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Movie review: 'Frozen' admirably continues Walt Disney Animation's hit streak

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Frozen

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FROZEN-- 3 STARS

In approaching the opportunity to sit down and finally see Frozen, the latest feature from Walt Disney Animation Studios, I came across a sharply written and mildly provocative opinion piece entitled "Hear Me Out: Disney has Reclaimed the Animation Crown as Pixar Falls Behind" written by Sean O'Connell of Cinema Blend, a great comprehensive movie website that I highly recommend following online. We all knowingly remember the classic Disney hey-day of hand-drawn animated musical masterpieces that others often imitated, but never duplicated, until the computer animation revolution brought by Pixar Animation Studios broke the mold, changed the game, and created their own timeless and modern classics. In the article, O'Connell suggests that Pixar's films have started to lose their high quality during the same time period that non-Pixar Disney efforts have slowly improved to rival their former shingle subsidiary and become their own worthy new classics. After seeing Frozen, Cinema Blend may just aiming a little high.

Since this very website's start in 2010 through reviews for Toy Story 3, Cars 2, Brave, and Monsters University, I've made no bones about putting Pixar on a special pedestal with their impressive company track record. I called Toy Story 3 a perfect film and touted Pixar's nearly impeccable resume for perfection prior to 2010. In looking back to then, Toy Story 3 may have been their peak. Since 2010, their films have indeed lost some of their perfect magic and smell like hints of complacency. I have been easier than other critics on these films, particularly with Brave, because their technical efforts are still worlds better than anyone else.

Across the studio lot, the reinvigorated Walt Disney Animation Studios might just be on a new and growing hot streak. No one remembers 2009's underrated The Princess and the Frog, but 2010's expensive Tangled gamble blew all expectations out of the water and won over more audiences than anything the studio has done in a decade. Winnie the Pooh was a nice nostalgia project that next year and last year's Wreck-It Ralph stepped things up even further, setting the stage for Frozen. Like Tangled, Frozen exceeds all expectations and inches Walt Disney Animation Studios more and more closer to regaining their esteemed animation reputation as the best in the business. I'm not quite ready to crown a new champion the way Cinema Blend describes, but I will say that this puts them back in the conversation.

Frozen is set in the Norway-life fjord-side kingdom of Arendelle and is loosely based on Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tale The Snow Queen. The musical follows a pair of separated sisters that are sure to become two new regulars in Disney's roster of princesses to hit store shelves. The oldest sister is Elsa, voiced in adulthood by Wicked Tony Award winner Idina Menzel, who movie audiences might recognize from Enchanted. She possesses the gift and curse of freezing things she touches and creating manifestations of ice. When a careless childhood accident of her powers leads to her younger sister Anna getting hurt, Elsa begins a self-imposed exile that continues after their parents' death until she reaches the age to control her powers and be crowned as the new queen of Arendelle.

Anna, voiced by Veronica Mars and current Showtime House of Lies star Kristen Bell, is the feistier of the two sisters and has long dreamed of leaving outside the castle walls and reconnecting with her separated sister. When the coronation celebration goes out of Elsa's control and her sorcery powers are revealed publicly, Elsa emotionally and physically flees Arendelle for a self-created mountaintop palace but leaves the city in a frozen state in the middle of summer. Seeking to console her sister, Anna leaves the city in the care of a dreamy prince named Hans (Broadway performer Santina Fontana) and embarks on a journey into the mountains to reconnect with her sister and turn back the winter. Along the way, she befriends a mountain man named Kristoff (former Glee star Jonathan Groff), his trusty reindeer Sven, and a magical snowman named Olaf (The House of Mormon's Josh Gad).

Like most Disney fairy tales, we can see most of what is coming a mile away, but there's a wrinkle or two that helps keep Frozen a little more honest and a little less trivial than other animated efforts. The strained sister relationship at this story's core is very much like the mother-daughter one at the center of Brave. It is an emotionally strong departure and far more meaningful affair from the usual good-versus-evil simplicity of other animated efforts. There really isn't a "black hat" bad guy or villain screwing things up. Both sisters are legitimately good people instead of adversaries, which is a solid message to send. Like Brave, there's value to there that can't be argued, no matter how thin the storytelling depth is around it. Few fairy tales are ever that deep and we know that.

In a further positive fashion, the typical cheesy romance elements are kept reasonably in the background of this sister story. True love is present, but not in a way you expect. Also, the obligatory scene-stealing comic relief sidekick of Olaf the Snowman is a benignly innocent presence of more spry energy than colossal annoyance, which is a big help. Josh Gad's performance is a charmer and one that doesn't overstay its welcome. Olaf may not quite be a new iconic favorite, but it's a heck of a lot better than Gilbert Godfried scratching eardrum chalkboards in Aladdin or Eddie Murphy taking everything way too far in Mulan or the Shrek franchise.

