I Actually Liked Frozen II

Major spoilers for Frozen II ahead!

I waited to watch Frozen II until I could borrow a copy from the library. So, for months, all I heard were cryptic statements from moviegoers that this film was, “Not what people were expecting” and “Very different from the first movie.” No one would say what was apparently off about Frozen II, but, eventually, I started to wonder if anyone had actually enjoyed it. Nevertheless, I put it on hold when it first appeared in the library catalog. And, to my surprise, I found I liked it even more than I had liked Frozen.

In some respects, I can see why some audience members might have had reservations about Frozen II. It is undoubtedly very different the general Disney princess movie. And it is a lot darker than its predecessor. Anna may have turned to ice in Frozen, but that lasted a few seconds, and we all knew she would make it, anyway. In Frozen II, Elsa dies, Olaf melts, and Anna is left all alone to sing a despairing song that suggests she is ready to give up and die herself, rather than face the life ahead of her. Her song is a key part of what makes the film so dark. She gives audiences a taste of what it means to feel real, deep-down grief. She doesn’t quite let them get away with their outsider knowledge that no Disney movie can end so unhappily, right? Surely Olaf and Elsa will come back…right? Even if they can and will, for one moment, Anna makes audiences consider what it would mean if they did not.

Frozen II’s difference from its predecessor is, however, what makes me love it so much. I don’t really need another standard Disney princess film at this point. It was fun to watch Frozen play with Disney princess tropes by revealing how falling in love at first sight can backfire, giving Anna an iceman who likes to “tinkle in the woods” instead of a charming prince, and reminding viewers about the importance of consent in romantic relationships. But, in giving so many knowing nods to past Disney princess tropes, Frozen still feels connected to them. It’s a response to other Disney films, not so much an independent, original film. Plus, it still buys into other Disney princess tropes such as the cute animal sidekick and the happily-ever-after kiss (for Anna, if not for Elsa).

Frozen II breaks away completely from previous princess films, perhaps because it has to. In theory, I suppose it could have given Elsa her own love interest and so remained a typical Disney princess movie. However, that would seem a little repetitive for a sequel. Instead, Frozen II decides to branch out, giving Anna and Elsa an epic adventure–together. (I hated that Frozen is billed as a “sister film” even though they’re not really talking for most of it.) Disney has provided audiences with epic adventures before in films such as Treasure Planet and Atlantis, among others–films that were usually lead by a male character and not part of the princess line. But it feels exciting to have that kind of movie lead by two female protagonists who are breaking out of their traditional Disney princess roles.

I recognize that Frozen II is not a perfect film. Some have pointed out to me that the plotline does not make sense. (Did Frozen’s, though? Really?) I disliked how Anne treated Kristoff, running off without him and seemingly forgetting her existence when she considers there is nothing left to live for with Elsa gone. I questioned why they were talking about marriage when they cannot even communicate with each other on a basic level. However, ultimately, there are a few moments of Frozen II that make it really special, despite its flaws.

Whereas some audience goers seemed uncertain about how dark and how sad the film got, I appreciated the level of emotional depth this gives the film. Anna is overlooked in favor of Elsa and her big numbers, but she is truly the star of Frozen II, demonstrating that one must always do the right thing, even if doing so seems like it could hurt them. Anna decides to work through her seemingly-debilitating grief in order to right a past wrong. And she does so knowing that she will lose everything by doing so. She is truly inspirational and demonstrates a moral courage not many film characters are asked to do.

I also appreciated Elsa’s characterization, however. Even though Elsa is extremely powerful, we see that she continues to struggle with self-doubt. She does not know who she is and she seems unable to accept herself. My favorite part of the film is when, upon searching for someone to give her all the answers, Elsa realizes she is the answer. She already knows who she is and what she can do. All she needs is to is to find the courage to trust in herself, instead of relying on others to giver her confidence. When she accepted herself for the first time, I got chills.

Frozen II has its flaws, perhaps like any story. However, it strengths for me far outweigh its weaknesses. I appreciate the character growth we see in both Anna and Elsa, with Anna choosing to do the right thing no matter the cost, and Elsa discovering her own inner strength. Those are great messages that I can support. And it does not hurt that they are both presented in phenomenal songs.

