Thursday, August 9, 2012

Frozen: Pre-Trailer Speculation

Unfortunately, this cool logo isn't official...

Walt Disney Animation Studios has truly been getting better. Little by little, they are shattering the whole "Disney hasn't made a good animated movie since the Renaissance" belief with critically acclaimed films and Tangled, which was their biggest hit at the box office in years. Next in line is Wreck-It Ralph (opening on November 2nd), which is poised to be an even bigger hit with its video game setting, positive trailer reception and the surprisingly strong marketing. After that comes Frozen, the next fairy tale adaptation in the Disney canon...

Loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, we know little about this film, so I decided to do a “pre-trailer” analysis. Since we haven’t seen anything in finished animation or anything else beyond some concept art (the art unveiled the other day was confirmed to be outdated, as evidenced by the Walt Disney “Feature Animation” logo on some of the stills), I’ll just throw out some thoughts, theories and a few other things. This film is scheduled to come out on November 27, 2013, so we don't know when we'll get the first trailer. Perhaps it'll show up before Wreck-It Ralph this fall, or maybe next spring. Who knows...

First off, this film is being directed by Chris Buck. What else did he do? Well, he co-directed a little film called Tarzan with Kevin Lima. I’m sure you’ve heard of it. It was one of Disney’s biggest post-Lion King hits, and a critical success to boot. Years later, he directed Sony Pictures Animation’s Surf's Up, which was a very good film but not a commercial success for various reasons. You probably might not have heard of it, or you don’t remember it. Anyways, Buck will be the director and that’s something to get excited about.

A few weeks ago, Disney unveiled a new plot synopsis...

“When Anna is cursed by her estranged sister, the cold-hearted Snow Queen, Anna’s only hope of reversing the curse is to survive a perilous but thrilling journey across an icy and unforgivable landscape. Joined by a rugged, thrill-seeking outdoorsman, his one-antlered reindeer and a hapless snowman, Anna must race against time, conquer the elements, and battle an army of menacing snowmen if she ever hopes to melt her frozen heart.”

So far, it sounds pretty good. Like Tangled, the writers have basically taken a few elements from the original fairy tale and surrounded it with their own original ideas. It’s definitely a much more loose adaptation than anything, one that will probably have purists yelling something like “Bowdlerization!” Tangled was able to tell a great story on its own. The ideas they added were great, and made for a solid story even if it wasn't anything like the original fairy tale.

Frozen is taking the Tangled route. There's nothing wrong with this, as long as the story isn't strikingly similar to that film. It sounds promising, but there’s a few little things that have me a bit concerned. One  thing that doesn’t thrill me that much at the moment is the idea of a "hapless snowman" being the sidekick. I won’t jump the gun, because this character can be hilarious or maybe he won’t be a comic relief device at all. I'm also guessing that he is a good snowman as opposed to the aforementioned "menacing" ones.

I’m not against sidekicks in Disney films. They certainly deserve a place in a narrative, as long as they add to the story and provide comic relief that’s actually funny. Bolt, The Princess and the Frog and Tangled had great side characters. No doubt, the writers know what they’re doing at this point. The side characters in the films made during the Disney Renaissance and some of the films released afterwards (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Tarzan and Brother Bear come to mind) were usually annoying or belted out juvenile humor during the wrong moments. That all being said, the hapless snowman character might be a hoot. Or he may be annoying, who knows. I won’t be skeptical. The Eisner era ended a while ago, and none of the last five Disney animated features had irritating side characters or anything that stained the films.

The two leads should be interesting characters. Though Anna may be similar to Ariel or Belle, she should still have a distinct personality. The mountain man, Kristoff, already reminds me of Flynn Rider, which also worries me a bit. If Anna and Kristoff are too much like Rapunzel and Eugene/Flynn, I won’t be happy. If it's that way, then the writers will be trying to repeat what made Tangled work. Doing that is a bad idea, of course, because resorting to rehashing familiar ideas was what lead to the studio’s downfall. Walt always tried new things, and the studio is currently doing so, so a rehash of Tangled won't be good enough. As for Kristoff’s reindeer, I have a feeling he won’t speak or even provide any comic relief for that matter. The Snow Queen herself? I’m hoping she’s a very good, complex villain. Her coldness already reminds me of the queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, so I’m sensing a possible sibling rivalry sort of conflict. Perhaps she curses Anna because, like Snow White, Anna is much fairer. Or maybe she didn’t get the care that Anna got when the two were young. I’m hoping for another fantastic villain with a true motive.

