Movie Review ~ Frozen II

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Anna, Elsa, Kristoff, Olaf and Sven leave Arendelle to travel to an ancient, autumn-bound forest of an enchanted land. They set out to find the origin of Elsa’s powers in order to save their kingdom.

Stars: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Evan Rachel Wood, Sterling K. Brown

Director: Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee

Rated: PG

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  There are some reviews that you look back on and wonder if you just had an off day when you saw the movie or when you wrote the prose. Or maybe you were perhaps too effusive in praise of something that doesn’t hold up to a second (or third) watch.  Then there are the reviews that haunt you in the ensuing years, the ones you wince a little at when you realize how off the mark you were and wonder what you missed and why you missed it.  True, movies and criticism are subjective and that’s what makes this whole reviewing gig as fun as it is (no really, it’s fun…usually) but it’s hard not to beat yourself up a little when you were off target.

Though I wasn’t exactly hard on Frozen back in 2013, I do remember feeling so ho-hum about it and I was quoted as saying it “wasn’t destined to become a pivotal Disney classic”.  Ouch.  I’ve often thought about that phrase as I watched the power ballad “Let it Go” win an Oscar for Best Original Song and the movie win for Best Animated Feature.  The words floated through my brain while seated for the trimmed down theme park show at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida and watching clips from the larger-scale production in California.  And I most definitely shook my head at my statement after I had traveled to Denver, CO and paid a good sum to see the pre-Broadway tryout of the big-budget stage musical based on the movie.  Frozen was a phenomenon and I had said in my review I found it less interesting than Tangled.  It’s enough to keep a guy up at night, I tell ya.

So you better believe I was ready when Frozen II was announced to listen a little more to my younger side this time around.  Announced soon after the first film was an unexpected box office smash (making over a billion dollars worldwide), it’s taken six long years for the sequel to materialize and that’s a hearty stretch of time for their target audience to wait.  Disney had to count that children who were the right age to appreciate the original movie would still be interested in the further adventures of Elsa and Anna, two royal sisters that found a deeper understanding of each other at the close of Frozen.  It was a wise bet that has paid off because with the bulk of the creative team reassembled, including the Oscar-winning songwriters, Frozen II confidently builds off its predecessor and delivers as a warm-hearted and surprisingly subtext-rich sequel.

Now that Elsa has come to terms with her icy powers and returned to reign as Queen of Arendelle, life has settled into an ordinary routine for her royal highness and those close to her.  Her sister Anna is clueless to beau Kristoff’s pending marriage proposal that keeps getting interrupted, sometimes by goofy snowman Olaf, who continues to pontificate about life with childish wonderment.  Even with everything running smoothly, Elsa feels unrest and that’s further complicated by a strange siren’s call that only she can hear and apparently tied to a legend her father told as a bedtime story when she was a child.  When Elsa replies to the call, it opens up a passage into an unknown area outside the realm of Arendelle that may hold the answers to her powers and also a dark part of her family history that she and Anna will need to resolve.

It’s a smart move for directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee to have the sisters join forces and make this trip to uncharted territory together. Of course, Kristoff, Olaf, and reindeer Sven are along for the journey too but aside from a few songs and bits of comedy, the latter half of the film is reserved for Elsa and Anna to sort things out for themselves.  The story trajectory takes some interesting turns and while some of the action may feel a bit like a rehash from the earlier film, all the forward motion feels fresh and hits a true chord of fun discovery.

While the screenwriters (aside from Buck/Lee there were three more) do their best to amp up Anna’s role, it’s hard to come away from Frozen II not feeling like Elsa was again the true star and with good reason.  Here’s a character that draws her power from within and doesn’t need any outside force or person to tell her how she should be using her strength.  Her lack of self-confidence is incredibly relatable, as is the way she comes to terms with the way she feels different than others.  It’s understandable that she’s become a bit of an icon for the LGBTQ community and even if it’s not expressly said, it’s difficult to bear witness to a big anthem like “Show Yourself” and not hear the underlying subtext and I found that incredibly moving.

