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August 17, 2015

Frozen: Let it Go (Headbang)

So if I did that thing I usually do and put up a spoiler warning, would anyone even care?  Like, I’m writing this here in 2015, and Frozen came out in…what, Thanksgiving 2013, or somewhere around that point?  Everyone who wanted to watch it by now has, yes?  So they know all the twists and turns.  And by extension, those looking for either telling reviews or in-depth analyses have long since found them.  In a lot of ways, this post is irrelevant; I’m the last guy on earth who’s seen this movie (who wanted to…but put no effort into trying to watch), so I’m more or less playing catch-up with the rest of the populace.

Why write it, then?  Well, anyone expecting a straight-up review is better off looking elsewhere; that’s not really my thing.  And even if (I assume) others have analyzed it frame-by-frame, those thoughts and opinions belong to them.  What follows are going to be my thoughts and opinions.  Not exactly the gospel, I know, but people seem really invested when I slam Final Fantasy, so maybe I’m doing something right.

Enough chatter, then.  What do I think of Frozen?  Well…

Okay, so let me be clear.  Yeah, I like Frozen.  I think it’s good.  I’m not in love with it like some other people, and I don’t think it’s the greatest thing in the universe.  But I can see why people think it’s so amazing, and I won’t say they’re wrong for it.  Frozen has a lot going for it, and I sure am glad it exists, and that I saw it.  (We’ll see how things go with the sequel, though.) 

But let’s not kid ourselves here: Frozen has some HUGE flaws.  Well, maybe not to the point of requiring THE CAPS LOCK OF RAGE, but it’s nowhere near flawless.  If it didn’t have those problems, then maybe I would be one of those people who thinks it’s the best movie ever; as-is, I find myself frustrated because the movie nails so many higher-level elements, but completely stumbles on the basics.  To put it a different way: I’ve given plenty of movies and games crap before, and I’d be a hypocrite if I gave one of Disney’s latest a free pass just because of some pretty princesses.

You know what Frozen reminds me of, though?  Super 8.

I’ll come back to that comparison later, but for now?  Let’s start at the beginning.

The story follows the two princesses of Arendelle, Elsa and Anna -- the former of which could make Iceman look like a chump.  Elsa’s powers are vast and only get stronger as time passes, but the tradeoff is that she’s not good at controlling them; little wonder, then, that as a kid she accidentally blasted Anna and put her life in danger.  Horrified by the experience -- and at the mercy of similarly-scared parents -- Elsa becomes reclusive and timid in the hopes of keeping everyone safe from her destructive power.  In turn, Anna is stripped of her memories of Elsa’s powers, and ends up getting locked out by her older sister for reasons she can’t begin to fathom. 

Both of them end up in a bad way when their parents bite it, and Elsa -- once she becomes of age -- is forced to become the new queen via a rite of ascension.  Despite that, Elsa’s no more accustomed to her powers -- or human interaction -- than she was as a kid, so when Anna (who hyper-compensates for her sister’s coldness) goes for the double-whammy of a sudden engagement and calls Elsa out for being so antisocial, the new queen lashes out with her ice powers…which goes about as well as you’d expect at Arendelle’s first big whompin’ ball in God knows how long.  Forced into a panic, Elsa flees into the night while her powers go haywire and trigger an eternal winter.  In turn, Anna decides to saddle up and find her sister to not only save their home, but rebuild their broken bond.

I’ve said before that the optimal scenario is to have a cast so good that it’s hard to decide who’s a personal favorite -- and for the most part, that applies to Frozen.  Generally speaking, if they have a name, a line, or screen time, then I’m all right with them; Kristoff and Sven are cool, Olaf is full of charm (considering what he could have been, given the precedents), and even the duke of Weselton has his moments.  But the stars of the show are Elsa and Anna, and they’re pretty much the best Frozen has to offer.

I’m not 100% sure if I’d call either of them “role models”, because they’re both a little messed up; honestly, they’re more like cautionary tales than ladies to look up to.  But I’m okay with that, because at the very least they’re characters with needs, issues, desires, and…well, characters.  Like I said, Anna hyper-compensates for her sister’s isolationist tendencies by being bright and chipper and eager to socialize -- so of course she jumps headfirst into a marriage without even knowing the guy she’s engaged to.  In a lot of ways, she’s even less capable at mingling with others than Elsa; the elder sister has tact and poise, while Anna’s something very near an idiot.

