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Frozen

What the hell is going on at Disney? Really, who’s running that company now? You’d think that all the brains and talent went toward managing Marvel and Lucasfilm, the way the rest of the company has atrophied.

You want to talk about the studio’s live-action offerings? They’re trying to turn Alice in Underland into a franchise, and theaters are still reeking from fallout after The Lone Ranger. The company’s so desperate for ideas and hits that they’ve been forced to mine their library of animated classics (see: Maleficent). What else is there to say?

And Pixar? Oh, how those tides have turned. Planes never broke $100 million domestic, and the reception for Monsters University was only middling. That studio used to be the last great bastion for original blockbusters, until Brave lost its original director and got turned into a muddled mediocrity. Then Disney went and gave Merida a makeover for their Princess line, adding insult to injury.

(CORRECTION: I have since been informed that Planes was actually done in-house at Disney.)

Sure, Pixar has another original film in the hopper (The Good Dinosaur), but that one has also been beset by a sudden directorial change, in addition to a year’s delay, leaving 2014 without a single Pixar offering. And then Pixar laid off 5 percent of the company’s workforce. Mere weeks before Thanksgiving, no less.

In a strange twist of fate, the studio’s best hope now rests with Walt Disney Animation Studios. Despite the unforgivable choice to release Winnie the Pooh opposite Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, there’s still a great deal of love for Tangled. Also, Wreck-it-Ralph got snubbed at the Oscars and everyone knows it.

But then ads started coming in for Frozen. Again, the question must be asked: What the hell is going on at Disney?

I mean, look at this poster. Note how the weird comic relief character is front and center. The other four characters are buried in snow and pushed to the bottom of the poster, so we can’t learn a thing about them or even see how generic their poses are. Or how about this one? The characters are now clearly visible, and there’s still no way to tell them apart. Except, of course, for the comic relief characters, who are still front and center.

Disney has done such a piss-poor job of selling this movie that I doubt one person in two could’ve told you what this film was about going in. Going entirely by the promos, I couldn’t tell you a single thing about this film except that Rapunzel’s character model is getting shamelessly recycled, there’s a moose that acts like a dog (again, see Tangled), and that snowman is ungodly annoying.

I blame Despicable Me. That film and its sequel were both promoted without the slightest hint as to what those movies are actually about, but they were damn sure to put those Minions front and center. And how were the movies? Who cares?! Universal is making money hand over fist because of the damn comic relief. It depresses me to think that Disney has sunken so low that their animation department is taking tips from Universal, but I digress.

The point is that Disney had a genuinely good film on their hands, and they didn’t know how to sell it. If it wasn’t for the sterling critical reception and the total lack of competition at the theaters, I doubt that anyone would’ve given this film a second look. What a damn shame.

So, what’s the film about? Well, the story focuses on two princesses in the kingdom of Arendelle. The elder one (Elsa, voiced by the supremely talented Idina Menzel) was born with the unique gift of creating ice and snow. If you want to know details, you’re out of luck. She was born with powers and that’s all you need to know. And to be entirely honest, that’s probably just as well. An origin story probably would’ve weighed the film down more than anything else.

Anyway, young Elsa enjoys a loving relationship with her little sister (Anna, voiced by Kristen Bell) until — being kids — they push Elsa’s abilities too far. Anna sustains a magical injury, and her memories of Elsa’s powers are erased. For extra measure, the royal family is kept under extreme isolation so that Elsa’s powers won’t put anyone else at risk. Elsa herself is locked away in the palace from everyone else, including her loving sister.

Flash forward a decade or so. The king and queen… well, they go the way of most parents in Disney animated films, and Elsa has come of age. So the time has now come to finally reopen the palace gates, at least while Elsa can keep herself in check long enough to be coronated. Of course, Anna is thrilled to finally throw parties and meet new people, and also to finally meet her sister for the first time in a decade.

But then the inevitable happens, and Elsa freezes anyone who gets too close. She flees to the northern mountains, where she can finally let it snow to her heart’s content without anyone around to get hurt. Little does Elsa know that her actions have caused a harsh and premature winter back in Arendelle. So Anna has to go and try to talk Elsa down.

I suppose I should start with Anna, since she’s the protagonist and all, but I’d much rather talk about Elsa. It’s interesting to note how Elsa’s technically the antagonist of the piece, but she’s not really a villain at all. Elsa’s just terrified of her own abilities, and she has every right to be. She keeps herself closed off and distanced from those she loves, but it’s only because she loves them to begin with. Everyone around her is in serious danger because she can’t control her powers, but it’s not like that’s her fault. After all, she never asked for magic powers and it’s not like they came with an instruction manual.

