The Wolf of Wall Street – Review


Martin Scorsese has rightfully positioned himself as one of the definitive film directors of this or any era, and it’s not hard to see why.  Movies like Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), and Goodfellas (1990) are considered masterpieces to audiences and critics alike.  But what I like about Scorsese the most is his enthusiasm for the art of film-making as a whole.  Over the years, he has strongly supported the efforts of film preservation and has shepherded the careers of rising stars in the cinematic community, as well as being a strong defender of creative freedom for all filmmakers.  And while he has done a lot for the film community at large, I still am happy to see him take chances with his own projects.  Scorsese may have branded himself early by making gritty crime thrillers like Goodfellas, but his filmography shows that he’s capable of making a mark in other genres as well; such as biblical epics like The Last Temptation of Christ (1986), or historical biopics like The Aviator (2004), or even a family friendly film like 2011’s Hugo.  That’s why I respect Scorsese so much as a director, because he refuses to rest on his laurels and churn out the same kind of movie over and over again.  At the same time, while his films may be diverse, you can still see a distinctive style that’s trademark Scorsese in each one of them, and that’s something that you will find in abundance in his newest film, The Wolf of Wall Street.
Wolf of Wall Street arrives in theaters this week with a whopping 179 minute run-time, the longest film in Scorsese’s career.  That may be off-putting for some people who dislike watching anything over 2 hours long in a movie theater, but believe me, this is not some overblown, contemplative epic yarn.  This may very well be the nuttiest and most demented three hour experience I have ever had watching a movie in a theater, and I got to say, I kind of loved it because of that.  The film is adapted from the memoir of Jordan Belfort, a Wall Street hot shot who ultimately went to jail for illegal trading, and the movie doesn’t shy away from every deprave moment of this man’s life.  To give you a good idea of what I’m talking about, no more than five minutes into the movie, you will see star Leonardo DiCaprio snorting cocaine out of the butt hole of a stripper.  That’s the kind of movie that you are in for and it just gets crazier from there.  I for one loved just how ridiculous this movie gets and I’m sure that’s what Scorsese intended for this movie as well.  We’re supposed to infer a lesson from this film, which is seeing the culture of Wall Street and what kind of sick and twisted people we’ve had in charge of our economy over the last 20-30 years. The best thing that Scorsese does is to not turn this film into a moralistic cautionary tale.  Here he’s mocking those who should be mocked and he treats this whole series of events like the circus that it is.
The story begins in the mid-80’s where a fresh out of college Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) starts a career as a stock broker in a bustling Wall Street brokerage firm.  While there, he learns the true shady nature of the business from the head broker, played by Matthew McConaughey in a hilarious cameo.  When Jordan loses his job after the crash of Black Monday, he starts anew, trading penny stocks in an accounting office which he soon turns into his own brokerage firm in no time.  Soon he adds another shady salesman to his team named Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), who also introduces Jordan to the world of heavy drugs.  With the combined tenacity of Jordan and his team, they soon create the firm of Stratton Oakmont Inc., which has no meaning other than they needed a name that sounded professional.  For the remainder of the film, we see what lies behind the professional exterior of Wall Street and, as portrayed by Scorsese here, it is a place where a fight or an orgy could break out at any minute.  We also see the depths that people go to when they have unlimited wealth, which seems to be only limited to the imagination of the people perpetrating them.  There’s soon shown a constant stream of hookers, booze, drugs, and even dwarf tossing.  And the most outrageous thing is that not a single character in the movie is ashamed of any of this.  The only character that has any moral center in the movie is a federal agent played by Kyle Chandler, whose dogged investigation leads to the eventual denouement that these characters are ultimately headed towards.
Scorsese doesn’t shy away from any of the more twisted moments in these people’s lives and I do give him credit for not taking the easy narrative angles that could have been taken in the film’s adaptation.  With the help of screenwriter Terrence Winter (Boardwalk Empire), The Wolf of Wall Street gets it’s point across without implanting any obvious moral subtext underneath.  The movie is less about who these people are and more about what they are doing, which is what the filmmakers wants us to focus on.  Given the rough state of our economy, many of us wonder where it all went wrong and this movie gives us one possible answer.  It’s not any one person that brought ruin to the economy, but rather a culture built around doing whatever it takes to become rich, even if it’s illegal.  What Scorsese wanted to do with this movie was to strip back the facade of professionalism and class that Wall Street tries to present itself as, and show us that in reality it’s all just one big frat party.  And to Scorsese’s credit, he manages to make this showcase entertaining without ever making it feel like it’s exploitation.  I’m surprised that of all things that this film would end up being, it ended up a comedy, but upon reflection, how could it be anything else.  The only other time Scorsese made a black comedy, it was the very underrated The King of Comedy (1983), and Wolf of Wall Street is very much in that same vein.
One thing that really helps to shape the tone of this film is the performances of the actors, and in particular, Leonardo DiCaprio.  This is probably the loosest performance that I have seen from Leo in his entire career, and that helps to make him so memorable in this film.  He’s cocky, in-your-face (literally, since the film often has him break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience) and is constantly reveling in his bad behavior, all of which DiCaprio delivers perfectly.  Honestly, it’s hard to believe that this is the same guy who headlined Titanic (1997), because the performances couldn’t be more different.  This is one of the most unashamedly, morally depraved characters I have seen at the center of a movie, and it just looks like Leo is having a blast playing him.  This is DiCaprio’s fifth collaboration with Scorsese, and I think that it’s been a partnership that has really enriched the careers of both men.  Apart from a sleep-inducing performance by DiCaprio in Gangs of New York (2002), he has gotten better through each role in Scorsese’s movies and this is the best one he’s done to date.  I love the fact that Leo is willing to take on an un-glamourous role like this which really challenges him as an actor.  This is especially helpful when you have to play a character that’s both charming and hate-able at the same time.
The rest of the cast also helps to make the film worthwhile.  Jonah Hill manages to create a character that just feels like he was always meant to be in this kind of shady business.  His performance could have easily turned into ugly caricature if done wrong, but Jonah finds just that right balance between funny and sleazy, which helps to put him in the same league as DiCaprio.  In fact, many of the best scenes in the film are the ones where the two actors are working off of each other.  One in particular is an extended fight scene between the two characters after they are both incapacitated from excessive consumption of quaaludes, which leads to some hilarious back and forth exchanges.  The remainder of the cast is full of many recognizable faces, all of whom add flavor to the film as a whole.  Rob Reiner delivers a nice fiery performance as Jordan’s accountant father, as does Jon Favreau as his legal consultant.  The aforementioned McConaughey delivers some great moments in his early scenes.  Australian newcomer Margot Robbie is also a standout as Jordan’s disgruntled second wife Naomi, and she manages to leave an impression among all these other heavy hitters.  It’s an all around solid supporting cast which Scorsese is famous for assembling in many of his movies.