The new level of computer animation employed by Walt Disney Animation Studios here in Frozen and most notably in Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph is good enough to rival Pixar's best. The camera imitation, action movement, textures, location detail, and colors are excellently off the charts. The green, purple, and icy palette of this movie will make you open your eyes and lower your jaw ever so slightly. There's enough visuals to dazzle and the movie gets a nice bump from the CGI/hand-drawn merger of an archival Walt Disney-voiced Mickey Mouse in the new animated short Get a Horse! which opens the film.

Where the movie was more than a shade weak for me was the music, written by the husband/wife team of Robert Lopez (The Book of Mormon) and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (Winnie the Pooh). To say it simply, "they just don't make them like they used to." This is a long way from the Alan Menken and Tim Rice classics of yesteryear. Frozen definitely has strong performances and clear professionals at work on the microphones, especially when compared to recent Disney efforts of the last decade, but nothing stood out for me as a showstopping ballad or toe-tapping contagious classic to remember after you leave the theater. "Let It Go," Elsa's solo effort and Olaf's "In Summer" are very good and come close to being memorable, but the rest is very mild. In my opinion, that's the clincher of a good Disney musical classic. If you can't create memorable numbers, your film isn't going to be the next level of memorable either.

Frozen was good, but not great in total parts. I have to be honest when I write and say that I can't put this anywhere close to the Disney and Pixar greats it's getting compared to by the majority of critics and audiences. Frozen is very above average and easily the best animated film of the year, but it still feels like a giant among midgets. I am noticing that, since a certain age, most likely 30, the cynicism of adulthood spoils my ability to enjoy children and family-orientated films with the same gusto. It takes a lot to really impress me anymore after being raised by the real classics. Personally, I liked Tangled and Brave better than Frozen for message, music, and adventure across the board. Nevertheless, Frozen is highly suitable holiday entertainment and a perfect movie for kid sisters.

In looking back one more time at that in-house rivalry between Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, Pixar still leads in Academy Awards. Toy Story 3 beat a non-nominated Tangled at the Oscars and Brave upset Wreck-It Ralph last year. I think 2014 will be the first year in the award's short thirteen-year history that a non-Pixar Disney film wins the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, putting the pioneer brand back on top for the first time. Frozen did more than enough to show off its brilliance when compared to the retread jokes of Monsters University. When it happens, getting over that hump with their first win is still a long way from Walt Disney Animation Studios matching Pixar's seven Oscar wins in the category, but you can't make it to seven without getting to one first. The crown might not be transferred over quite yet, but heat is building despite being Frozen.

Frozen is still playing through the holiday movie season at several local Chicagoland theaters.

LESSON #1: HYPOTHERMIA DOES NOT EXIST IN DISNEY FAIRY TALE MOVIES-- I'm being sarcastic, but there are scenes and settings of absolute frigid conditions that would bring even the toughest Arctic explorer or Himalayan Sherpa guide to their knees in frostbitten agony, but we have people who have perfect animated hair and makeup no matter the weather conditions wearing no more than a cape leggings. Just with exposure alone, this "journey" should have been over with an icy death in like two hours. Can I at least get a credible shiver once in a while?

LESSON #2: YOU NEED SOMEONE TO PICK UP YOUR BUTT SOMETIMES-- OK, now I'm taking the free reign of sarcasm too far. Unless this is a Jackass movie, I have a one farcical lesson limit. I can't hate you, Olaf. You're an overbite-rocking snowy gem who's sneaky with carrots. You can ask me to pick up your butt anytime.

LESSON #3: THE INABILITY TO SHUT PEOPLE OUT FOREVER-- Alright, let's get back on track. Much time is spent by Elsa keeping other away from her. That self-imposed isolation takes a toll. She feels that people will not understand or accept her out of fear and danger, including her own sister, but she learns before its all over that she can't continuously shut people out of her life and contact. No man is an island.

LESSON #4: THE TRUE LOVE OF SIBLINGS-- Here's the chiseled ice sculpture of impact of Frozen and The Snow Queen. There is an unquestioned bond between siblings of either gender in all walks of life. They have a bond that is interwoven to the greater bond of family. Siblings may nag each other growing up or drift apart, but they are fiercely connected for life with true, unconditional love. That incorrigible little brother grows up to be the guy that will help you at the drop of a hat and have your back. That annoying little sister someday grows up to your maid of honor or the aunt to your children. Frozen is a perfect film for this message of siblings that care for each other forever, no matter what.

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