Sunday, April 06, 2014

"Frozen": review

I finally saw "Frozen" the other night. It's the story of two sisters, Princess Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Princess Anna (Kristen Bell), who start life as playmates and best friends, but who live apart after Elsa accidentally hurts Anna through magic. Elsa was born with a form of cryokinesis, the ability to form and manipulate ice. Fearing her own power, she allows herself to lead a sheltered life designed for her by her parents, the king and queen of the land of Arendelle: windows and doors are shuttered and locked; Elsa is kept away from the public, an exile inside her own castle. Anna pines for her sister, remembering the fun they used to have. When the girls are both in their teens, they lose their parents in a storm at sea; Elsa comes of age first, so it is she who will be crowned the new queen.

Coronation Day is a day of great festivity for Arendelle; the castle's doors are opened, the surrounding town is bedecked with celebratory colors, and visitors from other lands—some with not-so-nice ulterior motives—arrive to pay tribute. Anna suddenly falls in love with the dashing Prince Hans of the Southern Isles, and he rashly proposes to her; she and Hans approach Elsa, newly crowned queen, and ask for her blessing, but Elsa angrily refuses, accidentally displaying her cryokinetic ability to the gathered revelers and casting the realm into seemingly eternal winter. With her secret out, Elsa runs off to the mountains and builds her own ice castle, there to live a life of self-imposed exile where no one will judge her or fear her for her terrible power. Anna, with the help of local ice merchant Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his faithful reindeer Sven, and a living snowman named Olaf (Josh Gad), goes off in pursuit of her sister, determined to bring Elsa back to Arendelle to undo the winter-damage and restore peace to the kingdom.

This is a comparatively short film (around 90 minutes), but it actually takes a surprising amount of time for the plot to gather steam. Some have proclaimed "Frozen" to be Disney's best outing in years. I wouldn't call it Disney's best—"Tangled" was more compelling and more coherent—but it had its good points, including some catchy songs, fantastic ice-magic imagery, and a few yuks from the ever-lovable Olaf. Based in part on The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Anderson, "Frozen" wrestles with the nature of love and its relationship to fear. In doing so, however, the message may have become a bit muddled. Example: later in the film, Anna is struck in the heart by a bolt of Elsa's power. The curse will consume her, eventually freezing her, unless an act of true love is performed.* Yet it seems to me that Elsa's self-exile is itself an example of true love, a sacrificial gesture meant to preserve Anna and the kingdom from the consequences of her uncontrollable might. Why is this gesture assigned no value? Korean dramas show situations like this all the time: a character keeps a terrible secret for years, telling no one, consumed by its import, perhaps revealing the secret only just before she dies—all in an attempt to save others. In fact, I wonder whether Korean audiences saw the same problem I saw. Elsa's silence—is that not love?

It also isn't obvious to me why Elsa wanders off into the blizzard while the castle becomes a thicket of ice-thorns that temporarily trap Olaf and Anna. That's confusing. Like Steve Honeywell, though, I give full marks to Disney for solving the true-love riddle in a way that both makes sense and is hard to anticipate.

In all, "Frozen" is fun and watchable. To me, it isn't as good as some of its predecessors, and some of the songs fall flat (like the "Blues Brothers"-style "Fixer Upper") while others are so catchy that I have to wonder why they haven't gotten as much air time as "Let It Go." (I'm thinking specifically of "Love is an Open Door," which may well be my favorite song from the movie.) As I mentioned earlier, the pacing of the movie is a bit uneven: it takes a while before we get to the meat of the story, after which everything, uh, snowballs. Despite the inconsistent pacing, the creaky metaphysics/axiology of love and fear (I'm still not sure I understand their relationship: Elsa's fear is actually rooted in love), the occasionally confusing action set pieces, the recycling of past Disney tropes (like last-minute resurrection—cf. "Tangled") and the rare disappointment of a song, "Frozen" is nevertheless solidly entertaining. It also gives dramatic new meaning to the concept of an ice queen.

*It's never specified as to who must perform this act, and for whom. The trolls that adopted Kristoff attempt kissing each other as a way of undoing the curse, but this doesn't work. Could a random act of true love in, say, Botswana help to un-freeze Anna? Does the act have to occur somewhere physically close to Anna? If so, then how close? What's the maximum effective distance? Is Anna obliged to un-freeze herself?


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