In Frozen, Disney has served up an imaginative cocktail of romance and song for its best musical since The Lion King, writes Alistair Harkness
Directed by: Jennifer Lee, Chris Buck
Starring: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Josh Gadd, Santino Fontana, Jonathan Groff
* * * *
Stories about princesses have been a staple of Disney’s feature animation division since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but all too often the films themselves have been built around the thoroughly retrograde notion of a beautiful young heroine bashing out show tunes while awaiting a handsome prince to deliver true love’s kiss.
It’s a trope that had become so played out that even Disney announced an end to such movies ahead of its 50th feature Tangled three years ago. Tangled, however, turned out pretty well, proving that all that was really required was some imaginative re-jigging of the formula – something the studio has continued with Frozen, an entertaining (and very loose) adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairytale The Snow Queen that pulls off the superlative trick of being arguably the studio’s best musical since The Lion King.
Credit composers and lyricists Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez for the latter accomplishment. As the co-creator of adult musicals Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon, Robert Lopez knows a thing or two about subverting expectations, and, working along with his wife and creative partner, he’s created a marvellously witty batch of songs that feel of a piece with Disney classics of yesteryear yet also sound vibrant, alive and of the moment.
It’s an approach that directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck have taken with the film as a whole, proving that, when done well, there is still a place for big song-driven animation films in an age of quip-filled, pop-culture-referencing buddy movies.
Indeed, one of the simple pleasures of the film is that it is a proper musical, a form that has been debased in live-action cinema of late by the rise of those ear-assaulting, star-driven jukebox atrocities.
Mercifully, Frozen avoids filling its voice-cast with A-listers in favour of performers who can actually sing. Which is not to disparage star Kristen Bell’s cinematic profile, it’s merely to acknowledge that, like her co-stars Idina Menzel (the original star of Wicked) and Josh Gadd (another alumnus of The Book of Mormon) she’s been cast for her musical theatre abilities, not her ability to go on a talk show and promote the movie.
Bell provides the voice for Anna, a young princess who lives in the fictional Scandinavian land of Arandelle with her beloved older sister Elsa (Menzel). Having lost their parents in a shipwreck, these royal siblings should be there for one another, but unbeknown to Anna, Elsa has been cursed with a chilly, Midas-like power that turns everything she touches to ice, something that has led her to isolate herself from her sister for Anna’s own safety.
It’s an instinct that continues into adulthood when, after accidentally unleashing her powers upon her ascension to the throne, Elsa flees a baying mob for the mountains of her now-frozen kingdom and promptly creates an icy fortress of solitude so grand it could make Superman weep with envy.
That sequence alone is so strikingly conceived and realised, it can easily lay claim to being the best animated sequence of the year. And with the sheer ubiquity of CG animation making it difficult to tell one film apart from another, such craftsmanship and artistry is something to be celebrated.
Of course, at this point, fans of Hans Christian Andersen might also begin to question a take on The Snow Queen that turns an evil villainess into a misunderstood outsider. Nevertheless, the film finds other ways to up the villainy quotient in order to keep attention focused on both Elsa’s efforts to come to terms with who she is and Anna’s transformation from a tomboyish ditz into forceful heroine in her own right.
Of the dual story strands, Elsa’s is the more psychologically complex, while Anna’s is the more fun, in part because her quest to find Elsa results in her being partnered up with a magical snowman called Olaf (Gadd) whose blissfully ignorant desire to experience the joys of summer leads to the hilarious showstopper In Summer. There are other great numbers too, including one called Fixer Upper, sung by a group of trolls determined to help Anna see the virtues of a local ice merchant (Jonathan Groff) over the exotic prince (Santino Fontana) to whom she’s already hurriedly pledged her heart.
If that sounds like a depressingly old-fashioned plot development, rest assured that Frozen subverts it in pleasing and unexpected ways. In this film, true love’s kiss may still be a powerful force, but that doesn’t mean it has to come in traditional packaging. The film makes a virtue out of shaking things like this up a bit. Even better, it does so without falling back on the sort of lazy, self-referential humour that quickly blighted the once radical-seeming Shrek movies. Frozen preserves what’s always been great about Disney’s animated classics, but it also makes the form feel as fresh as its own wintry landscapes.
Directed by Alexander Payne
Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, Stacey Keach, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk
* * * *
Alexander Payne’s new film Nebraska sees him traversing familiar territory with unfamiliar results. Like About Schmidt and Sideways, it’s another road movie that offers up an uncomfortable mix of comedy and drama; like The Descendants, it features a dysfunctional family learning home truths about one another. Working in black-and-white for the first time Payne serves up a plaintive, elegiac, exploration of his characters’ lives that’s largely free from his usual condescending snarkiness.
The upshot is that Dern really gets to make the film his own. As Woody drifts in and out of a fog of alcohol- and dementia-induced confusion while making a trip across the Midwest with his son (Will Forte) to claim a non-existent sweepstakes prize, Dern gives us a full sense of all the small ways in which one cantankerous man’s life can impact on those he’s spent a lifetime trying to keep at a distance.
Kill Your Darlings (15)
Directed by: John Krokidas
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan, Michael C Hall, Ben Foster
* * *
Kudos to Daniel Radcliffe for testing himself with trickier roles: as the young Allen Ginsberg in this origins story of the Beat Generation, he demonstrates a fearlessness that should stand him in good stead for a long screen career. He’s complemented by debut writer/director John Krokidas’ unwillingness to take the romanticised rebellion of the group at face value. Instead, the film homes in on Ginsberg’s formative relationship with Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), a fellow student at New York’s Columbia University where Ginsberg attended in the early 1940s. Carr was to prove instrumental in the nascent poet’s development; introducing him to an underworld of drugs, jazz and gay sex and bringing him into contact with fellow aspiring writers Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and William Burroughs (Ben Foster). It’s a story tinged with tragedy and tenderness – and, in keeping with its title, it cuts through some of the overwrought claptrap that has been associated with this particular movement.
Directed by: Gary Fleder
Starring: Jason Statham, James Franco, Winona Ryder, Kate Bosworth
* * *
Jason Statham returns to throat-punching form with this gleefully retro, Louisiana-set action film. He plays Phil Broker, a former DEA agent, whose efforts to live a quiet life in a small town go seriously awry when his ten-year-old daughter – using moves her dad has taught her – beats up the school bully, initiating a face-saving feud with the kid’s mouthy, drug-addled mother (Kate Bosworth) who recruits her meth-cooking brother, the ludicrously named Gator Bodine (James Franco), to try to teach him a lesson.
Directed by: Daniel Auteuil
Starring: Raphaël Personnaz, Daniel Auteuil, Victoire Bélézy
* * *
This second installment of Daniel Auteuil’s adaptation of Marcel Pagnol’s Marseille trilogy is marginally more entertaining than its predecessor.
When Marius (Raphaël Personnaz) sets off on a five-year voyage at sea, he leaves love of his life Fanny (Victoire Bélézy) behind. Unfortunately she is pregnant, forcing her to consider a union with a wealthy older suitor. Auteuil mines the characters for more emotional depth this time, resulting in an engaging exploration of the complexities of family life.
Powder Room (15)
Directed by: MJ Delaney
Starring: Sheridan Smith, Jaime Winstone, Kate Nash, Oona Chaplin
A decent cast can’t save this horribly shrill and vacuous British comedy about a group of twenty-something women whose lives repeatedly intersect in the bathroom of a nightclub over the course of one event-filled evening.