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Film review: Frozen *** (for kids ****)

By Preston Wilder

How good is Frozen? So good that I watched it dubbed into Greek (though there’s also an English-language choice) and in 3D (no choice there) and still found much to chuckle and marvel at. The 3D glasses are especially galling; it’s increasingly clear, at least to me, that 3D adds nothing to cartoons, and the only reason they’re made in that process is to reel in younger viewers so they’ll be accustomed to the glasses – and indeed expect them – when they grow older. Yet Frozen is still very pleasurable.

It’s great to look at, for one thing. Most cartoons are, especially if they come with a big budget (Tangled, also from Walt Disney Pictures, was apparently the second most expensive film of all time) – which is not surprising, when they have literally dozens of animators labouring at their computers for literally years. I’m always a bit reluctant to praise cartoons too fulsomely for what’s essentially painting rather than filmmaking; still, it takes imagination – and it’s there in Frozen from the very first shot, looking up from beneath a sheet of ice at lights coming closer. The lights turn out to be workmen lugging glittering blocks of ice, which builds into a song number (like Tangled, the film is a musical) – and we’re off, telling a tale of two sisters: a troubled older one with a dark secret (her touch turns everything to ice) and a carefree younger one (Anna, our heroine) wondering why her sis has withdrawn from her, unaware that it’s for her own protection.

Anna’s a princess, Elsa her sister is queen (the film is ‘inspired by’ the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale The Snow Queen). Anna is courted by Prince Hans, a charming fellow who wins her heart – but she teams up with mountain man Kristoff when Elsa flees the kingdom, labelled a “freak” for her magical powers, and Anna goes after her. The snow-clad landscapes are consistently beautiful, ditto the film’s eye for detail: Anna in a green dress and flowing purple cape, standing on a white slope with the snow falling; Elsa fleeing in the night, lacy whorls of ice appearing in her wake with every footstep. The comic detail is equally precise. Reaching a cabin in the woods, Kristoff taps with his stick and snow tumbles down to reveal a sign – “Wandering Oaken’s Trading Post” – then he taps again, and more snow falls from a smaller sign: “and Sauna”.

But it’s not just the look that makes Frozen intriguing, it’s also the gender roles. Disney seem to be targeting a specific niche with their cartoons (at least if half the population can be called a niche): the little-girl audience, often forgotten in the rush of animated monsters and action heroes. Wreck-It Ralph, despite its videogame milieu, had a female heroine – and of course Tangled was an old-fashioned Bette Davis ‘woman’s picture’ played as kids’ cartoon, with its abusive relationship between trapped daughter and manipulative, passive-aggressive mother. The two sisters here are female archetypes (Frozen is written by a woman, co-director Jennifer Lee) – Anna the headstrong, liberated modern woman, Elsa the (literally) frigid maid who can’t bear to be touched.

Indeed, my only reservation with Frozen is how female-centric it is, to the point of being un-romantic. It’s fair enough that Prince Charming gets revised (he’s been fair game since Shrek), and of course an independent heroine is always welcome – but the ultimate message seems to be ‘What use are boys anyway?’, which is almost as chilly as the film’s icy snowscapes. The common parental (mis)conception that kids’ cartoons are just harmless fun really needs to be re-examined; they’re pricklier than you think.

Still, it’s a worthy Message in its way – and of course it doesn’t matter when Olaf the snowman (the inevitable silly sidekick) is babbling away, or when Sven the reindeer is being almost as inspired as that brilliant horse in Tangled. There are so many clever touches in Frozen, from Anna’s bits of business during songs – shaking hands with a suit of armour, posing in front of various paintings – to the splendid meet-cute between Anna and Hans (it involves a horse and a precariously-balanced boat) or the rocks that turn into trolls.

Little boys may thrill to the mountain adventures and laugh at the goofy characters, but this is really a film for little girls – and of course big girls: much more than Brave, the recent cartoon by Disney subsidiary Pixar, Frozen should entrance chaperones as well as kids. When you get to the big confrontation between the two sisters – the past rekindled, old resentments aired, Anna’s pleas met with Elsa’s rebuffs – and the scene becomes more and more intense, then soars into opera (!) … well, not even 3D can ruin that.

 

DIRECTED BY Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee
WITH THE VOICES OF Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Josh Gad
US 2013 108 mins

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