FlixChatter Review: FROZEN II (2019)

Written & Directed By: Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee
Cast: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Josh Gad, Jonathan Groff, Sterling K. Brown
Runtime: 1 hour 43 minutes

When the credit for Frozen II started to roll, I looked over at my (adult) niece and asked what she thought.

“It was really cute! What did you think?”

I opened my mouth and immediately closed it again, trying not to be a party pooper. She grinned. She knows me too well.

“What didn’t you like?”

“I feel like –“ I paused, looking for the right words, “it’s an apologist narrative for colonialism.”

My niece blinked at me. I changed tracks.

“The animation was so pretty, though! Those fall colors!”

We left the theater, talking about the incredible animation and how hilarious Olaf was, which is true, but so is the thing about colonialism. Unfortunately, it is impossible to unpack any of that without spoiling the entire end of the movie, so I’ll save that for the very end of my review. Once you’ve seen the movie, come back and we’ll compare notes.

Frozen II picks up approximately where Frozen left off. Anna and Kristoff are clutzily in love. Olaf is essentially a pre-teen in a toddler shaped body, trying to figure out what growing up is. Elsa is the beloved queen of Arendelle, but she worries that she isn’t fulfilling her potential. This hunch is verified when Arendelle is attacked by the four forces of nature (wind, fire, water, and earth) and a mysterious singing voice compels Elsa to leave her city. Predictably, she wants to go alone. Just as predictably, Anna, Kristoff, Sven, and Olaf want to join. The five of them set out on an adventure and along the way they wrestle with their personal struggles: destiny (Elsa), sisterhood (Anna), growing up (Olaf), and love (Kristoff).

Frozen II is jam packed with Big Ideas. Aside from the aforementioned personal struggle each character is dealing with (which they mostly hash out in their solos), the movie also reckons with environmentalism and colonialism. All these topics are interesting, but there are so many ideas floating around that the movie suffers, feeling disconnected and meandering. Despite having so much thematic content, the story never quite fleshes itself out. There were several scenes that felt like padding (Olaf recounting the entire plot of Frozen is one of the more delightful examples of this) and overall the story just didn’t move with the same vivacity of its predecessor.

As far as the music goes, the soundscape is gorgeous and a couple songs are gems (Olaf’s solo about growing up is hilarious and fun). Unfortunately, most of the songs, although good, feel misplaced. Rare is the moment when it makes sense for the character to burst into song. The biggest offender on this count was Kristoff’s solo, told through a hilarious 80s style music video (replete with pine cone microphones and elk backup singers). It’s a fun idea and technically well executed, but it took me right out of the story, and if you’re older than ten it will probably have the same effect on you.

All that said, the animation in Frozen II is absolutely to die for. The coloring, the action, the impeccable eye for detail: there is so much to love. The autumn colors of the forest repeatedly took my breath away and the animation of the sea and its watery inhabitants is just as stunning. Olaf, of course, is a whimsical favorite: his expressive bodily rearrangement is cute, complicated, and so fun. Honestly, I could have written an entire review just about how great the animation was, but I’ll leave the rest of it for you to discover yourself.

Frozen II is a movie that knows it has a lot to live up to. From its top-notch animation, an insistently whimsical Olaf, and surprisingly cerebral themes for a kids’ movie, Frozen II will leave its viewers with a lot to be impressed by and think about. Although worth seeing, its rather lackadaisical story arc, plodding soundtrack, and severe misstep of an ending make it hard for me to rate the movie highly.


SPOILER ALERT

Alright. For those of you who have either already seen Frozen II or don’t care about spoilers, here it is:

Frozen II ends with Elsa and Anna righting a wrong that their grandfather, then king of Arendelle, committed against the Northuldra tribe. In typical colonial fashion, their grandfather murdered the leader of the Northuldra after that leader expressed concerns about the environmental impact of the giant dam the king had installed “as a gift”. This murder (and the resulting battle) was an act of evil that the spirits of earth, wind, fire, and water repaid by (kind of unfairly) trapping both sides of the feud within a dome of impenetrable magic fog. Fast forward to “present day” in the movie. Anna destroys the dam when she and Elsa realize that their grandfather was a murderer and a liar.

This destruction creates a tidal wave that nearly flattens Arendelle, but doesn’t because Elsa races back to the city on her stunningly rendered Sea Horse and stops the water with a beautiful wall of ice. And then the water level very unrealistically just settles back to where it was before the dam broke. The fog lifts. The Northuldra continue to live in the forest; the city of Arendelle continues to exist exactly as it had before. Literally the only change made is that Arendelle installs a new statue that is supposed to represent the love between the Northuldra and the citizens of Arendelle.

There is a lot to unpack here and every pro is wrapped up in a corresponding con.

After thinking on it for a while, I do like the metaphor of some people being stuck in the fog of ancestral mistakes. It is fitting that Arendelle continues to thrive outside of the magical forest while none of the Northuldra people escaped the fog. Historically conquerers have been able to continue building their cities and their families and their futures while the conquered suffer under their rule. The only flaw here is that this particular fog represents the spirits of the forest and if the spirits are going to be on anyone’s side, it should probably be the Northuldra since they weren’t the lying liars who built a dam that destroyed a local ecosystem.

