Frozen: Why Would Disney Ever Give Up This Princess Racket Again?

You want to know how Disney’s Frozen is.

This isn’t a question or a theory. I’m merely stating a fact.

At this point, the notion that Disney is creating these proto-feminist, semi-revisionist princess musicals just for the under ten set is patently absurd. In talking about animation in the new millennium, we talk a lot about savvy kids educated by massive DVD libraries and Netflix, and of increasingly willing parents who dig studios’ desire to cater about half their jokes to a more knowing, sophisticated audience. But we seldom talk about the Menken/Ashman nostalgist, weaned on the mildly liberating independence of Belle and mildly subversive gender-bending of Mulan, caught somewhere in the gray area between a Disney adolescence and a parenthood catering to the needs of a Disney adolescent. But how gray is it really? Not very. This grey area is brought to by the Walt Disney Company, proud owners of Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar, the Muppets, and a complete monopoly on the animated princess musical.

Watching the opening thirty minutes or so of Frozen, in which an extended prologue (the kind of story set-up that was usually taken care of in a two-minute puppet show or stained glass window montage back in the ‘90s) gives way to a beautifully sung, evocatively devastating Act 1, you wonder why Disney would ever give up this game, and why they ever have in the past. Disney’s fallow periods have corresponded almost precisely with ten year stretches where corsets and ballads gave way to a more boy-baiting aesthetic: more action, no singing (think the wartime propaganda and choppy short packages of the 40s, the fantasy epics and talking animal pictures of the 80s, the science fiction films of the early 2000s). Even now, unwisely, Disney dangles the idea that every princess musical we see might be the last we see for a long while. Well, far be it from me to dictate Disney’s corporate strategy, but once again, the finished product seems to argue that an out and out abandonment of the very form that so defines the success of the Walt Disney Company would be akin to abandoning Mickey Mouse himself. (Oh wait, the company had essentially, up until a recent resurgence highlighted by the brilliant short which plays before Frozen, done precisely that? Well, screw it, let the Mouse House print money however they see fit then!)

Not all of Frozen is an out-and-out-success. I’d argue that, on the whole, the film is not as well-structured as Tangled (which it is obviously tonally similar to), not as funny as Enchanted, and not as cinematically delightful as the Pixar oeuvre of the late-2000s. But what the film promises – the continuation of a narrative of not subtextual feminism but actual honest-to-god feminism in the midst of what appears to be a much quieter Disney Renaissance; call it the Disney Enlightenment if you will – and what it delivers – a delightful screwball road romp, a classic Hollywood genre over which Disney appears to now have sole provenance – still marks this as another tick mark in the win column for a beleaguered animation studio that has desperately needed some wins as it has transitioned as ungracefully as possible from hand-drawn animation to CGI. (Let’s take a moment now to marvel at the fact that in over a decade of Best Animated Feature Oscars, the greatest animation studio of all time has failed to win even one, and really only came close last year when Wreck-It Ralph couldn’t quite take down Brave.)

What has always set the most distinctive Disney product apart most from its competition is its Grade-A, generations-defining songcraft, and this is the strongest aspect of Frozen. The musical numbers (written by Avenue Q/Book of Mormon songwriter Robert Lopez and his wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez), particularly the first two or three in the film, so effectively ape the rousing power and joie de vivre of Disney’s Howard Menken/Ashman heyday (with a few “totally” and “like”s thrown in in a not unappealing manner) that I felt, for a time, transported. Even while the Disney logo was still on the screen, before we met Princess Anna or Princess Elsa, I was already experiencing chills and sense memories, so effective is “Vuelie,” the film’s tribal chant choral opening number, an evocative mix of similar openings to The Lion King and Lilo & Stitch. I was like Anton Ego, remembering a childhood long past and greatly enjoyed, upon the taste of the familiar yet transcendentally new.

And I rode that wave through the film’s first few numbers, “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” and “For the First Time in Forever,” which devastatingly build up and tear down the sororal bond between young Anna and Elsa. Maybe I was still hypnotized by the entrancing spell of “Vuelie” but, by the opening of the gates to Arendelle, I was ready to anoint Frozen a classic on the merits of “For the First Time in Forever,” the best “I want” ballad Disney has made since Hunchback‘s “Out There,” alone. While Menken’s work on Tangled grew on me over time, the musical work done on Frozen immediately burrowed a hole deep into my consciousness, remaining entrenched and refusing to vacate the premises anytime soon.

