hampered by tone and pace issues (largely revolving around the abominable snowman).  So it cannot be considered one of the Disney greatsof any animation technique.

As a musical, of course, this all might have been invisible if the songs had been a bit better.  They're not.  None are bad (except the Olaf one, which sucks), but about three out of about eight are really what you'd call good, and only a single one, "Let It Go," proves to be a great musical work, good enough to command its own independent right to exist.4

Ultimately, it's a basically entertaining experiencecertainly a visually lovely oneand, like I said, it's pretty darn funny, including a great joke about boogers and a line that references bestiality that is not nearly as coded as its writers probably think it is.

No, I am serious!

Your experience may well be somewhat more positive, as the tolerance for goofy sidekicks does vary considerably from person to person and the desire to see suicide addressed in a children's movie is probably held by me alone.

Anyway, I'm looking way forward to Nymphomaniac!5

Score: 6/10

1 Well, they could, but it would cost one billion dollars.
2 But I have seen a "best of" reel, and am still finding it hard to get over how nasty, visceral, and just plain uncartoonish the violence is thanks to the three-dimensionality of the characters. I particularly enjoy the scene where Rapunzel beats a man with a frying pan until his brains start leaking out his ears, right before "Stuck in the Middle With You" starts playing and Flynn wakes up to the smell of gasoline.
3 I imagine I could identify with this one: it is hard to love your job when no one seems to like you for doing it.
4 I've often wondered if The Little Mermaid would still be great if every song in it hadn't been totally amazing, with at least one that could have stood as a great song, totally out of context and without The Little Mermaid ever having been made. It would be lesser, that's for sure. But The Little Mermaid is also thematically and narratively tight as a drum, and tells a universally resonant and incredibly mature story despite also having to remain within the bounds of family-friendly entertainment, and is merely enhanced to super-classic status by its music; Frozen certainly doesn't succeed without qualification on either count, with its songs beholden to awkward phrasing in an attempt to advance character or the plot, and its characters and plot... well, see above.
5 The sight of which I imagine to be significantly less scarring than the monstrosity of a 3D Mickey Mouse cartoon entitled "Get a Horse," such as unfortunately played before my feature.  Chaos really does reign.

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