Sunday, August 24, 2014

Tangled vs Frozen Round 1: The Music

Round 1: The Music

What would a Disney animated movie be without music? Atlantis: The Lost Empire, that's what it would be.  And nobody wants that.

I know, we thought if we never spoke of this movie
we could all forget it ever happened.


A good movie will have consistent themes running through its soundtrack that give a sense of coherency to the overall narrative. Tangled , as Disney's 50th animated motion picture, had the design goal of blending the classic with the modern. This is easiest to see in the animation, which I will explain in more detail later. But it can also be heard in its soundtrack. According to directors Nathan Greno and Byron Howard (who had previously directed Bolt), “This is not a big Broadway kind of musical. We look at it as more in touch with classic Disney films of the 50’s where music is a key element in the storytelling. It has that classic 40’s and 50’s Disney kind of feel but at the same time we’re making these movies for a contemporary audience. It’s great to acknowledge our roots while being non-traditional but not cynical,” Howard added.

For Tangled, Disney brought in 8 time Academy Award winning composer, Alan Menken. He was the composer behind the music of the famed Disney Renaissance, having scored The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Hercules. As with the Gospel musical theme of Hercules, Menken found that the Rapunzel's long hair and driving need for freedom was reminiscent of Joni Mitchell and the rock movement of the 60's. Thus, a focus on blending classical orchestral 'fairy tale' instruments with acoustic guitar and upbeat melodies created a musical palette for the seasoned composer. 

They even added a quick shot of her doing a Woodstock
style performance during the song "When Will My Life Begin?"

"This was not song-driven," Menken elaborated. "When it’s not song-driven, it’s more of a trick to have characters break into song. It took a lot of work to achieve that balance. This is not a classic musical. It could become one, but this is a hybrid." 

So, with Tangled we have a soundtrack that blends classic Disney orchestral musical with 60's guitar rock.  

For Frozen, Disney brought in Robert Lopez (best known for his work on The Book of Mormon musical) and his wife, Kristen Anderson-Lopez.  They drew their inspiration from snowy Brooklyn, while composer Christopher Becke orchestral score seems to be a refreshing blend of Scandinavian and Sámi influences combined with more generic House of Mickey background blends. 

While Tangled's Mandy Moore was a good fit to the singer-songwriter acoustic vibe, Frozen's Idina Menzel (Wicked) and Josh Gad (The Book of Mormon) more than justified a heavily Broadway musical influence.  Sadly, Tony-nominated Jonathan Groff was under-utilized with only a one-off ditty about reindeer love.

Frozen embraces the 'sing the story' strategy of a musical, and while it lacks thematic coherency and suffers from inconsistent quality in the songs, it also benefits from bigger show-stopping numbers to balance out the weaker parts.

Now, to look at the musical numbers themselves.  I'll be analyzing the scene, how it fits into the overall narrative of the story, visual elements, and explicating the lyrics, as well as my general, less informed impression of the music itself.  Fortunately, JT Eberhard has agreed to lend his musical expertise and will be sharing his thoughts.  In addition to being a fantastic writer, he has a degree in music and a great deal of training in this sort of thing. 

Frozen Heart (Frozen)

This song exists primarily to introduce the audience to the Scandinavian setting, as well as to introduce Kristoff and Sven as characters.  The lyrics also foreshadow Elsa's powers, chanting about the dangerous beauty of the ice and cold.  The sequence, with the aurora sky and the translucent ice is a good visual fit for the aesthetics of the movie.  Unfortunately, the song itself is bland and forgettable and doesn't fit at all with the rest of the music of this movie.  Also, where are this kid's parents?  Is he being raised communally by arctic lumber jacks at this point in the story?  No one seems to mind if he's underfoot here, but then no one seems to care when he wanders off to be raised by trolls.  


