There is much more to “Frozen” than Disney would have you believe. Based on the two United States teaser trailers Walt Disney Animation Studio has revealed so far, it’s easy for anyone to confuse the upcoming 3D animated film with a slapstick comedy. But that couldn’t be any further from the truth.
I recently attended a special 30-minute sneak preview of “Frozen.” Though I was initially disappointed I wasn’t going to be seeing the entire film, upon looking over the day’s event itinerary, that disappointment was quickly replaced with excitement as I was scheduled for an entire day at Walt Disney Animation Studios filled with opportunities to not only see a portion of the film but also talk with the talented artists and filmmakers who worked on it.
The day started with a screening of the short film that will be accompanying “Frozen” in theaters, called “Get a Horse!” starring Mickey Mouse. I’ll write more about the making of this short in a future article, but for now I’ll just include this note: If “Frozen” turned out to be complete garbage (it’s not!), audiences would easily want to pay the premium to see this short ahead of the film in 3D. Seriously. It’s that good.
The main attraction of the day was around 30 minutes of “Frozen,” several scenes from throughout the film with interstitial cards between to help tell the story. I went in not knowing too much about the film, only having seen the characters and preview short with the snowman (Olaf) and the reindeer (Sven), otherwise totally unaware of what the story was about.
Worry not. All impressions that follow are spoiler-free.
“Frozen” is absolutely gorgeous. The art design is fantastic throughout. Everything from the tiniest details on the costumes and buildings to vast mountain vistas is beautifully rendered. “Frozen” is a visual treat.
Usually I’d say a movie review that starts with praising the visuals is trying to find something positive to say, to make up for a story that doesn’t work. But in this case, this is not a review, as I only saw a handful of scenes. It wasn’t enough to know how well the story works, but what I did see had much to be praised.
While I didn’t quite grasp the full complexity of all the characters and their relationships and motivations, they seemed well developed and unique. This isn’t just a re-skin of Rapunzel and Flynn Rider of “Tangled” - despite the obvious similar character design.
The voice acting in “Frozen” is terrific. Kristen Bell (like Mandy Moore before her) was born to be a Disney Princess, now playing Anna. I didn’t even recognize it as her voice until later in the day. Idina Menzel (Elsa) and Josh Gad (Olaf) were more recognizable voices, both wonderful as well.
The studio showed off two of the film’s musical numbers during our preview. The music by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez of “Avenue Q” and “The Book of Mormon” fame (and my personal favorite, “Finding Nemo: The Musical”) was good. The first was a show stopping ballad sure to be a highlight of the film, called “Let It Go.” It reminded me of Defying Gravity from the musical Wicked, almost a little too much. Menzel recently debuted it in a performance at the 2013 D23 Expo, much to the audience’s delight:
The second song previewed was a wildly different comedic song, more along the lines of what you’d expect from Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon - minus the raunch of course. It featured Olaf singing about all the wonderful things he would do under the warm sun, comedically oblivious to the fact that he, as a snowman, would melt into oblivion if that ever really happened. This same bit was also shown at the D23 Expo, again much to the audience’s delight. Most importantly, it showed that Olaf has a much better sense of humor than has been seen in the film’s previews so far, with rich comedy trumping slapstick and silly one-liners.
But that does brings me to my one concern about “Frozen” - the tone. The scenes I saw were full of drama, emotion, action, and adventure. And then there were some really “out there” comedic bits. It’s not that they weren’t funny. They were. I’m just not sure how well it’s going to fit in with the rest of the movie which is easily among Disney’s most epic. Again, these impressions are based on just 30 minutes of footage, so it’s not a final review of the film. The filmmakers I spoke with at the event were keenly aware of the movie’s tonal issues and I can only assume they have worked to strike the right balance in the end.
When I asked co-director Jennifer Lee about the tone after seeing the film clips, she told me “You’re always going to get the perfect balance of comedy and drama if you give it to the characters because people are funny. Even in dramatic situations they do awkward things and if you root your comedy in that and who they are and what they want - even the simple want of a carrot - there’s a humor that comes naturally and organically.”
After the screening I toured Walt Disney Animation Studios and was given a chance to meet many of the artists behind “Frozen.” I learned plenty more about the film’s creation, more of which I’ll share in a future post.
For now, take a look around the displays that were set up for this special event, a great opportunity to take a peek behind the scenes of Disney’s famous studio:
“Frozen” arrives in theaters on November 27, 2013.