If I had to raise a complaint, it’s that it feels like Anna’s a bit too…well, let’s call her “conventional”.  Oh, sure, she’s a departure from the usual Disney princess -- neither the graceful embodiment of purity, nor a stalwart spitfire -- but at times it felt as if they mashed the “clumsy yet endearing doofus button” a few times too many.  Walking around in a frozen dress is a pretty good gag, but damned if I didn’t want to tell that girl to get some common sense.

(Okay, that’s a good one, too.)

So I guess that by the process of elimination, that makes Elsa the best character -- and I’m okay with that.  Her conflict is at the center of the movie, to the point where she could arguably be the villain (albeit an accidental/tragic one).  She’s the focal point of Frozen’s ideas and themes, and struggles because of them.  Beyond that, her basic outline as a character is pretty interesting; I compared her to Iceman earlier, but it’s more appropriate to think of her as Rogue.  She builds walls around herself (literally, in this case), she has issues with intimacy, and she knows that getting too close or too out of hand means putting others’ lives in danger.

Her role in the plot may be “nexus of arctic disaster”, but Elsa still manages to be more than that, and do more than that.  She tries to stay uptight and keep herself under wraps, but she gets plenty of opportunities to express herself.  She gets to show her emotions -- happiness, fear, anger, sorrow, disgust, desperation, confusion, and more.  It’s thanks to her freedom as a character that she manages to transcend being a mass of CG textures.  On top of that, she gets to progress through her arc, realize the error of her ways, and earn her “happily ever after”…even if that’s by virtue of coming within a hair’s breadth of losing what she cared about most.

And now, because it wouldn’t be a discussion about Frozen without it, I present to you the song that everyone (probably) cares about most:

(Christ, this video has 521 million views.  I hope someone was well-compensated for that song.)

Okay, so…”Let it Go”.  Now, I’m sure someone has brought this up already, but in case they haven’t, I’ll say it plainly: is it just me, or is that song supremely dark and brutal?

Like, I think I’ve heard somewhere that it’s supposed to be a symbol of Elsa coming to terms with herself and telling the world “Here I am!”  But the context is kind of off for that, wouldn’t you say?  Bluster and cheery tones aside, Elsa hasn’t really made any strides toward being a proud and brave individual; if anything, she’s only cementing herself as a recluse.  She’s being bold, but to what end?  So she can impress the ice chandeliers she’s got overhead?  Plus, she’s swearing off a kingdom full of innocent people for her false kingdom with a population of one -- all so she can avoid some awkward conversations.

I’m not saying that that’s a bad thing, though.  She’s owning up to her thoughts and desires, which just so happen to be pretty bleak -- that is, instead of working on her faults or accepting responsibilities, she’s shrugging all of that off to pretend like everything is fine.  It doesn’t make her a villain on the level of, say, Ursula or Scar, but I can’t think of or listen to “Let it Go” without thinking it should have been titled “This Is Me Declaring That I’m The Villain”.  Boasting about her power, casting off the shackles of society…she even acts like a smarmy sorceress, as if she’s taken lessons from Jafar.  The sights and sounds aren’t enough to hide her dark descent -- “dark descent” being relative, because when she and Anna reunite, all that bluster fades away.  The more things change, it seems.

Again, I’m not saying that Elsa/the song having darker shades is a bad thing…yet.  If anything, it’s welcome -- because it gives the character and the movie some flavor.  I won’t say it’s 100% original, but it is 100% interesting, regardless of whether or not Disney pushed it.  But you know what?  Setting that aside, I think that one of Frozen’s greatest strengths isn’t necessarily the writing; it’s the audiovisual aspect.  The sounds and especially the sights help sell the experience, and show why people shouldn’t write off animation just because “LOL, CARTOONS ARE FOR KIDS”.

Frozen succeeds on the strength of its expressiveness and the emotions of its characters -- the pathos, if you want to use fancy-schmancy words.  If you don’t care about Elsa and Anna (and the others, by extension), then you can’t care about the movie.  But the movie makes you care, because their emotions are put front and center.  The two princesses are well-animated and well-designed, and show off what they can do on a regular basis -- and “what they can do” typically means making damn sure you know what they’re feeling or how they feel with a split-second glance.  That’s awesome.  It’s to the point where I want to stare at a whole bunch of Frozen GIFs for an hour.  And this is from a 2013 movie; in a year, or even six months from now, who knows what we’ll get?