One thing that you’ll also find apparent in the film is the distinctive Scorsese style.  This, probably more than any movie that he’s made since 1995’s Casino, feels like a Scorsese film.  Whether it’s the first person narration, the use of period details and music, or the unflinching excess of violence and debauchery on screen, these are things that have come to define the look and feel of a Scorsese movie.  The Wolf of Wall Street has all of that and feels very close in tone and style to something like Casino or Goodfellas.  Only this time, instead of the mafia, he’s depicting a whole different set of criminals.  I’m really impressed with how Scorsese is still able to make movies with this kind of energy and style after so many years.  You would swear that a movie like this was made by some fresh maverick director and not a seasoned veteran, but that’s a testament to how daring a filmmaker he is.  And the fact that he has made this a three hour long comedy is another sign of how confident he is in his abilities to make a film.  For any one who likes the Scorsese style, this movie will surely be a welcome treat.
One thing that I especially like in Scorsese’s movies is the different ways that he plays around with the formats of his film.  Apart for the aforementioned breaking of the fourth wall narration in the movie, Scorsese also plays around with cinematic styles.  The film actually breaks away from the narrative at points and showcases things like a commercial break for the Stratton Oakmont company that’s depicted in the movie, or showing us a full-length infomercial for Jordan Belfort’s seminar, which ends hilariously with his arrest by the feds while the video camera is still rolling.  It’s clever little injections like these that help to make Scorsese’s movies feel alive and visually interesting.  I especially like how the commercials themselves just reek of eighties nostalgia.  It reminded me of when the movie Casino suddenly introduces the “Aces High” TV show, mainly as a part of the narrative but also to parody shows of that time period in a tongue in cheek way.  Also, Scorsese also has a lot of fun with slow motion photography and extended hand-held shots in the movie.  It’s a clear sign of someone using all the tricks in the filmmakers handbooks to make their film feel alive through every single moment.  This has been a trademark of all of Scorsese’s movies and here he makes the most out of everything he’s learned as a filmmaker.
One thing I will say is that while I enjoyed the film immensely, it certainly is not for everyone.  I know many people will be turned off by the 3 hour run-time, but a good many more people will believe that the film is too indulgent as well.  Scorsese does run the risk of having this film look like an endorsement for this kind of lifestyle, but that’s only because it’s being told from the first person account of someone who is unashamed of what he has done.  I don’t believe that Scorsese’s intent was to ever exploit the excesses of these people’s lives for our entertainment.  In the end, he’s asking us to actually look deeper, behind the facade, and see these people for who they really are and not what they say they are.  In that regard, I believe that The Wolf of Wall Street is a brilliantly crafted film.  It’s visually exciting, brilliantly acted, and it feels right at home with all of Scorsese’s other movies.  This film may generally gets a mixed reaction from audiences, and truthfully I don’t blame some of them if they say that they found the whole thing disgusting.  It’s a challenging movie to sit through, but in the end, I found it incredibly rewarding.  Mostly, I just admire the fact that the film goes to places that you would never expect a 3 hour film to go, and it does it fearlessly and with a great amount of confidence.  Of course, what else would you expect from a master filmmaker like Martin Scorsese.
Rating: 9/10

Evolution of Character – Ebenezer Scrooge


Hollywood has run into the habit of reusing ideas and stories over and over again, which has led many people to believe that the industry is devoid of original ideas.  While some films can feel flat and unoriginal, it is still understandable why Hollywood continues to recycle old properties.  And whenever something original does appear in the film market, it will likely spawn it’s own franchise and continue the cycle once again.  Many filmmakers often look to works of literature or historical documents for inspiration and they usually make an adaptation of something that has already been attempted by someone else.  The most interesting thing about multiple adaptations are the different variants that we do see portrayed in the characters of the story, and how they both define and redefine the stories through the multiple versions.  That is why I am starting this new series of articles where I look at characters that have made it to the silver screen multiple times through different interpretations, and examine how well they have stayed true to their roots and/or how they’ve been redefined over time.
Because we are now days away from Christmas, I thought that a worthy candidate to examine in this article would be Mr. Humbug himself, Ebenezer Scrooge.  Scrooge, the main protagonist from Charles Dickens’ perrenial classic, A Christmas Carol, has been one of the most widely reused characters in cinema history.  It seems like there are hundreds of cinematic versions of A Christmas Carol, all with Scrooge at the forefront, as well as many Christmas themed films that feature some Scrooge-esque character in some fashion.  No matter where he turns up, Ebenezer Scrooge has almost become as recognizable a Christmas icon as Santa himself.  And it’s not hard to see why.  The story of a cynical, uncaring old man who hates Christmas until he is visited by three ghosts on Christmas Eve and is shown the true purpose of the holiday is a heartwarming story for anyone to enjoy at this time of year.  The narrative is less about the Christmas season, and more about how we treat our fellow man; a lesson that Scrooge is in desperate need of learning.  Dickens wrote the story to highlight class inequality in his time, but unlike many of his other stories, Christmas Carol has a more optimistic outlook.  It’s Scrooge’s redemption that we find so inspirational and it’s no wonder why so many filmmakers have wanted to tackle this story over the years.  I have chosen a few of the more notable adaptations of the character to look at and see how they have come to define the person that is Ebenezer Scrooge.
While A Christmas Carol has been adapted many times in cinema before this 1951 British production, this was the one that really left a mark and has gone on to become a universally beloved classic.  The film itself is well done and treats the source material with the respect that it deserves, but what makes it particularly memorable is the performance of actor Alastair Sim as Scrooge.  Talk about someone making the role all his own.  Sim’s performance is exactly what you want to bring old Ebenezer to life.  He’s intimidating and cruel during his harsher earlier moments in his office, but vulnerable and sympathetic when he takes his overnight journey with the ghosts.  Sim balances out both of these aspects perfectly, and always takes the role seriously.  While the acting style may seem old-fashioned to today’s audiences, it still comes across as charming, and is very much a representation of the old, classic Hollywood style.  No one can be sure if this is the way Charles Dickens wanted the character to be portrayed (he may have taken issue with some of the softening of the story’s darker themes), but Sim’s performance just feels right.  His work in this film has been the measuring stick for every version of Scrooge that has come after, and it’s easy to see why.  His version of Scrooge may not be the most interesting, or the most intense, but it is a version that probably defines the essentials of the character most clearly.