When Will My Life Begin? (Tangled)

This song introduces Rapunzel and tells us a great deal about her motivation and personality.  We see right away her cheerful optimism and enthusiasm, her artistic creativity, and most endearingly, her thirst for learning and natural curiosity.  These traits survive despite the repetitive monotony of her captivity and are a testament to her resilience.  She is rereading books, studying the stars, and fascinated by the lights that appear outside her window.  This song also introduces one of the primary tensions of the story: Rapunzel's curiosity and desire to explore the world set against her moral obligation to be a dutiful daughter. She dives into activities, chores, anything to keep her mind off of that tempting window to the world outside, but when it inevitably catches her eye, the music's upbeat, almost frantic distractions slow to a slow, acoustic, wistful guitar while the lyrics leave the repetitive list of the present to set themselves on her hopes for the future.

Tomorrow night,
Lights will appear 
Just like they do on my birthday each year.
What is it like
Out there where they glow? 
Now that I'm older,
Mother might just
Let me go....

The sudden shift in tempo illustrates the tension that exists between what she wants and what she believes she should want.  Her words are tinged with cautious optimism.  It is clear that this isn't the first year she's noticed the lights, nor the first time she has asked to see them.  The audience can picture a young Rapunzel asking every year the same question.  This line from this song and the accompanying musical contrast sets from the very opening of the film the primary motivations for our protagonist.  She wants to see those floating lights and the world they belong to.

On an animation level, this scene is fun to watch.  The frantic pace of her movements match the song's initial tempo, showing the audience Rapunzel's familiarity with her confining surroundings, as well as her dexterity with her signature long hair.  She uses it as an extra appendage more often than not, a fact that will be important to the story later.  We also see Pascal's role as loyal, silent supporting character.


Do You Want to Build a Snowman? (Frozen)

This an exposition song, showing the rift that grows between the two sisters due to Elsa's isolation and Anna's loneliness.  We also see her parents trying unsuccessfully to help Elsa control her powers.  Then we see the parents inevitable death (parents in the Disney universe must have outrageous life insurance premiums).  The song begins cute ("Hang in there, Joan!") but ends with an almost soul-crushing loneliness that really works to set up the tension between the two sisters.  The melody manages to maintain a strain of childlike innocence and hopelessness at the same time, an impressive feat.

It works better in the film than as a stand alone song, due to the long periods of exposition between verses, but that being said, this remains one of the strongest songs in Frozen and lays a lot of character establishing groundwork.


Mother Knows Best (Tangled)

Where to begin? This is one of the great Disney villain anthems.  We're introduced to Mother Gothel and her manipulative nature.  Each line of the song is designed to instill fear in Rapunzel, cut her down, make her feel inadequate and ultimately keep her reliant on the protection of her tower and on Gothel herself.  She calls Rapunzel 'pet' and 'flower' while stroking her hair lovingly without regard to the rest of her.  To Gothel, Rapunzel is a possession, not a person.  This makes it all the more chilling when we have the "I love you" "I love you more," "I love you most".  It is a mantra they've clearly said many times in their relationship, and illustrates how easily love can be twisted into something cruel and possessive. We also see glimpses of back story: "You know why we stay up in the tower." This isn't the first time they've had this discussion.

The animation is some of Disney's best, utilizing light and shadow to create a sense of imbalance and uncertainty (made more nefarious as we see Gothel actively extinguishing the candles Rapunzel is lighting).

The melody is catchy and dramatic, showing off Gothel's diva side.  It also works thematically in contrast with Rapunzel's theme, "When Will My Life Begin?".  While Rapunzel is characterized by her youthful optimism and the teenage rebellion evoked by 60's acoustic guitar anthems, Gothel's song is an old-timey Broadway show-stopper that mirrors her vanity, old age, and ego.  Having Tony award winning Broadway veteran Donna Murphy sing it makes perfect sense.  The song has an almost playful, romantic melody that is horrifically contrasted with the abusive lyrics and the final "Don't ever ask to leave this tower again."  The menace Murphy puts into that phrase leaves little doubt that Mother Gothel will present a truly dangerous antagonist as the movie progresses.


For the First Time in Forever (Frozen)

What starts as an easily forgettable song becomes catchy in the chorus, especially when Elsa joins for the contrasting duet. We learn of Anna's motivations, which she seems to realize about halfway through the number ("I can't wait to meet everyone! Oh! What if I meet THE one?").

