Mark Reviews Movies

Frozen (2013)

FROZEN (2013)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Directors: Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee

Cast: The voices of Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Santino Fontana, Alan Tudyk, Ciarán Hinds

MPAA Rating: PG (for some action and mild rude humor)

Running Time: 1:48

Release Date: 11/27/13

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Review by Mark Dujsik | November 26, 2013

Disney Animation Studios has been undergoing something of an identity crisis since the influx of the medium of computer animation. Abandoning traditional hand-drawn animation for years (before returning to it—once, so far) and embracing broad and gimmick-based comedies over the musicals that made (and re-made) the studio's reputation what it is today, it's not exactly clear what the driving creative mission of the studio that brought us so many great cultural milestones is any more. Whatever the future might hold for that workshop, Frozen is not only a giant step in the right direction but also a significant technical and storytelling achievement in its own right.

Here's a Disney musical that truly captures the spirit of the output from studio's heydays and shows us what this not-so-newfangled-anymore medium can do when put to the service of an effective and authentically affecting tale. This is a grandly entertaining film, full of vigor and wonder.

The technology may not be so new anymore, but it still has the ability to amaze in the right hands. Under the guidance of co-directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, Frozen, with its starkly beautiful rendering of a winter wonderland, does just that.

The story, inspired by a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, concerns a woman born (Characters make the distinction that she's not technically cursed, but still, it is more than a bit of a curse) with the power to create and control snow and ice. This leads to some remarkable setpieces of animation, such as when the woman conjures an entire fortress of ice around her from sheer will power. We see the foundation frosting over, as layers and layers are added from sparkling blue flakes, until the structure towers high on the precipice of a mountain overlooking the kingdom where she has spent her entire life until now.

The spectacle is set to a superb song with music by Robert Lopez and lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez that drive the action. There's an inexorable force to the melody that reflects the heroine's own state of mind as she ceaselessly walks toward the most remote location she can find to escape everything, and the lyrics solely exist to advance the character, which is true of the rest of the songs, as well.

And Elsa (voice of Idina Menzel) is a full-blooded character—a strong-willed woman who has spent the majority of her life believing she is a threat to everyone and everything she loves. Whether that is accurate or not does not matter. She—and, when her powers are revealed, almost everyone else—is convinced that is the case—and with good reason. The trek up the mountain and the building of the fortress are not acts of spite or anger toward those who have judged her; they simply a means to remove herself from the world—not for her own satisfaction or protection but to protect others from herself.

Through no fault of her own and against her most valiant efforts to prevent it, Elsa becomes the unintentional antagonist of the story, and that is as complex as it sounds. The screenplay, written by Lee, is not a simple fairy tale with a clean, concise message to be had by the end. This is a rich study of the various characters and their relationships within this world that happens to be full of magic and through a beautiful alliance of technical wizardry, vibrant songs, and surprisingly resonant characterizations.

Elsa and her sister Anna (voice of Kristen Bell), who is also a well-realized character and eventual protagonist, are the daughters of the King and Queen of Arendelle, a kingdom located on the shore of fjord. In the extended prologue that follows the sisters from childhood to adulthood, Elsa accidentally injures Anna while playing with Elsa's power. The King and Queen take their daughters to a group of small stone trolls, and their leader (voice of Ciarán Hinds) heals Anna. He also erases her memory of Elsa's abilities so that they can remain hidden from everyone in the kingdom, lest any harm befalls their elder daughter. The doors and windows to the castle are locked up, and Elsa stays locked in her room for years, tormented by her little sister singing to her through the door to try to get her to come out and play in a tune that becomes more mournful as time progresses.

The years pass. Their parents die in a shipwreck at sea. By the time the day arrives for Elsa to crowned queen, the sisters are essentially strangers.

On the day of the coronation, Anna meets Hans (voice of Santino Fontana), the prince of another kingdom, and falls in love at first sight (The doubtful reaction of various characters to this development throughout the film is just one of the ways Lee pokes fun at the conventions and contrivances of fairy tales). The newly crowned Queen refuses to give her blessing to their quick engagement, and after Anna presses the issue, Elsa's powers are unleashed beyond her control, sending the entire kingdom into an early, harsh winter.

Anna, convinced she is to blame, sets off to find her sister, who has run off to the mountains. Along the way, she joins up with Kristoff (voice of Jonathan Groff), a loner—like the sisters—whose only friend is a reindeer, and Olaf (voice of Josh Gad), a snowman that has come to life through Elsa's magic and is completely oblivious to the nature of his existence (His big song is about how he wants to experience summer and find out what happens to snow in the heat).

While they all serve a functional role for the plot, none of these characters feel perfunctory. Olaf is great comic relief, but his innocence and lack of comprehension also serves as a mirror to Anna's naiveté. Kristoff is the dashing hero and clearly a likely match for Anna, but he's far too strange to be a dull variety of the archetype. He sings a duet with his reindeer, providing the voice for both parts, and his adoptive family of stone trolls sings about all his flaws as a way to convince Anna to marry him. Hans is a decent man who honors his promise to his betrothed to keep watch over the kingdom, but there's something slightly off-putting about his perfection.

We know the formula of these stories, but Lee's screenplay offers so many divergences from it in how the characters act and in how they interact with and complement each other that the film doesn't feel like an exercise in routine. Frozen is a great entry into the canon of the studio's animated features (The first legitimately great one in over a decade) and, simply, just a great film.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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