Like other great Disney films, the film should have of course have heart. The emotional content in the recent films has been very satisfying, and right up there with Pixar's films. I expect Frozen to be a heartfelt film, with a great love story and great character development. That's pretty much a given now, since Disney has been favoring that over crassness or cheap attempts at being relevant. Will pull the heartstrings? Will it make audiences cry? Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps it'll be emotional on a different level.

I initially balked at the title, and yes, it certainly is Disney marketing trying to disassociate the film with anything young boys see as “girly”. At the same time, Frozen is a suitable title because the film really isn’t The Snow Queen, just an original story that happens to have the Snow Queen in it. Tangled on the other hand was a bad title, as that film was still (at heart) Rapunzel despite being a loose adaptation. I’m currently split on the title change, but at least Frozen sounds interesting. Tangled sounded bad then, and it still sounds bad. It made the film sound like a mindless comedy, it just didn't sound right.

So there’s a few things that already have me conjuring up theories. Out of all the things that Disney has told us so far, the thing I'm wondering about the most is what the "snowmen" will be like.

First of all, what will these snowmen look like? Certainly not like this...

Or this...

I believe that the snowmen that Anna will face on the journey will be more akin to the Frost Giants from Thor. I mean, it would be hard to take things seriously if your villainous snowmen looked like your typical snowmen gone bad. What kind of powers will they have? Will they look like humanoid creatures? Or strange beasts? The artists will probably have something interesting in store for us, so that’s certainly something to think about.

The earlier plot synopsis also mentioned “Everest-like extremes”. The synopsis also mentioned mythical creatures, so there are definitely a lot of things to look forward to in this film already. Visually, it should look fantastic. If the designs of these creatures are nothing short of original and creative, then it will show that Disney can do epic fantasy stories. Animation is the perfect medium for it, as several animated fantasy films have proven so. Disney has the opportunity to really give audiences what live action can't give them. Now what about art direction? Well, with mountains and forests, and probably a village or two in-between, this will probably be loaded with eye candy.

Older, oudated concept artwork, hence the Walt Disney
"Feature Animation" logo...

Now I can spend tons of articles jabbering about what everything might look like, but I do believe the overall style will be right in line with the look of Tangled. Tangled was a very good-looking film, and it certainly shows that Disney is really gung-ho about the painterly look they've been experimenting with. While it didn't really look entirely like a traditionally animated film (in my eyes, it was still a purely CG film), it still had some striking hand-drawn elements here and there. Frozen should take this style to new levels, though John Kahrs' short film Paperman should already indicate where this new approach to computer animation is heading. Of course, rumors are going around stating that Ron Clements and John Musker’s next film might resemble Paperman and finally blend hand-drawn animation and computer animation for a feature film. How things will look in Frozen, we don’t know, but I expect something new and exciting. Something that shows how advanced the new look of Disney computer animation will be.

In addition to potentially groundbreaking animation, visuals and a very good story, Frozen just needs to have a good screenplay. The Disney animated features haven’t been strong in the screenplay department for a good many years, but again, that was fault of executives and too much reliance on what focus groups were saying. Bolt and The Princess and the Frog boasted better writing than most of the Renaissance films, but still had some minor bugs and glitches. They certainly weren’t as great as the scripts for Pixar’s films, but they were top notch nonetheless. Ones that told the story right, and didn't ever take the audience for granted.

Tangled, on the other hand, had a rather inconsistent script. I know I’m in the minority on this one, but I wasn’t pleased with how Tangled’s dialogue was a tad bit modern (“Best... Day... Ever!”). Rapunzel and Flynn acted like it was 2010, not the middle ages. I know it appealed to audiences more so than something serious, but because of this, I can’t call Tangled’s script anything special. Fortunately, it wasn’t insulting. Modern slang in animated films set in the past tends to ruin things (think the annoying sidekicks in the Renaissance films), but in Tangled, it wasn’t as distracting. Perhaps it’s because the film never talks down to the audience like the Renaissance films often did, and neither did Bolt and The Princess and the Frog. The film didn’t water itself down, or lighten the load. Same with the other two films.

