Friday, November 29, 2013

Film Review: Frozen

"Frozen"  *** (out of ****)

In my opinion it has not been a very good year for animated movies. Nothing has really stood out among the pack which I would declare as a true masterpiece.

This year I have seen "Epic" (2013) which reminded me a bit of a Hayao Miyazaki story because of an environmental theme which runs through. It is a theme which can be found in Miyazaki's work. Speaking of Miyazaki, his son Goro directed what is shaping up to be one of the year's best films, "From Up On Poppy Hill" (2013), which I have reviewed. Disney released "Planes" (2013) earlier in the year, which I honestly enjoyed a great deal. The "critics" (puppets, sheep, whatever you want to call them) unfairly damned the movie, getting involved with Disney politics. Highly unprofessional on their part. Dreamworks released "Turbo" (2013) which I felt was a complete misfire. It had a similar theme to "Planes", but, "Planes" had everything "Turbo" lacked (heart and humor). Though Dreamworks also released "The Croods" (2013). Not great but good and it had some entertaining moments.

I mention all of this because I was greatly looking forward to "Frozen" (2013), Disney's latest release. I thought this might be the best animated film of the year. There was a lot of good buzz proceeding the movie and I remembered how much I enjoyed "Tangled" (2010). I liked that one so much I even placed it on my top ten list that year. "Frozen" had a similar look. The female characters here resembled the Rapunzel character in "Tangled", especially around the eyes.

But "Frozen" didn't live up to my expectations. Mind you, "Frozen" is not a bad movie. It is not a mis-step for Disney. It has some effective moments but it is not a masterpiece. It is not one of the year's best films. Nor is it one of Disney's best.  What I loved about "Tangled" was the humor and songs. It was one of those movies which adults and children could both enjoy. I saw "Tangled" with my niece and we both walked out of the theatre loving the movie (I have reviewed it). "Frozen" will please a lot of children but the adults may not be as involved. The reason? The songs aren't as memorable to me and the humor doesn't gel as nicely here and translate as easily for adults. Disney keeps "Frozen" at the kiddie level. Which is fine. Overall I recommend the movie for children. They will be entertained but I was expecting more because I know Disney is capable of more.

"Frozen" is very loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen". Though Disney and the screenwriter, Jennifer Lee, who also co-directed the movie, take all the religious aspects out of the movie and present a more basic story of good and evil within us. For example, Andersen's story dealt with the Devil and God.

Here we follow two sisters, Anna (voiced as an adult by Kristen Bell) and Elsa (voiced as an adult by Idina Menzel). Elsa has a special power. Anything she touches turns to ice. One day, while the girls are playing, Elsa accidentally hurts Anna. Their parents immediately take Anna by trolls to heal her. Since only Anna's head was injured the trolls are able to help by erasing Anna's memory of the event and her memories of Elsa's power. The parents separate the two girls until Elsa can learn to control her power. But Anna doesn't understand why her sister doesn't play with her anymore. All she knows is she has lost her only friend.

As the years past no one enters the castle until the day Elsa, the eldest sister, is crowned queen. Each girl views the occasion differently. For Anna it is a chance to interact with people, since her sister does not speak to her anymore. For Elsa it is a day of trepidation. Will she be able to control her power?

Without revealing too much, things go wrong and Elsa, accidentally, freezes the land, putting it into a deep winter. Now Anna, with the help of a young man who is in the ice business, Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) must find Elsa to see if she can reverse the spell.

The movie adds humor with the introduction of a snowman character, Olaf (Josh Gad) who dreams of what life would be like in Summer, not realizing the effect heat has on snow. Elsa created Olaf when she was a child and now he is come to life. He will help Anna and Kristoff find Elsa and lead them to her ice palace.

The movie, co-directed by Chris Buck, who directed "Tarzan" (1999) and "Surf's Up" (2007) and Jennifer Lee, on paper sounds entertaining enough. And could have worked. But, I just wasn't impressed with the songs, except for one, which Elsa sings while creating her palace. And the humor didn't bring me in.

"Frozen" has heart and some scenes which work. It is not so predictable and some events caught me off guard, especially since it doesn't follow "The Snow Queen" faithfully.

