It’s winter again and chances are cabin fever is settling in to your house. With any luck, and weather permitting, you might be able to venture out and catch a movie or two. It seems like family movies take a back seat to the serious awards-type movies during this time of year. The release schedule is a slow trickle heading towards the summer months.
This year, Disney’s big Thanksgiving release was their animated feature “Frozen”. The studio has been returning to their time-tested formula of remaking fairy tales. “Frozen” is their version of “The Snow Queen”, a story that, like so many of the other stories Disney has adapted, had a much harsher plot.
This one is about Elsa, a princess who is born with the power to create ice and snow. She has an accident that injures her sister, Anna, and from that point on, Elsa hides away from the public. As she isolates herself, she ignores her powers, doing everything she can to completely repress them. When it’s time for Elsa’s coronation, though, things naturally go very badly. Elsa flees her kingdom, leaving Anna and her guide, Kristoff to try to save her. Though, what they’re actually trying to save Elsa from remains to be seen.
Disney made a surprising move with this movie by avoiding a whole lot of recognizable voiceover artists. A few of the actors are going to ring bells for people, Kristen Bell, Alan Tudyk, and Maurice LaMarche, but, for the most part, audiences aren’t going to be spending a lot of time thinking “I know that voice from somewhere”. The vocal cast is really good. There aren’t any parts where the dialog falls flat because of a lack of emotion behind it.
It was a fairly typical Disney fairytale, although they also made the decision to avoid talking animals, instead having a magically manifested snowman take over sidekick duties. Sven the reindeer is hilarious, though. He’s loyal and helpful and a little bit dim-witted, but he has a tendency to carry on despite the odds. I’m not sure I would describe a reindeer as cute under other circumstances.
“Frozen” holds some nice surprises in it. I, for one, liked the change-up of main villain. The reveal wasn’t as much of a shock to me as it’s going to be to younger audiences, but it’s a fantastic change of pace. And, for once, Anna the main protagonist of the story isn’t on a huge journey of self-discovery to prove that she can reach her goals. Instead, Anna is very sure of herself and confident that not only will she succeed, she’s the best one for the job of trying to get through to her sister. Elsa is also a bit of a new idea for Disney, she’s isolating herself for reasons that are understandable and even noble, but she’s inadvertently making things worse. She’s not bad or evil and she’s not selfish, she just doesn’t quite understand the far-reaching implications of her actions.
“Frozen” does go back to the Disney habit of having several songs in it that are sung by various characters. I really loved the marching drive of the first song and it set the tone for what to expect. It’s been a while since Disney has really given us another musical. The songs helped build montages and there were a few audience members around me that were really taken with the additions to the Disney oeuvre.
I did like “Frozen”. It had a good plot to it and they had some fun playing with expectations of how the story is supposed to go. There was unexpected humor in places, including a couple of jokes that were basically Olaf’s equivalent of gallows humor. They were still funny and the kids present in the audience had no trouble laughing.
Still, I kind of felt like something was missing. The animation of “Frozen” is okay. The effects animation, especially when Elsa is creating her ice palace is stunning. The characters though, look an awful lot like the characters from “Tangled.” I don’t mean that in a Disney has a signature animated look kind of way. I mean that in an if Elsa was a little bit darker blonde she’d look just like Rapunzel and if Kristoff had a little bit darker hair he’d pass for Flynn Rider kind of way.
Disney has dispensed with hand-drawn animation and the character design in “Frozen” just speaks volumes to me about why that was such a terrible mistake. One of the things that I have loved about Disney’s hand-drawn features is the way the studio could pick a particular aesthetic for the animation and bring it to life. I loved the good old-fashioned adventure pulp future look Disney imparted in “Atlantis”. The Grecian painting stylization of “Hercules” tripped all kinds of happy little art triggers in my geeky brain. I could point to the very specific inspirations for the horse in “Mulan” and it got me incredibly excited.
It makes me sad, watching “Frozen”, to see a movie that had so much going for it getting the plasticky animated people treatment. It annoys me when a reindeer can be rendered in such wonderfully fuzzy style that the people all look like wide-eyed, flat-footed Barbie dolls. The vocal cast was great. The songs were good. The story was there. The animation, though, just seems to have lost its soul.