Through every second of Elsa’s life, she has to protect herself and others by keeping everyone locked away. She can’t even talk with her own sister, since Anna’s memory was wiped and that was all Elsa’s fault. It’s a heartbreaking place to be in, which makes the character tremendously sympathetic. By the same token, it feels so good when we see Elsa finally get the chance to let loose and play with her abilities like never before. And of course, it also helps that the two sisters have such amazing chemistry.

Yes, we may as well talk about Anna. This character is adorable for how blissfully ignorant she is. She’s very happy-go-lucky, incredibly optimistic, and she refuses to see the bad side of anyone. On the one hand, Anna’s boundless energy makes her a very active and likeable protagonist. She’s not just an empowered woman, she’s a woman who empowers others. On the other hand, this means that Anna is prone to making incredibly bad mistakes. Yet the film is self-aware and good enough to call her out on those mistakes. I’ll show you what I mean.

Somewhere around the end of the first act, Anna meets the handsome Prince Hans of the Southern Isles (Santino Fontana). The two immediately fall in true and everlasting love, she agrees to marry him, and they go to seek Elsa’s blessing. And Elsa’s like “Sister, you just met this guy today. What are you thinking?” Wow, that was refreshing to watch.

On the other hand, we have Kristoff (Jonathan Groff). Here’s a guy who sells ice for a living, so he’s just as eager as anyone else to end Elsa’s cold spell. Kristoff also has a pet reindeer named Sven to provide transportation. Kristoff eventually crosses Anna’s path and agrees to help her along. And naturally, he becomes yet another love interest for our protagonist.

Kristoff — much like Flynn of Tangled before him — provides some self-aware comic relief to lampshade the antics of our rainbows-and-sunshine “Disney Princess” protagonist. Unfortunately, Kristoff does take the reins through most of the second and third acts, when Anna is reduced to a “damsel in distress” after her initial plan fails. I was disheartened to see such a strong female protagonist shoehorned into such a cliched Disney Princess narrative, until a climactic twist comes along to shake everything up in a huge way.

As for Sven, his schtick is disturbingly similar to the horse in Tangled. Still, that schtick was very funny and the character was so effective that I’ll allow it. Plus, Kristoff had a funny little habit of conversing with his reindeer — speaking for both parties — which was quite amusing in execution.

But then… we have Olaf. That godawful snowman voiced by a godawful comedian named Josh Gad. The character does have some futile attempts at redemption in the third act, and he does establish Elsa’s bizarre ability to create living snowmen, but that’s it. Aside from those two points, this character was annoying, useless, and entirely unfunny. For God’s sake, Olaf has an entire song about how much he wants summer to come, hopelessly ignorant of what happens to snow around heat. The whole song is about how a snowman blissfully wishes for death without even knowing it. That’s not funny, that’s just disturbing.

But once again, Kristoff comes in for the assist. He grimly wonders when Olaf is going to find out, but he does it in a way that’s honest-to-God funny. Why the hell would Disney include such godawful comic relief when we already have enough characters who are actually funny?!

Speaking of which, the film’s music must be addressed. The first half of this movie is pretty much entirely made of musical numbers, wall-to-wall. At first, I didn’t mind so much. After all, the songs were all wonderfully energetic, and the dances were neatly choreographed. If the goal was to remind the audience of Disney’s animated ’90s heyday, then Mission Accomplished. It also helped that Idina Menzel has such an amazing voice and Kristen Bell’s character is so adorable when she’s singing. But then, roughly an hour in, their characters start arguing with each other in song for no reason at all. That was where I drew the line. Then, immediately after, some trolls… Oh, I didn’t mention the trolls? Well, the movie has some trolls who disguise themselves as rocks between fits of magic-related exposition. They also have a song that’s annoying and useless torture to sit through. Fuck that.

One last complaint: The villains suck. Elsa excluded, we also have the Duke of Weaseltown (Alan Tudyk), who wants to stage a coup and take the town’s resources and blah blah blah. The Duke also has a couple of thuggish sons, and I don’t think they have a handful of lines between them. Just like with Tangled (and also with Wreck-it-Ralph, whose villain was also voiced by Tudyk), the boring and cartoonishly evil villains weigh down what’s otherwise a very good movie. It’s especially shameful in this case, since the film could easily have left Elsa alone as the “villain” and it would’ve been perfectly fine. In fact, given that she’s such an interesting character, it might have been even better.

Still, I had a great time with Frozen. The film may suffer from the abominable snowman, the boring villains, and a couple of musical numbers too many, but everything else about it was simply delightful. Elsa is a wonderfully deep character, Anna makes for a wonderfully charming protagonist, the themes are presented in a heartfelt way, and the comic relief is very effective when it works. Also, the animation is outstanding throughout and the songs (for the most part) are great to listen to.

The film may take liberally from Tangled before it, but the film succeeds by taking the charm and energy which made that film so enjoyable. I don’t know if this is enough to give Disney yet another much-needed renaissance, but it looks like a good place to start.

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