But while the numbers themselves remain brilliant, their meaning to the story grows muddled as Anna prepares to hit the road and chase her sister, the Snow Queen, into the icy wilderness. The overwhelming popiness of “Love is an Open Door” feels suddenly out-of-place and forced, which does tie into the film’s overall perspective on the kind day-of-meeting engagements the song scores, but is jarring all the same. “Let It Go,” sung by Idina Menzel, will undoubtedly become a staple, but feels like the hit off an Idina Menzel album and not so much like a song that belongs in Frozen. The film’s final act is sorely missing a song, period.

In breaking the film into acts, I’m doing something Frozen hardly seems to want to do on its own. At every turn, Frozen, because of the movie’s peculiar and refreshing ambivalence to the Disney narrative of finding one’s true love, subverts just about all our expectations about what a Disney movie should be paced like. In this it is similar to Brave, a Pixar princess movie that widely frustrated audiences. Frozen, similarly, can vacillate wildly between unexpected choices that prove to be both confounding and refreshing: the movie’s advertised villain is more a secondary protagonist, its actual villain is a late-in-the-game surprise, a romantic interest is more of a sidekick (which is so so nice, because from Charming to Phillip to Eric, Disney princes have always had a disturbing tendency of disappearing from the story for long stretches after the heroine decides these boring lads are the one, really and truly, sigh; only recently have these Disney men like Flynn and Naveen been fleshed out as they’ve been dragged unwillingly along on the adventure), and the actual sidekick shows up about halfway through the film.

The film has to change up the typical beats of the princess musical because it’s barely playing in the same league – for instance the film needs a prologue ten minutes longer than we’re accustomed to because it can not simply establish a girl and her dream; it must establish the pre-crisis status quo and post-crisis status quo of two girls, two dreams, and the relationship between them all. If ever given a chance to feature a beat that will reinforce the relationship between Anna and a suitor or a beat that will reinforce the relationship between Anna and her sister, the film will always choose the latter, making this a film that is most effective when it mythologizes, with remarkable accuracy, the shifting, ever-changing relationship between siblings.

Elsa is a first sibling, upon whom all her family’s pride and all its potential shame rests. Elsa’s actions, over which she has little control (she was born with her affliction, we are told), turn her into a recluse, particularly in regards to her doting sister, who wonders aloud through locked doors and tiny keyholes why Elsa has grown away from her as she grew up. Elsa, who has recited “conceal, don’t feel” to herself ad nauseum since childhood, is repressed but ready to explode into rebellion at the first opportunity she is given. When she does, it is frightening and liberating in equal measure.

Anna, through no fault of her own, is punished for her sister’s transgressions, whatever you choose to read them as — her ice powers could be oncoming puberty, flowering sexuality, or the shame of a family after a private coming out (there is a queer reading of this film, and it is fascinating). This rift drives the sisters apart, building resentment in the former, sheltering the latter, turning her into a clutzy shut-in willing to fall for the first man who smiles at her. (This naivete could be irritating, but, as with Mandy Moore’s Rapunzel before her, Anna, as voiced by Kristen Bell, is such a lovable dweeb, fraternizing with paintings and talking to herself as she does, that she is an instantly sympathetic delight, a manic pixie dream girl without a depressive guy to define her quirkiness.) Fall Anna does, forcing her older sister, in sheer frustration, to out her true icy nature to the horrified masses (once again, the notion of slut-shaming or of queer-bashing in the Duke pf Weselton’s frequent cries of “monster” adds interesting layers), casting a perpetual winter of discontent over Arendelle that can only be lifted when the sisters remove the wedge their parents, acting out of both fear and love, placed between them. In all of this, the idea that these young women might make a fine bride is merely a distraction from this tale of two once-close, now-distant siblings; this ambivalence toward the defining narrative of marriage, that a Disney princess is complete only when she is wed, is the film’s most subversive move of all.

In all of this subversion, Frozen, while just as similar to the things you’ve heard it compared to (particularly Wicked) as you might expect, is actually most like two other Disney films: Enchanted, philosophically; and Up, structurally.

Frozen apes many of the road picture instincts that made Up such an uneven (while still virtuosic) film after that perfect, heartbreaking prologue. As Josh Gad’s loyal-to-a-fault snowman Olaf shows up so far into the picture you think he’ll hardly have time to make an impression (he does, and it’s a great one, in spite of what trailers might have led us to believe), you might be reminded of the similarly loyal Dug, who only needed half of Up (and the weaker half at that) to become one of the most beloved Pixar characters of all time (which, considering Pixar’s stable of characters, is no small accomplishment). On first viewing, this unevenness of Frozen is startling and even a little off-putting, highlighting the movie’s flaws (for instance, why give Alan Tudyk’s Duke of Weselton so much to do at the outset considering how unimportant he becomes: misdirection?) more than subsequent viewings, shaded by viewers already knowing the story going in, might; but it would be imprudent to argue that Disney changing its formula in any way is unwise. In future, one hopes these alterations might be incorporated into the princess musical framework a bit more smoothly is all.

