Second Opinion: Frozen
Disney's brand is showing.
When it comes to their ever-popular Princess brand, Disney has been – over the course of the last 20 years or so – battling over their own relevance. Sometime in the 1990s, Disney came under no small amount of cultural fire for their constant hammering of the Princess brand. Many of their earlier films (from the 1940s and 1950s) were accused of featuring wimpy female leads, destined not to rise above their desperate situations, but to be rescued by brave warrior men. After decades of re-packaging fairy tales for little girls, characters like Cinderella, Aurora the Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and even Ariel the Little Mermaid were suddenly being accused by modern audiences of being anti-feminist lecturers for impressionable young girls who were being encouraged not to take initiative or be strong. Just be pretty, marry young, and let the males take care of you.
To combat this, Disney made a calculated effort to “modernize” their fairy tale princesses. As such, we were treated to stronger and more capable – but less memorable – characters like Mulan and Pocahontas. Occasionally a Tinker Bell movie would crop up, but for the longest time, Disney didn't know what to do with their Princess brand, and proceeded to make flop (Treasure Planet) after flop (Home on the Range).
So they're kind of stuck, and it shows with a film like Frozen. Disney's newest follows on the heels of a few memorable and original and wholly entertaining animated features that seemed to indicate that Disney was learning from their peers at Pixar, and trying to make interesting stories and characters. Tangled was a hilarious film, that was actually clever about the way it eschewed its fairy tale origins. Wreck-It Ralph was a fun pop culture homage to a long-ago video arcade culture. Even Disney's Planes was more clever and entertaining than Cars 2, its direct Pixar counterpart. Pixar, incidentally, has been withering in direct proportion to Disney's growth (yes, Brave was pretty awful). But that's another conversation.
Sadly, Frozen feels like a step in the wrong direction, precisely because Disney is so obviously trying to recapture the Princess brand that they were so wise to avoid previously (The Princess and the Frog notwithstanding). They essentially want to have their cake and eat it too. They want a flowery film about two women, they want the male leads to play roles other than bland rescuers and love interests (although they do have that function), and they want their pretty princesses to be strong and independent. To the film's credit, Frozen's central conceit has less to do with an inevitable physical fight, and more to do with a conversation held between two sisters.
The story is a loose adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's “The Snow Queen,” and it follows older sister Elsa (Tony-winner Idina Menzel) a magical being with Ice Man powers, and her estranged relationship with her sister Anna (Kristen Bell). Elsa is warned that her ice powers must be hidden from the world and from her sister, who longs for a sororial friend. At a gala ball, Elsa accidentally lets her ice powers slip, and she flees in disgrace, holing up in a massive ice castle and accidentally plunging the world into an eternal winter. It's up to Anna to find her and talk her down. There are two hunky love interests for Anna, and she seems little distracted from the task at hand.
Frozen is desperate to entertain you, and frantically chucks hip talk, funny supporting characters, slapstick set pieces, impressive character animation and a slew Broadway-ready songs (which girls will be singing at karaoke bars in a decade) at you. A lot of it sticks. Frozen is, for long bouts, very entertaining.
It's just not very enchanting. There is something ineffably contrived and a bit suspicious about Frozen's story. This has been a big problem I have had with a lot of Disney's product (and it's a problem that's even starting to leak into their superhero fare): they all feel calculated and formulaic. Indeed, by trying to make a film about independent women (princesses) displaying strength, Disney is only highlighting how badly they want the material to ease slowly back into the familiar Cinderella tropes. I suppose I should be grateful that these women don't take up swords or weapons to display their strength.
What's more, Frozen commits the continuing Disney sin of Too Many Funny Sidekicks. While he's not nearly as annoying as, say, Gurgi from The Black Cauldron, Frozen's living wisecracking snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) is still a non-entertaining and pusillanimous presence. He sings a song about the summertime which is pretty useless. Olaf serves no function in this film, other than to be the face of it. In a marketing sense.
I would like to stress that Frozen is not a bad film by any stretch, but after Disney seemed to be moving in such a promising direction, it feels like a stumble. A film that is merely pleasing rather than astonishing or moving.
Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. You can read his weekly articles Trolling, Free Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.