Thursday, December 5, 2013

"For the First Time in Forever...": 5 Reasons Why Frozen is Disney's Best Animated Film Since the 90s

By Andrew Braid
Yes, that's right, this movie.

Well, even with all the recent hype surrounding this one, and from the perspective of a huge Disney fan, I gotta say: expectations definitely met, and then some.
So yeah, Frozen. In short, it's a fantastic movie, and without a doubt the best animated film of the year (it's basically the only one likely to make a Top 10 spot for me). In fact, I'm not the only one saying that right now- look around and you'll find more than a few articles and posts on how this is the year where Disney Animation truly outshone stablemate and animation king Pixar (though in truth it's actually the third consecutive year they've outdone a fellow Pixar release: Brave was a pretty good movie unfortunately held back from real greatness, and the less said about Cars 2 the better). How did Frozen get to this kind of point, reaching this kind of effusive praise? Well for starters...

1. A recent resurgence for Disney Animation paved the way

No one is going to deny that the early-to-mid 2000s were fairly dark times for Disney Animation. That the once mighty king of animation was reduced to putting out limping turds like Home on the Range and Chicken Little is likely the lowest point in their decades of history. Then in 2006 Disney bought Pixar, and with this came the promotion of Toy Story director John Lasseter to head of all Disney Animation. And when I say that, I mean he's in charge of ALL their animated output- this is the guy you can thank for putting a stake through the soul-sucking demon that is the Disney direct-to-video sequel machine. As for your young daughters begging you to buy them a new Tinkerbel movie every year? Yep, Lasseter. And the guy in charge of giving us localizations and North American releases for most of Studio Ghibli's releases, consistently budging us into experiencing the wonders of Hayao Miyazaki? Again, Lasseter.
And his impact was most definitely felt on Disney Animation's output, releasing the oft-underrated Meet the Robinsons the following year and never turning back. Their output has been consistently strong ever since, from The Princess and the Frog and Tangled to Winnie the Pooh and last year's Wreck-It Ralph, even if the looming shadow of Pixar has distracted many people from realizing it (and with releases like Wall-E, Up and Toy Story 3, how could it not?). And the huge success of Tangled has already been considered by many fans a return to Renaissance-era quality (but now with the box-office numbers to match). It's taken a little time and patience, but anyone who didn't know that Disney's back in the game is definitely going to know it now.

2. A strong story that pulls from classic Disney tropes while also subverting them,+Frozen.png

Loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale The Snow Queen (which Disney himself had been trying to develop as a film decades before), Frozen follows the Dinsey formula in more than a few familiar ways: princesses, the lead characters losing their parents early on, a "true love at first sight" romantic plotline, wacky comic relief side characters, and a heaping helping of Broadway-style musical numbers. All sounds familiar enough, right?
Well, not quite. Without divulging heavily into spoilers (that's right, a Dinsey animated film that warrants a spoiler warning- that ought to be a big tip-off right there), the third act of Frozen doesn't go quite where one would expect it to, even as it's been moving mostly in line with those Disney formula expectations up to that point. In fact, it's the most subversive any Disney film has ever been with its own formula. This is a Disney princess film that has the characters in-movie criticize Anna's decision to get engaged to a handsome prince she just met... and actually get proven right. This is a Disney princess film where neither princess gets married at the end, and one of them never even gets the slightest hint of a love interest to start with (because who said she ever had to?). This is a Disney princess movie with an entire musical number ("Fixer Upper") about how love and relationships are in fact a gradual thing that actually takes real time and work. For a studio so ingrained in and renowned for its stable formula, Frozen take some refreshing steps to shake it up, all while still being true to its roots as a classic-style Disney princess movie (and an excellent one at that).

3. It's character-driven, with a surprising amount of depth


At its core, Frozen is a tale about the bond between two sisters, Anna and Elsa, distanced by circumstance and a fear of human connection only matched by an aching desire for the same. This emotional center is where the film most resonates with viewers, namely because it just feels so easy to relate to: sibling relationships are by nature a very uneven, complicated dynamic regardless of circumstances, and Anna and Elsa's forced separation has impacted each woman in how they've grown in the wake of Elsa's imposed isolation (first at the behest of her well-meaning parents, then by her own choice). Anna has grown into an excitable, high-spirited yet naive young woman yearning for any new people to meet, while Elsa has forced herself to become generally cold and introverted, convinced that her self-repression is better for everyone's sake, even as fear grips her psyche every waking day. After Elsa unintentionally ousts herself and is greeted with fear by the people, Anna is determined to make it right, to prove that despite their strained connection, the bond between family can always be mended. It's a complex dynamic that lends Frozen a level of depth that's a far cry from not just the studio's more classic archetype characters, but from many animated features in general. In a sense, this is what Pixar's Brave should have been (albeit about a sister relationship rather than a mother/daughter one). Whereas Brave's story turns often get in the way of showcasing its strongest element (the female family dynamic), Frozen's fantasy elements are more effectively established and better implemented in service of its core story, all while still making ample room for its comic relief. Oh yeah, now that I mention it...

4. It's also really, genuinely funny

I'm not just talking about physical comedy, either (although that's still very funny in its own right). It's actually quite surprising just how truly funny much of Frozen's dialogue is. There's great humor mined from Anna's social awkwardness- her bumbling flirtation with Hans, the series of long pauses as she struggles to maintain conversation with her sister, her attempts at playing tough and firm as she tries to gain Kristoff's help. It's the kind of humor that stems from character, and not just writing one-liners, cutaways, or a setup/punchline. Believe me, it's not exactly easy to pull off, and it's rare to see it done so effectively in an animated feature (partly because the characters tend to be kept more simple than they are here). Even Olaf the snowman, if the marketing didn't scare you away (seriously, the film's marketing does a terrible job representing what the film actually is), is a hilarious character, yet also a very endearing one. His childlike obliviousness inspires one of the film's funniest musical numbers ("In Summer"), and it's honestly some kind of miracle that the whole ironic running joke (if you didn't guess from the song) never gets old.
Speaking of the musical numbers...

5. The music. Hot damn, the MUSIC.

Seriously, if anything else, Frozen is EASILY, HANDS DOWN the best Disney musical in nearly 20 years. Many recent Disney musicals have been very good overall, but with only one or two particularly standout songs. However, Frozen scores hit after hit, from the equally cute and heartbreaking "Do You Want to Build a Snowman?" to the rousing anthem of "For the First Time in Forever". The definite, surefire classic though is Elsa's big showstopper, "Let It Go". I swear, this one's already climbing up the ranks with the likes of "Part of Your World", Beauty and the Beast" and "A Whole New World", and for good reason (YouTube covers and remixes are popping up at a very high rate).
You can watch the whole scene below (it's official, too- thanks Disney!),though you also ought to see it in the movie itself for the full impact:

Oh, and one last note: the 3D version is highly recommended. 3D for CG animated films is generally well-done (it's being "shot" in 3D from the very beginning, after all), and Frozen is certainly no different. What really makes the 3D a must though is the attached Mickey Mouse short  Get a Horse! The short itself is an incredibly clever throwback to old-school Mickey's style and sensibility (ie. not the more innocent kinds of laughs that you'd expect from Mickey now), with a more modern twist thrown in. More importantly though, is it absolutely needs 3D to be best experienced, as much of the humor comes from how it plays with the 3D frame almost constantly. It's not just a great animated short, but a HUGE treat for hardcore Disney buffs. Trust me, it really is fantastic enough on its own to justify paying the 3D surcharge.