Watch 52 musicals, one every week, in 2015.
I’m afraid I have a confession to make. Remember when I said I don’t really know anything about musicals (and based this blog around that fact)? Well, I fibbed a little bit, because if there’s one thing I know, it’s Disney’s animated musicals. I’ve seen and loved damn near all of them (Little Mermaid is my motherfuckin’ jam), mostly because I was a film buff from birth and they’re all I was allowed to watch as a kid. Every one of my weekly musical viewings up to this point has been neither animated nor Disney for the express purpose of expanding my idea of what a musical is. Still, there’s one animated Disney musical I haven’t seen that nobody can seem to shut up about, and that’s Frozen. So, let’s go. Or let’s it go. Let it goes? OBLIGATORY “LET IT GO” REFERENCE, COMMENCE REVIEW.
So you wanna know what fascinates me about the idea of a modern Disney musical? That one could exist after Enchanted, a live action skewering of Disney’s most tired tropes inexplicably yet carefully made by the Disney company themselves. (Seen it already, so I won’t be covering it for Musical 52.) And yet, here we are with Frozen, a story loosely adapted from a creepy fairy tale about a singing orphaned princess that needs to be rescued by the power of true love.
“Tee hee, we’re still getting away with this!”
Should you be the last person on Earth to watch Frozen (since I just stopped being second-to-last), Elsa (Idina Menzel) has ice powers that keep getting stronger as time goes on. She tries to hide this fact from everyone for years but eventually can no longer control her winter wonderhands, so she runs into the woods for a 24/7 snow blowout, conjuring up ice bridges and ice castles like some crazed Dr. Icemanhattan. Apparently, Elsa can also create dresses and life, but I think those are just her natural woman powers because Disney still needs a few stereotypes to lean on. Anyway, all this “totally not a metaphor for conquering the fear of one’s own sexuality” ice blastin’ has made it permanent winter in the village, so a bunch of marketable characters rush off to stop this seemingly unstoppable goddess among mortals.
“Tell me… do you bleed?”
There are a few more layers to the plot, but the simple core narrative about coming to terms with your strengths and how to use them without hurting those close to you is both entertaining and relatable. It fits over the basic Disney framework while also subverting some of its most outdated clichés, but there are a couple of times when the movie is a little too vocal about its own cleverness. For example, there’s a scene or two in which Elsa’s sister Anna (Kristen Bell) is mocked at length for wanting to marry a man on the day she met him, which you may have enjoyed when the exact same conversation happened in Enchanted.
Still, yes, it’s a great story. It’s got just the right amount of adherence to and deviation from the Disney formula.
It’s always tricky to talk about acting in an animated film since the voice stuff comes from one person and the face stuff comes from so many people, but I’m going to say this right off the bat: something seems off about Elsa. I guess it feels like she doesn’t have much personality that comes across without the aid of song lyrics. Then again, she’s got this reserved distance built into her character, so maybe it’s intentional. Also, Idina Menzel is up to her throat-blasting “my vocal skills are more important than my emotions” antics again, but it helps somewhat that the animators make singing look pretty effortless for Elsa.
Show, don’t tell that the cold never bothered you anyway.
Kristen Bell injects a lot of pep and joy into Anna, Elsa’s sister. She’s clearly the less mature of the two but also more free-spirited, and Kristen has the perfect voice for being both fun and encouraging. Her singing is also very natural and well-acted. Good work.
The programmers developed a Spunk algorithm and set Cuteness to “Button.”
And now, THAT FUCKING SNOWMAN. Because if you haven’t seen this movie, look at that wacky little shit, hogging all the attention on the poster, just begging you to buy a toy of him… he must be unbearable, right? Well, surprise surprise, Olaf, the one you’d expect to be a Jar Jar, is actually surprisingly understated for a comic relief character, and a lot of it comes down to Josh Gad’s performance. He’s still silly, don’t get me wrong, but Josh’s delivery doesn’t scream “THIS IS A FUNNY JOKE,” but instead subtly adds heart and sweetness and uncomfortable naiveté to the character. Olaf could have been a stock dumdum sidekick, but thankfully he feels like a part of the team.
