Animation / Films

Frozen, and the 2nd Disney Renaissance

First, a little context: Walt Disney Studios have worked in cycles since the 30s, and historically, the movies fall into a series of stages. The Golden Age covers the first few films – Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Dumbo, Fantastia, Bambi, Pinocchio and is considered the benchmark for quality. The Silver Age follows, with the likes of 101 Dalmatians, The Jungle Book, and ending with Sleeping Beauty. The death of Walt Disney himself brought upon a fairly weak stage throughout the 70s and 80s as the studio lost all creative drive and fell behind competitor Don Bluth, who quickly cornered the market on 80s animation within public consciousness. Then, in 1989, Disney got themselves together with The Little Mermaid, a beautiful little Broadway-inspired film with a great deal of heart and spark which lead to Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King – the Disney Renaissance. This was a period – possibly the strongest in the studio’s history actually – in which the company re-affirmed themselves within the public and critical eye with a series of memorable and very well made classics. The Renaissance movies become weaker after The Lion King, though not without merit, until the rise of Pixar in the late 90s essentially usurped the age. Disney become dependent on Pixar and movies released by the Disney studio themselves tended to be disjointed and confused.frozen2With the latest run, Disney seem to be back on top, There are rumours within critical circles that Disney is going through another Renaissance. The last three films released by the studio – Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph and now, Frozen – have not only made Disney all the money in the world, they’ve also garnered increasingly strong reviews. Audiences and critics enjoyed Tangled, loved Wreck-It Ralph, and have seemingly, gone insane for Frozen. The 53rd movie within the Disney canon, Frozen was released last year to vast amounts of critical praise, and has made a dent within the culture which Disney themselves haven’t experienced since the early 90s.frozen6Separating this Renaissance from the one in the 90s seems to be an issue of marketing, and Disney have drastically altered the way they promote their feature films. Both Tangled and Frozen were marketed as zany, silly comedies, when in fact, both movies – Tangled especially – were traditional and serious musicals in The Little Mermaid mould. The reason for this is simple, if a little sad, and entirely the fault of Dreamworks. Dreamsworks Studios carved out quite the chunk of the market during the 00s, and for awhile, built a frankly cynical framework of self-knowing, parody heavy movies with big-name casts and the depressing idea of ‘kids movies which the adults will love too!’ This lead to some frankly heartless features – Shrek, which hasn’t aged well, which works with a sense of hatred Mel Brooks would never have gone in for (with parody, you have to love the material, otherwise you come across as spiteful) and the likes of Sharktale, because kids movies really need to reference Taxi Driver. Admittedly, Dreamsworks did turn it around the late 00s and started doing their own less cynical thing, but during their weaker run, they did somehow manage to make quite a dent into the audience share. Disney, knowing this, has since refused to market their movies ‘honestly’ and so current features are promoted to look as Dreamworks-esque as possible. This is coupled with the failure of Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, which was marketed in the old school format with more traditional trailers, and which didn’t make the company as much money as they’d hoped. The failure of The Princess and the Frog is sadly, probably more related to the 2D animation than the style (a shame, as this means it’ll probably the last time Disney goes hand-drawn) but Disney took this on board with the rise of Dreamworks’s sardonic, self-knowing tone, and such such, their presentation changed. This is is also why Tangled and Frozen were called Tangled and Frozen, as opposed to their source names, Rapunzel and The Snow Queen.frozen5A further difference lies in the treatment of the story. Disney has always tried adapt to the times, with varying results. The Golden and Silver age movies are these days, criticised for their sexism and poor female role models. Renaissance movies of the 90s fair a little better – their heroines are considerably more conscious in a post-feminist world (Belle in particular is a wonderful female character) but the strings of the plots still feel a little dated. As cinema got more metathreatrical in the 90s, and audiences more savvy to tropes, it became rather easy to parody the Disney formulae; Disney themselves did in Enchanted, a self-aware romp through the standard fairytale trappings. Frozen has the same sense of self-knowing and does subvert audience expectations, but in different ways. We get the instant marriage proposal, but its criticised by just about every character, and the movie has a lot of fun picking holes in the usual Disney rules. There’s a fantastic twist with the villain, in which our Prince Charming is revealed to be the Big Bad – a wonderfully subversive move for Disney, and one which strengthens the following twist on the true love’s kiss trope, which is turned into something familial and rather beautiful. In fact, the final message of sisterly love is one of the most charming and positive in Disney history. Frozen avoids being self-parody by subverting the rules in original ways, a move which means the movie stands as its own product, part of the canon but refreshingly free from it too. Crucially, Frozen feels like the first modern fairytale. It’s reasons like this which justify the enormous critical praise.frozen7To criticise the movie at all, it’s a little rushed at times. The opening has a huge amount of ground to cover and only just about gets there, and things are wrapped up a little too quickly at the end. The twist with the villain could be criticised as being manipulative – it’s very clever but not especially natural to the plot, though perhaps only seems so jarring because weave never seen this sort of thing before. Either way, saving the villain for the twist means we lack one for the majority of the running time, which is almost a shame because Disney villains are just so fun. The fairytale plot points of frozen hearts and minds don’t sit as well as say, the rose in Beauty and the Beast or the three day spell in The Little Mermaid – they don’t possess quite the same magical logic, but perhaps children watching the movie will feel differently.frozen4But other than these points, Frozen is a remarkably fresh and exciting movie. It looks beautiful – Elsa’s castle in particular a highlight – and has the benefit of some great characters and strong voicework. Even the comic relief snowman works, and Elsa has to be one of Disney’s greatest female characters, one who crucially, is not defined by a prince. Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel deserve a great deal of praise for their work here.frozen3Where the movie really comes alive, however, is in its music. Frozen is the best Disney musical since the 90s Renaissance days. In traditional Broadway style, we have a collection of different kinds of songs which are used to either propel the story or explore the characters – but what raises Frozen up to the levels of say, Beauty and the Beast, is the sheer quality of the songwriting on display. Husband and wife duo Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson Lopez put together a series of songs to rival the great Alan Menkin and each one is pretty much an instant classic. This is the kind of soundtrack which will stay with children forever. Highlight of course is the huge ‘Let it Go’ a soaring, epic of positive emotion which has become a worldwide sensation, and like ‘Under the Sea’ and ‘A Whole New World,’ an Oscar winner too. It’s an amazing tune, and represents the highpoint of the entire movie, a real marriage of choreography, music, design and emotion which goes some way to justifying the rumours of a second Renaissance.frozen1Time will tell if Frozen remains as timeless as the early 90s Renaissance movies, but for now, it certainly stands as a very smart and ambitious movie with a lot of heart and an amazing soundtrack. There are moments here when yes, it’s clear a second Renaissance is in full swing. Disney have got their grove back, creativity on the rise, and it’ll be very interesting to see where the studio go after this one.

9/10

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5 thoughts on “Frozen, and the 2nd Disney Renaissance

  1. Great post, it does feel like Disney is having a second renaissance. If they keep making films like Tangled and Frozen then I hope this renaissance lasts a long time.

  2. Wonderful post. I loved Princess and the Frog and was disappointed it didn’t do as well at the box office as it deserved too. It does seem like Disney have got their popular groove back with Frozen and have embraced modern attitudes. I’m looking forward to seeing where they go next, even though I much prefer the traditional 2d visuals personally.

  3. I prefer the 2D visuals too – but sadly I don’t think we’ll ever go back to them, even sadder when you consider Miyazaki is retiring at Studio Ghibli. But this is a pretty loveable movie – I’ve seen it a fair few times due to my niece, and there’s a lot of good here

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