In between the Alastair Sim version of the character and this one, there were very few cinematic adaptations of the story.  The only noteworthy adaptation in between was an animated version where Scrooge was played by Mr. Magoo.  But in 1970, British filmmaker Ronald Neame took upon a lavish, musical version of Dickens classic story and cast Albert Finney in the iconic role.  Now, while the film features some beautiful set pieces and portrays it’s time period very well, the movie still does have a lot of flaws that keeps it from becoming a true classic.  One of the problems that I think hurts the film the most is the portrayal of Scrooge himself.  Albert Finney is a fine actor, and I don’t fault him for trying here, but his performance just doesn’t feel right for the character.  He portrays Scrooge more like a caricature of an old man rather than as fully-fledged human being.  In Dickens novel, we come to understand that much of Scrooge’s miserliness has come from a lifetime of hardship and disappointment, which has made him cold and uncaring.  Finney just boils that down to a permanent scowl and an aching back in his portrayal.  While the film looks nice, it feels hollow and I think that’s the fault of the filmmakers missing the point of the story.  You can make the film work with a more light-hearted tone, but it helps more when your main character feels authentic and less cartoony.
Speaking of cartoons, Disney Animation tackled Dickens story as well with their stable of classic characters filling all the roles.  Eternally optimistic Mickey Mouse was naturally cast as eternally optimistic Bob Cratchit; Goofy portrayed Scrooge’s deceased partner Jacob Marley; Jiminy Cricket stepped in as one of the Ghosts, as did Willie the Giant.  But, of course the role of Scrooge had to belong to Donald Duck’s wealthy uncle, who naturally was inspired originally by the classic character.  Scrooge McDuck was created by artist Carl Barks for the Donald Duck series of comic books in 1947, and surprising it took him this long to make it to the big screen.  The long wait proved to be worth it, as Scrooge McDuck fills the role perfectly.  Voiced by actor Alan Young, Scrooge is definitely the star of this adaptation and is even able to steal the spotlight away from the likes of Mickey Mouse himself.  It’s very likely that for anyone who grew up in the last 30 years (myself included), this was the version of the classic that we first became familiar with.  And that’s not a bad thing either.  It is a remarkable feat by the Disney company to tell the entire story in only a 25 minute run-time, and still get the essence of the story right.  I think that mainly has to do with having a Scrooge at the center that we can care about, which Scrooge McDuck indeed is.  His presence here was so effective in fact that McDuck was given his own TV series, Duck Tales, which has made him one of Disney’s more popular characters in recent years.
George C. Scott is an actor known for his intensity, which he brings to every role of his whether it requires it or not.  So, when this made for TV movie cast him in the role, you would think that Scott would have portrayed a very rough around the edges Scrooge.  But what is surprising about his performance here is actually his restraint, which as a result is a great benefit for the adaptation as a whole.  Like I mentioned before, Scrooge is a man who has gone through a lot of heartbreak and disappointment in order to get where he is, and that’s what has turned him into a miserable person.  George C. Scott captures that aspect of the character much better than Albert Finney did, and for that matter, even Alastair Sim.  This Scrooge proves to be the deepest and most interesting to date, because the production and the actor portraying him pull back the layers to show the man behind the rough facade.  This version of the story focus a lot more on who Scrooge really is and how every moment of his life has shaped he is today, and how that knowledge can help him to change.  Again, Scott treats the character with respect and dignity, which makes him all the more fascinating.  It’s unusual to find a film made for television that actually has this kind of depth to it, but that’s the result of having a quality performer at it’s center.  Scott could have gone over the top, but by showing restraint, he helped to redefine the way we see the character.
The great thing about adaptations is that if the story is strong enough in it’s overall themes, you can re-imagine it in any time period or setting that you want, as long as it stays true to the heart of the original intent.  With the 1988 comedy Scrooged, we find the classic tale depicted in a contemporary setting, with Ebenezer Scrooge re-imagined as a callous and self-absorbed TV executive named Frank Cross, played by the always brilliant Bill Murray.  Murray may not be the crotchety old man that we always associate with Scrooge, but he does perfectly capture the sharp cynicism of the character, in some very hilarious ways.  The film, directed by Richard Donner, is surprisingly dark for a comedy, and is definitely not geared towards a family audience like the other films I highlighted.  But thanks to Bill Murray’s excellent performance, we still get the essentials of A Christmas Carol here, particularly in the portrayal of Frank Cross’ redemption.  The particular highlight of the film is Bill Murray’s long winded monologue at the end, where he interrupts his own adaptation of the classic story, which is being broadcast live on TV, to show the lesson he has learned about the holiday spirit.  It’s silly and over-the-top, but man does Murray deliver it well, and the holiday spirit it inspires is infectious.  This scene in particular is why the film has become a beloved holiday classic on its own, and it shows that even Scrooges in our present day can still capture the imaginations of their audience.
Charles Dickens meets the Muppets.  Not a match that you would ever think would work, and I would be lying if I didn’t say that it doesn’t entirely come together perfectly here.  But, The Muppets Christmas Carol does have a lot of charm and actually manages to do a little-hearted take on the source novel that still retains much of the story’s core darkness.  And where I think the movie succeeds the most is in the casting of actor Michael Caine in the role of Ebenezer Scrooge.  Caine’s performance manages to be as light-hearted as Albert Finney’s, but retains the restraint of George C. Scott performance.  And it’s a balance that makes him a perfect fit for this sort of film.  I mean c’mon; his co-stars are all Muppets.  The fact that he’s able to look at these characters like they were real human beings and make it believable is just a testament to just how good of an actor he is.  At the same time, Michael Caine’s performance helps to ground the production as a whole, making the film work as a worthy adaptation of Dickens’ story, for the most part.  The film only suffers when it tries to inject some unnecessary modern jokes and gags into the narrative, but these are thankfully very minor.  Like with Mickey’s Christmas Carol, this is a version of the story that I’m sure many people were introduced to as kids, and thanks to Caine’s stirring performance, it a version that helps to helps to stay true to the character of Ebenezer Scrooge.
The most recent incarnation of the story-line brought Dickens’ classic into the digital age through motion capture technology.  Directed by Robert Zemekis, this film looks nice and portrays the classic Dickensian setting on a grand scale, but the motion capture technology used on the characters proves to be problematic.  While it is neat to see an actors physical performance translated into a digital character like it does here, it has the unfortunate effect of making the characters look plastic and hollow.  There comes a point where the characters reach what is known as the “Uncanny Valley,” where audiences sees something that looks real but they know it’s not, and as a result are repulsed by it.  That’s the unfortunate problem with films like this one, but the character that works surprisingly well in this movie is Scrooge himself.  It’s probably because he is being played by Jim Carrey, an actor known for his physical comedic styles, and he helps to make the character feel much more alive as a result.  Jim Carrey’s performance is a welcome standout in this problematic film and hopefully it will not be forgotten even after people loose interest in the motion capture mode of film-making over time.
