on November 25, 2013
I was at the premiere of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" in 1992. I remember the feeling that everything in Disney animation was about to change for the better and for a very long time. The combination of story, animation, and above all, song, was the best that had been seen in a film since the 1950's, during the Silver Age of Disney animation. What Alan Menken and Howard Ashman had hinted at in "The Little Mermaid" was given full, beautiful voice in the songs from "Beauty and the Beast," and I knew that a new Golden Age of Disney animation was on its way.
I had that same feeling when I saw "Frozen" a week ago. It is to the new generation of Disney films what "Beast" was to the Disney animated films of the 1990's: a wake up to everything that makes a "Disney" film a truly "Disney" film, and not a Pixar want-to-be. Not a Dreamworks pop-culture retread, but a film by the company that made the animated film a viable and living art form.
"Frozen" is simply THAT good of a film. And apart from spectacular animation, a heartfelt and beautiful story, and top-notch voice acting, what makes "Frozen" that good is the music.
A perfect combination of song and score, the music by Christophe Beck (instrumental score) and Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (songs), bring to life the story of sisters Elsa and Anna, princesses of Arandelle. Elsa has the magical power to control and create snow and ice, and as the movie opens, they are best friends who enjoy playing with snow and snowmen in the ballrooms of the palace. When an accident happens that causes things to change, the sisters are torn apart and the story begins.
Using traditional Scandinavian instruments, vocal techniques (including "kluning," a type of shepherds call), and a Norwegian choir (the all-female Cantus, who feature prominently in the opening titles), Beck's score is far more than just incidental music. It's as integral to the story as Alan Menken's instrumental music has been for his Disney animated films.
The opening piece, "Vuelie," is a breathtaking choral piece that sets the tone for the icy, Scandinavian backdrop as Lebo M's famous Swahili chants at the beginning of "The Lion King. Written by Norwegian composer Frode Fjellheim and adapted by Beck, the song combines traditional "Saami yoiking" and a Danish hymn. It evokes a cold and wintry feel while helping set the tonal culture of the film before the segue into a more traditional opening number.
That number is "Frozen Heart," sung by a chorus of ice gatherers. As the men work cutting the ice, the very traditional-sounding song tells the power of the ice, the curse of the ice, and relationship that this culture has with the winter. While it is appreciated for its strength and power, it is recognized as destructive due to the way it freezes everything in its wake. Visually, it's a fun song as the ice cutters work swiftly to load their reindeer-drawn sledge with giant pieces of ice. A young boy, Kristoff, and his pet reindeer, Sven, attempt to help with comic results.
The next song, "Do You Want to Build a Snowman?" tells, through poignant lyrics and great performances by the young Anna and, eventually, the grown-up version, what Anna feels as she is shut away from her sister, who unbeknownst to her, has been asked by her parents to hide away her magical gift. As a result, Anna feels like Elsa has shut her out and grows up nearly alone. Once best friends with Elsa, she is now nearly on her own--and by the end of the song, as tragedy strikes, it is clear that she truly is. It's one of those great "showtune" style numbers that helps advance the storyline while also being a great song. It's sung beautifully by the young Anna (voiced by Agatha Lee Monn and Katie Lopez--the songwriters' daughter) and Kristin Bell as the grown-up Anna. By the last refrain, it's definitely a poignant moment.
"For the First Time in Forever" is what Howard Ashman called the "I Want" song in the film. At least, it's Anna's. Finally grown up, finally ready for her sister to be crowned queen, her life is about to change. All the loneliness and shuttered away feelings she's had growing up are finally over--the gates of the castle are about to open and she won't be lonely anymore. It's a great "production" number in the film with lots of great movement, character animation, and sweeping visuals. It's a great song. It's a great "Disney" song. It feels "right." And sung so winningly by Kristin Bell, it turns Anna into an even more engaging and endearing character. Halfway through the song she is joined by Idina Menzel as Elsa, and the former "Wicked" star brings her Elphaba intensity to her character.
It's not a surprise that Menzel can sing, and she does, perfectly and beautifully, as Elsa. The real surprise is TV actress Bell, whose vocal performance is as important to the character as Jodie Benson was to Ariel. Without Benson's youthful naivete shining through as Ariel, she might have come across as a far less sympathetic character. Bell is so good as Anna, so warm, so fun, so endearing, and--she is a fantastic singer. To hold her own against a powerhouse like Menzel is something. To make a song like "For the First Time in Forever" feel as classic as "Part of Your World" or "A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes" shows the power of a great song combined with a great performer.
The film boasts not one, but two great love songs, and "Love is an Open Door" is a contemporary, pop-sounding duet between Anna and Hans, the prince of a neighboring kingdom. It's a cute and fun number in the film (reminding me a bit of "Kiss the Girl" from "The Little Mermaid"), but it's lyrically quite inventive, melodically interesting. Again, it's sung wonderfully by Bell, whose clear and pure soprano is a great match with Santino Fontana, who sings Hans with great gusto.
By this point, the audience is wondering when Menzel, probably the best known performer in the cast, is going to let loose with her big power number. And in that, "Frozen" doesn't disappoint. "Let It Go" is a lock for the Best Original Song Oscar, with it's powerful manifesto of breaking free from constraints and finally being able to be oneself. What is amazing about "Let It Go" is that, while it could come across a bit bitter, in the film, it's an absolutely delightful moment. In this moment, finally allowed to be herself after years of concealing her true self, Elsa lets loose with her power and creates a stunning ice castle. She smiles for the first time since the beginning of the movie, and Menzel's vocal performance is one of joy--yes, the "cold never bothered me anyway," says Elsa, but it's not out of bitterness, but a realization that finally, for the first time, she can be who she was created to be. In a film full of great songs, this one is obviously a standout.