So that’s a lot of praise to throw a movie’s way, and in all fairness there’s more I could say to support it (I could talk about Kristoff more, but this post is gonna be long enough).  But like I said at the start, Frozen is not the perfect movie.  And on top of that, it’s a frustrating movie.  Okay, sure, no movie is without sin -- as others have proven on a regular basis -- but I feel like this movie came so close to being everything I could ever want, yet got hamstrung on some of the simplest things.  Things that could’ve been fixed with a couple of changes here and there.

It seems as if there are too many shortcuts -- ways to tie everything into a nice little bow.  And I’m not talking about “where did Elsa get her ice powers from?”  (For the record, I’m fine with that; she can have her magic, and the story can progress.)  I’m talking about how some of the details in this movie, or lack thereof, take a lot of punch out of everything that follows.  Based on what I’ve read, my interpretation of Elsa as the villain has some grounding -- to the point where I want to say they didn’t go far enough.

And with that in mind?  Let me say this to start: Frozen is a metal, brutal movie…but it’s not brutal enough.

For the record?  The movie more or less starts with young Anna getting headshot by her sister and brought to death’s door.  Elsa has to shoulder the burden of being a walking disaster zone, and then has her worst fears -- being outed and feared for her powers -- come to life.  Olaf the snowman gets impaled…and then one of the duke’s men comes within inches of getting impaled by Elsa.  Speaking of which, Elsa very nearly goes for the kill when she’s pushed into a corner, itself preceded by two guys eager to shoot her dead. 

Anna’s party gets rushed by a snow golem who’s awakened to the joys of murder.  Anna herself takes another lethal ice blast and starts freezing from the inside out -- which not only leads to her getting locked in a cold room, but walking through a blizzard, while dying, in search of the people she cares about most.  And that’s overlooking the fact that Arendelle is in the middle of an eternal winter -- despite being in the summer -- which means failing crops, a lack of resources, and conditions that only go from bad to worse.

Also, Arendelle is supposed to be based on the Norwegian landscape/culture, which only magnifies how metal everything is.  Or…should be.

Far be it from me, the guy who’s practically been on a one-man crusade against everything “dark and gritty”, to say that a Disney movie of all things needs to be more dark and gritty.  But honestly, this is one of those cases where injecting some of that darkness would work wonders.  Don’t get me wrong, Frozen takes some pretty bold steps; there are some images in this movie that are downright haunting.  Maybe that’s why I feel like it’d be better served if it went even further. 

I don’t fully buy into the idea that Elsa isn’t the villain of the movie -- because even if rewrites made her into an anti-heroic figure, she still slots into that role pretty well (almost in a way that makes those rewrites moot).  Okay, she doesn’t go out of her way to hurt anyone or actively make lives worse for her gain -- barring her attack on a couple of gunmen -- but her inaction is just as harmful, if not more so.  I feel like the movie could have gone to some really interesting places if it played to that idea.  It’d mean a lot for Elsa, but even more for Anna; she’d have to talk down her sister and bring her back to the light…or fail and let her kin fall into the darkness.

Holy shit.  Anna and Elsa are pretty much Dante and Vergil.  That’s amazing.

But anyway --

Seriously, Elsa even does the slick-my-hair-back thing.  All she needs is a katana and super speed.

But anyway, my problems with Frozen don’t stop with the issue of Elsa’s villainy.  It’s as if the movie is playing while wearing shackles; that is, it has to bend the narrative it wants and needs so it can be safer and easier to swallow.  That, in turn, leads to some instances so contrived it threatened to make Jurassic World look airtight.  People have brought this up before, and I have to bring it up now: what the hell were Elsa’s parents and the trolls thinking?  Who would ever agree to take away Anna’s memories because of one bad experience, especially if knowing what Elsa could do might one day be the difference between life and death?

More to the point, why would the princesses’ parents create a situation and environment where mental and emotional repression was standard fare?  Sure, they died before they could impart any every lesson, but the way things play out, it’s as if they broke Elsa before she even got the chance to learn for herself how to mingle with people, how to have faith in herself, and how to respect (and control) her power instead of fear it. Meanwhile, Anna ends up getting shafted because no one’s explaining all this to her, and leaving her to her devices so she can get warped into someone who’s desperate for love, attention, and a good friend.  I don’t understand what the plan was, so I’m willing to assume they just got parenting tips from Pa Kent.

