Frozen

***

Reviewed by: David Graham

"Frozen will definitely please festive-minded families but it’s not quite the classic it could have been."

Disney’s attempts to bring The Snow Queen - one of Hans Christian Anderson’s darkest and most complex fairytales - to the screen have been as cursed as its eponymous ice-wielding protagonist. With a production history dating back to the Forties, it’s debatable whether this eventual and radically altered re-telling is a minor miracle or a duty-bound barrel-scraper, but in the wake of the success of Tangled and Wreck It Ralph as well as Pixar’s relative recent slump, more new-age Disney is certainly welcome. Continuing Tangled’s trend for mixing convention with modern girl-power sensibilities, Frozen will definitely please festive-minded families but it’s not quite the classic it could have been.

In the Nordic realm of Arendelle, young Anna is enraptured with her elder sister Elsa’s magical ability to cast snow from her fingertips, but a play-time accident results in their over-cautious parents keeping the young princesses locked up and separated in their castle thereafter. When the pair find themselves orphaned, Elsa is crowned the new queen, throwing the doors open to the outside world and joyously reuniting with her headstrong sibling. With potential suitors circling and their neighbouring countrymen making political advances, the pressure sees Elsa’s power get the better of her, throwing the once-green kingdom into a dangerous winter and sending her out on her own to avoid doing any more damage. Anna takes it upon herself to try to find her sister to talk sense into her, but the frozen tundra presents a variety of challenges, with which reluctant lunk Kristoff and animated snowman Olaf may prove a help or hindrance.

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Frozen makes a good case for how far female characterisation has come in recent cartoons; we’re still dealing with princesses, but these gals sure ain’t shrinking violets. Elsa represents one of the most rounded Disney females yet, her travails cast in the mould of a superhero origin story with a genuine sense of female empowerment, while Anna is frequently seen saving the men from peril, and the love that saves her day may not be the one you expect. One of the early show-piece songs is entirely about Elsa’s new-found sense of freedom, celebrating her own abilities and the pleasure of being alone having abandoned the male-skewed hierarchy she unhappily reigned over (or was trapped within).

Even this beautifully animated sequence highlights how hollow Frozen can be though: literally nothing happens during the lengthy number. It’s all a show and does nothing to advance the narrative. This might not be a problem if the songs were as catchy and involving as they were in Tangled, but sadly they more often than not hit a bum note, despite their energy and impressive vocal performances. Tellingly, it’s all a bit X-Factor, down to the sparkly costume, glitzy visuals and lung-bursting, glass-shattering singing (as Elsa, Broadway vet Idina Menzel pitches to the dogs) – the contestants on those reality shows are the princesses today’s children dream of being, and Disney knows it.

The story is basically Carrie with a sisterly twist in place of maternal strife and royalty replacing religion, but there’s a curious lack of tangible peril and that delicious Disney darkness we’ve come to expect. Aside from an early wolf-pack chase and an ice golem that looks like a cast-off from classic Eighties show Trap Door there’s nothing even remotely scary (‘Mild threat’ is pushing it), and no real baddies to boo. A latter-half twist is well-handled and finally gives the story an evil injection that ties in nicely with its pro-feminist leanings, but for the most part it all feels a little empty, sorely lacking the likes of Tangled’s Kate Bush-y villainess and Wreck It Ralph’s sense of digital peril on every level.

Too many cutesy supporting characters – including a reindeer that thinks it’s a dog, clearly a repetition of Tangled’s canine nag – also contribute to both the cliché and the sappiness, although some of them are definite crowd-pleasers. Josh Gad’s magical snowman Olaf will irk some cynical viewers, but he’s a brilliant creation, melding knockabout visual comedy with Gad’s endearingly goofy personality, a refreshing return to tradition after Tangled’s non-speaking anthropomorphic sidekicks. Others aren’t so successful: despite an amusing match-making number, some Nordic trolls seem out of place, while the comedy foreigners (a loose-limbed, wig-flapping elder statesman and a deceptively hospitable bumpkin) garner easy laughs but feel overly obvious.

The visual design and animation also feels like something of a step back in places: many of the vistas are bland and the character animation has a videogame-ish bluntness to it, while the gleaming surfaces and 3D effects are impressive but lack the wondrous detail of previous efforts. Given the canny timing of its release, it doesn’t even feel that festive, and the story is as lumpen in the middle as the comparable Brave. For all that though, it’s still a brisk and enjoyable caper, it’s just not likely to have the longevity of the Mouse-house’s finest.

Director Chris Buck and writer/director Jennifer Lee deserve praise for carrying the torch from Tangled in terms of the strong female slant, but the end result just isn’t as beguiling a fairytale as the Rapunzel adaptation and it’s nowhere near as imaginative or fun as Lee’s Wreck It Ralph script. Kristen Bell is great in the surprisingly nuanced lead, and there’s enough authentic detail to the Norwegian-inspired art to keep things feeling fresh, but in an underwhelming year for animation, Frozen is ultimately another lukewarm effort, destined to rake in the bucks but be forgotten by next Christmas.

Reviewed on: 12 Dec 2013
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The beauty and danger of ice exposed in an animated musical tale of royal siblings and treachery behind the throne.
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Angus Wolfe Murray ****1/2

Director: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee

Writer: Jennifer Lee, Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee, Shane Morris, based on the story by Hans Christian Andersen

Starring: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Santino Fontana, Alan Tudyk, Ciarán Hinds, Chris Williams, Stephen J. Anderson, Maia Wilson, Edie McClurg, Robert Pine, Maurice LaMarche, Livvy Stubenrauch, Eva Bella

Year: 2013

Runtime: 108 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US

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