Sunday, February 23, 2014

Movie Review: The Snow Queen

Disney's Frozen is many things and not being very faithful to the original story is one of them. We all know that by now, actually I think everyone figured that out by the time a talking snowman showed up in the trailer, and that surely Disney isn't the first studio out there to take the story from the page to some sort of stage. It turns out there are quite a few of them, I might have to check out some of the others but I remembered hearing about one a few years back which was a Russian animated film that was taking a while to get out to the US. Well it finally popped up on Netflix a couple of months ago and, since it's been a few weeks since I last talked about an animated film (and it finally warmed up for a few days here), it seemed like the perfect chance to watch it!

The Snow Queen

While she is not the queen over a country, the snow queen still has power over the land of men and she holds their countries in eternal winter and hunts down the last of their wizards so that no one can contest her power. The last wizard is a mirror maker and all of mirrors show what's really in the person's heart, something the snow queen is deathly afraid of. She attempts to kill him and his family but his children survive, separated however and don't meet again for many years. But once they do tragedy strikes and it's up to Gerda to rescue her brother Kai even though she's just an ordinary girl against a powerful force of nature.

At this point I still haven't read the original "The Snow Queen" but I did look at the wikipedia entry for it which has a rather detailed summary. So I feel confident in saying that no, even this story isn't a very faithful adaption so those who didn't want to see Frozen for just that reason probably should avoid this story as well. Parts of Gerda's journey are the same, she encounters more or less the same people and in the same order, but the set-up for the story and how it begins and ends are rather different. Not only that but when you look at the movies as just that, stories unconnected to their original inspiration and you simply look at how well they worked, this is by far the inferior product and frankly it's just not a good film.

 My biggest complaint about the film is that it's rather stiff and simply doesn't flow well. I don't mean the pacing, in that regard it's just fine (it's a short little film at just over an hour but Hans Christian Anderson's story wasn't a full length novel either) but aside from brief moments it just doesn't come alive. Gerda doesn't grow as a character or seem to come to a better understanding of the world around her, Kai isn't exactly in a position to change, and I actually liked the snow queen's part of the story until they shoehorn in a moral at the last minute which not only felt a little insulting (I'm pretty sure that even the intended audience of elementary school children had already worked out that haboring grudges leads to bad things) but in some ways also contradicts what the story explained earlier. Either one of those on their own is bad and together it makes me wonder if the moral was part of the dub script but not the original. Netflix is only streaming the English dub so I can't compare it but it was an, okay, dub. Actually, okay at parts and bad at others, I noticed several times that the lip flaps didn't match up (and, since they were surely working from the completed film and not story animation that felt sloppy) and the cast just sounded rather wooden 80% of the time. I felt like the dub director really dropped the ball in getting the actors to bring more life into these characters and that with a good dub it could have really salvaged the film in my eyes. But they didn't and now it makes the characters feel even more two-dimensional than they already did. Gerda doesn't know Kai long enough to make her quest understandable and every other character she meets is on screen so briefly that it feels more like a set of passing encounters instead of the meaningful meetings you find in fairy tales.

Art wise the film also was only okay. "But Helen," some of you might be saying "you can't blame a studio for not being Disney because, well, only Disney is Disney!" and you're right, it does seem like Disney has a bigger budget and longer production schedule than nearly any other movie making studio out there. However, I rag on anime all the time for having subpar work so I think it's totally far to say that the movie looks stiff and awkward in many places and that the character faces especially suffer from this. I keep thinking back to Frozen, trying to articulate why I feel that film succeeded and that failed, and one thing that stood out to me is that Frozen was kinectic, there was so much motion and body language that The Snow Queen was missing and that itself also helps to define the characters, no wonder that with a lack of that, wooden voices, and characters who are propelled by plot but not by their own wills it all felt off! I will say there were a few moments in the film where it felt like the art really came together, such as in the Lapp Women's hut (and there were moments like that in terms of the plot and story as well) but those were just brief moments in the whole film. It does however look at least a bit better than that poster up there, holy someone in the design department made a terrible choice with that.

In the end I was disappointed and more than I expected. I wasn't expecting a great film but I was expecting a good film and I didn't get even that. And then when I read the summary of the original story on wikipedia I was struck by just how wonderful it sounded. That it was fantastical but ultimately about a very human girl whose both badass for taking on such a quest and normal because of how it's her innocent heart that almost magically charms everyone into helping her along the way. That tone is completely lost in this film and I guess I should see if my new copy of HCA's tales has the original for me to read instead.