The harmony is interesting in that it shows the differing natures of the sisters' motivations (Conceal Don't Feel vs Meet Someone).  For the animation, Anna's leaping mimicry of the paintings tells us that she has been alone in that room for a long time, underlining her own loneliness and calling back to her talking to the paintings in the previous song.  Side note, the painting The Swing by French artist Fragonard was used as one of the Roccoco paintings that influenced the art direction of Tangled.
One more Tangled/Frozen connection!

Unfortunately, some of the lyrics to this song are just awful.  "I don't know if I'm elated or gassy, but I'm somewhere in that zone!" and "It'll be totally strange! Wow, am I so ready for this change!" just feel like lazy writing.  I know they're trying to illustrate how adorably awkward Anna is, but I am just a bit burnt out on the 'adorkable' cliche that Hollywood has been shoving down our throats since Zooey Deschanel started showing up in everything.

Despite its lyrical failings, the song ends on a high note, and is useful to contrast the two princesses' differing ways of seeing this important day.  Plus, this song has the much discussed Rapunzel and Flynn cameo, so bonus for that (at minute 3:00 if you missed it).


When Will My Life Begin (Reprise) (Tangled)

That ongoing tension of curiosity against duty from the first When Will My Life Begin comes to a head here "Should I...? No! Here I go!" Followed by triumphant orchestral swells as she frees herself at last. Look at her face just before she hits the grass.  She tentatively touches it with bare feet and then there's a small laugh of relief.  This is something Disney did very well with Tangled.  Show, don't tell.  We see that she's never touched grass before, never set foot outside of her tower.  There is trepidation, hesitation, fear but it is all soon swallowed up in relief and exhilaration.  This is exactly how she dreamed it would be.  Watch the way this scene is shot, look at how the camera stays focused on her face, giving us her expressive wonder at the wider world while keeping the audience surprised along with her.  We hear the splash before we see the stream so we can be as surprised and delighted by it as Rapunzel is.

I could go running, and racing, and dancing, and chasing, and leaping, and bounding, hair flying, heart pounding, and splashing and reeling and finally feeling....

A good reprise echoes and contrasts the first version of the song, answering questions of complimenting the narrative elements first introduced.  While the original When Will My Life Begin was a series of mundane and routine tasks quickly and optimistically listed before wondering when her life would begin (ie. when will she be able to make her own choices), the reprise of the song has a certain symmetry.  Now she is listing in even more rapid enthusiasm all the verbs that were previously forbidden to her.  It is a pent up laundry list of 18 years worth of emotional and physical experiences that were impossible to have while inside her tower.  Then, she answers the question.  Now is when her life begins.

Note too, in this sequence, how little Flynn is actually involved.  This is Rapunzel's moment.  Her choice to leave the tower.  Her agency.  The camera zooms right past him the moment she makes up her mind and he disappears from the scene.  The movie was originally named Rapunzel before a marketing team decided that it would limit the audience to only girls.  While Flynn is a protagonist in his own right and goes on his own character development journey, there is no doubt that this movie and this scene in particular is Rapunzel's story.


Love is an Open Door (Frozen)

This song is quirky, catchy, and a fun duet.  On one level, it functions as the closest thing to a villain song that Frozen has, though this isn't apparent until later.  We learn more about Anna's character, her fear of isolation and impulsive tendency to make very poor decisions.  As a duet, it is also supposed to show us Han's motivation, but this turns out to be a cheap trick (more on that later).

Some of the lyrics are groan worthy.  "Maybe its the party talking, or the chocolate fondue" makes me wonder exactly how much alcohol is in Scandinavian fondue.  According to songwriters, the Arrested Development reference was accidental, but still distracting to the AD fans in the audience.

The duet does manage to be a clever parody of the "Love at First Sight" duet that older Disney movies relied on.

My only other issue with this sequence is the robot dance.

This happened and I'm not going to Let it Go....