What did you think of Frozen II?

Klaus (2019 Netflix Original Movie)

I love Christmas movies, and a heart-warming animated film that gets right to the spirit of the Christmas season is an enormous treat.  If you’ve been sitting on the fence about seeing Klaus, I highly recommend it as a movie that will likely be added to the catalogue of films you watch year after year.

The one thing that baffled me a bit about Santa as a child is that there are so many versions of “how Santa came to be,” from movies to books to what random adults are willing to tell you.  Klaus piles on to these versions, even as it’s clearly set in an imaginary world.  So part of me wonders what child me would have done with the idea that Klaus’s version of Santa might not be our version of Santa, while part of me realizes I would likely have been sucked into the story as much as I was as an adult and not overthought the issue.

Because once I got past the fantasy world aspect, a place where postmen are well-trained and apparently venerated (by most people, not all) and where two feuding clans live in perpetual battle in an isolated icy town while a mysterious woodsman lives nearby with a house full of enchanting toys, I was completely charmed.  The world-building is impressive, the plot is engrossing, and the characters easily capture readers’ hearts in spite of any flaws.

Protagonist Jesper starts out spoiled and doing the right things for obviously wrong reasons, but his character arc and his blooming friendship with Klaus make him a character to root for.  And I love that this story is ultimately not just about Klaus or Christmas but ultimately about friendship—the ones that can grow between the feuding families, as well.

Not all of the animated Christmas movies I liked as a kid stand up to rewatching as an adult.  Klaus hooked me first as an adult, and I can imagine myself watching it again and again.

Briana

Let It Snow (2019 Netflix Original Movie)

I haven’t read the book for Let It Snow, but I went into the Netflix movie assuming there would be a bunch of short stories based on works by YA authors, as in the 2008 novel.  Thus, I was interested to see how the stories would be woven together into a single coherent narrative—something I think the filmmakers succeeded at in some places and failed at in others.

I did like the idea that the various characters all live in the same small town and know each other by sight, if not necessarily by name, because watching how people’s lives intertwine and intersect even if they don’t know it is always a pleasure.  It gives a readers a sense that they’re part of something bigger and that there’s something fun and mysterious about their own lives, that they’re connected to others in ways they might not even realize. 

However, the fact that there were so many small stories going on in a single movie was also a bit of downfall.  I’m not necessarily a big fan of short stories in general because they often feel underdeveloped or just…underwhelming to me, and I got that here.  There were a few different pairs of characters with love interests going about their lives around Christmas, and it was clear that the whole point was that, well, they were going to end up as couples by the end of the movie.  This is the general plot of any romance, of course, but the development of each of these short stories simply wasn’t that engaging to me.  There is also the storyline of one young man’s quest to throw an epic party and the point is that, uh, he has a party.  Nothing particularly surprising or thought-provoking happens in most of the stories.

That said, it’s a cute holiday movie, and I think it will find its fans.  If you want something fairly light and Christmas-y, something that treats teens as real with complicated problems even as they’re doing slightly improbable things like meeting celebrities and adopting mini pigs, Let It Snow could be the movie for you.

Briana

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina: Is the Choice Between Good or Evil Really a Choice?

The Netflix adaptation of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina opens with everyone’s favorite teenage witch facing a difficult choice: she can go through with her scheduled dark baptism on Halloween and become a full-fledged witch, never to interact meaningfully with mortals again, or she can reject the dark baptism in favor of living as a mortal herself.  (The specifics of whether she’d had any magical powers at all with this second choice are actually unclear.)  This is meant to be a gut-wrenching decision, a point where Sabrina must choose between the two worlds she’s been living in and claim only one, and it’s presented as psychologically shattering for her.  How can she give up her friends?  Or her family?  Or magic as she knows it?  Yet the rest of the show actually makes the choice look straightforward: Sabrina must choose between good and evil and…she simply is not evil.

Magic in the show is explicitly linked to the devil.  Witches sign their souls and their free will over to him in exchange for long lives and for magical power.  And there’s no secret twist here that the devil is actually secretly sympathetic or misunderstood.  He is evil and understood to be as such.  Hell is real, and it’s a place people want to avoid.  And if all this is true, one cannot help but wonder what Sabrina sees in life as a witch at all.