I just don’t want Frozen to have that kind of script. That doesn’t mean it has to be grim, super serious and brooding. This isn’t The Dark Knight. I don’t want that either, as Bolt and The Princess and the Frog weren’t anything like that. I just want something that’s not modernized, something that’s just timeless. Something that balances comic relief, drama and the occasional dark moments with style. No modern slang, no teenybopper talk, none of that. I just want a plain good script, like a Pixar film or the original Walt films (technically, those films were storyboarded). With what is supposed to happen in this story, I just can’t see a Tangled-esque script working. At least Tangled wasn’t heavy with action for the most part, and whenever there was drama, there was hardly any slang. Most of Tangled’s action scenes were fast-paced and fun, but the action in Frozen sounds like it’ll be much more intense and perhaps a bit of the violent side. The film is probably going to get a PG rating, since Tangled somehow got it. (Again, don’t question the MPAA’s logic)

Frozen will be produced by Peter del Vecho, who also produced Treasure Planet, The Princess and the Frog and Winnie the Pooh. John Lasseter, of course, will be executive producer. We have no word on who the screenwriters will be, and judging by how Disney picked the writers for Wreck-It Ralph, they may just surprise us. The cast? All we know is that Kristen Bell and Idiza Menzel will provide the voices of Anna and the Snow Queen, respectively. Both have a theater background, so right off the bat, we know this is going to be another musical. The songs will be written by none other than Robert and Kristen-Anderson Lopez. Robert worked on The Book of Mormon and Avenue Q, while Kristen provided music for Winnie the Pooh (along with her husband) and Finding Nemo - The Musical.

For those of you who are upset that someone like Alan Menken isn’t doing the songs, don’t be. Alan Menken can’t just do every Disney musical, and to be honest, Tangled only had one great song (the beautiful "I See The Light") while the rest were either good ("Mother Knows Best", "When Will My Life Begin") or just passable ("I’ve Got a Dream"). Not to say Menken isn’t good, he’s fantastic, everyone knows that. But he doesn’t have to provide the songs for every Disney film, so why not give the job to someone else for a change? After all, Alan Menken didn't write any of the songs for The Lion King, and Disney had fantastic songs in their films long before he came into the picture. Also, Randy Newman, in my opinion, did a fine job with The Princess and the Frog. Let’s give Mr. and Mrs. Lopez a chance.

Speaking of music, what kind of songs will this film have? For what sounds like a rather big, action-packed adventure, they’ll need suitable songs. I already expect a big love ballad (what is a Disney romance film without one?), but how about a different style of songwriting? Instead of following the Renaissance routine (Introduction song - big showstopper song - villain song - silly song and big love song), they should try something different and separate this from those Disney films. Why give what they have given audiences for so long? Why not branch out? The Walt Disney films? Some of them didn’t even have musical numbers, but rather songs that were sung offscreen. Some films even had a few, so they didn’t have to have one at every turn. Most importantly, they didn’t go the Broadway route all the time. The Renaissance films cut and paste the same routine, though they tried breaking free from that with films like Tarzan and The Emperor's New Groove. Personally, I want something totally different. That said, I look forward to getting a glimpse of what the music will be like. Knowing Disney’s super-paranoid ways, they’ll probably hide the fact that this will be a musical in the marketing (“Musicals? That’s like, so laaaaaaame!”) much like they did with Tangled.

In conclusion, I'm expecting another great film from Walt Disney Animation Studios. I'm only a bit skeptical about some things, mainly with the plot and such. I'm just hoping that the writers aren't going to attempt to recreate Tangled. I want something bold, new and risky. Risky like the first five Walt films. From what we know, Frozen does sound a lot more action-oriented than most of the Disney fairy tale adaptations, and I'm very much looking forward to seeing how all of this will be pulled off. A Disney fairy tale with mythical beasts, "conquering of the elements", "Everest-like extremes", armies of evil snowmen, and lots of action? This could finally put an end to the whole "animation is for children" mindset. Hey, I can dream, can I?

So much potential, we can only imagine. Like Wreck-It Ralph and all the other upcoming projects, this is one to get really excited about...

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