Thursday, November 10, 2016

"The Magic of Disney Animation" Retrospective - #52-53: Ralph, Frozen.

My rundown of the Disney Revival continues...

Wreck-It Ralph:
Perhaps the true start of Disney's next great age of films, when it was released, Wreck-It Ralph received glowing word of mouth and box office returns, received an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature, and has since then (or, at least until Zootopia stole its thunder) been considered one of the studio's finest films. As for me, I... am very hesitant to fully agree with all of that. Make no mistake that I do think the film is good, but I can't help but sometimes feel like perhaps its success has been overblown.

When the film was released in 2012, many even considered it on par with the standards of Pixar, moreso than their cousin company's own Brave from months earlier. This was mainly due to the original set-up to the film, existing within a world where video game characters can transport to other arcade cabinets when their business is closed. While perhaps a bit derivative of Toy Story in that regard, it does have promise to be a great journey for the characters of the film, but while the studio may have excelled in creating a Pixar-like original premise, what they didn't succeed at was nailing Pixar's consistency. This divide is one huge reason why I've always been so defensive of Brave, as the one film that uses an overly familiar premise to tell a subversive and engaging new take on well-trodden territory gets trashed, but the original premise that eventually settles into a formulaic and standard narrative gets a free pass. Okay, maybe that's an exaggeration, but the point still stands.

All petty favoritism aside, this isn't to say that Wreck-It Ralph's story, ideas, or characters are in any way bad or lacking merit, it's just that much of them aren't all that special either, at least on paper. To the film's credit, the script does have its considerable strengths, working in some very welcome doses of humor and heart, laying out its heavy exposition in breezy and easily comprehensive strokes without overbearing the viewer, and when it comes to the themes of the film, it addresses them in clever manners, able to resonate with anyone who's ever felt like an outsider by not shying away from the effects of Ralph's stereotyping because of his central role (though director Rich Moore would more successfully tackle stereotyping four years later with Zootopia). By these accounts, it sounds like it should be a thoroughly entertaining and fantastic time, but where the film falls short to Pixar is in lacking any real surprise. The basic set-up to the film may be gifted with original thinking, but it can't help but follow into derivative formula as it moves from plot point to plot point, even hitting major hitches along the way that are clearly meant to be emotional triggers, but instead come across as forced. Where the story eventually goes doesn't have a whole lot of new to it, making the events to come later quite predictable, including one late major twist that I'm sure the filmmakers must have thought was fantastic in concept, but is delivered with such blatancy because of early foreshadowing that I can't imagine anyone watching the movie for the first time being surprised.

Because of this, the movie has to rely on a great deal of charm in order to pick up the slack for those shortcomings, but thankfully manages to do so well enough. Ralph himself makes for a surprisingly great, even very well-layered character, easily sympathetic for his desire to not be treated so cruelly for just playing his daily role, but going about making changes to those viewpoints in the wrong ways, even further reinforcing that stigma because of his anger issues and recklessness. The other characters of the film, while entertaining in their own ways, aren't nearly as dimensional, relying on the sense of wit and charm of their voice actors (including Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, and Jane Lynch) to keep them engaging. In fact, the movie only really begins firing on all cylinders when finally meeting the antagonist of the film, the Ed Wynn-esque King Candy as voiced by Disney good luck charm Alan Tudyk. For me, this character is far and away the highlight of the entire movie, such an atypically goofy and seemingly ineffectual villain who still yields a wonderful and hilarious sense of entertainment value, a surprising level of behind the scenes manipulation, and is without doubt one of my favorite Disney villains to date.

That's another good credit the movie has going for it, in that it is a genuinely funny movie, ranging from a great variety of styles that include visual gags, great video game references, verbal zingers, and even has puns that don't make me want to slap my forehead. Speaking of video games, that's another good selling point to the film, as while those references are largely to the side and not overly integral to the plot (effectively keeping the momentum on a consistent roll), they still make for fantastic ear and eye candy to the gaming fanatic in me, full of clever references to everything from Tapper to the Konami Code, ticklingly parodying franchises such as Halo (and even Killer Instinct to the super observant), and is loaded with so many easter eggs that picking them all apart becomes entertaining on its own. Oddly enough, it's not even based on any real video game, and it's still the best video game movie that has ever been made.

