Saturday, 30 November 2019

Frozen VS Frozen II: When Plot Takes Over

I can say with certainty that Frozen II is not a bad film. It's well animated, the setting is full of imagination, and I laughed out loud more often than I thought I would. I saw it with my family on opening weekend, and we all left the cinema with the same reaction: satisfied with another Disney-tastic family experience... and pretty confused about what exactly had happened.

As soon as we got home I knew I had to write something about this film, because it presents a textbook lesson in storytelling. For those who haven't yet seen the film, this is your spoiler alert.

One of the strengths of Frozen (2013) is how tight the narrative is. Each main character has something they want, a motivation that is supported by the rest of the film's building blocks. Elsa is scared of what her ice powers can do, so she shuts herself away - both literally and emotionally. In response, Anna wants doors to be open: again, the real doors separating her from the outside world, and the metaphorical doors into her sister's affections.

The entire plot of Frozen is motivated by this tension. Anna's feelings of seclusion make her reckless - she almost marries someone she's just met, who turns out to be the villain. She sets off into the wilderness with no preparation. For Elsa's part, she embraces her ice powers, but still hides herself away, believing they can make her nothing but a villain.

The resolution of the story is equally tied to the bond between these two sisters. When Anna saves Elsa from Hans (the true villain of the piece), it heals the frozen heart that Elsa accidentally gave her years ago. At the same time, this act of true love thaws Elsa's cold demeanour, allowing her to open up and rule the kingdom with a happy heart.

And just in case you weren't convinced of their thematic link... Elsa, the uptight one with ice powers, was born on the winter solstice. Anna, the ginger one with a fiery personality, was born on the summer solstice.

Herein lies the reason that Frozen II can't really measure up to its predecessor. There's plenty of plot to the movie, but it's not really about anyone. In the film's opening, we flash back to Elsa and Anna's childhood, where their parents tell them of an ancient forest whose people are at war with Arendelle.

Turns out, Elsa and Anna's father was there when the fighting broke out, though conveniently he didn't see how things began. (We learn later that he was rushed to safety by the girl who grew up to be the girls' mother, though for some reason she neglects to reveal that at this point.)

Most of the movie takes place in this enchanted forest. Granted, it is a very cool setting, full of magic and mystery. But everything feels so... unmotivated. The only thing bringing them to the forest is a mysterious voice calling to Elsa. The only people we know connected to the forest are her parents, whose death early on in the first film means that we're not really invested in them.

To give you a concrete example of what happens when a film focuses on plot rather than character, let's focus on Kristoff's story. He spent the first film as Anna's guide in the frozen north, becoming her true love interest. The second film begins with the two of them in a comfortable relationship, and we learn early on that Kristoff wants to propose to Anna.

On the surface, a nice development of their relationship. Plenty to explore there, right? And they very nearly do. The film starts to examine Anna's loyalties - does she follow her sister into the unknown, or stay in Kristoff's warm embrace? But she doesn't have to choose, since they all decide to go north!

While it is good to have the gang all together (we don't get that in the first film), it changes Kristoff's role in the movie, and not for the better. As soon as they arrive at the forest, he becomes merely an annoyance to Anna, attempting to propose in various inappropriate moments until the film separates them entirely. While a local villager and fellow reindeer enthusiast teaches Kristoff about proposing correctly, Anna and Olaf go after Elsa, who's travelled north in search of the plot.

It's now that Kristoff has his best moment, a solo song that portrays how lost he feels whenever Anna isn't around. Shot like a cheesy music video, it's a very funny scene. But his sentiment is serious, so it's a bit jarring that the film plays it for laughs.

And where has his confusion about the state of the relationship come from? The two of them started the film happy together, and nothing's really changed - yes she's not around right now, but she has important things to do! Like many of the scenes and songs in Frozen II, this beat ends up feeling unmotivated, because the film hasn't spent enough time setting up the tension between characters.

If I was in Jennifer Lee's place, I'd have kept Kristoff in Arendelle for at least the first two acts. He would be our connection to the homeland, and provide comic relief as he prepares a variety of ridiculous proposals. The song could stay pretty much the same, but now it's the point when he realises that proposing is about expressing your feelings honestly, not about the grand gesture.

This would be emotionally dramatic, and also increase the tension of the final act. When the tidal wave from the broken dam rushes towards Arendelle, it's not very scary because the city has been evacuated. But what if we knew (and Anna didn't) that Kristoff and Sven were still in the city. Instant high stakes, and a better feeling of relief when Elsa saves the day.

