Saturday, March 15, 2014

Films of 2013: "Frozen"--Disney Animation Matures Once Again, With a Real Coming-of-Age Fairy Tale

March 15, 2014


Anna and Elsa are devoted, fun-loving sisters until an unfortunate incident separates them for most of their lives. Elsa was apparently born with powers that allow her to create and control snow and ice. Yet, she struggles to suppress this gift and curse, even when she locks herself away from (and fears hurting) those around her. This creates angst, isolation and a lack of understanding towards the people around her, especially Anna. 

Anna has been left out of her sister's life (and their childhood growing up) for so long that she chooses to seek a new dream, or so she believes ("A chance to change my lonely world/A chance to find true love"), while Elsa is forced to role-play in her upcoming position as queen to hide her identity. The day Elsa is to become queen of the kingdom of Arendelle, all goes well until Anna catches love-at-first-sight with a dashing prince and, almost immediately, accepts his hand in marriage. This does not go well with Elsa, who insists "you can't marry a person you just met." Anna is outraged and in her commotion only infuriates Elsa, who unintentionally lets her powers slip and escapes into the mountains. In the process, she triggers an effect that sets the entire kingdom under an eternal winter. Anna then goes on a quest to find Elsa, hoping to restore everything. Along the way, she gets help from an ice-selling mountain man named Kristoff, his trusty reindeer Sven, mystical trolls, and a beaming and hilarious snowman named Olaf. 

To get right to the point, Frozen (loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen") is the Disney Studio's seventh animated feature film based on a fairy tale (not counting 2007's live-action/animated Enchanted, which was a parody and homage to Disney's classics). It's the first to feature not one but two main characters who are princesses. More importantly, it's the first fairy-tale adaptation from Disney to bring the genre to a contemporary and mature level. In other words, it makes the seemless transition from a conventional fairy tale homage and worldview to a mature adaptation for today's audience, representing nostalgia in its Disney-magic and maturity in its storytelling as well as its artistry. (And it's visuals are beautiful and breathtaking.) 

The theme of characters who face the realities of the world, yet continue to be persevering (and in some cases optimistic) seems to have been a theme in almost every one of the studio's animated films since the headlined acquisition deal in 2006. Since then, Disney has grown through a transition period of bringing classic and original stories to today's computer-animated and visual-effects film culture, even as Pixar (which Disney purchased then) was building on its own success with films about culinary rats, lovable robots, floating houses, prison-escapee toys, secret agent cars, Scottish princesses and college-age monsters. The Mouse House (which started out with talking mice, seven dwarfs, wooden puppets, and walking brooms) has delivered original and contemporary stories of futuristic families (Meet the Robinsons, 2007), television dogs (Bolt, 2008) and video-game villains (Wreck-It Ralph, 2012). Their remaining films featured fairy tale princesses or storybook characters whose worldviews parallel or contradict the cynical world in which they are present or thrown into (one, quite literally). For the record, only two of these films were hand-drawn (three, if you count a live-action/animated hybrid). Characters in these films also search for purpose in their lives, and learn that although things are not what these characters had hoped they would be, there is still something to look forward to and to live for. 

Giselle goes from an Enchanted world to modern-day New York
Tiana and the Frog prince
In Enchanted, the precocious-but-innocent Princess Giselle is thrown from her animated land of Andelasia and down a well into modern-day New York. She comes to learn that real love is beyond fairy-tale romance. It's about taking the time to get to know people and not immediately rushing into a relationship. In The Princess and the Frog (2009), Tiana is a young woman who hopes to make her dreams of opening a restaurant a reality. Here is an unconventional characteristic, in that rather than waiting around for dreams to happen (as Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, and initially Giselle, would), the main character works hard to achieve them, and in the process learns the difference between wants and needs. In Tangled (2010), Rupunzel is born with a magical gift of glowing hair, which heals wounds and reverses aging. She has been locked away in a tower and from the world by the evil Mother Gothel, who covets Rapunzel's gifts and whom Rupunzel has been deceived to believe is her real mother. Rapunzel longs to find the mystery behind the floating lanterns that appear in the sky every year on her birthday. She gets an opportunity when the roguish and runaway thief Flynn Rider finds her tower and they strike a deal. What begins as a partnership becomes a lesson in chasing after dreams and finding new ones. In Pixar's Brave (2012), Merida defies tradition in her role as a princess to become a warrior archer, but must repair an ancient curse that threatens her entire kindgom. At one point, regarding her traditional role, she mentions that for a royal suitor to win her hand, he must first win her heart.