Jonathan Groff, a Broadway actor best known for "Spring Awakening," delivers a truly memorable performance as Kristoff, the now-grown up ice gatherer whose business has been stymied once Elsa unleashes her power on the kingdom. Although possessed of a beautiful singing voice, Groff only has one song in the film, the silly (and silly-sung) "Reindeer(s) are Better Than People," which is a cute, throwaway number intended to show the relationship between Kristoff and his best friend, the reindeer Sven. Groff sings for both characters (and speaks for them in several very funny conversations in the film). It's a cute song.
The next big production number in the show is sung by Josh Gad (Tony nominee for "The Book of Mormon"). "In Summer" is a paean to the warmest time of the year--sung with great love and gusto--and a lack of understanding--by snowman Olaf. A great sidekick in the history of Disney's great sidekicks (Dopey, Jiminy Cricket, Timon & Pubmbaa), Olaf is a hilariously naive but funny character, and his big song is full of puns and laughs. It's even funnier onscreen. Gad gives it all he's got with big, belting vibrato, and he makes what is a minor comedic song into a moment when my audience burst into applause.
There's a reprise of "For the First Time in Forever," sung by Bell and Menzel that feels like a number from countless other sung-through shows in that it is mostly dialogue sung by the two sisters as they try to decide what will happen next. It's Anna's efforts to try to get her sister to relate to her--to show that she understands what Elsa is going through. It's a beautiful moment, but it doesn't end well. While it works on the recording, this is one of those songs that really needs to be seen in context to be fully appreciated.
One last love song, "Fixer Upper" is sung by some well-meaning trolls to try and get Anna and Kristoff together. Without giving anything away, these trolls feel very protective of Kristoff and really want him to get together with Anna. A song that celebrates that everyone has troubles of their own--each of us is a "fixer upper" and love can really change that--it's a welcome relief in the film when it shows up. It's another more "pop" in sound, but it's quite enjoyable, and the payoff at the end is fantastic. While I wish it wasn't the last song in the film, it's a great number nonetheless. And the trolls, led by Maia Wilson, turn the song into a gospel-lite number that really soars by the end.
Over the credits, Demi Lovato's version of "Let It Go" plays. While Lovato does a great job, the song doesn't have half the power of Menzel's version.
Like it has since "The Little Mermaid," Disney once again hasn't put the songs in order of how they appear in the film, meaning you don't get to experience Beck's score interspersed with songs the way you actually would. Which is sad, because many people are going to miss some truly great film music.
Beck does a great job mixing melodies introduced in the Lopez' songs into the instrumental cues, but even better, he truly unleashes the spirit of Scandinavian culture in the score. Whether it's traditional instrumentation, vocal ensembles, or even local instruments, al the "folk" elements of the score bring extra life and an underpinning sense of drama and purpose to the story's events. The hymn sung by the choir at Elsa's coronation, "Heimr Arandalr," translates as "Homeworld Arandelle," and celebrates the history and culture of the world inside "Frozen." It's a beautiful piece, beautifully sung.
Each instrumental track is unique in its own way, and although I am primarily a fan of the pieces clearly influenced by Scandinavian culture, I am confident that Beck will continue to write and develop exciting music for Disney films. The instrumental pieces I most find perfect in stand-alone ways (unlike an action cue, like the wolf chase) are the adaptations from songs in the film. In this, he doesn't disappoint, giving us several outstanding pieces, including the "Epilogue," which brings the whole film together, including every song--even "Do You Want to Build a Snowman?"
The Deluxe edition includes a second disk of demo versions of the songs and cues in the film, as well as a complete collection of songs cut from the movie as it went through production. The Lopez' introductions to the cut songs help give context and understanding to what went into each song and why it was cut. Standouts of the songs cut from the film (and which will probably show up in the Broadway version someday) include "We Know Better," a wonderful "sister power" song and "More Than Just the Spare," which anyone with an older sibling will be able to relate to. Sung very nicely by the composers, the cut songs show the amount of work that goes into an animated film and how big the changes in the story might get.
Beck includes many of his demo recordings for the instrumental score and all of them are quite nice--even when the synthesized strings get a little annoying. He includes the score for the original teaser trailer for "Frozen" as well as "source" audio for the folk instruments used in the background during the coronation scene. These are great for purists.
Rounding out the physical CD is a track only version of Menzel's "Let It Go." It's the original orchestral track used in the film, and it's certain there will be preteen girls all over the world practicing for their moment to shine in another Christmas production. Sadly, you only get one of these tracks with the CD, but the instrumental tracks for the other big songs in the show are available for download via iTunes. For all future showtune princesses (and their parents.)
As I said in my review for the film (at duanesm.com):
"The songs, by husband and wife team Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, are uniformly excellent, and form a cohesive story that moves the film along, adds dimension and life to the characters, and helps the audience understand their hopes, dreams, and motivations. It’s the best collection of songs in one Disney film in the first time for, well, forever, and the composers deserve a multiplicity of awards both now and in the future for creating truly musical songs."
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. Get your copy today!