With the Disney 52 reaching a conclusion that will inevitably be rushed, the powerhouse studio scupper my plans by releasing their 53rd animated feature film, Frozen. So in the middle of reviewing the latter films, I’m jumping ahead a few years to look at this immensely popular new film from the studio. It feels a bit defunct to try and assess its place within the canon as there are still a few I’m left to see. As such you won’t find any ‘the best Disney film since The Lion King/Snow White/Tangled style comments here – besides, I’ve enjoyed all of Disney’s most recent films so it wouldn’t go back far. I’m just pleased not that Disney are returning to form, but maintaining it.
Frozen tells the story of two sisters, Elsa and Ana, who are separated as children after Elsa accidentally injures her sister with her magic, ice creating powers, so she is sectioned off until she can control them. After their parents’ tragic death Elsa becomes Queen, but after Ana falls in love with the dashing Hans of the Southern Isles quite hastily, Elsa reveals her powers and casts the nation into deep winter. Ana must then go and persuade her sister to bring summer back. It’s (extremely) loosely inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s the Snow Queen, but Disney have bigger fish to freeze than faithfully adapting the writer of The Little Mermaid once more.
Immediately Frozen establishes the central dynamic of the film as between the two sisters as opposed to between a man and woman. After an eerie, largely pointless opening about how great and dangerous ice is it cuts to Elsa and Ana as children, seeing their friendship play out before they are separated. The second song in a Disney film is often the one that reveals the central desire of the hero – think ‘Part of Your World,’ ‘Go The Distance,’ or ‘Reflections’. At first glance it may seem like that role is given to the third song in Frozen – ‘For The First Time In Forever’ is about how lonely Ana is and wants to meet people and, specifically, a man. It’s the kind of Disney song that would normally be the ‘hero’s desire’ song. The second song, however, is actually more fitting: ‘Do You Wanna Build A Snowman’ is about how Ana longs for a relationship with her sister. From the off, other relationships are secondary and so it is in the rest of the film where Ana’s romantic confusion is superseded by her love of her sister. It builds to a fascinating, dramatic finale that marks a noteworthy change of direction for a studio usually obsessed with romantic love, particularly in fairy tale settings.
With the focus on the siblings, the role of villain becomes less clear as well – is it Elsa? The Duke of Weseltown? The ice itself? Elsa battles with her dark side and – in the musical highlight of the film – almost succumbs to it, which is a refreshingly mature exploration of character for Disney. Obviously it is done in a way in which everything is spelt out for the young audience, but the tension between good and evil has become significantly more nuanced since the days of the Golden Age, as has the approach to romance, which similarly undergoes a knowing face-lift. On most narrative fronts, Frozen take significant steps forward for the studio.
It’s a shame, therefore, that it falls into some age old traps that have plagued the House of Mouse since day one. The female characters, whilst interestingly written, are still waistless waifs with big eyes, so generically fake that one wonders if they have used the exact same model for both sisters that was previously employed for Tangled. If Disney really want sassy, revisionist Princesses their next step is surely to animate some that look like humans. Then there is the Duke of Weseltown who is utterly extraneous to plot or theme, harking back to Disney’s occasional need to overfill a film with characters. Sven the reindeer, meanwhile, is just Maximus with antlers, leading some to say that Disney are resting on their Tangled laurels and that this film is simply par for the course.
Such accusers must be ignoring not only the steps forward with storytelling that Frozen takes, but also the artistry with which the story is told. Musically, Frozen is Disney’s most Broadway film yet thanks to songs by the people behind Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon. Vocals cross over each other, high notes are hit and there is even a comic song that doesn’t add anything to the plot. The cast, too, are veterans of the proscenium arch, featuring actors from Wicked, Spring Awakening and The Book of Mormon, belting the songs out with remarkable conviction. Even the way the shots are framed and the characters move feels ready-made to be put on the stage. It wouldn’t be surprising if a big budget production makes its way to New York in the near future.
Then there is the animation, which I’ve left until last because it’s probably the thing that most people care least about in terms of what makes it good, but I geeked out about in a big way. The texture of the snow itself is ludicrously detailed to the extent that you can see individual grains as the characters plough through it. Compare the fineness of detail here to the blockiness of landscapes in something like Ice Age and the difference in quality is immediately evident. It’s so good it will make animation nerds cry a little. If you didn’t notice how good the animation was that’s because they made it all seem so effortless.