One might argue that witches who have been raised solely in the witch world would think all these things are normal and fine, but Sabrina was not, and she directly rejects nearly everything that the magical world seems to stand for and be interested in.  The show opens with Sabrina and her friends attending a horror movie, and boyfriend Harvey comments on how Sabrina loves all things gruesome and dark and gory, but the reality is she doesn’t, not when it’s not just for show. 

Her house is covered in spider webs, and she’s someone who thinks cemeteries are interesting instead of creepy, but she doesn’t actually like all the dark things that come out of the witch world.  She doesn’t approve of the harmful magic that the Weird Sisters perform on jocks who have been bullying girls at her high school.  She’s terrified when a creepy scarecrow comes to life and chases her.  She doesn’t like nightmares or demons or, really, anything else that actually is born from witches’ magic.

This makes the show fall flat for me.  When Sabrina so clearly rejects the way magic is used and the source of magic and when she gets upset about it all and screams that she is not evil, the viewer has to wonder how any of this can truly be a choice for her.  If your options are to sign your soul away to evil or to…not, how many people (especially really nice people like Sabrina!) would actually choose the first?

The show tries to skirt this by offering up the possibility that maybe Sabrina can have her cake and eat it, too.  Maybe she can find a way to be magical without signing away her soul.  This is still a tough sell, however, when the magic she and other people use never seems to actually be for good.  Her soul might be free in a technical sense, but if her powers are used for harming and scaring people, what’s the point of choosing to be a witch?

The show is interesting in many ways, but when the entire premise seems so flimsy, it’s hard to watch.  When you’re choosing between good and evil and you’re clearly a good character, there just isn’t a choice at all.

Briana

Movie Review: Tolkien (2019)

Information

Director: Dome Karukoski
Writers: David Gleeson, Stephen Beresford
Release: 2019

Summary

As a student, Tolkien forms a close friendship with three other boys that will help sustain him through WWI.  Meanwhile, he is also courting fellow orphan Edith Bratt.

Star Divider

Review

Potential spoilers follow.  (I don’t go into great detail on the film, but if you prefer to know absolutely nothing about what is depicted, read no farther.  I also “spoil” some of Tolkien’s actual biography, if you can do such a thing.)

Tolkien’s early years are so perfect for a movie, it seems a wonder no one made one before.  Along with some of his closest friends, he made a pact that they would try to change the world, try to make it better, through art.  Their love for each other and their belief in their combined powers helped sustain them through WWI.  At the same time, Tolkien was courting fellow orphan Edith Bratt, then suffering a three years’ separation by his guardian’s orders, then trying to woo her back after she became engaged to another man.  Do you want heartbreak?  Drama?  Romance?  Tolkien’s early life had it all.  And so it is truly marvelous that Tolkien the movie had little heart at all.

Tolkien is really just the sketch of a biography; the outline of Tolkien’s early life is there, but the details are almost all artistic license.  For some scenes, this makes sense.  We know, for instance, very little concrete about Tolkien’s courtship; personal letters of that sort are not included in the official Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien.  So Tolkien’s dating scenes are going to be almost entirely made up.  However, we do know a bit more about Tolkien’s close friendships, especially thanks to John Garth’s wonderful Tolkien and the Great War.  And yet the film deviates from what we know, creating scenes that may be entirely plausible (even the copious amounts of alcohol Tolkien and his friends imbibe), but that ultimately lack heart.

The main problem with the film is that I never really believed the friendships depicted on screen could change the world.  And there is no reason for this when we have the source material to make those friendships come alive.  When I read Tolkien and the Great War, I wept.  I wept when I read the letters Tolkien and his friends exchanged.  The film only takes one moment (that I caught) to quote from these letters.  And it was, for me, the most poignant moment of the film.   But the film largely glosses over the deep conversations that bound the T.C., B.S. together, instead showing them drinking and messing about.  Realistic behavior of boys?  Certainly?  A testimony to the lasting impact of this group on Tolkien and his career?  I didn’t see it.