As you can see, there are many different ways in which you can bring a character to the big screen through multiple adaptations, and what helps them stand out from one another shows us all the many layers you can add to the same individual.  Ebenezer Scrooge is fascinating not just as a Christmas icon, but also as an individual person.  We all like stories about redemption, even when it’s aided by something as unlikely as visits from the supernatural, and this has been the appeal behind the story all these years.  Even when you do the flipside of the story, like in It’s a Wonderful Life where a good man has to learn about his own value in order to be redeemed on Christmas Eve, we can still see the impact that this classic story has had, even when it’s not readily apparent.  Thankfully there have been some great Scrooges brought to the big screen over the years.  While I have a special attachment to the Scrooge McDuck version from my childhood, I nevertheless value George C. Scott’s multi-layered portrayal and Alastair Sim’s classic version of the character.  And who doesn’t love it when Bill Murray lets loose in his version.  Most likely we’ll be seeing old Ebenezer again on the big screen; probably sooner than later.  But, for this Christmas season, I’m sure that some of these versions will definitely be on many of your holiday playlists.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – Review


Who would have ever believed that adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit to the big screen would be a more daunting task than adapting The Lord of the Rings.  After all, Rings is grander in scope and breadth, tackling heavier themes and showcasing intricately detailed cultures that exist solely within the world of Middle Earth.  The Hobbit by comparison was a simple standalone story geared more towards younger readers.  And yet, when director Peter Jackson was tasked with bringing Tolkien’s original classic to life on film, he somehow managed to make this short story into a three part behemoth that amazingly was a more complex production than his adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.  Now, trying to expand a simple 300 page book into a trilogy of nearly three hour long movies was going to be problematic to some, and I acknowledge that there are some hiccups in this translation too, but I still admire Jackson’s attempt to actually make it work.  The pressure that Peter Jackson must be under as a filmmaker has to be overwhelming.  His adaptation of The Lord of the Rings trilogy was a rare phenomenon in film history.  Fantasy films generally never escape their genre confines, and yet Rings somehow found a huge diverse fanbase, and the third film in the series, The Return of the King (2003), became the first fantasy film to ever win the Oscar for Best Picture.
Given the enormous popularity of Rings, it was inevitable that The Hobbit would also be given the big screen treatment.  But The Hobbit is not the ideal way to follow-up something like The Lord of the Rings.  Rings was intended as the sequel to the original novel, and Tolkien used his three volume tome to not only build upon The Hobbit, but to create an entire historical and cultural tapestry that enveloped both stories.  Because the Rings films came first, Peter Jackson had put himself in the difficult position of having to meet those higher expectations.  If Jackson had filmed the book as it was written, he may have alienated the Rings fanbase who wanted something bigger; and if he made it too big, and too much like Lord of the Rings, he might have upset some Tolkien purists.  Hence, this is why I admire Jackson’s determination to tackle the challenge.  He’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.  He started production expecting it to be a two-parter spread across a two year release schedule, but after having shot so much footage during filming, Jackson made the controversial decision to split The Hobbit into a trilogy.  The first film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) premiered a year ago to a lot of fanfare and some generally mixed reactions.  Still, it did well enough to make people excited for this year’s follow-up; a movie that no body expected would ever exist, The Desolation of Smaug.
While some people were disappointed in the first film in the series, An Unexpected Journey, and I can completely understand why they would be upset, I was however generally pleased with the movie.  I admired the fact that Peter Jackson managed to recapture some of that Lord of the Rings magic, nearly a whole decade after the fact.  It wasn’t as successful as the Rings films story-wise, mainly because of the stretched out length and the slower pacing, but I still loved the fact that we were revisiting Middle Earth once again and exploring the corners yet unseen, while at the same time revisiting some of the highlights from The Lord of the Rings.  I placed An Unexpected Journey on my Top Ten from last year, so I was eagerly anticipating this follow-up film, and as it turns out, I loved it just as much as the first; but for very different reasons.  Much like the Lord of the Rings films were to each other, the two Hobbit movies are very different in tone.  An Unexpected Journey was more leisurely and light-hearted, while Desolation of Smaug is darker and more action-oriented.  While many moments are still played for laughs, this film does raise the stakes significantly, and hints at even heavier elements left to be seen in the third installment.  Also, like Journey, Smaug encounters some adaptation problems that can’t be ignored, particularly in the ways that Peter Jackson has stretched the story out.  But, even so, I found myself thoroughly entertained by this installment.
The story picks up right where An Unexpected Journey left off, with Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the company of dwarves still on the road to Erabor, the Lonely Mountain, the ancient seat of power of the Dwarf kingdom.  After finding themselves lost and delirious in the diseased forest of Mirkwood, the Dwarves are captured by the woodland Elves and taken to their forest sanctuary as prisoners.  There they meet the Elven king Thranduil (Lee Pace), his son Legolas (Orlando Bloom, returning to the character he played in the Rings trilogy) and a female elf named Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) who is more sympathetic to the dwarves plight.  Bilbo manages to help his companions escape by hiding them in barrels and sending them down a river.  Soon they find themselves in Lake Town, a settlement founded by the survivors of the destruction of the City of Dale, a place destroyed by the dragon Smaug.  They are helped out by a noble smuggler named Bard (Luke Evans) and soon leave for their fateful confrontation with the titular dragon, hoping to reclaim their ancestral home, and the treasure it contains, once again.
Anyone who’s read the book knows the story very well, and where it’s all ultimately leading.  The dilemma that Desolation of Smaug faces is the fact that it’s the middle chapter of a trilogy.  It has no beginning and no end (quite literally in this case).  But like with The Two Towers in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson took upon the task of making the middle chapter work on it’s own, and surprisingly came up with something very unique.  The Two Towers and Desolation of Smaug are films that feel freer in form than movies that surround them.  For one thing, they don’t need to spend a whole lot of time setting up characters and plot, because the first film has already done that work for them.  And it doesn’t have to wrap everything neatly in the end like a final chapter does, so that way it can leave more room for ambiguity.  That’s why I really admire these kinds of movies, particularly in Peter Jackson’s adaptations.  Desolation of Smaug succeeds because it has less of a burden put on it’s shoulders and feels more at ease in it’s storytelling.  An Unexpected Journey’s laborious exposition is probably what turned off a lot of people last year, but that’s something that you will not be able to find in this film.