It is great that Anna and Elsa take responsibility for their grandfather’s actions and undo what he did by destroying the dam. However, there are absolutely no consequences to Arendelle. The two women are disappointed in their grandfather and they are not shy about telling others what he did, but their city, which we are told repeatedly is in the floodplain of the dam, emerges unscathed despite the destruction of that very dam. One well-placed wall of ice would not have saved that city from a mild flood at the very least. I get that this is a kids’ movie. I get that we want a happy ending. I also strongly believe that there was a huge missed opportunity to talk about reparations at the end of this film. Two generations of Northuldra people lived in a literal fog while Arendelle thrived on the other end of the fjord. Bare minimum giving the Northuldra people a stronger voice at the end of the movie would have been a better choice. Additionally, the storytellers should have found a more compelling way for Arendelle to reckon with the wrongs of its founders.

All that said, Disney collaborated with the Sami (a native group in Sweden) for this film. Although I get the impression that most of the Sami contributions were aesthetic, I would like to assume that they had some sort of input on the story as well. However, the pretty blatantly apologist ending makes it hard to believe that.

Tangentially, none of the Northuldra voice actors are native people. Obviously there are plenty of reasons why this myriad of choices would have gone unchallenged, but if you’re going to make a movie about reckoning with the sins of our fathers, maybe start with a more diverse cast.


Agree? Disagree? This is one I want to talk about. 🙂

FlixChatter Review: Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

There are films you’d readily see just for the cast and this is one such a film. I’m familiar with Agatha Christie’s work though I can’t claim I’ve actually finished even one of her books from start to finish. I did however, see the episode from British ITV production of the Agatha Christie series starring David Suchet a couple of years ago, so the plot is still quite fresh in my mind. The latest adaptation featured Kenneth Branagh as the Belgian super detective Hercule Poirot. Branagh also served as director, based on a script by Michael Green (who’s had quite a year as he also wrote Logan and Blade Runner 2049).

The opening sequence in Jerusalem seemed too whimsical and decidedly over-the-top, and I’m not just talking about Poirot’s outlandish mustache. I read in a review somewhere that Branagh can’t decide which fake mustache given to him from the makeup department so he basically just wore them all in a row. I think that enormous mustache probably has its own trailer, too! That establishing scene introduced us to a god-like figure who’s an absolute genius in cracking criminal cases. It also revealed his quirky OCD personality, so obsessed he is with balance that when he stepped one foot on manure, he immediately had to do the same with the other foot.

For a story famous for being set on a train, the film took its time to finally get there. But once there, the train set pieces is really quite glorious, filled with lavish set pieces and even more gorgeous passengers decked in 1930s costumes. Despite the rather sluggish pacing, I enjoyed myself thanks to the amazing cast. A movie with Dame Judi Dench is an automatic must-see in my book, though sadly she didn’t get to do anything in this film. But to be fair, most of the actors here seemed to have spent more time in costumes than learning their lines. She’s still memorable here, as is Olivia Colman as Dench’s German maid.

It’s tough to be memorable in a large ensemble cast as this one, but I’d say the film’s MVPs are Michelle Pfeiffer as Caroline Hubbard, Daisy Ridley as Mary Debenham, Josh Gad as Hector MacQueen, and Leslie Odom Jr. as Dr. Arbuthnot. Oh, and hello Tom Bateman as train director Bouc (never seen this tall, dark and handsome Brit before but I sure hope I’ll see more of him!) It’s interesting casting to have Johnny Depp as Ratchett given his dire reputation of late. Branagh’s performance is often borderline over the top as well which in itself can be distracting. But I thought his monologue after the big reveal is pretty good and provides the high emotional point of the film. I love La Pfeiffer in this scene too, I’ve missed seeing her in movies. She’s one of those veteran actresses I wish would still get many intriguing roles.

I’m not going to talk about the plot here, but Branagh took some interesting creative licenses with how the story came to the big reveal. He also tried to vary the scenes of each passenger interrogation as to not bore the viewers, some work better than others. I love Branagh’s direction in Cinderella but here he seems too preoccupied with camera work (esp. the bird’s eye view angle) that the film feels rather haphazard at times. The dynamic camera angles adds energy to an otherwise stuffy whodunnit drama, but at times can be quite distracting as well.

Overall it’s a decent adaptation, but I’m not sure if it’s really all that necessary. I feel like the rich story would’ve been better served as a miniseries. There are parts that feel emotional, especially as we get to know who the passengers really are, but I think the film lacks any real suspense. That said, I still enjoyed it thanks to the committed cast, the stunning set pieces and the gorgeous score from one of my fave composers (and Branagh’s regular collaborator) Patrick Doyle. The ending seems to hint at ‘Poirot will return’ a la another titular character James Bond. Not sure I’d be so eager to return to another Poirot adaptation from Branagh though. I guess I’d recommend this if you like the cast, though if you’re a Christie fan you’d probably be more satisfied with re-reading the novel.