The film also, for reasons I cannot comprehend, entirely glosses over the details of Tolkien’s service in WWI.  There is a lot of interesting material to work with here, from Tolkien’s late enlistment due to his desire to focus on school (and the contempt he hinted he received as a result) to his time a signal officer.  Yes, Tolkien spent most of his time recovering from trench fever–a fact that probably saved his life.  But I still do not understand the decision to depict the entirety of his WWI experience as feverishly stumbling about the trenches while hallucinating fantasy figures.  In this case, it seems to me that real life is actually far more interesting than art.

In addition to these criticisms, I cannot help but also note that I agree with the reviewers who were shocked to find practically no mention of religion in a biography of Tolkien.  Catholicism fundamentally shaped Tolkien’s life, his philosophy, and his writings.  Catholicism certainly would have influenced his idea of how to “change the world” and it also played a role in how he perceived his mother’s death–he believed she died, in part, from being cast out by her family after she converted.  Catholicism also played a role in his courtship as he wished Edith to convert before they married.  In short, Tolkien’s religion colored essentially every aspect of his life.  A biography that ignores this must always be a biography that fundamentally misunderstands and even misrepresents who Tolkien was.

I did not expect the film to be entirely historically accurate, but I did expect it to capture something of the spirit of Tolkien’s life.  To me, Tolkien is a nice period film about a boy growing up and falling in love, but it is a film that feels like it could be about practically any fictional character.   It lacks inspiration, never truly delving into what made Tolkien, Tolkien.

*If you are interested in reading more about Tolkien’s early life, I highly recommend John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War.  I can’t say enough how much I loved this book and how much it contributes to our understanding of Tolkien’s life and work.  It is truly a seminal work in Tolkien studies.  Go read it, everyone!

3 Stars

The Princess Switch (2018): Netflix Movie Review

Summary

When Stacy De Nova, a baker from Chicago, travels to Belgravia with her friend/employee Kevin to take part in the annual Belgravian baking competition, she discovers that she looks just like Duchess Margaret, who is set to marry the Belgravian prince.  Margaret wants to know what it feels like to be a “normal person” and suggests the two secretly switch places for a couple of days, but things get far more complicated that the two could have guessed.

Star Divider

Review

Cheesy Christmas movies are very popular, as the Hallmark Channel knows very well, so it’s no surprise that Netflix has jumped on board to make some of their own.  This season sees the release of a sequel to their original film A Christmas Prince, as well as Princess Switch, a movie that stars Vanessa Hudgens playing both a duchess from the imaginary Belgravia and a professional baker from Chicago who look like one another and trade places for a couple days.

For full cheesy fun, I have to rate The Princess Switch highly.  It combines a lot of elements viewers love in these types of films: royalty, baking, switching places, shenanigans ensuing when the protagonists fall in love with the “wrong” people. There’s also the charming imaginary kingdom that goes all-out for Christmas and an adorable child who stars alongside the adult characters. Netflix seems to figure that you might as well smash all this together and get the ultimate fun, feel-good film, and they’re not necessarily wrong.

In terms of actual plot there seems to be less at stake in The Princess Switch than there could be.  There are a couple hiccups, but I wouldn’t say there’s a highly dramatic climax.  On one hand, this means the film doesn’t necessarily have the strongest narrative arc and things might feel a bit flat to viewers.  On the other hand, if you’re in the book to just watch something fun and positive, this is a great choice. There are times in my life when I really just don’t want to watch terrible things happens to characters, so keeping things relatively upbeat can be a nice change.

Finally, I think rating this as a Christmas movie is a bit more difficult.  On one hand, I have to admit Christmas is woven in. It happens at Christmas. Belgravia has a fun Christmas village the characters keep visiting.  All the interior settings are decorated.  People talk about Christmas spirit.  Etc.  On the other hand, something about it really did just feel like background scenery to me, and I think the Christmas feeling could have been more strongly infused.

So, should you watch this?  If you like feel good Christmas movies of this type, this will be right up your alley.  If you’re looking for quality cinema, maybe not.  This is fun and fluffy, and I enjoyed it, but I don’t think anyone’s claiming it’s great art.

