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Review of Disney's Frozen from an Animation Perspective

Now that Disney’s 53rd animated feature has been in theaters for a bit, we take a look at what went right and what went wrong in today’s Animator Island review. Heavy spoilers below, you’ve been warned!

The Synopsis

Frozen is the tale of two sisters, princesses in the kingdom of Arendelle. The elder, Elsa, has powers to create and control temperature, ice, and snow. After an accident, her powers are hidden away by her parents, however they return at a very inopportune moment during her coronation. In a fearful moment she freezes the entire kingdom and flees to the mountains, with her sister rushing after her to bring her, and summer, back.

A screenshot from Frozen

One of the best things about Frozen was that it bucked several standard Disney trends. Yes there were dead parents (a staple for Disney) and princesses and the always popular comic relief character, but many new elements were added, such as “fear” being the antagonist for the better part of the movie, rather than a stylish villain character. The final confrontation showcasing love between SISTERS as the required “act of true love” was also a brilliant twist. And several people mentioned their joy at having one of the princesses do the “punch the badguy” bit instead of a prince (though frankly I thought that was unnecessary).

The biggest problems, unfortunately, are related to the very differences that made Frozen compelling: Namely they didn’t go far enough. They started down a path of “we’re doing things different this time” but seemed to chicken out along the way. Having the emotions of Elsa and Anna be the “bad guy” of the film was new and interesting. Instead of letting that truly run its course, they threw in a surprise villain that came completely out of left field at nearly the very end of the movie. I, for one, despise when movies do this. It feels cheap and unearned. I don’t have time to develop animosity for the villain if he shows up out of nowhere and then is nearly instantly vanquished.

What drove the nail in the coffin regarding Hans for me was that for the better part of the film I was becoming increasingly excited that for once Disney was not going to wrap up the love-aspect into a neat little box. Anna was clearly developing feelings for Kristoff and yet had already made (very hasty) promises to Hans. She was going to have to DEAL with that situation, and I was thrilled to see such a development crop up. In reality we humans encounter tough situations like that, and it made things seem so much deeper. Instead they whisked away that character-developing choice from her and turned Hans from happy and caring into sneering and murderous, all in three or four lines of dialog. What a shame.

I also felt like I didn’t have time to develop a connection to “the loving, happy sisters” shown in the first few moments of the film. Yes, it was necessary to keep things moving so the accident happened quickly, but it felt extremely rushed. It was as if the writers wanted us to see how happy they were, and then feel their pain as the rest of the film they were distant with each other and unhappy. Since I didn’t have time to connect with the “happy” part, all I knew in “my world” of Frozen was the unhappy pair, and as a result I couldn’t connect with them in the same way and share their joy when they returned to being close sisters.

It infuriated me that the father of the two was a terrible, terrible parent instilling such values as locking yourself away and hiding from your problems. When the King and Queen’s ship sank, I felt no sorrow. At least that abysmal influence was gone from the girls’ lives.

Screen from Frozen

Confusion reigned as repeatedly characters referenced “the endless winter” that they were suddenly stuck in. Where did that notion come from?! One afternoon of snow and ice and suddenly it’s a “never ending winter?” That seemed like an extraordinary leap to make. On a similar note, the kingdom clearly has seasons with cold and snow (as Anna’s song “Do you wanna build a snowman” consistently referenced) so why was it necessary for the castle to hand out blankets and supplies? Do the villagers burn their blankets at the end of winter and craft new ones in the fall? Did they forget that they stored their winter coats in the guest room closet?

Finally, though I could probably continue to scratch my head over a number of other things, what was the point of the opening number/scene and the ice carvers? I understand they got to show us a young Kristoff and Sven, but it was completely disconnected from the rest of the film! Here you had a veritable army of ice-carvers and then fast forward 10 years and they have all disappeared, with only one man and reindeer remaining it seems. I would have much rather seen an extra five minutes of the girls interacting pre-accident than a song by burly men who ended up having zero connection to anything.

This cements my general opinion of the composition of Frozen: Too many ideas and not enough time to develop them. I’m certainly not a proponent of the “Multiple Movies One Story” thing, like the Hobbit, but here it almost made sense. Everything just happened too quickly to feel any big change. Elsa and Anna needed more time happy for the audience to see, things needed to be a lot longer than a day and a half for people to declare “endless winter,” and it would sure have been nice to find out why Kristoff’s family were a bunch of trolls. Instead it was just “now this happens, now this, now this, now this, try to keep up!” I would have liked more time to breathe and soak in the moments.

And the REASON behind my wish that there was more here is because the base of what’s here is so appealing. The characters were interesting, and mostly unique, and I wanted more time with them. I wanted to connect with them, I just felt rushed into that connection. And the world was certainly one I’d love to hear more about. In Disney films we often see someone using magic, but they are almost always the villain or the “fairy godmother” figure who helps the main character. So having a main character be the main magic user was interesting and refreshing.

Screenshot of Frozen

Style and Animation

Here, thankfully, we have some extraordinary bright spots to discuss. For starters, the effects animation in Frozen were beyond phenomenal. While the general art style felt like “Tangled in Wintertime” the characters and settings were appealing to look at and fit the story and world well. The trolls seemed a bit… shoe-horned in, but otherwise everything fit together visually quite nicely. The scene where Elsa created an ice castle in the mountains was drop dead gorgeous (though a few parts of her song could have used some better posing and composition).

On the animation side, for the most part things were extremely solid. There were a few high points in character animation, and sadly some pretty low points as well. Compared to Tangled (which is reasonably easy to do given such a similar art style) there wasn’t as much plussing in my opinion. Some poses could have done with a healthy dose of pushing, but overall it rarely dipped into “bad” territory.

One of the places it DID dip into “bad” was that blasted opening scene again. For a few moments I was wondering if I was watching a new Disney film or an early Dreamworks one. The ice carvers were stiff, the huge blocks of ice seemed to dramatically change in weight (and were rarely heavy enough to be actual solid blocks of ice), and the only appeal came from young Kristoff and Sven.

Anna, on the other hand, was a joy to watch. A mixture of grace and clumsy, they did a fantastic job bringing her to life. When I rewatch Frozen, it will be to study the movements and character of Anna. Terrific.

OLAF was AMAZING

Out of everything, the star of Frozen was Olaf the snowman. The performance of Josh Gad is the stuff animator’s dreams are made of. Here we have a voice and acting style begging to be animated. No disrespect to any of the other voice actors, but it is my opinion that animation needs extremely unique and compelling voice work to truly shine. Some of the greatest animated characters are the greatest because of a blend of terrific voices and brilliant artistry. Scar from the Lion King. Bernard and Bianca in The Rescuers. Iago in Aladdin. Edna Mode from The Incredibles. Performances that shine because the animators and voice actors both exist on higher levels than the norm. And Olaf was right there alongside.

The Verdict

Frozen is in no way a bad film. If you take a look at box office results, you’ll see I’m in the minority for not feeling it is an instant classic and near perfect in every way! I think several things do hold it back from being a great film, though. Whether this stems from my extremely high expectations going into the theater (Ferdinand, for example, had very low hopes and was blown away) or the disjointed bits of plot and pacing, Frozen will definitely be a film I buy for my personal collection when it releases, but perhaps not one I return to again and again like Tangled or The Emperor’s New Groove. Again, I seem to be in a minority in that regard, so I encourage you to get to a theater and see it if you have yet to, because regardless of how I feel about the ice-cutter scene, Frozen should not be missed.

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