It is no "Tangled", which I truly feel is a Disney masterpiece but "Frozen" is fun and I'm sure children will enjoy it a great deal. For that reason it is worth seeing.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Film Review: How The Grinch Stole Christmas

"How The Grinch Stole Christmas"  * 1\2 (out of ****)

With the Christmas season nearly upon us I thought it would be a good time to start reviewing holiday themed movies, as I have done in the past. Previously I have reviewed classics such as Frank Capra's "It's A Wonderful Life" (1946), "White Christmas" (1954) and modern favorites like "The Polar Express" (2004).

One of the first movies which came to mind to review this year was Ron Howard's "How The Grinch Stole Christmas" (2000). Growing up I used to watch the 1966 television animated short with narration by Boris Karloff. It too has become something of a Christmas classic. And I would argue, people who saw this live action version have probably seen the animated short first.

Having seen the classic animated movie may have been a mistake on my part but maybe not. It is true as I watched what Ron Howard and Jim Carrey were up to here I couldn't help but think of the animated version and how much was changed and added. Remember. The animated version is approximately 90 minutes. This live action version is approximately one hour and forty minutes. That is a pretty big time gap.

But even if I hadn't seen the 1966 version I still believe this version of "How The Grinch Stole Christmas" would have been a misfire.

The moral behind Dr. Seuss' story was Christmas has been turned into a commercial holiday. This time of year people are preoccupied with spending money. Christmas is a time about buying your children as many gifts as possible and teaching them if they aren't good little boys and girls Santa Clause won't buy them more stuff. But that is not what Christmas is about. If you are religious it is a time of year to celebrate the birth of Christ. In more secular terms Christmas is a time for showing kindness to all.

Dr. Seuss' story presents the secular message. Christmas is a time to spend with loved ones and show good will towards man. The Ron Howard version makes a greater emphasis of this theme, showing the mad cap shopping experience Christmas has become. And I appreciate that Howard's film shows people Christmas is about more than buying gifts on sale. I don't even mind that the movie doesn't give us a religious theme. It was made by liberals after all. But, the secular message is still fine. What's missing from this live action adaption of "How The Grinch Stole Christmas" is heart.

Ron Howard is normally accused of making overly sentimental weepers. My favorite Howard films are "Apollo 13" (1995), the Oscar winner "A Beautiful Mind" (2001) and "Cinderella Man" (2005). All three films made my "top ten" list in their respective years. Given Howard's track record it is hard to explain how he couldn't add more emotion to this story. Even the animated version has heart.

The main problem with "How The Grinch Stole Christmas" is tone. The movie has an over kill of juvenile slapstick with Jim Carrey as the Grinch, making silly faces and mumbling to himself. I imagine this was done to keep small children entertained but what about the adults who have to sit through this too? It is not impossible to make a family film which appeals to both parents and kids. Ask Pixar and Dreamworks.

The movie also gives us a background story of how the Grinch became the Grinch. What his childhood was like and why he hates Christmas so much. I won't spoil anything here but the background plot is so predictable and boring and unnecessary. Whatever "original" ideas the screenwriting team of Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman had, were awful. They contribute nothing meaningful to the story. There wasn't one new addition to this movie which I felt really helped me to enjoy this story more. They added nothing fresh. Which is surprising since they wrote "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" (1988) together. They also co-wrote "Shrek the Third" (2007) which in my opinion was a let down.

Howard gives the movie some nice visual touches. Whoville is colorful and has a cartoonish look to it. The makeup wasn't really striking and the performances lacked substance. The rest of the cast includes Bill Irwin as Lou Lou Who, Molly Shannon as his wife, Betty Lou Who. Jeffrey Tambor plays the Mayor, Mayor May Who and Christine Baranski as Martha May Whovier, the girlfriend of the mayor. And of course there is Cindy Lou Who played by Taylor Momsen.

Jim Carrey went back to Dr. Seuss material after this movie lending his voice to "Horton Hears A Who" (2005) and played Scrooge in Robert Zemeckis' animated "A Christmas Carol" (2009), which I thought was an exceptional films. I even placed it on my "top ten" list that year.

"How The Grinch Stole Christmas" for me is an embarrassment. It a low point in Howard's career. To think of all the money and time which was spent making this film and this is the final product. An utter waste of time and talent. A real shame.