Take note, George Lucas, this is how you homage Goofy.
Oh, and I guess there are some men in this movie? I dunno, they’re pretty forgettable.
Okay, fine, Jonathan Groff is good at being a nice ice-cutting helpful helper named Kristoff.
But get this, he has a REINDEER!
And Santino Fontana is some prince.
Good for him.
THE SONGS AND DANCES:
What? Completely derail my Frozen article to talk about a random special feature on the Little Mermaid Diamond Edition Blu-ray release called “Howard’s Lecture“? You got it! Okay, so Howard Ashman, the lyricist for Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin, did a talk at Disney as part of a lunchtime lecture series in which he outlined what he felt were the rules for a successful musical. This was circa the production of The Little Mermaid, but Disney has clearly held onto this this precious videotape and used it as a guideline for every single animated film they’ve made since. Including Frozen? Yup, including Frozen. Let’s take a look!
Howard’s big advice for kicking off your musical is for the first song to have a natural reason for your characters to be singing in order to introduce music into this world. In Mermaid, we have sailors singing a sea shanty. In Frozen, we have ice harvesters singing “Frozen Heart” to the beat of their saws ripping through the surface of a lake. It’s not exactly a jam, but it sets up the location and now your brain is ready for singing (which is especially important since Disney characters had stopped doing that for a while).
It definitely has a “We Will Rock You” meets “I’m a Lonesome Polecat” feel.
Another one of Howard’s tips? Ease the audience into a song by starting the melody below some dialogue. A little piano twinkling happens under Little Anna knocking on Little Elsa’s door and begging her to come out and play, then she begins “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” It’s a strangely playful song that turns into a montage of years of increasing loneliness that come from never getting to play with your sister because she can make ice cubes with her fingers.
Hey, we’ve all been there.
Howard places particular emphasis on the “I Want” song. If your protagonist wants much more than this provincial life of being riffraff and a street rat and just can’t wait to be king up where they walk and up where they run, they need to sing about it. I’d say that Frozen, having two sisters as its main characters, also has two “I Want” songs, one for each. Anna’s is “For the First Time in Forever,” in which she is excited for Coronation Day, during which Elsa will finally come out of her room to greet the townsfolk (which Elsa dreads parallel to Anna’s excitement) and also Anna might meet a cute boy. Ooh!
Did I say ice powers symbolized sex? Sex can also symbolize sex.
Oh, WOW, Anna gets what she wants pretty fast… and so does Howard Ashman. Howard was a big proponent of incorporating contemporary pop music into your movie, as long as it’s not every single song, and Disney has kept that tradition going. Anna duets “Love Is an Open Door” with that generic prince she falls for five minutes after meeting him, and boy does it sound like
Jonas Bieber I’m too old to tell you what the kids today are listening to that I’m not. Honestly, though, the gooey pop sound highlights how ridiculous Anna is being and I’m all for catchiness that serves the story.
Love can also be an open sore, so wrap it up, kids.
And then there’s some little ditty you might have heard of before about LETTING IT GO, LETTING IT GO, and you wanna know why you know that song? Because the “I Want” song (according to Jodi Benson paraphrasing Howard Ashman… probably) should be vague enough to make the audience think about what they want. And while plenty of people want to smooch cute boys like Anna does, Elsa’s “Let It Go” is a powerful ballad that, aside from specifically mentioning shooting ice fractals into existence, features blanket statements about having a special trait that you hold back around people, but now you’re ready to SET IT FREE, LET IT OUT, STOP GIVING A SHIT ABOUT HURTING PEOPLE WITH YOUR SUPERPOWER BECAUSE YOU HAVE AN ICE CASTLE IN THE WOODS NOW. And seriously, even though it may not be the healthiest attitude to isolate yourself like that, the feeling resonates. It wasn’t quite what I expected, but I loved it.
