Thursday, 6 February 2014
Thin ice: "Frozen"
Frozen, Disney's biggest hit for some considerable while, is the result of a peculiar synergy between that division of the corporation that still sees some intrinsic worth in turning out labour-intensive 3D animations (ticket price: $15 a pop) and that division that is rather keener to produce touring stage extravaganzas (ticket price: $50 a pop). It's the closest the company's recent films have come to replicating the charm of its classic animations - which explains the staggering box-office - and yet there's something about that process of replication that left this viewer utterly cold: it feels like a very precisely calculated template for some future Broadway hit, in a way Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, content and confident in their own storytelling and songwriting, never did on their first runs.
The part of the film caught looking backwards provides the enjoyment. Anybody raised on the Mouse House's output - and that must surely be 90-95% of the Western world - should find something comfortingly familiar in the moon-faced, wide-eyed humanoids that grace the screen: Frozen's character design is both a response to the contentious modernism of, say, The Princess and the Frog and Tangled, and a throwback to Uncle Walt's guiding Freudian principle that there might be something reassuring in curves. (Hence the original design of Mickey Mouse: four interlinked circles of varying size.)
In describing the film's Nordic terrain, one senses the animators having as much fun with the possibilities of snow, ice and ruddied cheeks as Pixar's pixel-wranglers once did with grass, water, a monster's fur. And in the thrust of its plotting - appropriated from Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen, and involving two sisters looking out for one another - one might discern something vaguely progressive, even if these little princesses are merely forced out on another boilerplate quest narrative in the company of male characters too drippy even to make the cover of Non-Threatening Boys Weekly.
It's when Frozen starts looking around at what's going on elsewhere in pop culture that it becomes less sure of itself, slips and stumbles. This crisis of confidence makes itself heard loudest of all in the songs, which are positioned front and centre - earning themselves numerous entries in the UK Top 100 (in the case of "Let It Go", via two separate recordings) and the film the rare privilege of a re-issue in a new, singalong version. Tangled took a step or two in this direction; Frozen commits to it entirely, albeit with a soundtrack composed of the kind of bland phrasemaking and relentless uplift one usually has the misfortune to happen across in the lesser episodes of Glee.
"Let It Go", indeed: I spent the entire movie longing for the one number that might achieve even 10% of the indelible silliness of a "Hakuna Matata" or "I Wanna Be Like You" - those idiosyncratic melodies that can only be conveyed by a single voice or personality, and which would have been smothered by Frozen's insistently swelling strings and ever-present 48-piece choir. (It's possible tweens are having to download "Let It Go" because even hearing it up front, and then again over the end credits, they still can't remember how it goes once they're back at school on Monday morning. No-one had to put "Bare Necessities" or "Be Our Guest" in the charts.)
In reviewing recent Disney offerings, I've written frequently about the ways in which the company has had to shed whatever innocence it may once have possessed, in order to compete in an increasingly aggressive marketplace; now DreamWorks, Sony, Aardman and Blue Sky are all jostling for lucrative half-term screen space, it can no longer act in isolation, which is why this erstwhile animation powerhouse's output has lately come to seem reactive. (Frozen's mass-produced trolls look very much like the work of animators with one eye on the Despicable Me minions.) It's been successful with it, but Frozen appears less interested in telling a story than constantly selling itself - as though, to earn another week at the multiplex, it had to keep stepping up in front of Messrs. Cowell and co. and belt yet more forgettable pap out with humourless, impersonal conviction, because that's how we're believed to take our songs nowadays.
Post-classic Disney has passed through various phases: devil-may-care (the underrated The Emperor's New Groove), patchy (Bolt, The Princess and the Frog, Tangled), threadbare (Chicken Little, the various Tinkerbell films), desperate (Planes). Never, though, has the company appeared quite so needy as it does here: love me, Frozen cries out whenever its narrative grinds to a halt so the characters can empty their lungs into your ears. The Facebook generation - who may or may not be equally needy, and whose need for Disney to return to the greatness of their youth may be greater than Disney's ability to now achieve greatness - have evidently embraced the film, its soundtrack and its multiple hyperventilating renditions of "Let It Go", but that shouldn't automatically confer the status of a modern classic upon it.
Frozen is in cinemas nationwide.