Briana

Movie Review: The Crimes of Grindelwald (Spoiler Free)

Information

Director: David Yates
Writers: J. K. Rowling
Release: 2018

Summary

As Grindelwald rallies his supporters, Dumbledore contacts magizoologist Newt Scamander to track him down.  Meanwhile, Tina is on the trail of an Obscurial, hoping to find him before another Ministry employee eliminates him.

Review

Note: This review generally mentions the overall plot of The Crimes of Grindelwald, but does not reveal the content of any major plot twists.  If you prefer to view the film knowing absolutely nothing, you may want to return to read this review later.

The Crimes of Grindelwald promises an exciting expansion to the Wizarding World as viewers travel with the characters to 1920s Paris.  However, despite a strong cast and a host of adorable baby nifflers, the film ultimately fails to captivate.  More than anything, it feels like an overly complicated middle installment cobbled together with over-the-top plot twists and familiar names shoehorned in to please viewers.  I left the theatre feeling a little like J. K. Rowling has lost some of her magic.

The Crimes of Grindelwald loses a lot of enchantment simply because it is difficult to follow.  Throughout the film, I frequently found myself doing a mental check to ensure that I was still following the plot and knew who (most of) the characters were.  A totally immersive experience was impossible when I kept having to leave the Wizarding World to recap the action to myself.  Furthermore, as the film progressed, I became increasingly aware of just how silly all the complicated maneuvering is.  Though Grindelwald is supposed to be a powerful wizard and a terrifying villain, he spends his days lazing about in Paris seeking to win a teenage Obscurial to his side.  Everyone else, instead of trying to locate Grindelwald or stop him, is also chasing the Obscurial.  The entire film is about a bunch of people trying to find a boy when they are not even sure who he is or why or if he might be important.  I spent a good deal of the film feeling baffled by this and wondering when (or if) the point would ever become clear.

Of course, the real reason for spending an entire film chasing a teenage boy instead of tracking down Grindelwald seems to be that we need material for three more films.  Perhaps even material enough to get from the 1920s to the 1940s, which is when Grindelwald, according to Rowling’s earlier information, was supposed to be at his height.  (Unless, of course, Rowling is choosing to ignore her own timelines–a possibility fans have been considering due to various revelations in this film.).  The result is that The Crimes of Grindelwald never feels like a high-stakes film; it is simply a middle film setting up future possibilities.

The real let-down for me, however, is the inclusion of a number of quite silly plot twists.  Characters act out of character.  Background stories are so convoluted and far-fetched they defy belief.  New revelations, apparently added just to shock and surprise viewers, contradict what we already know about the Wizarding World.  In short, the film simply is not well-written–a real surprise from a writer whom I have always admired for her detailed worldbuilding and carefully-placed foreshadowing.

The Crimes of Grindelwald will appeal to hardcore Harry Potter fans longing to learn more about the Wizarding World. It is hard not to love the film a little, despite its flaws, simply because we get to return to a world we love.  However, I cannot deny that The Crimes of Grindelwald is rather a muddle of a movie.

3 Stars

In Which I Think People Are Missing the Point of The Devil Wears Prada

Devil Wears Prada

Several weeks ago, I watched The Devil Wears Prada for the first time. The movie was released in 2006 (and the book, which I haven’t read, in 2003), so I thought I was a little late to this party.  Imagine my surprise, then, to come across recent articles on the Internet where people were talking about how much they loved the movie and how many times they’ve seen it.  Imagine my greater surprise to see many, many people saying how they think Andy’s boyfriend Nick is a horrible person for breaking up with her and “not supporting her career.” I generally try not to be too snarky online, but in my complete bafflement I must ask: Did these people even watch the same movie that I did???

The entire point of The Devil Wears Prada is to show how Andy’s career (and her boss, Miranda Priestly) take over her life in completely unreasonable ways. Even if we ignore the other issues the movie raises about the fashion magazine industry (for example, how much the employees are judged on appearance and how frequently Andy is insulted for being “too fat” or eating the “wrong” things), the core argument of the movie is that Andy is consumed by her job–and that she has to be consumed if she wants to keep it, if she wants what people in the industry call “success.”