Oh, and there’s some quick cutesy acoustic tune Kristoff sings to Sven, his reindeer. It’s called “Reindeer(s) Are Better Than People.” I have no idea what Howard Ashman would make of it.
Honestly, we can probably leave the teachings of Ashman behind at this point, because I don’t think he ever said a musical needs to include a song in which a character blissfully and unknowingly welcomes his own demise. Olaf’s “In Summer” is a morbidly cheerful little fantasy sequence about the joys of catching some rays, sung by a snowman who knows not that sunshine shall render his body wet and lifeless. If anything, it’s a third “I Want” song, you just need to add “to Die” on the end.
If ice powers are sex, summer is drugs.
I don’t often cover reprises in my song recaps, but I do have to mention how effectively “For the First Time in Forever” comes back with new lyrics. The original version features Anna excited to see people and get with hunks, but now all she wants is to help her sister. It’s a great way to show her character’s growth and maturity. Elsa, meanwhile, regresses back into her fear of hurting people juuust after she’d decided an isolated session of letting it go was the definitive solution to her problems.
“I did a song and everything! A good song, too! Dammit!”
Oh, God, and then this is the last song? Okay, so… “Fixer Upper.” “Fixer Upper” has some problems. The biggest one is its placement; this is a kooky fun sequence, not a closing number. This is “Under the Sea,” “Be Our Guest,” and “Friend Like Me,” with a crowd of colorful side characters flipping around and being silly, and those other tunes work great in their corresponding films because they pop up in the middle of the story, not the end. The subject matter of “Fixer Upper” is also kinda weird; basically, a bunch of little stone trolls try to convince Anna that Kristoff is marriage material despite his flaws. It’s funny in parts because of their desperation to see Kristoff happy, but it takes on some… connotations when the impressionable tykes at home, hopefully not already bogged down by generations of “men are unapologetic slobs that women just have to accept” messages, hear the adorable rock critters say, “Hey, settle for some smelly, shitty dude, it’s better than being alone.”
In fairness, trolls probably love smelly, shitty people.
They definitely try to cover their tiptoeing-around-sexism tracks by declaring that Anna also has problems, and so does everyone. (Am I really on a second paragraph about this song? Guess so.) We’re all broken fuck-ups, kids! But maybe some love will help us make better choices in our lives! But also don’t try to change people! I dunno, I guess Disney gets a pat on the back for at least attempting to present a more modern take on relationships, but it begins on such a gross note that the wobbly, unclear message of the song feels like a clueless dad flipping his cap 180 degrees and straddling a backwards chair for some “real talk.”
Anyway, I really look forward to Disney’s next hit, “The Universe is a Random Collection of Atoms, But Still Try Hard, Though In the End Nothing Matters, So Go For It, We’re All Amazing and Terrible, Trust is Weird, Don’t Be Sad, Everything Will Be Dark and Cold Someday (Selena Gomez Version).” (Third paragraph!)
I THINK THIS LINE’S MOSTLY FILLER:
I considered declaring the worst lyric of the movie to be a line from “Fixer Upper” in which it’s heavily implied that Kristoff is buttfucking his reindeer, but let’s be honest, that’s hilarious and it’s in a kiddie movie, so high five. Instead, let’s go for a true filler lyric and rip on, yes, the famed “Let It Go,” for including this quaint “no shit” platitude that thinks it’s being sooooo deep…
“The past is in the past…”
My Disney bias aside, Frozen is a pretty good time. Lots of issues that typically mar films for children are thankfully absent, and it does a great job of knowing when to follow the princess path and when to divert from it. The story wobbles in places but it’s still solid, the performances bring a lot to the table, and the songs are just catchy enough and the majority of them fold into the plot very well. I’m glad I got to watch yet another quality Disney film this week, which reminds me, Cinemanaut John, what did you think of That Darn Cat ’97?
Les Misérables (2012)