Saturday Matinee #152, Frozen Week: A Frozen Valentine (November 27, 2013)
Published November 30, 2013
by Albert Gutierrez
Author's Note: This week's Saturday Matinee was originally published to my Facebook page soon after seeing the film in theatres. Given that we are celebrating Frozen Week, I felt it appropriate to share here for all readers of From Screen to Theme.
Idina Menzel's "Let It Go" has already repeated on a loop four times as I begin writing this. For further context, I began writing this twenty minutes after leaving the theatre. So many of my thoughts were stream-of-consciousness; I had to go back and pare it down to something more concise and clear. Plenty more are still in my notes, perhaps waiting for the more objective review to come later. Rather, this is just one Disney fan's feelings, ramblings, and maybe shameless declarations of love, towards a film that has made him feel both a renewed sense of youthfulness, and a bittersweet wistfulness for the long-ago Disney that defined his childhood.
Kristoff - I mean, first off - Disney deceptively marketed this film to American audiences. Frozen is not what the initial trailers may have made you fear it would be. We've known of this practice for some time, as evident by the humorous "Olaf vs. Sven" teaser trailer for this film, or the animation-test-turned-trailer for Tangled, or even The Princess and the Frog's entire marketing campaign ("the 90s are back!"). It certainly does its job of bait-and-switch, but for once, I didn't mind being hooked. Yes, we have humor. But it's well-placed, helps move along the story, and only occasionally gets off-color. Yes, we have action. But it's not a horribly-skewed imbalance of sequences that overtakes the genuine pathos of the characters and their respective arcs. And yes, we have music. My goodness, we have music. The music becomes the heart of the film, each song threads together these wonderful characters, sharing links and lyrics that have not been emulated within a Disney film since the likes of Beauty and the Beast.
Most importantly, Frozen has marked both a return and a new beginning for Disney animation. And yet, it fits within a noticeable pattern of Disney animation; this signals the return of which I spoke. Every couple dozen years, the studio seemingly loses its way, only to re-acquaint themselves with the audience in a grand form that makes us wonder why they strayed. Whether the "they" refers to the audience or the studio, I'll leave up to you. Perhaps it is too soon to predict, but I can easily see Frozen affect a young six-year-old just as Beauty and the Beast affected me. Imagine, hearing about the allure of Disney animation in such a brief, six-year existence, being brought up among the classics of the day (for this six year old, I'd reckon Lilo & Stitch, Meet the Robinsons, and The Princess and the Frog). You have your favorites, of course, but they all stirred around the idea of family and hard work, of getting there by the skin of your teeth rather than having it given to you. And Frozen comes along, embodying all that, along with more. So much more. It's the magic of filmmaking, the magic of Disney. It's falling in love with a movie... and having it fall in love with you.
Yet, Frozen also gives us a new beginning. A renewed sense of filmmaking and storytelling that doesn't always have to adhere to a tried-and-true formula (even if it admittedly works, as it does here in spades). Gone are the classic, sometimes-stentorian line delivery best left to Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty. Replaced is the contemporary, adorable ramblings of an insecure young girl. And it's perfectly okay. Heck, it's downright endearing. Princess Anna has the makings of an adolescent Penny from The Rescuers, right down to the freckly face and pigtails, while also showing some of her own vulnerabilities. What did she do, why isn't she loved enough? Likewise, Queen Elsa has inherited the honor and duty that compelled Wendy, Pocahontas, and Mulan to rebel, to run away, and to eventually return. The two sisters embody some of the best of Disney's heroines, while still creating a freshness to such characters. They've become the next generation of 2002's Lilo and Nani (for a moment, let's forget the fluffy blue dog), sisters who have their differences, but love each other regardless, because nobody gets left behind or forgotten.