More interestingly, like Enchanted, Frozen intentionally has one-too-many nice guy suitors hanging around: one is a sweet and noble romantic who seems a perfect match for the sheltered Anna, the other is a gruff skeptic who sings “Reindeer(s) Are Better Than People” to his only friend, a faithful reindeer. What the film chooses to do to solve this overabundance ends up being much more creative than Enchanted’s solution, which necessitated a third act that ended an otherwise brilliant film with a giant raspberry. Enchanted ended up arguing true romantic love might take a bit longer than one day to figure out, but it was still out there, and no mean dragon-queen-lady could stop it no matter how many fairy tale puns she spouted. It’s not like Frozen couldn’t believe the same about romantic true love, but if it does, it is merely an afterthought; the film’s priorities when it comes to true love are so altogether refreshing that, no matter how rushed the plotting is, and no matter how sorely a song might be needed at the denouement, when the curse’s resolution is revealed and resolved, all is forgiven. How could it not be considering the startling nature of where the save-the-day agency lies and what sort of love that agency is used to protect?

It has been a while since we have been immersed in a Disney epoch that will so clearly affect generations of home video watchers to come. Chicken Little and Treasure Planet, whatever charms they may have, will seldom be discussed with the same bated breath reserved for those Disney princess movies which have instilled in the hearts and minds of well over half a century’s worth of young children a system of values and morals that rivals anything parents or preschool teachers could provide. With Frozen building upon the successes of Enchanted, The Princess and the Frog, and Tangled (and with Wreck-It Ralph being one of the most delightful changes of pace the company has ever produced), it is clear that we are in the midst of something special, an era of Disney films that film critics twenty or thirty years down the line will breathlessly reference in the opening paragraphs of their animated film reviews. Frozen is a noble, perhaps brilliant addition to the now stabilized Disney canon, but that is not the limit of its appeal. Considering the film’s overall ambivalence to romance and its strong emphasis on other types of love, Frozen would pair just as well with Frances Ha and The Heat as it would with Cinderella and The Little Mermaid. Frozen is a heartening and versatile film, a success as much outside of the Disney canon, in a world sorely lacking movies that can pass the Bechdel Test, as it is within the canon’s tuneful, deeply beloved confines.

Ender’s Game: Amidst CGI Spectacle, Ender Himself Breaks into Uncanny Valley

Let’s talk a bit about Asa Butterfield. He is our Ender after all; for Ender’s Game to work as a film, we need to believe this kid is the perfect Venn Diagram of Bobby Fischer and General Patton.

Framed in the moppetiest of all moppet haircuts, Butterfield made quite a good impression in Hugo in spite of that film’s true interest lying in its digital playground aspects, and in spite of the fact that the taller, more mature, more assured Chloe Grace Moretz could then and still can act circles around the kid.

Two years later, Butterfield as Ender Wiggin needs to look just as young, maybe younger, and so gone is that shaggy picture frame of brown hair (which would make him look like an aspiring Disney Channel star now), a short G.I. Jane buzzcut taking it’s place. This new hairdo does strange and alarming things to the teenager’s face and overall onscreen image – an effect I’m sure the filmmakers loved since it means the sixteen-year-old can easily still play a pre-teen untouched by puberty, but one which unsettled me.

In Ender’s world, kids grow up way too fast, playing violent video games all the live-long day (familiar) so they can, owing to the benefits of their malleable brains, immediately step into commanding roles in the intergalactic armed forces (less so). What this creates is a need for us to see Ender and his juvenile brethren both as Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) sees them – as the most brilliant strategic minds in the world, geniuses and leaders in teensy bodies; and as Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis, underused) sees them – as impetuous tykes who could be severely damaged by the psychological ramifications of being used and abused for their brilliance so early in their lives.

That is quite an ask, finding that perfect balance so many times, allowing this film to have a fully fleshed-out cast of believable kid cadets. As it is, only Moises Arias, as Ender’s rival (perhaps romantic rival, but the film seems more than reluctant to go there, which is an odd sacrifice to make in a film in which a mutual attraction is clear and in which the aging-up of the cast from the book means some sparks should fly considering 80% of the cast is in the throes of puberty, right?) manages to find that perfect balance of carrying himself both as a fifteen-year-old brat might and also as a grizzled veteran of years and years of training and leadership might. In what, in the grand scheme of things, amounts to a bit part, Arias’s captivating turn is wasted (he literally disappears from the film after an incident that at least seems to warrant a check-in come the film’s denouement) when I in fact believe Arias might have made a pretty brilliant Ender himself.

