While reading Jonathan Last’s otherwise fantastic take on the perplexing villainy of Prince Hans in Disney’s blockbuster Frozen, I came across a statement that I’ve been seeing in various forms from a lot of people over the past months: “For starters,” writes Last, “Frozen is—hands down—the best animated film of all time.”
This is wrong.
Now, I should preface this piece by explaining that my expertise on the subject has been earned, like with many of you, through the difficult work of parenting young daughters. This is another way of saying I’ve watched Frozen many times. Everywhere I go, there it is. There’s no escaping. So I’ve been pondering Frozen, and the cultural mania surrounding the movie, quite an unhealthy bit. And considering the film’s stilted plot, its poorly formed characters and the middling score, I find the adoration a bit perplexing. Frozen is an enjoyable film, even after frequent viewings it holds some charm, but the claim that it’s the best animated film ever is nuts. It’s not even as good as the stylistically comparable Tangled. Not even close.
Let’s start with the characters. Take Tangled’s male protagonist Flynn Rider. Funny, sharp, charming and conniving, a fully realized and compelling personality; unlike, say, the sad-sack Kristoff, who cuts ice blocks for a living and is dumber than his sidekick reindeer or the community of rocks that raised him. Rider begins Tangled as a morally compromised man, a liar and thief who’s enticed by nothing but wealth. Yet he gradually learns what love means; to the point, in fact, that he is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for someone he barely knows. I don’t point this out because I believe computer animated films should read like an Evelyn Waugh novel, but because it is an infinitely more fascinating and appealing narrative than anything found in Frozen. It’s also one I am far more interested in letting my kids watch.
But disparity in the quality of the characters runs throughout the films. In Tangled we meet Rapunzel, a generous soul with talents and interests that extend beyond wanting to meet a boy. She wrestlers with her duty as a daughter (albeit, unbeknownst to her, to a fake mother) yet has a nagging curiosity about the world. She is far more sympathetic, far more interesting, and, more importantly, her story makes sense. In Frozen, we are presented with two princesses: Anna a cute but naïve whiner and Elsa, a critically self-involved and hapless ruler, who would allow her people to freeze to death rather than learn a modicum of self-control. Not even melodramatic musical numbers can cover up the fact that these people are making implausibly ludicrous choices.
As far as villains go, Prince Hans – as Last points out– is basically a cheap trick pulled on the audience. Yet, the devious but charismatic Mother Gothel of Tangled, a woman trying to steal eternal youth, is fleshed out about as well as any supporting character you’ll find in an adult film. Which brings me to another vital difference between the two movies: the depth of secondary characters makes Tangled a far more enjoyable experience. From the unruly musical patrons at Tavern, to the dutiful Maximus and the knowing Pascal, there seems to be far more thought put into creating a fuller world. Outside the occasionally entertaining Olaf (a character whose appearance, by the way, makes absolutely no sense), Frozen offers little more than the one-note joke made at the expense of the Duke of Weselton and a couple of his Red Shirt thugs.
Obviously, as viewers we have to suspend our disbelief when entering a world of fantasy, but still: It’s difficult to comprehend why anyone in Frozen finds themselves in their circumstance. A single conversation between sisters could have cleared up everything. Tangled, on the other hand, is intricately plotted, each scene serving a purpose and propelling the story forward. Frozen is basically the tale of a sister fetching her petulant, emotionally unbalanced sibling. And it’s loaded with scenes — the wolf chase and angry abominable snowman, to name just two — that feel like they were crammed into the script to create the impression that much is unfolding when in fact nothing much is happening at all.
Aesthetically, I would concede that there were some beautifully animated scenes evoking Scandinavia. We just don’t have enough of Scandinavia in movies (and I mean this, sincerely). But overall, Tangled is far more artistically captivating. The beautiful light festival alone is better than anything you’ll see in Frozen. This might have a lot to do the whitewashing that comes with putting snow at the center of your story.
Finally: though I find some of the generic songs of Frozen to be fairly off-putting and some of the whimsical songs in Tangled to be somewhat pleasant, I acknowledge that this is more a matter of personal taste. So I leave the judgment in the more capable hands of John Podhoretz, who tweeted:
Songs in “Tangled” > Songs in “Frozen”
— John Podhoretz (@jpodhoretz) December 14, 2013
Re Disney’s Frozen: The songs just weren’t quite good enough. Better songs, a classic. OK songs, pretty good movie.
— John Podhoretz (@jpodhoretz) November 29, 2013
I suspect Frozen — like Crash or Dances With Wolves — will be judged more honestly by future generations or, at the very least, critics will recalibrate the initial excitement and view the film as a mildly entertaining princess movie. But before that day comes, don’t let them bully you. I know I’m not alone out here.