It brings up the question of --

You know, Elsa could probably use her ice powers to create Summoned Swords.  She could even have them spin around her and look like a big snowflake.

It brings up the question of nature versus nurture, and I find myself wishing that the movie played more toward the former.  The parents push their daughters to become warped idealizations of princesses as well as people, but did they really need that push?  Imagine what it would be like if Elsa became the person she did because she warped herself -- because she rationalized everything to the point where she thought she had to be alone…until she reached the breaking point and went to extremes.  That’d make for some pretty potent stuff, and the contrivance of her parents’ meddling would be less of an issue.

Also, I’m not going to say that the movie needed less humor (there’s the right amount of it, courtesy of guys like Olaf), but I feel as if the song ratio was off.  It’s not as if I hated any of the songs, so it’s not an issue of content or quality; it’s the frequency that gets to me.  Some of them advance the plot and our understanding of characters, which is good, but others feel like they’re just there because “there hasn’t been a song in a while”.  Did Olaf really need a song of his own, especially when it brings up things no snowman should ever know?  Did the trolls really need a song when the entire purpose of the visit to the trolls is to keep Anna from dying?  It’s a real flow-killer, basically.  That might not be an issue for some, but, well, it’s been a hot minute since my last experience with a musical.  Except for that time when The Producers was on.

But my biggest issue --

Seriously, guys.  Anna and Elsa have their big clash in an isolated tower, and Elsa “wins” after she inflicts a grievous wound on Anna’s heart.  This is literally Devil May Cry 3.

But my biggest issue is -- you guessed it -- Hans.  He’s the guy Anna gets engaged to within hours of meeting him, the guy who handles affairs in Arendelle when she searches for Elsa, and the guy who turns out to be the real villain.  And…well, I don’t buy it for a single second.  Okay, sure, the hints are there in retrospect/a second viewing.  And if we’re being honest, I knew going in that Hans was a bad guy.  But I didn’t have the context for his villainy until I watched the movie -- and what I saw doesn’t tell me “this guy is a sociopath who’s been manipulating everyone to usurp power”.

My interpretation is that everything up to the big reveal -- to Hans suddenly dropping the act and trying to give Ratigan a run for his money -- has the Southern Isles’ thirteenth son as a noble forced into a bad situation instead of a schemer who plays everyone like a fiddle.  I mean, he starts off as a nice guy who matches Anna’s awkwardness on a regular basis.  When he gives orders in Arendelle, he makes sure that the people have blankets and warmth.  He specifically keeps the duke’s gunmen from going for the kill, and even talks Elsa down from murder.  Does that sound like the sort of person who would gloat about how evil and victorious he is, and leave Anna to die in such a sloppy-ass way?  Did the movie seriously need someone to go “just according to keikaku”?

As far as I’m concerned --

You know, Anna has more reddish colors in her design, is much friendlier, is kind of a goof-off, and gets really excited about parties.  The evidence is piling up here. 

As far as I’m concerned, Hans’ turnaround was a mistake.  I’m not saying that to devalue or ignore the clues that he’s not what he seems -- and I’m not saying that he couldn’t have been a villain, either.  He only needed to be the right kind of villain.  Think about it: Hans was in the perfect position to have seen what Elsa’s power wrought.  The snow queen started an eternal winter after one little temper tantrum, and he had to pick up the pieces.  He tried to do the noble, responsible, and even altruistic thing time and time again, and he saw firsthand how close Elsa came to crossing the line.  And even beyond that, it’s not as if he could count on Anna to be a responsible leader; she ran off and put the first guy she saw in charge, and didn’t even put on a sweater.

Let’s face it: Hans had a point.  The princesses weren’t ready to take the throne, and one of them came within days of plunging it into a new ice age.  He didn’t need to kill them, but he had a right to try and make a course correction.  Really, I can imagine how to make him work better: instead of pinning him as this incredibly evil person deep down, let him try to do the right thing at the cost of the princesses’ happiness (and thus the audience’s bond with them).  Hans recognizes that he has to do some awful things in order to help out the people in need, but does it anyway -- because even if it’s wrong on a personal level, and even if he’ll have to stain his hands red, the end will justify the means.  Elsa’s already in a gray area, so why couldn’t Hans be?  Why make him into the villain (and so late into the movie, no less) when he could have been a villain for the sake of a good cause?

