Released in time for Thanksgiving, Frozen is this year’s big Disney animated feature, a loose adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, re-tooled to fit the studio’s very specific formula for success. Continuing their return to the more classical style of what has been dubbed their 2nd Golden age (from 1989’s The Little Mermaid, through Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King) the film is a big, lavish musical spectacle, that tells the story of two sister princesses, one of whom must hide her magical power to conjure anything she wishes out of ice and snow.
Of course, this all goes terribly wrong, and on the day of her coronation, Elsa (the titular snow queen) accidentally plunges her kingdom into eternal winter before running off to hide in the mountains. It is then up to her younger sister, Anna, to find her, aided on her quest by a somewhat grumpy ice-collector, his moose, and a talking snowman. I was a big fan of Tangled, Disney’s similarly loose adaptation of Rapunzel, which I found surprisingly smart, funny and delightful—as well as last year’s Wreck-it-Ralph, which contained some genuinely inspired lunacy, so I was looking forward to Frozen as another modern classic from the same creative team.
And while it’s certainly a well-crafted entertainment, with some great moments, I found myself frustrated by the confines of the formula being adhered to. We get a plucky heroine, a meet-cute scenario with an initially irritated love interest, a smattering of rollercoaster action scenes, big emotional moments transformed into musical power ballads, and the obligatory comic relief, here provided by Olaf the snowman as well as a tribe of romance-loving trolls. And apart from a wonderful sequence in which the Snow Queen belts out the movie’s showstopper—(Let it Go)—as she conjures a palace out of ice, it all plays out more or less as you would expect, and I was left with an unshakeable inner meh. My 10-year-old god-daughter absolutely loved it, start to finish, so perhaps it seems churlish to complain, or want more, when the film so satisfies its core audience.
And to its credit, it plays with classic fairy tale tropes, setting up the need for a handsome prince’s kiss to save the day, only to subvert it for something far more empowering to young women. But whereas I make no apology for watching Pixar movies without child accompaniment —I consider Wall-E, Up, and The Incredibles to be among the best movies of their respective years, I would be hard pressed to recommend Frozen to anyone who doesn’t have a kid to see it with. Basically, it’s a good kid’s movie, but not quite a good movie movie.
The reason I was underwhelmed by Disney’s latest offering, and frustrated by what animation has become in this country, is perhaps due in no small part to the fact that I caught Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises earlier in the week. Billed as the 73-year-old Miyazaki’s final work, after a career spanning such masterpieces as Spirited Away,Princess Mononoke, and Kiki’s Delivery Service, The Wind Rises is—unlike those other films—aimed more towards adults than children, and tells the slow, complex story of the engineer responsible for building Japan’s bomber planes during World War II. Introducing Jiro Horikoshi as a young teen with big dreams of flying machines, through to his adulthood designing planes for the military, Miyazaki tells the story of an artist driven to create something beautiful, despite the realities of the war it will be co-opted for.
And while the growing war plays a big part in the narrative, it also lives at its edges, as the backdrop to a deeper examination of what it means to be a good human being, irrespective of historical circumstance. As with all his films, there are no villains in Miyazaki’s universe, just characters on a sliding scale of being in, or out of tune with the deeper harmony of nature. Throughout the story, Horikoshi performs small and large acts of kindness without a second thought, and without any need for validation or recognition, and while he wishes he could build planes without having to add guns or bombs to them, he is not naive either, quietly accepting the role he has been chosen to play for his country. It takes a while to adjust to the film’s serious tone and patiently measured pace—and the film drags considerably in its middle section—but around the half-way mark, it becomes a surprisingly engaging love story, as Horikoshi meets his wife-to-be during a summer retreat in a country idyll.
Without giving anything away, this romance, like everything else in the film, is treated by Miyazaki with a tender wisdom and quiet dignity—and the accumulative power of that world-view is powerfully, devastatingly moving, without ever resorting to easy sentiment. Encapsulating the themes that have been present in all his work—a deep love of nature, the values of compassion and kindness, and the mystical landscape of dreams and creativity—it’s a fitting swan song for one of the great film-makers of our age, and a wonderful example of what animation can do when it breaks out of the rigidly imposed limitations of child-centric commercial entertainment, and into the realm of deeply personal art.