If the movie has a fault, it’s in the extra bits that have been added that weren’t present in the original book.  Most of these additions I didn’t have a problem with in the movie, and for the most part, I think they enriched the movie’s narrative as a whole.  What I didn’t like though were some story elements that didn’t add anything to the film other than to pad the run-time.  This occurs mostly in the Lake Town sequences.  In these scenes, Peter Jackson injects a little political subtext and commentary into the story-line; particularly with a character called the Master of Lake Town (played by Stephen Fry).  Now, I greatly admire Mr. Fry both as an actor and as a human being, but his portrayal of the Master is really disappointing, and a waste of his actual talent.  I chalk this up more to the way that the character is written, which is very one-dimensionally, than to Fry’s performance, which could have been great if given better material.  Not only that, but the inhabitants of Lake Town are also very thinly drawn out, apart from Luke Evan’s Bard.  There’s even a servant character to the Master named Alfrid (Ryan Gage) who just comes off like a poor man’s Grima Wormtougne.  Also problematic is a love triangle that forms between Legolas, Tauriel, and the dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner); you heard that right.  Neither story element ruins the movie at all, and I kind of found the love story angle intriguing at times, but the movie works best when it moves away from these plot diversions and back to the story proper; which is Bilbo’s journey.
For me, there was a lot more to like in this story than to dislike, and of course the thing that most people will take away from this movie will no doubt be the titular dragon himself; Smaug.  Smaug has to be one of the most amazing creations in these films to date.  If you thought the creatures in The Lord of the Rings trilogy were massive, you’ll be blown away by the scale of this character.  Smaug really is the culmination of all the things that the effects wizards at Weta Digital have learned over the years they’ve worked with Peter Jackson.  The sense of scale is astounding; you really get a sense of how massive the character is through both his movement and how he interacts with his environment.  Of all the great cinematic dragons, including Malificent’s dragon form from Sleeping Beauty (1959) to the fearsome beasts in Dragonslayer (1981), to the charming Toothless in How to Train Your Dragon (2010), Smaug definitely ranks high among them, if not being the grandest of them all.  A lot of credit for the character should go to actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who not only gives the character a chillingly sinister voice, but also provided the motion-capture movements on which to base the character’s on-screen presence.  All of this helps to make Smaug the film’s greatest achievement.  To be honest, Smaug is a character that I have long wanted to see brought to life, ever since the first Lord of the Rings film was in theaters, and man did he not disappoint.  I’m very grateful that when it came to making this character a reality, Peter Jackson went above and beyond my expectations.
I should also say that the film does a very good job of building up the story-line without loosing its focus.  Apart from the troublesome parts that I already mentioned, the movie does hold together very well.  I actually think this is most briskly paced film in the series overall, Lord of the Rings included.  The movie keeps the tempo up from the very beginning and doesn’t let up even to the final shot.  It still clocks in at a lengthy 161 minutes, but that time will fly by quickly.  Even when the film reaches it’s finale (with the most cliff-hangery moment ever in one of these movies), you’ll  be left hungry for more.  I found this pace amazing, despite the fact that the movie does have its indulgent moments.  One scene in particular, the dwarves escape in wine barrels, goes on for so long and is so needlessly indulgent, that you would think it would hurt the film, but instead it actually is the best action scene in the movie.  With cases like this, we see where it worked better for Peter Jackson to add tension to a scene where there was none in the book.  In the original story, the dwarves escape down the river unopposed, but here they are chased by elves and the evil Orcs for a solid ten minute action scene.  It’s indulgent, but also a hell of a lot of fun and full of creative moments.  The audience I saw the movie with broke out in a cheer once the scene ended, and I certainly agree that it was a definite highlight.  But it also demonstrates how pacing has changed between the first and second movies.  Whenever Unexpected Journey was indulgent, it slowed the pacing down, whereas here it actually amps it up.
I also like the fact that the characters are also finding their footing as the story progresses.  The Dwarves are more fleshed out now, especially Thorin (Richard Armitage) who’s showing a lot more internal conflict in this film than he had in the first movie.  Here he’s a more fully dimensional character, showing moments of genuine nobility followed by soul-crushing greed in the next.  Martin Freeman continues to shine as Biblo, although in this film, he’s somewhat sidelined; more the fault of the lengthened story than how the character is used.  Freeman does have one excellent acting moment in the movie after Bilbo savagely slays a Mirkwood spider in order to reclaim his “magical ring.”  Without saying a word, Freeman perfectly conveys the negative toll that this ring is already having on Bilbo’s character in that moment.  Orlando Bloom returns to good form as Legolas, and the character gets some very bad-ass moments throughout the film.  Evangeline Lilly manages to make Tauriel an interesting new addition to the story (she’s an entirely original character) and carries the weight of being the only central female presence in the whole trilogy perfectly.  Also, the look of the film is still astounding.  More so than the first film, we are exploring parts of Middle Earth that we haven’t yet seen, and they are spectacularly realized.  While I thought some of the Lake Town scenes were dull, the look of the place is outstanding; like if you mixed Venice with some Dickensian slums.  The look of Smaug’s lair is also a remarkable sight; with jaw-dropping mountains of gold.  The set and costume design, as well as the Howard Shore score, also succeed at meeting the high standards that the series has set.
What I find interesting is how the film’s reception may actually play out.  When it came to An Unexpected Journey, general audiences were bored by the more leisurely tone and heavy exposition, while Tolkien purists were pleased by how closely it adhered to the original book’s tone.  This time around, I’m finding that more Tolkien purists are disliking Desolation of Smaug because of the liberties it has taken, while general audiences are enjoying the return to action-paced thrills in the series.  I actually sympathize with the complaints made by both sides, but the way I look at these movies is not by how action packed they are or by how well it accurately they adapt the book, but by how they work as movies in their own right.  That’s why I like both of these Hobbit movies about equally.  They still don’t quite measure up to The Lord of the Rings in overall quality, but damn it if I don’t admire them for trying.  Like I said, there was enormous pressure on Peter Jackson to get these movies right, and I admire the fact that he’s done as well as he has.  I am particularly happy that Smaug turned out as well as he has, and I also liked the fact that Desolation of Smaug has a story that stands well enough on it’s own, and as part of an over-arching story.  The film’s abrupt ending may irk a lot of people, but I commend Jackson for having the balls to leave his audience hanging.  It certainly makes me excited to see the final chapter of the trilogy, There and Back Again, which comes out December 2014.  But in the meantime, it’s well worth taking this continuing adventure into the world of Middle Earth.
