So I went to see Frozen a few days ago. Opening week, Black Friday, afternoon matinee, packed house, tons of kids. Now I've been in movie theaters before with lots of kids, and if the movie doesn't completely hold their attention, it's a miserable place to be. They get restless and bored, never sit still, and never stop talking. If a movie is too complex for them to follow, they never stop asking questions. If it's too scary for real little kids (and the parents too irresponsible to recognize that their kids shouldn't be there in the first place) they scream and cry. For a film to be successful in that setting, it has to strike a tricky balance.
That doesn't mean the movie has to be dumbed-down to the point of being agonizing for adults to sit through though (despite what movie studios generally think). Kids are a lot smarter than studios give them credit for. A movie should be able to entertain both kids and adults alike - just on different levels. The basic qualities of a good story and compelling characters should be able to entertain kids, and if the writing is smart enough, have enough additional layers to keep adults engaged as well.
Going into Frozen, I can't say I was expecting much. It's had a rough life in production. After Disney's The Princess and the Frog failed to be the hit they were hoping for, Disney assumed people were done with princess movies, so they cancelled the ones that were in-progress, including an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen. The film Rapunzel was too near completion to outright cancel, and went through a lot of changes before finally being retitled and released as Tangled. When that turned out to be a hit, suddenly princess films were back in, and Disney revived The Snow Queen - following Tangled's lead with a new title - Frozen - and trying to give it the same updated vibe. (I suppose Pinocchio would be re-titled Wooden, Snow White would become Poisoned, and Pocahontas would be… well, it would still just be Boring ). Anyway, Frozen was rushed headlong into production and I wasn't hearing very many positive things about it. Usually if a film is going to be good (like Wreck-It Ralph) there's some advance buzz about it ahead of time. Plus, the early trailers for Frozen - featuring an incredibly annoying and bugg-utly snowman sidekick - left me cold (sorry… ).
All that said, I was pleasantly surprised by Frozen. I think this is as close as Disney has gotten to a "classic" Disney fairy tale since Beauty and the Beast. It's not as good as that film, but it has that sort of feel to it, as if they're on the right track. The movie has basically nothing to do with the original Hans Christian Andersen story, so this is very much a Disney story, and as such it comes with the usual Disney baggage - wacky sidekicks, predictable story elements, cookie-cutter characters, forgettable musical numbers, and plot-holes big enough to drive a sleigh through. The point of a Disney film like this isn't so much does it break any new ground, but is it competently entertaining enough for what it is? You know what you're in for when you walk into the theater, just as you already know what you're in for when you wait in line for any ride at Disneyland. So the question is - do you still enjoy the ride?
For Frozen, I enjoyed the ride for what it was. They mixed up the formulas enough to make the film interesting, and the wintery setting makes it visually stand on its own (at least as far as Disney films are concerned). One gripe - they didn't do a very good job of establishing that it was warm summer day when the city of Arendelle got frozen. It wasn't until well afterwards that I caught onto that. For all I knew, it was a cold climate to begin with and could have been mid-November already.
In many ways, the character of the Snow Queen is treated similarly to the Beast from Beauty and the Beast. The Beast wasn't so much a villain, as he was misunderstood. Here, the Snow Queen isn't so much evil as she is a tragic figure, which leaves her ultimate fate in question (and helps keep some tension in the film). Unfortunately, the film didn't spend nearly as much time with her as it should have. I wanted to see more of the story from her perspective, especially early on. The other characters are likable enough, but most don't really offer anything new. Just the same clichéd Disney characters, with perhaps a little more 'tude. The ice trader Kristoff has some fun moments with his reindeer Sven early on, where since Sven (mercifully) doesn't talk, Kristoff does both sides of their conversations. But it's only used a couple of times, then sadly abandoned in favor of the ugly little talking snowman for comedy relief and plot exposition.
The animation is as good as I've seen from Disney in recent years. There's one snow monster which is particularly fun to watch. The problem is - most of it is all so much more of the same. It's competent, solid character animation, but it's not groundbreaking. Disney should be the studio making breakthroughs in CG animation that everyone else is compared against, rather than merely rising to an acceptable level of competency. Part of that is their generic approach to character design. You could interchange Frozen's characters with those from Tangled, and never notice the difference. I keep hoping Disney will cut loose and design something really amazing for a change. Fantasia-level amazing. Disney changed styles radically from Snow White to Sleeping Beauty. There's nothing keeping them from doing the same thing with CG animation, other than the willingness to do so (see also: Pixar, before they became a sequel machine).
The songs were okay, but for the life of me I can't recall a single one of them now. Again, they felt like they could have been lifted from any one of a number of other Disney films. The one that the audience responded to the most was a throw-away comedy number where the little snowman sings about longing to enjoy the days of summer. The rest of the songs could best be described as dramatic musical filler. Well crafted, but not critical to the story. Plus, the mix on a couple of songs made it really difficult to discern what the lyrics were.
Still though, despite its flaws, Frozen is a very good Disney fairy tale. It certainly "feels" like a classic Disney fairy tale. But perhaps because of that, and the sameness of it all, it never really emotionally resonated with me. But in a theater packed with kids on a busy Black Friday afternoon in Orange, CA, it managed to keep everyone entertained, enough to feel it was worth a matinee ticket and a bag of popcorn.
Frozen gets a 6.6/10.
(Addendum: I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that Frozen was mercifully free of poop and fart jokes. A definite point in its favor.)