Late to the Party – Thoughts on Frozen and Captain Phillips

I’ve been doing some catching up on films that I missed recently. The first that I’ll address in this post is the animated film “Frozen” by Walt Disney Animation Studios. “Frozen” is a loose adaptation of The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen. The story follows two sisters of the royal family of the Kingdom of Arendelle, Elsa and Anna. Born with the power to control the cold, Elsa is a playful child that uses her abilities to entertain her younger sister, Anna. However, when there’s an accident involving her powers that threatens Anna’s life, Elsa becomes a recluse, locking herself away in her room, wracked with guilt and shame. She and Anna grow into young-adulthood on opposite sides of a door. Unfortunately for Elsa, her powers grow as she matures, becoming more difficult for her to control. In classic Disney fashion, both of their parents die during a sea voyage, leaving the crown to Elsa when she comes of age. On the night of the coronation ceremony, Anna meets and is immediately smitten by a young man named Hans, who is a prince of one of the other kingdoms. When he proposes to her, she accepts and the two immediately go to Elsa to ask for her blessing. Perplexed and disapproving of her younger sister’s rash decision, Elsa argues against the marriage. The tension mounts as the argument gets more heated, culminating in Elsa losing control of her powers in front of her guests. Horrified by the dismayed and disturbed reactions of her subjects, Elsa flees into the mountains, her strong emotions also sending Arendelle into a perpetual winter. Feeling responsible for aggravating her sister and causing her frosty outburst, Anna – alongside the ice merchant Kristoff, Sven the reindeer, and Olaf the living snowman – sets out to find her so they can reconcile.

               “Frozen” has become a worldwide success and after having watched the film, I can definitely see why. The animation is slick and the kingdom of Arendelle is rendered in stunning detail. The same skill and care put into the vibrant and colorful world of the same studio’s “Tangled” is echoed here, with the focus on ice, reflections, and refracted light proving particularly impressive. The art direction is superb and the quaint architecture and distinctly Norwegian touches (actual landmarks are featured in the film) serve to make a world that wholly inviting and totally beautiful. Beyond the artistry of the animation, the film also succeeds as a musical. The songs (composed by musical spouses Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez) are both catchy and fun. In recent years it seems that some animated films have struggled with having meaningful lyrics and a reason for including musical numbers. “Frozen” does not have this problem. Each song forwards the story while at the same time providing insight into the motivations of the characters and their disposition at the time. “Let It Go”, undoubtedly the most popular song from the movie’s impressive soundtrack, is a perfect example of a musical number that builds character while also advancing the plot. As Elsa sings about shedding her responsibilities and fears, she discards the gloves that restricted her powers and the crown that represents the royal obligations thrust upon her. At the same time she creates a palace of ice, something that glorifies her abilities rather than obscuring them, something that is wholly her own.

This brings me to the most important part of the film in my opinion. Though Elsa and Anna are the latest in a long line of Disney princesses, their story does not follow the usual tropes found in Disney’s back-catalogue. Though the principal male characters Hans and Kristoff are important to the climax of the story, they are in no way the catalysts; the story does not hinge on their actions. Rather, the story becomes one about the love between two sisters and the bond that they share. I think this is rather refreshing, especially given how easily the story could have fallen back on the oddly standard prince-saves-princesses-and-they-kiss ending we could have received.

In the end, I enjoyed “Frozen” quite a bit more than I thought I would and look forward to Walt Disney Animation Studios’ next effort.

 

The other film that I finally got a chance to see was “Captain Phillips”, starring national treasure and type-writer enthusiast (trust me on this), Tom Hanks. This film details the 2009 incident in which a group of four Somali pirates boarded and took over the American cargo ship Alabama as it passed through Somalian waters. Directed by Paul Greengrass (“The Bourn Supremacy”, “The Bourne Ultimatum”, “United 93”), “Captain Phillips” features the same kinetic, documentary style that has come to be expected from Greengrass’ previous efforts, creating a tense and entirely believable atmosphere (with noticeably less shaky-cam for the easily nauseous). Though the initial takeover of the ship and the ensuing standoff between the Somali pirates and the US Navy is riveting, it is the relationship between Captain Phillips and the Somali captain Muse that carries the entire film.

This is due to a pair of wonderful performances by Tom Hanks and newcomer Barkhad Abdi, who plays Muse. The relationship that builds between these two men is both interesting and complex; it is similar in tone to the adversarial relationship between Tom Cruise’s Vincent and Jamie Foxx’s Max in 2004’s Collateral, yet less professional and more immediately threatening. Thankfully, rather than portraying the Somalian pirates as simple, blood thirsty thugs, the film allows time to characterize them and make the audience realize that they were, beyond being pirates, actual people as well. Though Muse is not innocent by any means, it becomes clear later in the film that his life choices were severely limited given the environment in which he lived. The slow unravelling of Muse, for me, was the most interesting part of the film, especially when juxtaposed with an equally horrified and intrigued Captain Phillips, who simply wants to know why the pirates would continue after the US Navy gets involved. Phillips tells him that there are many other opportunities for a young man besides pirating. Muse offers the chilling and thought-provoking answer, “Maybe in America, maybe in America.” Though I do not think that Barkhad Abdi is going to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor this year, his performance was truly stellar and I hope he continues to act so that we may see what other characters he brings to life.

When it comes to discussing the acting of Tom Hanks, it is difficult to be hyperbolic. He is so effortless and talented that you may wonder if there’s anything he can’t do. Then you remember he made you cry by yelling at a volleyball. He’s just that good. As Captain Phillips, he does not disappoint. Many actors could portray two hours’ worth of horror, but I’m not so sure how many could portray the varying degrees of anxiety, fear, and resolve that Hanks does as the film progresses. He emotes a commendable variety of emotions that range from desperation to blubbering shock, with not a single moment feeling hokey or disingenuous. Though he was snubbed this year for an Oscar nomination, his performance in “Captain Phillips” still stands as one of his best.

Like Greengrass’ other efforts before this, “Captain Phillips” is a tight, tension-filled slice of reality that will keep the viewer’s gaze fixed on the screen. Its two hour runtime flies by, leaving you breathless, yet ultimately satisfied thanks to a pair of superb performances and a fascinating true story. 

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