FROZEN II and KLAUS: Two Wintertime Paths Into the Known
Just in time for the holidays, there’s a winter chill in the air and on screens both big and small. Disney’s Frozen II and Netflix’s Klaus aren’t just delightful holiday diversions. They represent two competing approaches to modern animation--two attempts to imbue relatively conventional stories with fresh perspectives and differing techniques--and they make for a fascinating contrast. Frozen II, the sequel to 2013’s Frozen, is a gorgeously animated musical epic in the tradition of Disney’s grandest fairytale adventures, and it marshals the studio’s eighty-plus years of feature animation experience and incredible resources for the sequel to one of their biggest hits. Because of that, as a piece of animation, it’s a technical marvel. The elements that thwarted animators for so long, particularly hair and water, look incredible. Every frame is beautiful to look at, and as the world of Frozen II expands beyond Arendelle, the world it builds out is visually polished to a gorgeous sheen. Unfortunately, the story isn’t quite so well-constructed. As Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell) venture north from Arendelle to lift a curse on an enchanted forest and learn the truth about their kingdom’s history, with Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and Olaf (Josh Gad) in tow, they encounter elemental spirits, mysterious voices, and an entire civilization lost in a mystical fog. The worldbuilding is ambitious, but feels half-baked, and the story hews pretty closely to standard Disney tropes. Individual songs and scenes create strong moments--the talent involved achieves a certain minimum quality level--but they’re too scattered to coalesce into a coherent whole. It’s particularly disappointing that Elsa’s character arc largely mirrors her trajectory in the first film, rather than developing into something new. Still, the songs are catchy and the images are striking, and the themes of sisterhood and atonement for past wrongs are as strong as they were in the first version (I could’ve done with a little less Olaf, but I get it, he sells toys). On the other hand, Sergio Pablos’s Klaus, Netflix’s first original animated feature, plays in a much humbler register. Eschewing the computer-generated animation style that has dominated American animation for the past few decades, writer-director Pablos, a one-time Disney animator himself, has put a new traditionally-animated spin on a standard Christmas tale: the Santa Claus origin story. In this retelling, Jesper (Jason Schwartzman), the spoiled, lazy son of the Postmaster General, is exiled to the remote town of Smeerensburg, which is populated only by one jaded schoolteacher (Rashida Jones) and two warring families, locked in an ancient feud (led by Joan Cusack and Will Sasso). Trapped in this town and required to deliver 6,000 letters or risk losing his privileged status, Jesper convinces the village’s children to send letters to the reclusive Mr. Klaus (J.K. Simmons), a stoic local woodsman, and convinces him to deliver toys to the children. You’ve seen a Christmas movie before, so you know the rest: as his plan progresses, the elements of the modern Santa Claus myth are established, and Jesper learns to be selfless and kind. Klaus’s particular charms lie in its lovingly crafted visual style, which makes effective use of lighting, perspective, and stylization to place a fresh coat of paint on an otherwise similarly standard holiday story. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a comfort food dish made by a professional chef; at its core, it’s the same basic meal you’ve had countless times before, but beautifully plated by a talented artist with a little extra flair. Ultimately, Frozen II and Klaus have the same strengths and weaknesses; both films’ stories are rather predictable and leave something to be desired, but they are beautifully crafted, using different animation techniques in equally impressive ways. Maybe most importantly, both of these movies are packed full of comforting, family-friendly charm--and this time of year, isn’t that all you really want?