Rating: 8.5/10

Tis the Season – Why Some Films Become Holiday Perennials


We’ve reached the end of another calendar year and of course that can only mean that it’s Holiday season once again.  Whether we are celebrating Christmas, or Hanukkah, or whatever, it’s a time of the year where we all gather together and honor family, tradition, and the gift of giving.  What’s interesting about Christmastime, however, is just how much the holiday tradition is actually influenced and centered around Holiday themed movies.  A Holiday film can pretty much be considered a genre all it’s own, since so many of them exist out there, and are created specifically to invoke the holiday spirit.  Not only that, but they are movies that we continually return to every year around this same time, like it’s part of our holiday ritual.  This doesn’t happen with every Christmas themed movie, however, since many of them try to hard to hit their mark and fail spectacularly.  And yet, we see small films that no one thought much of at first grow into these perennial classics over time, and in some cases add to the overall Christmas mythos that defines the season.  But, how do we as an audience discern the classics from all the rest?  What really separates a Miracle on 34th Street from a Jingle all the Way?  Quite simply, like with most other movies, it’s all determined by what we bring from our own experiences in life when we watch a movie.
The emergence of  perennial holiday classics is nothing new in pop culture and actually predates the beginning of cinema by a good many years.  Literature has contributed holiday themed stories in both short form and novels for the last couple hundred years, helping to both shape and reinvent Christmas traditions in a very secular fashion.  Our modern day physical interpretation of Santa Claus can in fact be contributed to his appearance in “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” the 1823 poem by American author Clement Clarke Moore.  Moore’s nearly 200 year poem is still being recited today and it shows just how much tradition plays a role in keeping a perennial classic alive in the public’s eye.  Around the same time, acclaimed British novelist Charles Dickens wrote the story of A Christmas Carol, chronicling the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge and his visits by three ghosts on Christmas Eve.  Since it’s original printing in 1843, A Christmas Carol has gone on to be one of the most re-adapted story-lines in history.  Perhaps nearly a quarter of all holiday classics can claim to have been influenced by Dickens’ classic tale, where a dreary old cynic has his heart warmed by the holiday spirit.  Dickens meant for his novel to be a meditation on greed and class inequality, but I have no doubt that he purposefully meant for Christmas traditions to be the healing influence in Scrooge’s reawakening.  These stories continue to stand strong so many years later and it shows just how far back our culture began to value Christmas stories and songs as a part of the holiday tradition.
Even from the very outset of cinematic history we saw films carry on holiday themes.  Both Twas the Night Before Christmas and A Christmas Carol provided inspiration for movie-makers many times, given their already beloved appeal, but some people in Hollywood also saw opportunities to add their own original holiday themed stories into the mix.  When the studio system emerged, they were very well aware of the marketability of a holiday themes.  After all, people usually visited movie theaters frequently during the cold winters, so why not play up the festive mood that everyone was already in.  For the most part, movies celebrated Christmas more frequently in short segments than in full length story-lines in these early years; whether it was capitalizing on a new popular Christmas song in a lavish musical segment, or by portraying a Christmas celebration as part of larger arching narrative.  Many people forget that one of the most popular Christmas tunes ever written, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” wasn’t even from a Christmas themed movie; rather it came from the 1944 musical Meet Me in St. Louis.  But eventually the Christmas season became such an influential part of our modern cultural tradition, that it would inspire films devoted entirely to the holiday spirit.
So, in the years since, we have seen Holiday films become standard practice in Hollywood.  Every year, it’s inevitable to see a Christmas movie released in time for the holidays.  Unfortunately, for most of them, Christmas movies very rarely achieve classic status.  For every one that audiences grow an attachment to, there will be about a dozen more that will likely be forgotten by next December.  Evidently, it seems like Hollywood’s approach to the holiday season is less carefully planned out than any other part of the year.  Their approach seems to be throwing whatever has Christmas in the title up against the wall and seeing what sticks.  Unfortunately, this has led to Christmas being more synonymous with bad movies than good.  Some are well meaning films that fall short of their goal like the Vince Vaughn film Fred Claus (2007) or the odd but charming Santa Clause: The Movie (1985).  And then there are ugly, shallow and distasteful films like Deck the Halls (2006), the Ben Affleck disaster Surviving Christmas (2004), or the deeply disturbing Michael Keaton film Jack Frost (1998), with the creepy as hell CG snowman.  And the less said about the horrible 2000 How the Grinch Stole Christmas remake the better.  Overall, it is very hard to make an honestly cherished holiday classic in Hollywood, and that’s mainly because the business just tries too hard.  If you look closely, you’ll actually find that a beloved holiday classic may come from the unlikeliest of places.
This was definitely the case with what has become not just one of the best loved Christmas movies, but one of the best movies period; that film being Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).  Capra’s movie tells the story of George Bailey (a flawless Jimmy Stewart), a man who has given so much back to his hometown and has gotten so little in return, reaching the verge of suicide due to his depression.  Through the intervention of a guardian angel on Christmas Eve, George is shown what his life would have been like if he never lived and he rediscovers his value and purpose and as it turns out is finally rewarded by those whom he’s helped all his life on the following Christmas Day.  The film is very uplifting and perfectly illustrates the true impact that the Christmas season has in our lives.  With a theme like that, you would think that the movie was a smash hit when it was first released, but instead the movie was a colossal bomb.  It bankrupted the company that made it and ruined Frank Capra’s directing career from then on.  The focus on George Bailey’s increasing depression was probably too hard for audiences to take at the time, given that many soldiers were returning home after the end of WWII.  Despite it’s initial failure, It’s a Wonderful Life managed to survive through TV airings which happened on, naturally, Christmas Eve and the film not only found it’s audience but it became a seasonal standard.  To this day, It’s a Wonderful Life is still aired on network TV (the only classic era movie that still is), and audiences from every generation still embraces it warmly, no matter how old fashioned it may be.  Pretty good legacy for a film that started off as a failure.
A holiday classic can come from an unlikely place like It’s a Wonderful Life, but for many, what is considered a classic is usually determined by their own tastes.  That’s why some people find romantic comedies set around Christmastime to be considered a holiday classic.  Case in point, the movie Love, Actually (2003) has grown into a beloved holiday classic, even though the themes in the movie are less about Christmas and more about the intertwining relationships between the characters.  By standing out as a strong romantic film with a Christmas setting, it stands to see this film as being an example of two types of genres working together.  Cult movie fans even have holiday classics that they cherish, like the weird campy film Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964), which can hold the distinction of being one of the worst movies ever made, and incredibly entertaining at the same time. And some people can even claim that Die Hard (1989) counts as a Christmas movie, because of it’s holiday setting.  Pretty much it’s whatever we bring with us from our own experiences to the movies that determines what we consider to be entertaining.  Like with how most people gravitate towards a movie based on their own interests, so too do we see that with Holiday films as well.  Hollywood has in some cases picked up on this and has catered to select audiences at Christmastime with genre specific movies.  Usually, it will take a consensus of a large audience to determine which ones will stand out as the undisputed classics.