It helps that “Show Yourself” is performed with gusto by Idina Menzel (Ralph Breaks the Internet) again voicing Elsa with a Broadway belt that could shatter ice.  I still feel Menzel’s voice doesn’t match with the animated character (Elsa’s lungs look to be the size of a thimble) and there’s a lot more big notes in Menzel’s songs this time around – the other big number, “Into the Unknown” comes early in the movie and has a earworm-y hook that had audience members singing it on the way out.  So parents…be prepared for another song to make you crazy.  I know that the Frozen II team is going to push “Into the Unknown” as their Oscar song but I find “Show Yourself” to be the one with more mileage in the long run…plus that one also features Evan Rachel Wood (Across the Universe) as Elsa’s mother in addition to Scandinavian singer AURORA as the voice of the siren.  The other numbers are all pleasant but don’t get their hooks into you the way those others do.  As Anna, Kristen Bell (Hit and Run) still has the sunniest singing voice you’ve ever heard while Jonathan Groff’s (American Sniper) Kristoff scores with his Peter Cetera-esqe anthem.  Returning to play Olaf make it official: Josh Gad (The Wedding Ringer) should only appear as a voice in movies from now on.  In live action, he stinks.  As an animated character, he’s a winner.

Like the first film, this runs out of steam as it chugs toward the end and it could easily lose a solid ten minutes, likely lopped off at the beginning because there’s some good character-driven material we don’t often get in animated films around the end that I wouldn’t want to sacrifice.  It may lack some of the larger emotional beats Pixar is so curiously good at but Frozen II isn’t completely bereft of deeper feeling either.  I definitely found myself choked up a few times and even listening to the soundtrack after and hearing the words again I got all misty.

I’ve heard the phrase “cash grab” tossed around in relation to this film and I’m not sure how a film that took six years to get made could be considered a desperate attempt to squeeze money out of a product.  This is a bona fide cash machine and with two movies, a Broadway show going strong, a national touring company getting ready to roll out, and international companies planned, this machine is just getting started.  We should already be getting ready for Frozen III.  If the filmmakers and songwriters can keep finding the heart to these characters and giving them strong songs to express themselves with, I’m all for it.

 

 

Movie Review ~ A Wrinkle in Time (2018)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: After the disappearance of her scientist father, three peculiar beings send Meg, her brother, and her friend to space in order to find him.

Stars: Oprah Winfrey, Mindy Kaling, Reese Witherspoon, Storm Reid, Gugu Mbatha Raw, Chris Pine, Zach Galifianakis, Andre Holland, Levi Miller, Deric McCabe, Bellamy Young, Rowan Blanchard, Will McCormack, Michael Pena

Director: Ava DuVernay

Rated: PG

Running Length: 109 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: It was always going to be possible for any adaption of Madeleine L’Engle’s classic 1962 novel A Wrinkle in Time to get bungled on its way to the big screen. The deep ideas, meditational themes, and introspective characters didn’t exactly lend themselves to a sure-fire project that could easily be translated from page to film. I grew up with this book and it’s one of the few I’ve gone back to several times over the years. I’ve seen the previous television movie adaptation, performed in it onstage, and seen other theatrical productions over the years. So, full disclosure, this one was close to my heart.

When Walt Disney Studios acquired the rights to the novel and brought on red-hot director Ava DuVernay (Selma) to guide its development, my interest was piqued and my hopes raised. When DuVernay went on to assemble a cast of A-List stars there was another jolt of confidence brought on by the names and faces of actors that had previously chosen their projects wisely. Then a much-hyped debut of the first trailer got me thinking that the magic of A Wrinkle in Time would indeed survive and thrive.

So imagine how deflating it was to sit in an IMAX theater and watch what should have been a slam-dunk miss the mark entirely. Like, completely. Now I know that I may hold the source material as perhaps a tad more precious than I should, which would make any attempt to bring it to life an impossible bar to overcome. No, I actually went in with eyes wide open and arms outstretched ready to be transported off the ground only to be depressingly earthbound throughout.

Several years after her scientist father mysteriously disappears, Meg Murray (Storm Reid) is still struggling to adjust to his absence. Her mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Beauty and the Beast) and younger brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) offer support but Meg has descended into a funk that’s robbed her of self-confidence and her spark. That all changes with the late-night appearance of flighty and flame-haired Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon, Home Again) who is the first arrival in the trio of ladies that will bring Meg, Charles Wallace, and Meg’s school friend Calvin (Levi Miller, Pan) on an adventure across time and space.

