For reasons that have long since been forgotten, Let It Go is something of a running joke in our team at work. Somewhere along the way, I let slip that I hadn’t actually seen Frozen — since I wasn’t interested in going to the cinema at the time, and it hasn’t been on terrestrial TV yet. (Disney sing-along animations aren’t high on my list of preferred films, it’s true. Give me a Disney sword-and-planet swashbuckler or medieval fantasy any day.)
Somehow this joke turned into the team giving me the DVD… as a joke. Obviously I can’t let a joke slide without losing face (to quote Kilbirnie, “I base my existence on how much face I have”), so I had to watch it… and do a review blog.
In massive contrast to most modern cinema, Frozen manages to compress the origin story of its characters into half an our or so of comfortable build-up. Rather than, say, devoting a whole three-hour film to a character origin and then not having anywhere to go with the sequels (cough, most superhero films from the last 10 years, cough).
We’re not going to win any awards for setting here, but it’s magic so you can pretty much get away with it. Princess Elsa of Arendelle is born with godlike control of ice magic and her parents don’t ever ask why, and also why her sister Anna doesn’t have any of that. Instead of trying to discover the origin of the magic and solving the problem of her lack of control over it under stress, they lock the kid away and just hope for the best. Good parenting!
(I’m not actually arguing the need for an explanation here — the hand-wave is simply “magic exists” and that’s good enough. Over-explanation might also have blunted the central conceit that Elsa can’t really control it; if you understand something, you can inevitably find a way to master it. Not explaining things is something I really need to improve on.)
There’s plenty of moral to the story, which kind of speaks to me. Much like her parents didn’t bother to work her through her issues, Elsa eventually lashes out, gives up and just runs away to hide in the mountains and builds her own ice castle. I kind of identify with this — it’s easier to hide in your bedroom and make your own world rather than deal with your problems interacting with the real one.
As a proper fairytale it’s all couched in various forms of love, but the treatment of the subject is actually quite refreshing. The love-at-first-sight gambit that is so entrenched in tradtional fairytales is revealed to be the sham that it probably is, we are taught to be wary of strangers, but still end up with plenty of layers of fluffiness and a nice happy ending.
Underneath this following expanse of icy whiteness is a bit of a spoilery discussion of the finale, one that perhaps helps to explain why the film has acquired such fame and fortune. If you haven’t seen the film, then skip over this bit. If you have or don’t care, then use your cursor to select it and reveal its treasures.
The final twist on love is perhaps the strongest element here. The icy sickness (there’s a game mechanic right there) Elsa accidentally inflicts on Anna can only be cured by “an act of true love” — once we reveal that dashing Prince Hans is actually a villain and a kiss from him is out, we’re built up to expect our male lead Kristoff to come charging in and deliver the expected solution, then… he doesn’t make it.
The act of true love in question is actually Anna’s self-sacrifice to save her sister, taking the bullet and thereby thawing her own heart. It’s a compelling new angle on the well-worn formula, AND it tells kids that there are more kinds of love than just man versus woman. (Not that I’d take a bullet for any of my family, but I suspect that’s specific to me.)
Contrast that with another recent film where love is invoked, but in the worst possible way — Interstellar. This film’s bed of “hard” sci-fi is already pretty questionable, but to then reveal that love is the (only?) way to navigate the 5th dimension in that vomit-inducing cross-time encounter completely breaks the previously established tone.
Frozen talks about love all the way through and hand-waves the magic all the way through, which is consistent, whereas Interstellar is desperate to be a Serious sci-fi that constantly draws attention to its mechanics — and then reaches the end, doesn’t know where to go, gives up and drops the magic love bomb.
Context is the key: undermine your own context and everything falls apart. Frozen‘s emotional climax works because it’s an extrapolation of all the fast-and-loose emotion-driven magic that came before; Interstellar‘s emotional climax fails because its foundation is one of shonky time-travel mechanics with an emotional story awkwardly dribbled over the top.
(Do we think that is a viable spoilers mechanism? Might need to use it, or something like it, again — I’d rather not block off entire posts for people when there’s only one brutal spoiler section.)
The graphics are quite interesting, in that there’s a strange mix between the hyper-stylised and the hyper-realistic. The characters have huge eyes and perfect skin, but every single strand of hair on their heads is rendered in sublime detail, individually wind-blown in physics-engine grandeur. The blanket of snow is a smooth caricature until its surface is broken and it becomes pixel-perfect drifts of particles. Sven the reindeer has a really goofy shape but his fur is full of tufts and snags like a real animal.
It works well enough, it’s just odd when you think about the technology underneath it all. When you’re making an animation like this, where does substance stop and style begin? Games at least have performance limitations that enforce a certain consistency of technique, but here, the lavish detail is free to take over… where the technology exists.
I do like how the ice palace turned out, though. There’s always been something compelling to me about taking fairly normal architecture (well, as much as you can class a fractal obelisk-castle as “normal”) and then constructing it from some alternative material — a bit like UT2004‘s DM-IceTomb, where they just took loads of normal castle props and applied the same ice texture to everything instead of using the original stone textures.
Speaking of games, I do like how Elsa is able to weaponise her magic. Maybe we have to ignore the fact that she has all this power that she can throw around without any apparent cost, but when stressed she unloads all the classic ice-themed boss attacks: spikes, shields, glacial waves… There’s even a proper ice golem summon!
The next counter-step in this joke would surely be to buy the Lego of it, but the one Frozen set is rather too expensive for just shits and giggles — it’s also sexist-mode Lego so I’m not sure I should be supporting that even if there was a price-appropriate model.
Otherwise, well, yes, that was quite heart-warming. Good job, Disney. Good job, team. Now, can we please… let it go?
… The joke never bothered me anyway.