Film: Those Strangers We Call Family

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By now it’s fairly obvious the Disney folks have this lowest-common-denominator routine down pat. A media blitz blankets the airwaves and elbows out smaller upcoming titles in the lobby of your nearest multiplex in anticipation of their highly touted Thanksgiving animated release, which promises cutesy kiddie fare that will delight Disney Channel junkies and compel long-suffering reviewers to gag on their popcorn and run from the auditorium in horror, their notepads clutched close to their chests as a defense mechanism

Then we come face to face with the actual movie – bright, touching, funny in that distinctive one-size-fits-all style – and we realize we’ve been suckered into bracing for the worst for no good reason other than to lower our expectations. True, there has been a considerable number of lackluster animation – and many live-action titles – coming out of the Mouse House since their late 20th Century heyday, a period known by movie buffs as their animation renaissance. But not this time.

Frozen, the studio’s 53rd animated feature, continues the proud tradition exemplified by Tangled in 2010 and, to a lesser extent, Wreck-It Ralph last year: make it look like a hack job in the commercials, and then sit back and watch as even the most hardened cynics fall under the animators’ magic spell.

Did I say magic? A dangerous gift that must be wielded with care, as an in-over-his-head Mickey Mouse found out the hard way in Fantasia. Young, platinum-haired Elsa learns this sobering lesson early on in Frozen, a very, very loose adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.” Little Elsa, who lives in the mythical – and most definitely Scandinavian – kingdom of Arendelle, is able to produce ice from her fingertips, which turns a ballroom into an indoor winter wonderland to share with baby sis Anna. It can also turn playtime into a living nightmare, which is what happens when Elsa’s glacial Midas touch accidentally strikes Anna dead-on, forcing the girls’ parents to seek the help of trolls to treat Anna’s injury. But why all the hush-hush secrecy? Elsa and Anna, you see, are the daughters of Arendelle’s king and queen.

The royal couple are kind and loving in a manner reminiscent of Aurora’s parents in Sleeping Beauty, so they shelter their younger daughter … by preventing any contact with her older sister, a well-intentioned measure that walls off Elsa and her mighty power away from those she loves, and who could die because of her. And just like that, we’re hooked. Directors Chris Buck (Disney’s Tarzan) and Jennifer Lee weave a ripping yarn from familiar elements, allowing the Broadway-flavored songs by Robert Lopez (Avenue Q) and Kristen Anderson-Lopez to carry a lot of the narrative weight and make us emotionally invested in the suddenly estranged siblings. The result is a movie at once old-fashioned and contemporary, a clever, richly textured blend of old and new.

Years pass, and a tragic turn of events leaves the kingdom’s rule in Elsa’s lap. Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) has retained her cheery demeanor, and she takes advantage of her sister’s impending coronation as an opportunity to go husband hunting. She stumbles into Hans (Santino Fontana), disarming charm and effortless chivalry in one handsome package (those cheekbones!). Their whimsical, spontaneous courtship, chronicled in the irresistible number “Love Is an Open Door,” captures the rush of emotions that usually accompanies instant infatuation. Elsa (voiced with layered vulnerability by Wicked‘s Idina Menzel) is certain Anna is rushing into disaster with this suitor with the long sideburns. Solitude, it seems, has turned the newly crowned queen of Arendelle into a morose sourpuss with a personality as frigid as her special gift, which is suddenly thrust out of the closet when the sisters’ argument, held in front of the entire kingdom, spirals out of control, and Elsa’s rage turns summer into winter across the realm.

Elsa flees, and a determined Anna resorts to hiring gruff ice salesman Kristoff (Spring Awakening‘s Jonathan Groff) to help find her sister and talk her into reversing the spell. Enter the inevitable, bound-for-plush sidekicks in the form of Sven, Kristoff’s canine-mannered reindeer, and walking-and-talking snowman Olaf (Josh Gad of Book of Mormon fame), which lighten the mood and offset a narrative that sidesteps gloom and doom without compromising any of its potency, a quality encapsulated in Elsa’s showstopper “Let It Go,” a pop ditty destined for endless iTunes repeat play and very likely to drill a hole in your brain; it’s an earworm, but in a good way. (I still can’t get the darn chorus out of my head.)

If Frozen isn’t quite the home run I was hoping it would be, that’s because an unfortunate third-act development involving a supporting character threatens to cheapen a vividly rendered tale of sisterhood rediscovered that had, until that point, taken the Disney formula in bold new directions. It’s a noticeable stumble, but not a fatal one. Frozen, warts and all, shows there are still novel ways of seeing what happens once upon a time.

Philomena_2If Disney’s latest dramatizes a complicated relationship between two sisters with uncommon flair, Philomena, an English import based on real events, taps into some primal emotions – and tries too hard to elicit a couple of chuckles – concerning a mother’s love for the son who was taken away from her after she gave birth to him out of wedlock. It’s a secret retired Irish nurse Philomena Law (played as an older woman by the esteemed Judi Dench) had held onto for 50 years, and it comes as a shock to her adult daughter Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin). Catering a hoity-toity cocktail party, Jane tells the story to journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, who also co-wrote the screenplay), recently sacked from a government job and keen on writing a book on Russian history. He curtly brushes off her off. He wouldn’t be caught dead writing such fluff.

An editor’s ears perk up at the story idea, and Sixsmith reluctantly accepts the human interest gig. I cringe when I think how insufferable Philomena could have been if it had fallen in the wrong hands, but with the versatile Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons, The Queen) calling the shots, the film unfolds like a gripping Sunday newspaper feature, engaging audiences with stranger-than-fiction twists that take Sixsmith and his chatty elderly subject as far as across the Atlantic, with a couple of stops at the Irish convent where sadistic nuns forced Philomena (played as a teenager by Sophie Kennedy Clark) into hard labor in other to repay the sisters for their “mercy.”

Frears allows the melodrama to go way over the top, and present-day Philomena’s fish-out-of-water behavior leads to some cloying moments aimed at the AARP set, but even with its careening, you’ll-laugh-you’ll-cry tonal shifts, Philomena, which was adapted from the book the real Martin Sixsmith wrote of his quest to find Philomena’s son, is still a grabber that earns its tears, if not all its laughs, thanks to a story that keeps on springing genuine surprises. Dench is superb, and even if some of her character’s lines feel more like jokes from one of Coogan’s comedy series, Frears gives her some truly affecting scenes, none more so than a stunning closeup at the very end that shows the Oscar winner at the top of her game.

Philomena is currently taking audiences on a transatlantic journey at area theaters. Frozen thaws your hardened hearts in both 2D and 3D. My advice: go all immersive, and make sure to arrive to the theater in time to catch Get a Horse!, the sublime Mickey Mouse short that precedes the main attraction. You’ll be glad you did.

About Ruben Rosario

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