Nick breaks up with Andy because he literally never sees her. One prime example is when Andy is responsible for delivering “the book” (the mock-up of the magazine issue) to Miranda.  “The book” isn’t done until 10 pm. Andy must wait in the office until it is done. Then, she must deliver it to Miranda’s home. Then she has to go to her own home (which is likely nowhere near Miranda’s since Miranda is rich and Andy is not). Basically, Andy probably got up at 6 am to go to work, and she will not return to her apartment until, say, midnight, when she will immediately go to sleep so she can get up at 6 am the next day.

It’s one thing for Nick to feel generally happy for Andy if this is the type of life she wants to lead (and the movie suggests it’s not anyway). It’s another thing to expect that Nick will stay in a relationship for someone he sees only on the weekends (and maybe not even then).  Nick-critics have argued, for instance, that he’s a baby for being upset that Andy misses his birthday celebrations because, as an adult, he should realize they can celebrate on a day that isn’t actually his birthday.  But the argument of the movie is that there is no other day. Andy will never be free.  She will never have more than a few minutes here and there to spend with him.

People may leave watching The Devil Wears Prada with different views on the fashion magazine industry. (Is it fair to expect this level of commitment from people? Should they have to choose between a career and a relationship? Between a career and any other outside interests? Is that what it honestly takes to be “the best?”)  However, Nick isn’t the one who signed up for the lifestyle; Andy is.  I think he gets a free pass for breaking up with someone he literally never sees anyway. That doesn’t make him a bad person; it makes him someone who actually wants a relationship with his girlfriend.

Briana

Movie Review: The Red Turtle (2016)

Information

Director: Michaël Dudok de Wit
Release: 2016

Summary

After a man is shipwrecked and marooned on a deserted island, he tries to escape.  Each time, however, he finds himself thwarted by a red turtle.  Then a woman arrives.  And the man is no longer so sure he wants to leave.

Review

The Red Turtle is a special film, 80 minutes without dialogue.  Emotion is conveyed through the music and the visuals.  It is quiet, repetitive, seemingly aimless.  It is the story of a life.  There is no plot.

This being said, I suspect that this is a film I did not fully understand.  I love Studio Ghibli and I was excited to watch The Red Turtle at last.  I expected beauty.  A delight in nature.  A quietly reflective film.  This was present.  But somehow, I just didn’t get it.  I found myself counting the minutes until the end.

Admitting as much makes me feel somewhat uncultured.  The film has been nominated for plenty of awards.  It would seem that other people see something in The Red Turtle that I do not.  Maybe one day I will watch it again and I will see something new.  But that day will not be for awhile.

Movie Review: Only Yesterday (1991)

Information

Director: Isao Takahata
Release: 1991

Summary

As twenty-seven-year-old Taeko goes to visit her relatives in the countryside, she begins to remember her fifth grade self.  Taeko has always lived in the city.  However, as she picks saffron flowers and begins to fall for a handsome farmer, she wonders if she’s living the life she has always wanted.

Review

Only Yesterday is a quietly reflective film, one that moves between past and present as Taeko attempts to discern who she was, who she is, and who she wants to be.  It is a not a plot-driven film, but rather a character-driven film.  Not all the pieces fall into place and some memories that emerge seem unrelated to much going on in Taeko’s adult life.  But it’s that randomness that makes the film feel so charming, so very real.

Taeko herself is an engaging character who will earn viewers’ sympathy with her dedication to hard work, her delight in beauty, and her spirit.  That spirit is somewhat hidden in the twenty-seven-year-old woman, but it emerges in Taeko’s recollections of herself as a fifth grader.  Quiet, easily embarrassed, and often childish and petulant, the fifth-grade Taeko still has hope in life.  She enjoys simple luxuries like a bath.  And she’s asking her future self to wake up and to move her life in a direction that will make her happy.

Fans of Studio Ghibli will want to check out Only Yesterday.  It is a heartfelt endeavor that emphasizes respect for the land and finding one’s self in nature.  At times the message may feel heavy-handed, but the message is sincere.  And it’s difficult not to want Taeko to buy into it and to find her happily ever after working on a farm.

4 stars