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Monday, February 4, 2013

The Oft Frozen Journey of the Snow Queen

EDIT: Due to the fact that those supposed Frozen posters of Anna and Elsa were fake, and that Disney has requested their removal in many places online, I have chosen to remove the images that I originally used of them in this article. From what I have heard, the actual models were rather close to what the final character designs were, but I guess we'll have to see - Disney has to release some sort of teaser trailer soon, right?

Not too long ago, Disney gave us a first look at a piece of concept art for Frozen.

Ominously (at least that's how I felt at the time), Elsa, the Snow Queen, was left out of the image while we got a look at Anna (her sister) and Kristoff.

I suppose I've had high hopes for the Snow Queen's design. This animated film has been a long time coming, so there's quite a bit of old concept art out there.

My favorite.

The majority of the old concept art for the Snow Queen shows a very beautiful yet cruel-looking character, or at least someone that you might not feel too comfortable having dinner with. Which is probably part of the reason why this project has been so plagued with problems story-wise.

This film has had several stops and goes...going all the way back to the 1930s, believe it or not (though back then it was supposed to be part live-action and part animation). The project was once called "The Ice Queen" as well as, of course, "The Snow Queen." I'm fairly confident that the project is now called "Frozen" because of how well Tangled did. Those guys in marketing must be convinced that due to the name change for Rapunzel's story and somehow "hiding" the fact that the film was a princess story, instead of making it obvious with The Princess and the Frog, Tangled did better than they thought it would.

In fact, when Princess and the Frog didn't do quite as well as they wanted, that's when Disney chose to rename the Rapunzel film. Disney has wanted to make as much as it did when The Lion King came out ($312 million). Never mind that the film was competing with Avatar at the time and that that's when the economy truly went down the tanker...

That was also one of the instances when the Snow Queen project was shelved. A princess and traditionally hand-drawn film? Oh no, that simply wouldn't do! In fact, mere days before Tangled was released, Ed Catmull stated that Disney was done with fairy tales for a while (though I will emphasize here that after nearly everyone freaked out from what he said, he went on record saying that he didn't mean that Disney would never churn out a fairy tale film ever again). But he and John Lasseter, who oversaw Disney animation, canned not just the Snow Queen film, but also a version they were planning of Jack and the Beanstalk. It's kind of ironic, considering that, once upon a time, John was very eager to actually direct the Snow Queen project, actually wanting to direct a princess film.

Then Tangled was released and earned over $200 million domestically, and the big boys that scoffed at fairy tales and princess stories were reminded why Disney became a powerhouse in the first place. Yes, it helped that Flynn/Eugene was an actually interesting character and the film had some action and adventure - but that never changed the fact that the film was still a fairy tale centered around the story of a princess. The Princess and the Frog had an interesting male character (and was just all-around solid with great word of mouth) as well, but perhaps featuring Flynn more prominently for Tangled's promos helped.

There is something to be said for setting the bar too high for your own good, though. Disney/Pixar cannot expect to get the same set of numbers at the box office every time. Instead of focusing so much on how much of a box office blockbuster they create, they should be more focused on the creative quality of their films (not that quality has gone awry yet per say). And as we all know, Disney makes the majority of its money from their films in the long-run, not simply the time that their films are out in theaters. Merchandise is a huge money-maker, especially where the princesses are concerned. 

Anyhow, Tangled proved that the world still wanted to see Disney princesses and fairy tales, which is why the Snow Queen project made a comeback. But perhaps Disney is trying a little too hard to replicate Tangled's success. Besides the name change, the new Disney Princess Anna looks an awful lot like Rapunzel.

So what if they gave Anna blue eyes and strawberry blonde hair instead of green eyes and regular blonde hair...they still look like they could be sisters.

Is this the price of doing this film in CG? Are all of the girls are going to have the same head shape, eyes and nose? People have noted how similar Ariel and Rapunzel are in design, but honestly, after seeing Anna I feel it a bit less. If Disney took the film in a more unique art direction, it would not be so obvious. But at least all of the snow will look luminous...

The original Hans Christian Andersen story actually features children (Kai and Gerda) as main characters. I'm not sure why Disney decided to drop this idea...perhaps they were hung up on creating a romance. But they did toy with the idea. As for the name changes, while I have heard some criticism regarding the matter, I do not see a big problem with it. As someone who has family from that part of the world, I can safely say that all of their names are very Danish.

I am happy to see that Kristoff is a slightly burlier man. While not quite a Bastion (a shelved concept for Rapunzel's beau), he's not as thin as he was in his original concept art.

They have strayed quite far from the original fairy tale, and that is their right as creators of entertainment. But they do seem to be pushing further and further away from the original fairy tale and original concept. The Snow Queen, or Elsa, looks like she came straight out of one of the CG Tinkerbell films or even from Dreamworks. Here's the brand new poster of her (sorry about the awkward logo).

It's true that once Disney decided to toy with more serious animated features, their box office revenues began to dip. Somehow The Lion King, which took the plot of Shakespeare's "Halmet," was able to find a strong balance between comedy and tragedy, and without feeling like it was some sort of formula. But once Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame were released, audiences dropped from the numbers they had built from earlier in the Disney Renaissance.

It's a shame, really. I actually love Pocahontas and Hunchback. They both have sweeping scores, beautiful animation and I felt that Disney made some bold choices with those films. Perhaps part of the problem was that they weren't dedicated to being serious enough...the moment where they would try to implement comedy or cut certain songs were possibly where things went wrong. But in any case, trying to make a film for everyone is shooting yourself in the foot. 99% of the time you just can't please everyone.

Disney is definitely leaning towards a comedic feel, however. Besides a one-antlered reindeer, there will also be a talking snowman named Olaf. He's a snowman, and this film will be released for the holidays, which means a bunch of Christmas merchandise tie-ins. Not quite sure how I feel about him yet.

I still have high hopes for this film, regardless of all the changes it's gone through. Part of what can help ensure that this film isn't just about some cold-hearted [insert derogatory female term here] and coming across as woman-hating, Jennifer Lee, who co-wrote the script for Wreck-It Ralph, will be co-directing this film alongside Chris Buck, as well as contributing to the film's script.

Besides the script and direction, the music and casting sounds promising. Kristen Bell will voice Anna, and Idina Menzel will voice Elsa. Both have great musical theatre chops, though obviously the latter is more well-known for it than the other. While we saw Idina in Enchanted (and was even animated as a fairy tale version of herself), playing a leading role in a Disney animated feature must be a dream come true.

As for the score and lyrics, Broadway vets Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (a married team, aww) are taking care of it. You can bet that the lyrics will be very clever and probably quite funny.

So while Frozen may not be the film we all expected it to be from the beginning, it will probably be successful in that it will entertain audiences. And that's really the most important aspect in all of this, right?

And in the meantime, I'll be anxiously awaiting that secret 2D animated film that Ron and John are working on for (I believe) 2014.

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