I think where Hollywood hits it mark most often is when it comes to making a successful holiday film that appeals to the memories of our own experiences of Christmas.  The film that I think hit a perfect bulls-eye in this regard, and stands as a true masterpiece of Christmas themed film-making, is the 1983 classic A Christmas Story.  Directed by Bob Clark, and inspired by the auto-biographical stories of novelist Jean Shepherd, A Christmas Story perfectly captures the highs and lows of a young boy’s experience during the holiday season.  Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) is a character who was relatable to any young boy growing up in small town America, myself included, and seeing how he tries so hard to manipulate his parents into getting him his dream present is something every child will identify with.  Couple that with the hilarious performance of Darren McGavin as the Old Man and the iconic Leg Lamp, and you’ve got the very definition of a holiday classic.  But, just like how A Christmas Story highlights good Christmas memories, we see classic films that also center around a disastrous Christmas experience as well.  The best example of this would be the very funny and endlessly quotable National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989).  We’ve had just as many Christmases like the Griswold family as we have like the Parker family from A Christmas Story, and Christmas Vacation just perfectly encapsulates all the bad things that happen at Christmas time, without ever losing the holiday spirit underneath.  Not to mention its the last time we ever saw a funny performance out of Chevy Chase.
So, despite the low success rate, we as an audience still seem to find a classic seasonal favorite every in every generation.  But how does Hollywood keep making bad Christmas movies every year despite the demanding tastes of the movie-going public rejecting all the junk they put out.  I think it’s because the season itself is such an overwhelming cultural force, that most filmmakers don’t really care about the product they’re making, as long as it’s holiday themed and ready to capitalize on the mood of the period.  When it comes down to it, a great holiday classic is not determined by how soaked up in the holiday spirit it is, but rather by how strong it story works.  We keep watching It’s a Wonderful Life every year because of how inspirational George Bailey’s life story is, and not because of the Christmastime finale that has come to define it.  In fact, the movie is not really about Christmas at all; it’s about the life of one man and his value to the world.  Other Christmas movies usually become classics just because of a wintry setting, where the holiday is not even mentioned.  And even films that subvert Christmas traditions, like 2003’s Bad Santa, have become genuine holiday classics to some people.
I, myself, love a good Christmas movie, and because I’m such an ardent appreciator of movies in general, these films have certainly become a part of my holiday tradition.  I return to It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story every year and never get tired of them.  And not a year will go by when I don’t at least drop one quotable line from Christmas Vacation during this season.  I hope every generation gets their own perennial classic that will last for years to come.  Just please; no more remakes or sequels.  We all saw the backlash that an announcement of a sequel to It’s a Wonderful Life got recently.  I only wish The Grinch and A Christmas Story had been spared the same fate.  Like too much Christmas dinner, there can always be too much of a good thing when it comes to Christmas movies.

Frozen – Review


Sometimes Disney Animation has found itself to be it’s own worst enemy.  By this I mean that when they have a hugely successful film at one point in time, it will put a lot more constrictive pressure on whatever they have coming up next.  And when you’re in the business of making animated films that take 3-4 years to create, it’s very hard for a company like them to correct course in order to do repeat business.  For the most part, Disney has had better luck than most, but there has been a pattern in Disney’s history of some of their most ambitious films failing to meet expectations, while audiences gravitate to the less ambitious but entirely groundbreaking follow-ups.  This started back when Fantasia (1940), a film that Walt Disney put so much of his own effort into, flopped at the box office; and in the following year,1941, modestly budgeted and slapped-together Dumbo became a huge success.  The same thing happen again to Disney with the costly Sleeping Beauty (1959) and it’s follow-up 101 Dalmatians (1961), and once again with The Black Cauldron (1985) followed by The Great Mouse Detective (1986).  The trend actually reversed in the 90’s with the disappointing Pocahontas (1995) following-up The Lion King (1994); Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) following The Emperor’s New Groove (2000); and finally with Treasure Planet (2002) following Lilo & Stitch (2002).  Suffice to say, both trends have been common in Disney’s history.
So, when trends tend to dictate the success rate of your output, it’s understandable why Disney has stuck so closely to the genre that has given them the most success; the fairy tale.  In the last five years, we have seen no less than three fairy tale adaptations from the Disney company; 2009’s The Princess and the Frog, 2010’s Tangled, and this year’s new release, Frozen.  It’s clear that they are aware of their tradition and are very intent on carrying it on generation after generation.  But following formula does have it’s risks, and that sometimes comes about when breaking from tradition has actually paid off for the company.  As I illustrated earlier, sometimes a project that looks like a sure winner will fail to perform either when a new trend will appear or when people lose interest in the formula.  Frozen comes to theaters with a lot of expectations on it’s shoulders, which can be both a benefit and a curse to it’s prospects.  Last year, Disney found success with the very well made Wreck-it Ralph (2012), which was a huge departure from the Disney formula that paid off in a big way.  This only puts Frozen in an even more difficult situation of following this success up by returning to it’s traditional roots.  This is the knowledge that I brought with me when I saw the movie, and while Frozen does a fine job of making a beautiful and engaging animated film that I’m sure will please audiences worldwide, I can’t help but feel that some of that tradition did have a negative effect in the end.
Frozen is the 8th fairy tale adaptation from Disney, and the second taken from a story by Hans Christian Anderson.  Based, loosely, off of the story of The Snow Queen, the film follows the lives and adventures of two princess sisters in a fictional Scandinavian kingdom called Arrendale.  The eldest sister, Elsa, has been cursed from birth with the power to magically create ice and snow, which her family tries to conceal from the world and even from the younger sister, Anna.  After their parents are killed at sea, Elsa is soon crowned Queen and forced into facing the kingdom that she has been shuttered away from all her life, all the while struggling to control her powers as they become more powerful and erratic.  After an argument at her coronation ceremony with Anna, Elsa accidentally reveals her sorcery to the public, which leads her to flee into the mountains in exile.  Anna, hoping to reconcile with her sister, follows after her and leaves her fiancee Hans in charge of the kingdom.  While on her journey, she gets help from an ice gatherer named Kristoff, his reindeer Sven, and an enchanted snowman named Olaf.  Unfortunately for Anna and Elsa, the lack of control over the Queen’s powers has left the kingdom clouded in an eternal winter, and the bond between them is not so easily mended.