I feel like --

So if Hans is a traitor out for his own gain, would that make him Frozen’s version of Arkham?  (Or, worst-case scenario, a secret asshole like DmC’s Vergil Vorgil?)  Also, since Anna beats him with a punch to the face, does that mean she’s a Beowulf specialist?

I feel like Frozen held itself back for no reason.  Sure, rewrites happened, and it was important to be mindful of the demographics, but this movie is already bleak as shit.  Did they seriously think that people wouldn’t be able to handle it if there was no mustache-twirling baddie in the midst?  Maybe so.  Either that, or behind-the-scenes issues left the crew with no time or resources, so they had to rush to meet deadlines.  That’d be a good explanation for why Elsa manages to perfectly control her powers and restore the summer once she realizes that “the power of love” is the key.  Oooof.  I’m an optimist, but even I have a hard time swallowing that much.

I guess you could say that Frozen is a pretty uneven movie, then.  It does a LOT of things right, no question, but much like Elsa, it seems like it’s afraid of the power it wields.  It could have been more than what it is, but chickened out so it could play things safe -- bank on contrivances and conventions to see it through to the end.  I hate that that’s how things played out; given that, maybe the best thing it can do for now is get that sequel.  Maybe then, the crew will have enough time to take the story further than the original ever could.

But even so --

Man, how hype would it be if Elsa went “Might controls everything” in the sequel?  AND LOOK!  SHE'S DOING THE SLICK-BACK-MY HAIR THING!

But even so, I can’t bring myself to hate Frozen.  I still like it -- maybe not as much as I would have hoped, but it still had an impact on me.  It’s left me with a lot of questions I don’t necessarily need answers to -- things that get me thinking about the movie, my writing, and more.  Is Elsa the sort of person who would cross the line if pressed?  How far is she, or anyone, willing to go to get what they want?  What does it mean to protect someone?  What does it mean to nurture someone?  Are ideals ultimately as destructive as they are unattainable?  Are defensive mechanisms, in whatever form they take, really there to protect others?  Or are they just ways for people to protect themselves?  And at what cost?

I wish I could be one of the people blown away by Frozen (and to be fair, I think it’s still strong overall).  But you know what?  My opinion doesn’t necessarily matter here.  What’s important isn’t necessarily that Frozen is the perfect movie, but that Frozen is an example of what a movie can be.  It’s shown people what can be done, be they humble fans or executives watching from on high.  The impact they’ve felt is real, and can’t be taken away because someone pointed out plot holes.  Those moved by “Let it Go” have every right to be moved, because they pulled something precious and meaningful from what could have been an hours-long parade of sparkles and makeup.

That’s the clincher.  And that brings me back to Super 8.

Super 8 is another movie I like -- but I barely made it out of the movie theater before I took umbrage with some of the plot issues.  (For starters, I have my doubts that a train would turn into a whirling maelstrom of hellfire after a collision with a single truck.)  There were things in there that just didn’t work, and things that I would have liked to see removed.  Why?  Because for all the things in there that annoyed me, there were things that I loved.  The idea of a bunch of pals getting together to make a movie -- combined with the interpersonal struggles shown at length -- made for something a million times stronger than quasi-Cloverfield.

Super 8 had heart -- and Frozen has heart, too.  The logos leg of the story may be a pile of sawdust, but it stands solely on the strength of its pathos.  I cared about Elsa, Anna, and all the rest.  I still do, arguably.  I care about the cast, the world, the ideas, and pretty much everything in between.  I can and will overlook the problems, because it’s the duty of the story to compensate for its weaknesses with its strengths.  That’s a failing point a lot of stuff has these days, Jurassic World well among them; the plot in that movie was dumb as hell, and had nothing else to fall back on.  Comparatively, Frozen’s plot is also kind of dumb, but I’m invited to overlook that by the sheer force of its conviction.

For all its faults, I believe in Frozen -- just as it believed in itself.  And that’s exactly why I’m putting it somewhere around HERE on my SmartChart™:

And that’ll do it for now.  See you guys next --

Capcom, is it too much to ask for a Devil May Cry/Frozen crossover?  I want to do sick ice combos with Elsa!  Icicle Helm Splitters!  Frigid Volcanoes!  A Lunar Phase in Heels!  Can you give that to me?  Please?  Pretty please?  I’d forgive you for Resident Evil 6!

No?  Fine, you win.  I guess I’ll just go play Devil May Cry 4.  Wonder how it holds up?

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