Joined by Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling, Inside Out) who only speaks in quotes and the grand Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey, Lee Daniels’ The Butler) the children explore Uriel, a world far distant from their own. There the Mrs’ reveal to the children that the universe as they know it is coming under siege from a being they call The IT which is an embodiment of evil. After a visit to The Happy Medium (Zach Galifianakis, Muppets Most Wanted) the kids must travel alone to the peculiar realm of Camazotz where they will come face to face with their fears, relying on their inner strength to battle the forces of darkness.

While the script from Jennifer Lee (Zootopia) and Jeff Stockwell remains fairly faithful to L’Engle’s novel, it fails to bring forth any wonderment or magic in the proceedings. A novel with themes of rebellion against societal norms and overcoming struggle with finding one’s own originality winds up being an overly talky self-help seminar that’s dreadfully dull. As a strong advocate for social change and equality, you can see why the tenets of the book had long held an appeal for DuVernay but she surprisingly struggles mightily with keeping her film afloat.

While she’s found a nice discovery in the bold Reid who turns in a confident performance, the rest of DuVernay’s troupe is largely made up of miscasting. Winfrey feels like she’s playing a version of herself, a wise, level-headed sage that speaks in new age-y proverbs and spends the first half of the movie 50 times the size of any other character. Witherspoon is badly out of place in the space-y role that Kaling would have been an infinitely better fit for. Kaling instead is relegated to reciting eye-rolling quotes including a downright groan-worthy one from Lin-Manuel Miranda near the film’s conclusion. Galifianakis is a woeful low-point and poor Michael Pena (End of Watch) is stuck playing a red-eyed denizen of Camazotz. As written, Calvin has even less to do with the action than in the book but Miller has a sweetly platonic chemistry with Reid that works nicely. As Meg’s missing dad Chris Pine (The Finest Hours) may wear the cardigan of a scientist studying time travel but he won’t convince you otherwise he’s cracked a science book in the last decade.

For a movie from this family-friendly studio and adorned with a hefty-budget, the filmmakers seem to not understand who exactly the movie is for. It could have been pitched to mid-teens just fine but there’s so many silly elements and goofy developments that it feels like a wide net was cast. When Witherspoon turns into what looks to be a fantastic piece of flying lettuce and takes the kids for a ride through a field of humming flowers, you may wonder if any focus groups were even brought in to steer this one back on course.

A Wrinkle in Time spawned several sequels involving Meg and her friends but if this labored effort is any indication of the thematic future of the series, I hope significant time is spent smoothing out the wrinkles of the lessons learned here. Every person involved with this picture is capable of so much more than what was delivered – the first real disappointment of 2018.

The Silver Bullet ~ A Wrinkle in Time (2018)

Synopsis: After the disappearance of her scientist father, three peculiar beings send Meg, her brother, and her friend to space in order to find him.

Release Date: March 9, 2018

Thoughts: Madeleine L’Engle’s celebrated 1963 novel has been on my bookshelf for years and holds a special place in my heart.  I’ve seen high school productions of it (and been in one myself) and made it through most of a 2003 made for television film that couldn’t capture the energy of its source material.  Now comes a new adaptation from one of the writers of Frozen directed by one of the most exciting filmmakers working today.  Ava DuVernay (Selma) has assembled a dynamite A-List cast and, from the look of things in this first teaser, a damn fine film.  Starring Oprah Winfrey (Lee Daniels’ The Butler), Reese Witherspoon (This Means War), Mindy Kaling (This is the End), Chris Pine (Into the Woods), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Beauty & the Beast), newcomer Storm Reid, and Zach Galifianakis (Keeping Up with the Joneses) as The Happy Medium, this is one page to screen adaptation I’m welcoming with open arms.

Movie Review ~ Frozen

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Synopsis: Fearless optimist Anna teams up with Kristoff in an epic journey, encountering Everest-like conditions, and a hilarious snowman named Olaf in a race to find Anna’s sister Elsa, whose icy powers have trapped the kingdom in eternal winter.

Stars: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Santino Fontana, Alan Tudyk, Maia Wilson, Ciarán Hinds, Edie McClurg

Director: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee

Rated: PG

Running Length: 108 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Perhaps it’s the kid that still bounces around within me, but I still get a little twinge of excitement every time a new Disney film is about to open. Though I’ve long since given up hope that the hand drawn animation of the late 80’s/early 90’s age of Disney films will ever truly make a comeback, I find myself remaining interested in what projects the studio is working on.