One of the things that I can say that the movie does very well is it’s story-line.  I’d say that this is the most competently put together fairy tale adaptation that Disney has done since Beauty and the Beast (1992).  While I did like aspects of both The Princess and the Frog and Tangled, I do feel that they had something lacking in the story department.  And let’s not forget the complete mess that was Pixar’s disappointing Brave (2012).  With Frozen, it is clear that the filmmakers actually put in the effort to make the story as compelling and consistent as it possibly could be.  I especially like the fact that this movie is a little self-aware of its Disney and fairy tale tradition, and at times finds funny ways to poke fun at it.  At one point in the movie, Anna falls deeply in love with Hans, a very Prince Charming-type character, and they agree to marry, even though they only met that same morning.  Elsa rightly points out that love at first sight is not true love, and I’m sure that many people have been wanting to hear someone say that in a Disney movie for years.  Despite these few meta moments in the film, the story actually does work well within the familiar fairy tale tropes and overall feels very much in line with some of the best Disney fairy tales.
One of the other things that worked very well for Frozen was the voice cast.  I’m glad that Disney chose not to cast any big celebrity names in this film, and instead went for the people who were the best match for the characters.  Certainly the casting of Elsa and Anna were important, and here they cast Broadway actress Idina Menzel (Wicked) and TV actress Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars, Forgetting Sarah Marshall) in the respective roles.  Idina in particular delivers an exceptional vocal performance as Elsa, and helps to make her one of the most compelling Disney characters that I’ve seen in quite a while.  Kristen Bell is charming as Anna, and while the character is a little too perky at times, Bell manages to get the finer parts of the character right.  Another Broadway vet, Josh Gad (The Book of Mormon), shows surprising restraint as the comic relief character Olaf, who would have come across as obnoxious if played by the wrong actor.  Instead, Olaf’s comical hi-jinks actually compliments the film very well, and Gad’s performance has a lot to do with that.  Also, actor Jonathan Groff (TV’s Glee) gives a nice eccentric performance as Kristoff, helping him to stand out from the typical leading man in Disney movies.  I particularly liked how Kristoff externalizes conversations with his voiceless pet reindeer Sven, and yet it seems like it’s exactly what Sven would say if he had a voice.  Overall, everyone does their job well here and creates a well rounded cast of characters that I know will quickly become popular to fans young and old alike.
So, how come my review sounds a bit down on the film.  Well, it’s a complicated feeling that I have about this movie, and it really has to do with where Frozen fits within the Disney formula.  Like I’ve said before, Disney’s legacy has been both a blessing and a curse for some of the movies in it’s catalog, and some of that works against Frozen.  While I think the story is pretty solid, and does a commendable job of injecting new ideas into the Disney formula, the movie as a whole feels a tad too unfocused.  The problem I had with the film is that one character in particular, this being Elsa, was so strong and had such a compelling role to play in the story, that it kind of overwhelmed everything else.  And unfortunately, her story-line is not the thing that gets most of the focus in the film; instead Anna’s story-line is given precedence.  This would be more of a problem if Anna was an uninteresting heroine, but thankfully she’s better than that.  Somehow, I felt that the script put too little emphasis on it’s most interesting character, and that was not a good thing in my book.  Also, as solid as the story-line is throughout most of the movie, it does have a rather weak ending.  And this comes after a really strong final act that has some really out of left field twists.  What I think happened was that the writers didn’t know how to end their story, and instead they just slapped together a really pat and underwhelming epilogue that doesn’t feel at all like it belongs in the same movie.
When it comes to judging new Disney films, I try to leave tradition at the door and just judge a movie on it’s own merits.  But when you have movies that rely so heavily on where they stand among other classics, I can’t help but include tradition as a part of my assessment.  Frozen tries very hard to be a return to the classic Disney fairy tale standard that was set so high with movies like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.  Unfortunately for Frozen, I feel like it’s striving for something that it really shouldn’t try to reach for.  The reason why The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast were such astounding successes in their time is because they weren’t trying to match their predecessors.  There was a 30 year gap, between Mermaid and the last fairy tale film before it, which was Sleeping Beauty, so the pressure on it was much less.  As a result, The Little Mermaid could play by it’s own rules and in the end it set a new standard for the Disney fairy tale.  Beauty and the Beast, likewise, built on that new standard while at the same time sticking to it’s own rules.  Frozen, unfortunately, plays it safe and that’s why I feel it falls short of those previous classics.  That being said, it comes the closest to that standard than Princess and the Frog and Tangled, and especially Brave ever did.
One thing I will say that Frozen does live up to with the previous classics is with it’s musical score.  The songs fit much better in this movie than they have in any other previous Disney musical in the last 20 years, which is quite a feat.  Some songs in it are just okay, but there are a few that really stand out.  One particular song called “Let it Go,” sung by Elsa during her exile, may just be the best song I’ve heard in an animated film since “A Whole New World” in Aladdin (1992).  Yes, even better than any song from The Lion King.  It helps when you have a Broadway-trained singer like Idina Menzel singing it, and she uses those impressive pipes to full effect here.  It’s the kind of song that will give the audience chills (no pun intended) and in a good way.  The songs were written by Broadway vet Robert Lopez and his wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez, both of whom have written some very non-Disney appropriate music in the past for musicals like Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon.  Despite their previous work, their musical numbers here actually are very clean and fit right in place in the overall Disney songbook, especially “Let it Go”.  Also, I want to add that the visual look of this film is outstanding.  This is the first 70mm Disney fairy tale since Sleeping Beauty, and the filmmakers make great use of the wider frame.  The landscapes down to the interiors of Elsa’s ice palace are all a wonder to look at, and it really makes this a world well worth delving into throughout the movie.
So, maybe I’m being unfair to the film by having too high a standard, but having grown up with Disney movies all my life, I feel like I have to hold something like Frozen up to some higher scrutiny.  The film for the most part does pass the test, but I would be lying if I said that I thought it was a masterpiece.  It’s just okay.  In the pantheon of Disney films, I would put it somewhere in the middle and maybe a little bit more into the better half.  It’s just a testament to how much I care for the Disney legacy, and how many great films they have made in the past.  On the bright side, Frozen is one of the better films that Disney has made in the last decade; though I will say, I enjoyed Wreck-it Ralph a tiny bit more.  I do hope that the movie does well, and I’m sure that most people will like it better than I did, and they should.  It does do well by the Disney Fairy Tale brand, and both Elsa and Anna have earned their place alongside Snow White, Belle, Cinderella, Ariel, and the other Disney Princesses.  Despite it’s flaws, it does take the Disney formula in the right direction and elevates the animated medium as well.  It says a lot when Disney actually has done something better in the last couple of years than Pixar.  For all accounts, this is the movie that Brave should have been.  So, while the Disney tradition has clouded my opinion on some aspects of the movie, I do like what Frozen represents, which is a solid story-line with great characters, who more than most films in the last decade, do deserve to be a part of the Disney legacy.
Rating: 7/10