I wanted to see more of the trolls, too, but that’s not really my issue with the movie. The trolls were not a central part of the story. They did have some kind of nifty character design, though, since they did look like ancient rocks and moss. They were almost better people than the people were.
But, while Disney was doing away with the talking animals in their most recent feature, Toonbox Entertainment was embracing vocal, furry brethren. “The Nut Job” hasn’t been faring so well in the court of public opinion. People are comparing it an awful lot to “Over the Hedge”, which I think is a mistake. “Over the Hedge” wasn’t a terrible movie, but compared to the comic strip on which it’s based it’s just-well, it’s entertaining and kind of fun, and, mostly, I enjoyed it because of the voice casting.
I’m going to start off by saying that the animation in “The Nut Job” is about the same caliber as “Over the Hedge”. The animals definitely look like fuzzy animals and that’s a good thing, since they are the main stars. The people in the film, though, are better done design-wise than what I saw in “Frozen”. Sure, there’s a whole lot of stereotyping going on in terms of mobsters, but at the same time each one of those mobsters looked separate and distinct. I could tell them apart easily even with only a brief glance, which, to me, seems like a hallmark of spectacular character design. The character of Lana was very close to perfection in terms of the kind of character she was supposed to be.
“The Nut Job” is a heist movie. It’s one of very few heist movies I’ve ever encountered that a kid could watch, which already starts making me take some notice of it.
Surly the Squirrel is an outcast. He’s smart, but he’s also very selfish. The park where he lives has a community of animals who work together to store up enough food for everyone for the winter. Surly wants no part of that. Instead, he wants to focus on taking care of himself. He has a sidekick, a rat named Buddy. Buddy doesn’t talk, but he seems to follow directions well enough and Surly doesn’t seem to mind him tagging along.
Over the course of collecting his own winter supplies, Surly manages to cause a disaster that impacts his fellow park residents on such an epic scale that he’s banished to live on the streets. Buddy follows Surly into exile. The two of them manage to luck into discovering a shop that sells nothing but nuts. Surely, it’s the jackpot of a lifetime. As the two of them try to figure out how to get away with a haul that will keep them fed for longer than they can imagine, things naturally get complicated.
“The Nut Job” is definitely the animated feature to go and see if you wanted to avoid that whole musical thing. I’m not going to judge you if you feel that way. Heck, most of the time, I can understand that attitude. It really depends on the music involved in the musical as to whether I’m going to feel at all inclined to stick around and watch it. Nobody breaks out in an impulsive fit of spontaneous singing. This may be a major selling point for some audience members.
It’s also a fun, silly caper movie. There are double-crosses and triple-crosses and conflicting plans all over the place. The bad guys are definitely bad and the good guys are definitely good. There aren’t any real gray areas to the majority of the characters, except for Surly. As an audience, we get the understanding that something happened to Surly to sour him on the idea of working together with everyone. Whatever that incident was, it was buried long ago in Surly’s past and he never does elaborate. Does he really need to? I’m not sure. It might have added to the movie. Then again, I enjoyed it just fine the way it was.
There are a whole lot more recognizable voices on “The Nut Job”. Will Arnett is our not so noble hero, Surly. Brendan Frasier lends his vocal talents to Grayson, the dumb, addle-pated hero squirrel who mostly gets in the way and provides comic relief. Maya Rudolph is the voice of Precious the Pug, another source of comic relief and a little bit of heart-string tugging when it’s needed. The venerable raccoon who leads the park enclave is played by Liam Neeson, which seems oddly fitting. Katherine Heigl, Gabriel Iglesias, and Jeff Dunham also round out the cast.
There are a couple of scenes that involve some nasty street rats that are kind of intense. Those rats, unlike Buddy, are mangy and feral. They’re scary because they look not only disgusting but desperate. Other than that, though, the rest of the movie is pretty much the kind of thing you’d expect in an animated feature that’s meant to be family-friendly.
I enjoyed both “Frozen” and “The Nut Job” for entirely different reasons. If I was forced to make the choice, I would say that I liked “The Nut Job” better. That may make me crazy, but when given the choice between the romance and the heist movie, I’m more likely to go for the heist movie every time.