The latest output from the House of Mouse is a wintery musical (very) loosely based on Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen, refashioned as a tale of sisterly bonds and the embracing of our own individuality.  Featuring a welcome return to the musical roots of the Golden Age of the studio, Frozen boasts some very appealing tunes by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez heartily sung by a roster of Broadway actors that help to keep the movie afloat during several slow stretches.

After their royal parents are lost at sea, sisters Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell, Hit and Run) are left to rule the Nordic land of Arendelle. The sisters rarely speak due to a childhood accident involving Elsa’s powers to turn anything she touches to ice.  With the help of some magical trolls, the royal parents and Elsa decide to keep her away from Anna, adjusting her memory so that no harm can come to Elsa or the villagers that may not understand her powers.

This separation has come at a price, though, because Anna doesn’t understand why her sister has cut her off.  That all changes when Elsa comes of age to inherit the throne and accidentally unleashes a massive winter freeze on the sunny village and hills of Arendelle.  With Elsa fleeing to a wintery castle of her own creation, Anna treks after her to bring her sister home and end the chill of a winter without end.

Bell gives Anna just the right amount of pluck and spunk, not to mention a clarion singing voice that is a nice fit to the various musical styles of the Lopez/Anderson-Lopez score.  There’s some classic Disney princess-ey whimsy going on here and Bell skips right along with it.  Whether she’s dealing with a handsome prince (Santino Fontana, also lending strong singing chops) or bumping heads while climbing a mountain with the local (and now unemployed) ice delivery man (Jonathan Groff), Bell keeps Anna in good spirits and great voice.

While Menzel brings her Broadway belt with her for the Act 1 power ballad “Let it Go”, there’s something about her voice that doesn’t match up with the character that’s been animated for her.  The booming timbre and slightly raspy tones sound great on the CD but strangely feel awkward and out of place when you see it onscreen.  It’s a disappointing wrinkle and the fault lies with the concept animation, not in Menzel’s performance.

I’m not a huge fan of Josh Gad (Thanks for Sharing, jOBS, The Internship) but I have to say that this is probably the most I’ve enjoyed him in anything so far.  As charmingly daft snowman Olaf, Gad pretty much walks away with the movie thanks to his stellar timing and easy-going approach to what could have been a much sillier role.  There’s a welcome tenderness to this particular character that gives the movie extra oomph.

While the 3D animation is, as usual, crisp and intriguing I found myself less interested in it than I have in previous efforts like Tangled.  As pleasing as the voices are and as soothing as the snowflake heavy animation is, it all feels vaguely familiar…and not as original as I wanted it to be.  On the other hand, there’s something to be said about the magic of a Disney film and how it can somehow overcome its shortcomings.  Though initially pleased but not overwhelmed by the film, I find myself humming the tunes and thinking about the characters…and that’s nice when you consider how rare animated musicals are nowadays.

A special note, Frozen is preceded by a brand new neat-o Mickey Mouse animated short that gives a nice nod to the black and white cartoon origins of Disney before breaking through (literally) to a more modern day feel.  Don’t be late…and stay through the end credits of Frozen too!

The Silver Bullet ~ Frozen

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Synopsis: Fearless optimist Anna teams up with Kristoff in an epic journey, encountering Everest-like conditions, and a hilarious snowman named Olaf in a race to find Anna’s sister Elsa, whose icy powers have trapped the kingdom in eternal winter

Release Date:  November 27, 2013

Thoughts: Disney’s update on the classic fairy tale The Snow Queen is sadly not going to be hand-drawn but should continue on in the footsteps of its non-Pixar animated slate that has been doing solid business the last few years (Tangled, Wreck-It-Ralph).  Right now, however, snow and ice are the last things that any summer loving movie-goer wants to think about in the middle of June.  I’m also getting a strong Ice Age feel from this teaser trailer that makes me hope a full preview with more substantial material is released  in short order.  Also interesting to note is that aside from lead Kristen Bell (Hit and Run), the voice talent assembled features a healthy roster of Broadway talent with the likes of Idina Menzel (Wicked), Jonathan Groff (Spring Awakening), Josh Gad (The Book of Mormon, and June’s The Internship), and Santino Fontana (Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella).  Could this mean Frozen has some music numbers thawing out…we shall see.