Not to say that I think the film is the fantastic one that we've all lost our heads over (but you can feel free to tell me the same when talking about our next movie), but in the end, it still overcomes whatever issues it has to make for an entertaining, even thoughtful venture into new territory for Disney to take. It was such a success that it essentially cemented Disney as having overtaken Pixar during the latter company's unfortunate pre-Inside Out slump. Only one year later, they would manage to prove that to be exactly the case...

**** / *****

I've already reviewed this one three years ago, but what's one more write-up gonna hurt? Three years later, and this movie is still a phenomenon and pop culture staple that you're either glad it stuck around, or you wish it would just go away. Essentially becoming The Lion King of its day, Frozen was the third film in the Disney Revival to recall the company's success of the Renaissance, and was without doubt the most successful one of the bunch, taking the world by storm with its ingenious marketing and merchandising, amazing and memorable soundtrack, numerous theme parks tie-ins, short films, spin-offs, and even a yet to be released sequel. For those reasons, I would imagine some people are sick of hearing about it... Frankly, I'm not one of them.

Both a successful callback to the traditions of the Renaissance musicals, as well as a deconstruction of their own cliches, Frozen has a surprising level of thought underneath its beautifully rendered and hummable surface, even managing to refine some of Disney's most fondly remembered morals and messages. The most notable of these is in the film's approach to the real meaning of true love, which the initially naive and enthusiastic main character Anna often equates to romance, a definition Disney themselves have perpetuated several times. With Frozen, however, they instead decide to remold that definition to embrace a different and wider angle of meaning, highlighted by the tried but caring bond between sisters Anna and Elsa, and rediscovering the joy that their past playing together brought them, and the two of them learning to confront their perceived limitations and break free of their comfort zones.

Frozen features an absolutely terrific assembly of characters, with the aforementioned Anna and Elsa being great standouts; Anna for her endlessly charming but naive outlook and desperation to reconnect with the outside world and her sister, and her trust and recklessness being viewed as vices just as much as virtues; then Elsa for her well-meaning but unintentionally scarring fear leading her to find seclusion more comforting than interaction, possessing an obviously strong love for her sister, but unaware of what that neglect does to her. We also have Johnathan Groff as a hilarious and rugged ice harvester, Santino Fontana as Anna's charming suitor (Spoiler Alert!) that manages to make the audience like him so much, that his eventual reveal as the villain was a genuine shock, and another humorous Alan Tudyk appearance. Scene stealers come in the form of the silent reindeer Sven, and the movie's true secret weapon, the lovably loyal and adorably oblivious and fearless Olaf, the comedic highlight of the entire film, and voiced with winning energy by Josh Gad.

But the craft was the true standout quality for Frozen, with the animation taking the already excellent 2D-meets-3D-esque animation style of Tangled, and going above and beyond with it to bring the numerous expressive characters and the dazzling sets and weather effects to life, with Elsa's ice castle being a particular marvel. MVP status belongs to the instantly recognizable and incredible music of the film, with the songs by Kristen and Robert Lopez heeding to the fantastic mold popularized by Disney's Renaissance, but also breaking free with inspired new diversions and a stellar level of fun and catchy lyrics, with the (apparently) overplayed "Let it Go" becoming the apex of the entire film, and for my money the best song Disney have had a hand in for the last twenty years. Also a terrific accompaniment to the songs is Christophe Beck's lovely score that sticks to the Norwegian and Scandinavian roots of the story while also weaving the melodies of the songs alongside his own with wonderful balance.

I'm sure I could find some things about Frozen to nit-pick, but on the whole, as overexposed as the film may be, I'm still not getting tired of watching it or hearing about it, I still listen to the songs quite often, and it still continues to prove thoroughly entertaining every time. As far as I'm concerned, this is Disney's best and most entertaining film yet to come out of Lasseter's tenure as CCO, and if ever that sequel does come out (further teased to us during Zootopia), I'll gladly be there for more great songs and characters.

Oh, and if you're interested in my thoughts on Frozen Fever (the short shown before Cinderella), the short itself is really fun and humorous, but most of my reason to revisit is solely because of the new song, which proves to be just as memorable and entertaining as the ones for this movie.

***** / *****

We're almost at the end, folks. Join me back on November 20th when we'll be looking at the last two Revival entry films before Moana.

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