Tangled's cast ready for action
Brave's Merida defies tradition

And now Frozen becomes the icing (so to speak) on the maturity cake of this heart-related theme. Sure, it features everything from childhood innocence (i.e., Olaf, from Elsa's creation, is the childhood she and Anna once had), to romance, angst, adventure and wisdom. But as one resource put it, it's not so much a story about two princesses looking for love (e.g., Prince Charming, "true love's kiss"), but learning to love. It's a story about love between sisters and family. As one character says during a crucial moment, "Only an act of true love can thaw a frozen heart" (my emphasis). 

There's no question about it: the Disney fairy-tale has come of age.


The film's impact over the last few months since its release in November proves there are still very creative and inspired artists and filmmakers at the Disney studio, who in turn show that a great story with great characters, music, hope and determination can warm even the most frozen of hearts. What a wonderful and universal achievement.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Animation Filmography: "Ratatouille" Mirrors the Disney Legacy

March 1, 2014


I'll never forget the experience of seeing Pixar Animation Studio's Ratatouille in an old-fashioned movie theater with my younger brother and younger sister in the summer of 2007. It was certainly one of the best film-going experiences I’ve had in the last few years. I say this not only because I have fond memories of taking my siblings to the movies, but also because it was the first time I really began to appreciate the medium of animation as an adult. (It was almost my junior year in college at the time.) More importantly, as I view the film in retrospect, I believe it captures, illustrates, and reminds viewers of a time when animated features were really something special: a time when animation wasn’t just a kid’s medium, but an entertainment and an art form for everyone.

The story centers on Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt), who "has a highly developed sense of taste and smell," not to mention a knack for creative culinary skills. Despite the fact that he's a rat (that's right!), along with the cynicism and snobbery of his father and community, Remy is determined to make his mark in the world. "All we do is take," he argues with his father. "I'm tired of taking! I want to make things. I want to add something to this world."

Remy's inspiration is the late famous French chef Auguste Gusteau, who's self-titled restaurant was once the toast of Paris, France. His determination and his passion for good wholesome food left a great deal of satisfaction and inspiration to those around him, and his legacy inspires Remy to become what he has always dreamed of becoming. "You must never let anyone define your limits because of where you come from," says Gusteau. "Your only limit is your soul."

Ratatouille also seems to say a lot about Pixar, in terms of their philosophy of achieving the impossible—by diverse and unconventional means. While their first batch of feature films consisted of toys, bugs, monsters, fish, superheroes and cars, Ratatouille and the three Pixar projects that followed (involving an earth-bound robot, an old man in a floating house with balloons, and toys who get sent to a daycare center and plan a prison break) would essentially leave viewers wondering, "How are they going to make that work?" In fact, Walt Disney himself once quoted, "We love doing the impossible."

During one pivotal scene in Ratatouille, Remy's human friend Linguini defends his honor and character, despite what Remy is. "This works. It's crazy, but it works." Here is an illustration of going against conventional wisdom and embracing new ideas. While other studios would rather recycle old concepts and storylines of theirs (sometimes from other studios), the real artists are those who use what has perhaps never been seen or heard or done before, and do something daring and extraordinary with it.

Today, Pixar has, perhaps more than any other animation studio, been able to develop and sustain what Disney started. Not to master Disney, to be sure, but rather to learn from its craft and grow from there. For example, Disney believed that a great film consisted of a great story, appealing and believable characters, persistence in the use of technology, and dedicated people involved in making it happen. And with each new project, the envelope was pushed to great effect. Looking back at the classic films of what is considered to be the "Golden Age" of animation, beginning with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, and continuing on to Bambi in 1942, each project had its own set of challenges, such as the use of the multiplane camera, and experimenting with colors and character movements and so forth. Yet, each of these films became something authentic, something amazing, and something worthwhile, just as Gusteau's and Remy's culinary creations (and Pixar's diversity) became likewise.

The animators and filmmakers at Pixar have learned from and have mastered on their craft, they have managed to attract wide audiences (including universal accolades from numerous film critics), and they have kept story and characters their main priority.

Remy stands as an example for people who are passionate about what they do, and who challenge themselves to explore endless possibilities, no matter what adversities they face in life. And although many have believed Pixar has not been as successful in recent years since 2010 (Toy Story 3 became the highest-grossing animated film of all-time worldwide that year, while Cars 2 was a critically-disappointing though financially-successful sequel the following year), the studio that brought us a hopping lamp to begin with still proves that it can make any project work, and can carry on a tradition that says anything is possible.