The confusion my family and I felt when watching Frozen II is a classic symptom of sequel-itis. Everything was tied up with a nice bow at the end of the first film, so the writers invented a big complex plot to give the next story momentum. The result was an enjoyable, fun, thrilling, visually beautiful movie. But I think, if they had drawn the new story from the characters and their relationships, it could have been even better... and much less confusing.

Saturday, 9 November 2019

Dear Evan Hansen: Passion over Poetry

In the first half of the musical Wicked, two teenage witches prepare for a college ball. In a classic trope of the genre, the classically beautiful Galinda is giving the (literally) green-faced Elphaba a high-school makeover. This is done through the lyrics of ‘Popular,’ a delightfully scathing comedy number that truly shows off Stephen Schwartz’s prowess as a songwriter.

Known elsewhere for his contributions to Disney films like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Enchanted, Schwartz was undoubtedly the perfect choice to score Wicked. His knack for a sparkling, key-fluid yet very singable melody is matched only by his refusal to miss any opportunity for rhyme. ‘Popular’ is a classic example of this style:

Don’t be offended by my frank analysis,
Think of it as personality dialysis.
Now that I’ve chosen to become a pal, a sister and advisor -
There’s nobody wiser,
Not when it comes to ‘popular’.

This trick of manipulating words to construct a perfect rhyme has long been a trick up the sleeves of writers like Schwartz. Whether it's the patter songs of Gilbert and Sullivan, the wit of Stephen Sondheim or even the mind-boggling bars of Lin Manuel Miranda, it has proven a popular technique for as long as the musical theatre form has existed. But everything changes in the end.

Dear Evan Hansen recently opened on the West End, having made its Broadway Debut in 2017. It deals with themes of grief, social awkwardness, mental health and the struggles of parenthood. And it explores each of these themes from both the adults' and the adolescents' perspective - something few high school dramatisations have achieved.

One of my favourite moments comes towards the end - no plot spoilers, I promise. It's an intimate solo song called 'So big/So small', in which Heidi (mother of the titular Evan) recalls the moment she became a single parent. The rhymes in this song are simple, as are the words and the sentiment. A mother re-committing herself to being there for her son.

The bridge of the song features almost no rhyme at all, and is sung through tears of anguish by Rachel Bay Jones on the original soundtrack - it's no surprise she won a Tony for this role. For me the pinnacle of this piece comes before the final chorus:

Your mom isn't going anywhere, your mom is staying right here.
Your mom isn't going anywhere, your mom is staying right here no matter what.

Pasek and Paul (composers for Dear Evan Hansen, as well as hit film The Greatest Showman) had so many options for conveying this statement, but they went for this. No metaphor, no flowery language, simple. And that's not all. They don't use the second line to rhyme cleverly with the first or impress us with a witty insight. Simply repeating the first line with an additional phrase makes Heidi's emotions here so much more powerful.

You might be feeling that this is an unfair comparison. I've picked a comedy moment from Wicked - of course that has more wit in it than a serious, emotional moment in Dear Evan Hansen. Well here's a chorus from 'No Good Deed' - the emotional climax of Wicked, where Elphaba scorns her attempts to do good and pleads for the life of her lover.

No good deed goes unpunished:
All helpful urges must be circumvented.
No good deed goes unpunished:
Sure I meant well, but look at what well meant did.

In musicals like Wicked, the wit and ability of the lyricist is on full display. It's a key part of the entertainment, and it lands almost every time. Tim Minchin's score for Matilda is a perfect example of this. He knows when to turn on the wordplay, and his intelligence matches the prodigy of Matilda herself. Then when things get serious, he tones it down a bit, to allow the honesty to come through.

But pushing the clever rhymes in the most sincere and sombre moments - like the above example from Wicked - can create a disconnect between the words being used and the emotions the scene is trying to convey. In Dear Evan Hansen, eloquence abandons the characters in moments of heightened emotion, a decision which only makes them more relatable.

All this makes me wonder if the era of the "clever wordplay musical" is coming to an end. Perhaps WickedMatilda and Hamilton are the last bastions of an age where complex language is used to convey complex emotions. We live in complex times, so maybe what we crave from our operatic entertainment, from our musical catharsis, is the simple passion that's often so hard to express in real life.

Dear Evan Hansen is a gem of a musical - an original plot that drags the classic high school image created by Mean Girls and Clueless into the 21st Century. Loveable, funny, flawed characters whose lack of word-based wit helps us to see them as real, normal people. Here's hoping for many more musicals like it in the future.