As for Butterfield’s performance as same, of that I am inherently more skeptical. Butterfield’s brief appearance as a digital avatar in an in-film game (which starts out simple and intriguing and grows baffling the more it turns into the film’s ultimate dues ex machina) drives home how much Butterfield looks like the dead-eyed kids that drew so much criticism in Polar Express. In Zemeckis’s animated wonderland, the weird look of the human characters never bugged me that much, but in Ender’s Game, Butterfield as child genius/ sensitive pre-teen freaks me out whether he’s strategizing, punching and kicking, or crying on his sister’s shoulder. Regardless of circumstance, Butterfield’s eyes are deader than the Polar Express kids’ eyes ever were, which is remarkably unnerving because Butterfield is, in point of fact, a real person! How can this flesh-and blood human break the uncanny valley so egregiously?

And yet there is something uncanny about the way Butterfield has to play Ender; something about the way he has channeled Ender’s overwhelming, inarguable brilliance into a chilly, affectless, occasionally watery-eyed performance pulls me out of believing in the only thing the film never for a second bothers to question – that Ender, as far as war games go, is the absolute bees’ knees. Only once Ender’s ideal mix of violence and compassion is challenged by Colonel Graff (who plays, it must be said, a rather horrid trick in a moral quandary that the film should marinate in for a riveting twenty minutes and dismisses in an insubstantial two) does Ender get to break out of the mold that has been set for him, and even that confrontation is a tease, a promise for more fireworks that never come. Somehow, in spite of the alarming stakes that have just been set, Gavin Hood’s script averts any more conflict, and it does so in the most baffling ways: by making the protagonist take a nap, by letting him escape from base in what appears to be a startling breach of security, and by, in spite of the fascinating conversations that must have led to the promotion, giving the kid the title of admiral and letting him do whatever the hell he wants even if it all means completely overwriting everything that just happened in the film.

Director Gavin Hood builds a nice-enough-looking underdog story around the conceit that Ender, through his utter, world-shattering (literally) awesomeness, can turn a group of misfits into a conquering force, and, even more importantly, a compassionate force, a force for a potential greater good; and it sure is nice to see how diverse the team that assembles around Ender is. You know what would have been nicer, especially considering all the controversy that followed this film to theaters due to original author Orson Scott Card’s controversial politics? Instead of having the normative white kid (born with the right stuff donchaknow?) find the hidden potential in all these undervalued “others,” it would have been cool, subversive, even merited to give one of these kids (or the Latino Arias) the keys to the kingdom. As it is, Butterfield is altogether unconvincing as both a conflicted child and as a brilliant military leader, making him, in a film chock-full of extended CGI zero-G scenes and entire military battles staged as video games, the most uncanny thing on screen.

The Counselor: Right People Come Together on Wrong Project

Sex. Violence.

When The Counselor has one of these things (or both in conjunction, as is often the case in a film where one will lead to the other somewhere down the line) on its mind, the film has a kick of Tabasco in it that, when it ruminates on just anything else, its barely-there plot most of all, it most certainly lacks.

When The Counselor portrays — not talks about, in the florid, philosophical, “who actually talks like that?” way that Cormac McCarthy characters pontificate (someone says, I kid you not, “donnybrook” and “chaps” in the same scene), but actually portrays — one of these things; when Cameron Diaz lifts up her dress and humps a convertible (yes, you read that right and I can’t believe I wrote it), or when two of the world’s most beautiful people, Penelope Cruz and Michael Fassbender, have a tête-à-tête and more beneath the whitest set of sheets you ever will see, or when heads (plural) roll (literal)… the film is even captivating. Thrilling. Perversely sexual and dangerously grotesque in an urgent and not-unpleasant way.

And when the two work in concert, the talking about, courtesy of screenwriter McCarthy, and the showing, courtesy of director Ridley Scott, we get master-class filmmaking, filmmaking that sticks.

Unfortunately, that only happens once, and once is far too few times to substantiate the drug-caper-gone-wrong story that surrounds that once: that scene in which Reiner (Javier Bardem in fine, jocular form), for reasons even he does not understand (the real reason being that in McCarthy’s world, no one can, for more than two seconds, shut up), tells the Counselor (Fassbender) at great length that he is haunted by an incident that was, for him, “too gynecological.” There it is, right there, the brilliance we might expect from so many luminaries of the form gathered together, Scott and McCarthy and Fassbender and Bardem and Diaz. Everywhere else, that pop is sorely lacking.