Of all that Frozen gives to an audience, most will walk away with the music. They'll belt out "Let It Go" as they leave the theatre, either in a grand Menzel-esque way, or just mumbling it to themselves amidst the interactive 4-D effects that the theatre apparently invested in without telling anyone. "Hey, why is there water on my face?" I wondered as the end credits ran. But the music has the power to do that. I wouldn't go so far as to say it's the days of Ashman & Menken once more, but the Lopez team (Robert and his wife, Kristen n�e Anderson) certainly have risen in the ranks to eventually join the likes of them and the Sherman Brothers in the sacred pages of the Disney Songbook. Much of the first act is devoted to song, recreating that Broadway feel that defined early-90s Disney animation and eventually rejuvenated the Great White Way as well. As time goes on, the story takes a turn towards straightforward drama with stakes raised; too many songs would slow them down. But it worked in Aladdin, just as it does in Frozen.
Interesting, what works best in Frozen almost seemed a hindrance to past Disney animated films. Very rarely does Disney animate in the wide vista of CinemaScope or its various other imitators over the years: Technirama, Panavision, you name it. And aside from Disney's first two animated forays - Lady and the Tramp in CinemaScope, Sleeping Beauty in Technirama 70 - the more contemporary uses of letterbox widescreen has often resulted in lower box-office performances. We saw undeniable failure in 1985's The Black Cauldron and 2001's Atlantis: The Lost Empire, while 2003's Brother Bear did modestly successful here, but was gangbusters internationally. Like Wreck-It Ralph the year before, Frozen goes wide on the screen, harkening back to the CinemaScope glory of yore. Combining 3-D viewing with such vistas as the Scandinavian snowlands truly served as a work of genius. We get the scope of Sleeping Beauty, but with the depth and the canvas of Tarzan. And unlike Wreck-It Ralph, where each environment had to be a believably-artificial reality, Frozen gives us nature and wonderment as only Disney can bring it to life.
But bigger isn't always better. Rather, the use of CinemaScope and the wide screen helps to better reflect the intimacy of the film. We're given a simple story - based sparingly on the Hans Christian Andersen tale - that gets told amidst a lush, grand landscape. The entire piece hinges more on repairing a relationship rather than being slave to the view. And that's the beauty of it. We're pulled into the story in spite of the view, in spite of all the whizz-bang flashiness of the jaw-dropping animation. At the center of this film is a story of acceptance, well-told through an epic scope that shows Disney firing on all four cylinders. We don't need to be impressed by a tracking shot of Elsa in the mountains when "Let It Go" is all she needs, but it still tugs at our hearts regardless. My theatre actually erupted in applause when the song was over. The reaction factor on this film was remarkable, to say the least. Even with this one-two punch between sisters dominating the story, the film still held a special relationship with the audience. It made movie-going an event again. It probably helped that the film was preceded by the Mickey Mouse short "Get a Horse!", a cartoon that is humorously old-school, hilariously self-aware, and easily the contender for Best Animated Short at next year's Academy Awards.
At the end of the day, when you strip away the art of going to the theatre and examining the film itself, you'll see that Frozen works best as Disney's own valentine to their past. This movie can only exist here, in the now, in the celebration of ninety years of Disney magic. Ninety years ago, Walt and Roy began a humble cartoon studio that has evolved into a cultural juggernaut. At the time, nobody expected an everyman from the Midwest to actually become one of the most recognizable names in the world. Yet here it is. It's Frozen, both literally and figuratively. Everything that made Disney what it was then, is today, and forever will be, has been lovingly preserved; they have frozen forever the essence of Disney within this film. Upon my first viewing, I could sense bits of Snow White, bits of Dumbo, even some influence from the package films. Watch the film again, you'll remember One Hundred and One Dalmatians, you'll be reminded of The Little Mermaid. Even the unlikeliest connections can be found. Among the latter-day Disney films, I felt the film resonated most with Meet the Robinsons for some obvious reasons, while others may be a bit obscure. Every step Disney has taken, every film they've made, it has lead to Frozen. This is Disney animation: then, now, forever. I can't think of a better tribute.
I think I'll see it again.