Frozen is the real deal, featuring progress in storytelling, astonishing animation and great songs. It’s the best Disney film since…
Sorry this is much later than normal. Finals loom…
A film’s aesthetic can have remarkable power. The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford has very little in the way of events over the course of its two and a half hours, but is transformed into something utterly hypnotic and unforgettable by Roger Deakins’ astonishing visuals. Shane Carruth’s sci-fi Primer may have had one of the most intelligent scripts I’ve ever heard, with genuine insight to add to the compendium of time-travel knowledge, but it was just so ugly I didn’t pay attention long enough to find out. Animation is no different, and poor character or landscape animation can often remove you totally from a film – try watching some of the earliest CG animated films today and it’s so blocky and ugly you wonder that they ever managed something as beautifully animated as Wall E or Kung Fu Panda 2 (no, really, it’s stunning). Equally, amazing visuals can make you forgive less than stellar storytelling.
Sleeping Beauty is a film that seriously challenges the relationship between visuals and story, because it is the most stunningly animated of their films so far, yet it is full of moments of such hackneyed and cloying storytelling that it could induce nausea. It’s so breathtakingly beautiful that you want to love it, but then you quickly lose patience with how simpering and unengaging Aurora is. You don’t know whether to gasp at the widescreen magnificence or yawn at the blandness of the carboard cut-out Prince Charming. Sleeping Beauty made me question how much weak storytelling and how many dull moments I was prepared to forgive simply because it’s just so wonderfully animated. So I’ll look at these two seemingly different aspects of the film to try and work out whether I actually liked Sleeping Beauty or not. Because right now I’m confused and in two minds.
The problem, once more, lies with the Disney heroine. Whatever happened to the inquisitive, adventurous Alice, and why are we treated to a pound-store Cinderella instead? Aurora (fifteen years old; singing voice of a someone in their forties) is even less of a character than any previous princesses. It is not an exaggeration to say she only plays a role for one scene in the entire film, when she goes wandering in the woods looking for flowers or carrots or something, meets a Prince and dances with him. During this one sequences she manages to commune with the local animals – a must for any self-respecting heroine. In the rest of the film she is so inert that she is literally asleep for the majority of it. Obviously that’s the major plot device of the film, but it does make Aurora Disney’s weakest princess, given how she is largely absent.
Thankfully, the supporting characters are far better. Flora, Fauna and Merryweather, her three fairy protectors, are essentially the main characters and they are far more fun to watch than Aurora. They also show remarkable courage and compassion in the face of danger, proving, once again, that Disney’s leads are often the least interesting aspect of their films. The real show stealer, however, is Maleficent. Rocking up uninvited to the party, she curses a baby princess just because she’s a badass. Oh, and she’s the Mistress of All Evil. There’s no real insecurity or jealousy here, she’s just evil and there’s nothing you can do about it. Also, like all the best villains, she can turn herself into a dragon at will and teleport around the place in bursts of green flames. Against a villain this evil, and with the offensively dull Aurora out of the way, the final, dragon-slaying act becomes thrilling and fraught with genuine peril. The film really picks up in the end, and slightly redeems the overly familiar and somewhat boring first two thirds.
Yet even in its dullest moments, Sleeping Beauty is always impressive thanks to the astonishing animation. Lady and the Tramp was impressive, but it is with their second film in widescreen that Disney really began to realise the potential of the new format. Using the entire width of the frame, the animators cram each cel with detail and allow for visual variation within each different shot. So one half of a frame could be a landscape of woods with busy undergrowth and tall, dark trees, whilst the other half could be plains stretching out into the distance with a castle on the horizon. Layered lighting means that there is a depth and richness to the look of the film, as well.
It’s also noticeably different from the other two princess films so far. Where Snow White and Cinderella opted for soft edges and a springtime palette of pastels and hazy lighting, Sleeping Beauty is animated with thick, clear lines and bold colours. The result is something that feels like medieval illustration as opposed to the nineteenth century aesthetic of the earlier Princess films. It’s like a tapestry recounting a magnificent pageant that feels very European and historical. It’s not as overtly fantastical as the glowing magic of Cinderella, and the hellish green glare of the finale feels like it could be from a fresco in a particularly solemn church. In some ways it is more restrained than its predecessors, but it’s also unashamedly royal, rich and fairy-taleish. It’s difficult to describe, so the simplest way of saying it is that it is jaw-droppingly beautiful. So much so that I found myself totally forgetting how irksome some of the elements of the film are. I found myself totally falling for it.
Clearly, then, I was being far too negative at the beginning of the review. Sleeping Beauty is, in actuality, a brilliant film, as charming and as magical as you could hope for from a Disney film. It’s perhaps just that I’m getting Princess fatigue, and one scene of cutesy animals who follow round an impossibly slim teenage girl begins to look just like the next one. Yet Sleeping Beauty is so visually distinct from its predecessors that it does manage to make a unique mark in the Disney canon, even if it impresses visually far more than it does in the story department.