Wednesday, November 20, 2013
There's always been that conflict between the family-friendly accessibility of animated films and the sometimes transparent pleas to adults who are charged with sitting with (and paying for) the children they bring in. It manifests itself either with gentle double-entendres only adults "get," covers of classic rock songs during the credits, or clumsy attempts at more progressive "Princess" gender politics so we're not quite as offended.
But Disney films have been hopelessly stuck in the past, starting with their over-reliance on creaky public-domain fairy tales and mythology but also in their apparent inability to update their story model or embrace the sensibility of a post-Pixar era. They've seemed lost since "Hercules."
"Tangled" (2010) was a hit but felt like 1985, a quick-cutting update of the princess model that "The Princess and the Frog" couldn't sell with its flat 2-D animation: hip, colorful, highly accomplished and retro in all the worse ways. Computer-rendered plastic Barbie skin was the wave of the future.
"Frozen" is just another princess tale; more exactly a sister tale. You know, a dysfunctional pair of orphans looking for love and maybe their true destinies along the way. Actually it's about the sidekicks who nudge the heros(ines) into each other's arms, more or less by the end. "Aladdin" with girls?
What's striking about the art design and animation of "Frozen" is it introduces the backstory of magical powers for the character Elsa that has no basis in reality or prior mythology and really only is possible to render in this age of computer animation. Blessed (cursed?) with the ability to wave her hand and create snow and ice sculptures out of thin air, as beautiful as they are imposing, the weather effects and self-generation of complicated crystalline structures unfolds with the visual shorthand of a Prius commercial. Effort and premeditation have given way to the surreal ecstasy of 100 conceptual artists without physical constraints. Like Pixar's "Finding Nemo" it's simply too beautiful to criticize.
Rather than an aggressive hypermodernism or chancy avant-garde impulse, this only grounds the film, as "cool" as its surface is, in a 30-year-old animation tradition. Witness the snowman Olaf, the best side-kick in 10 years who steals the film, and his loose-limbed (snow-balled?) animation in which his various round pieces float and revolve around each other without connection. A throwback to the gravity-based physics of Pacific Data Images tests for animation festivals back in the mid-'80s.
Repurposing old and obsolete techniques (or characters) into new and knowing ways is the classic "fish out of water" scenario that also drove last year's "Wreck-It Ralph" to gross $200m. "Frozen" seems to know it's a Disney princess story stuck in an old industrial model and tries to reinvent how to tell such a story with tools unappreciated up to now, mostly due to Pixar's success with hyperrealism (talking dogs notwithstanding).
And by new I don't mean so new ("Hercules") that audiences don't recognize it anymore. There's something comforting in seeing old techniques shined up and exploited. Instead of resisted, or ignored.
This agenda is made clear by the old-style Mickey Mouse cartoon that proceeds it, in small-screen black-and-white like the oldest of artifacts before it opens both wide and out in a self-referential post-modern rip in filmic reality, a 3-dimensional struggle between old and new, monochrome vs. color, flat and round, the clean vs. the profane. Between analog and digital.
The cartoon is titled "Get A Horse," a phrase people yelled at Model T drivers when their new-fangled technology would fail them in traffic. The conflict between the frozen past and a dynamic future is foregrounded in the cartoon, and while the answer isn't resolved, it's finally become part of the discussion. As Peg-leg Pete's car-horn proclaims, make way for the future.