Have you seen the latest adaptation of ‘Murder on the Orient Express’? Well, what did you think? 

Guest Review: Beauty and The Beast (2017)

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Directed By: Bill Condon
Written By: Stephen Chbosky & Evan Spiliotopoulos
Runtime: 2 hours 9 minutes

I cannot begin to explain how excited I was to get to review this movie. If I hadn’t been in a theater with about twenty-five other reviewers, I might have burst into tears as soon as the title appeared on screen. Beauty and the Beast was the first movie I ever saw in theaters, and it will always have a special place in my heart. It’s still one of my favorite movies. It’s a beautiful film, has some of the most memorable songs of all time, and features a princess whose defining characteristic is her love of reading. When I heard about the live-action remake, I was both excited and nervous. I’m not the kind of person who worries that a bad adaptation of a beloved classic will destroy my childhood, but I still wanted to like the new version. Luckily for me, I was not disappointed.

If you’ve been living under a rock your entire life and don’t know the story, Beauty and the Beast is about a beautiful bookworm named Belle (Emma Watson), who lives in a small French village with her father, Maurice (Kevin Kline), where her bookish ways are misunderstood by the other townspeople, including Belle’s brawny, brutish suitor, Gaston (Luke Evans). One night, when a traveling Maurice unwittingly trespasses in a castle in the middle of the forest, he is taken prisoner by the beast (Dan Stevens), a prince who was cursed (along with his servants, who were all turned into household objects) by an enchantress. The only way to break the curse is for the beast to find true love, and to be loved in return. Belle bravely offers to trade places with her father, and, over time, begins to see what kind of man the beast can be past his appearance.

As someone who is very sentimental about the original, I can safely say this is an incredibly faithful adaptation. Much of the dialogue from the original is included verbatim in the remake, and there are lots of little moments and details from the animated version that are featured in this one, making me feel wonderfully nostalgic. At the same time, the remake offers some much-needed updates. For example, Belle is a better-developed character in this version. Besides just being a bookworm mostly interested in fairy tales, she helps her father with his creations and shows her own innovation. She’s also more relatable, showing her self-consciousness about how the other villagers view her as “odd.” The romance between Belle and the Beast is better handled as well. The movie shows how their friendship develops first, which makes the transition to romance more believable. The fact that Emma Watson and Dan Stevens have excellent chemistry helps sell it as well.

Besides the actors behind the titular characters, the rest of the cast give wonderful performances as well. Luke Evans and Josh Gad were born to play Gaston and Le Fou. Kevin Kline is a less scatterbrained (but still dreamy) Maurice, and the chemistry between him and Emma is heartwarming. The household staff all gave solid performances, and Ewan McGregor as Lumiere and Ian McKellen as Cogsworth were especially entertaining.

Besides the adaptation in general, I was mostly nervous about how the singing would be. Emma Watson is a fantastic actress, but I wasn’t sure how she’d do as a singer, and she had some pretty big shoes to fill. Fortunately, she did not disappoint. Watson has a lovely, bright-toned voice, and while it’s not as full-sounding as Paige O’Hara’s was in the original, it was still an excellent fit for the character. Luke Evans gives a decent performance as well; while there isn’t as much bravado in his voice during Gaston as I would like, he really shines in Kill the Beast. Ewan McGregor nails Be Our Guest with his warm, sparkling voice, although something about the number overall feels kind of underwhelming; I’m not sure if the tempo is a little slower, or if the phrasing could be tighter, or there isn’t as much background chorus as there was in the original, but it doesn’t pack the same punch the Oscar-winning number did in the animated version, although it is still enjoyable. Emma Thompson’s rendition of Mrs. Potts’s titular song holds its own against Angela Lansbury’s, which is no small feat. Naturally, Broadway royalty Audra McDonald as Garderobe is the best singer out of the cast, and while her song at the beginning isn’t particularly memorable, she still makes it sound amazing; seriously, she could sing the dictionary and make it sound good. My last music-related critique is that the orchestra is pretty overpowering and tends to drown out the singing a bit.

Lastly, the movie is visually stunning, as anyone who has seen the trailers has probably already gathered. The big group scenes are beautifully shot and reminiscent of the original. The sets are lovely, and the castle is especially breathtaking. The CGI for the beast and the other enchanted characters is very impressive. Most memorable, though, are the costumes; they remain faithful to the animated version while still adding incredible detail. While Belle’s trademark yellow ball gown is gorgeous, my favorite is the one she wears in the final scene of the movie; if I ever get married, I will walk down the aisle in a replica of that dress. 
 While I’m sure I will continue to be skeptical of this wave of live-action remakes Disney has been churning out, Beauty and the Beast is excellent, both as an adaptation of an animated film and as a movie on its own. Whether you’re a hardcore, nostalgic Disney fan like I am or a casual movie-goer, I have no doubt you will enjoy this.

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Have you seen ‘Beauty & The Beast’? Well, what did you think?