One line in particular — a line which, like so many, might look good in Chapter 10 of a McCarthy novel and sounds delirious coming out of the mouth of a living, breathing human being, meaning the sentiment itself might be brilliant or utter trash — captures this film’s beneficial relationship with luridness and disastrous relationship with everything else: “Life is being in bed with you. Everything else is just waiting.”

In bed (or on windshields) The Counselor is alive. Vital. Outside of the white satin cocoon of coitus in which Fassbender and Cruz begin the story, all is dead and barren. Diaz especially is lost in this world, withering all in the movie she touches, every line, every scene, and, since the plot hinges on her, every thought that says “What the hell is going on here?”

Now look, no one handles McCarthy’s labyrinthine non-sequiturs particularly well (Brad Pitt gets one or two lines off beautifully, for instance, and the others sink into the muck of so many warnings of moral murkiness and impending doom), but Diaz, from the moment she opens her mouth, seems uncomfortably and unintentionally foreign even in a film in which everyone but Cruz’s grounded wife (so grounded it seems like there must be something more there until there… isn’t) sounds like they’re talking through a thesaurus. The script indicates Diaz’s Malkina is from Barbados, hence some of the character’s formality of speech, but she may as well be from Venus for how inhuman, how dripping with portent and foreshadowing, her dialogue and demeanor is. Malkina, a genius/provocateur dressed in animal print, tattooed with animal print, possessing actual cheetahs covered in the stuff if you didn’t get the predatory idea already, is someone who could only be written. And she is not written well.

It’s clear she is doing something smart and shady in the background, but what that is might be unclear to everyone but McCarthy. Even the director and actors never seemed to be let in on the secret of what actually happens in The Counselor besides the vaguest outline of everyone buying into a big deal and then that deal turning sour, after which grave consequences must follow. The consequences are fun, as are watching the characters deal with their inevitability, but even a modicum of a hint as to how or why any of this is happening might have been helpful. Exposition can be a drag, and if you’ve ever sought a film utterly free of it, I present to you The Counselor, but I propose that, when dealing with elaborate criminal schemes, it is a boon if done at all, and a triumph if done interestingly. And it’s not like cutting exposition made the film any less wordy. Instead characters talk about everything but what’s going on that is creating such life and death stakes.

All these insufficiently drawn thugs and masterminds talk around each other in circles as the counselor (he is addressed only as the counselor in reference to his occupation) does everything but counsel. Instead everyone counsels him. Everyone has a story to tell him. And when they are done telling it, they tell another. This is a talky, talky, talky film, and the talk lacks the zip and verve (and ultimately meaning, though the notion that all the discussion of grief and impending death in The Counselor ties into the recent suicide of Ridley Scott’s brother Tony makes me hesitant to say that, though I’ll say it anyway) that would make such an arrangement tenable. The film clearly wants to be, in spite of Scott’s and McCarthy’s noblest intentions, a grimy crime thriller, not a salon, and when a tight wire gives the film a chance to be that after what feels like fifteen circuitous gabfests about morals and fate, something snaps into place. And then that something dislocates immediately afterwards as the film settles back to its status quo — two people, talking at, and not to, each other.

If the whole film were sex and violence, it would be a tawdry but potentially valid affair (Machete, in spite of being a lark, probably says more than The Counselor about all the things The Counselor is saying things about, from immigration to grief to accepting death), but as things are – split down the middle, caught between tawdriness and stifling solemnity — we are left with not the disaster some are bemoaning but a pretty big mess all the same. “One or the other” could have been one way of cleaning up the mess, but considering what we see here, it’s fair to say which path better suits the assembled talent. And as cathartic as the solemnity may be, it’s the not the path that involves seminars on grief delivered by drug kingpins. It’s the path that involves beheadings.

I’m not telling you to not see The Counselor. Like Spring Breakers, I think it’s worth it for its audacity and perversity alone, even if the film indulges in this seedier side far too little.

I am telling that if you do see The Counselor, expect to find yourself more than once in same shoes as the restaurant owner who, towards the film’s end, finds himself caught on the listening end of one of McCarthy’s probably-better-on-the-page clunkers.

He looks on baffled as this word mush comes bubbling out of the human across from him, and summons all the brevity McCarthy can stand.

“Como?”

Exactly, dude. Exactly.