I've Got a Dream (Tangled)

A rowdy song about not judging somebody based solely on their looks becomes a medieval biker gang performing Vaudeville.  And it is brilliant.  If Monty Python and the song Gaston from Beauty and the Beast had a child, this would be it.
Flynn remains one of the only Disney characters
to find it strange when people randomly burst into song.

The lyrics are clever, with lines like "And violence-wise, my hands are not the cleanest" as he non-chalantly gestures to a chalk outline of a body on the floor or "though I may like breakin' femurs, you can count me with the dreamers!"

I also love the contrast between the brutal names and the gentle, domestic hobbies.  "Bruiser knits, Killer sews, Fang does little puppet shows, and Vladmir collects ceramic unicorns!"

Flynn and Pascal are very confused by this whole scene, hanging a subtle lampshade on a common trope for Disney musicals.  Still, we are able to learn about Flynn's dreams here, which are largely mercenary.  More importantly is what we learn about Rapunzel.  Her courage (in trying to save Flynn from bounty hunters) is juxtaposed with her natural charisma.  Her enthusiasm for wanting more out of life brings out the inner philosophers in the most hardened of criminals, and she finds herself making lifelong friends on this bit of common ground.


Let it Go (Frozen)

Here it is.  The song that was impossible to escape last year.  The raison d'être for the entire film. And honestly? For good reason.  This is the song that had the writers change the villain from Elsa to Hans, and though the story suffers a little for the last minute revision (more on that later), it is a small price to pay for this show-stopper.

This is the showcase for the Wickedly talented Idina Menzel, and she nails it.   There isn't much I can say about the music here that hasn't been said, and JT will speak more to it, so let us look instead at the establishing shot for the scene.  We see an enormous, solitary mountain.  This isolated setting is the perfect visual for a song about going your own way and doing your own thing.  She has willingly isolated herself from her responsibilities and her people, and the far shot of the mountain really emphasizes that.

The lyrics show a meaningful change in her character, moving away from 'conceal, don't feel' to a 'no right, no wrong, no rules for me, I'm free!' direction.  Is this growth? No, not exactly, and that's the brilliance of it. She is changing, and not necessarily in the right direction.  Character development doesn't always have to mean growth.  Sometimes characters, like real people, will develop in ways that are not necessarily any better than how they started. The selfishness of her words are not vindictive, but it is clear that she hasn't thought about how her actions effect anyone else yet (something she will realize later).  "The cold never bothered me anyway", is just fine for Elsa, but it is quite troubling for everyone else.

As an added bonus, this song upset a lot of religious bloggers, who read into it some sort of gay pride anthem.  "The gay agenda to normalize homosexuality is woven into Disney's movie Frozen not just as an underlying message - it is the movie. In a liberal culture tenacious at normalizing immorality, stripping those of faith from their ability to speak out in opposition, this needs to be taken seriously," laments one well-behaved Mormon lady whose bigoted, fear-mongering tirade somehow went viral.

I very much enjoyed the backlash, as well as the irony of a woman who thinks an evil fallen angel has infiltrated Disney HQ and is using his corrupt influence to trick kids into being kind to people who are different.

Aesthetically, this is the scene where the ice special effects of the animation really shine, so to speak.  Elsa's ice palace is a joy to see grow organically from her sense of liberation, and the audience is as excited to see her revel in her long-repressed powers as Elsa herself seems to be.

The only complaint I can really see with this song is how it went viral, permeating every corner of youtube with innumerable covers.  Still, that is hardly the fault of the song itself, and if anything, is a testament to how catchy it is.


Healing Incantation (Tangled)

This song is repeated in the movie often, as it is used to trigger the magical healing properties of the flower and later Rapunzel's hair.  The wistful melody compliments lyrics that paint a picture of longing in the face of loss.  The nature of that loss and the selfishness of the longing change depending on when the song is used and by whom.

Watch her expression.  This is an important moment in their relationship, where Rapunzel is showing vulnerability.  She has been told all her life that ruffians will try to steal and use her for her magic hair, and she has been tight lipped about it until just recently.  In addition, she is beginning to develop feelings for Flynn, and does not want to frighten him away with her admittedly bizarre secret.

The song is more of a plot device than a musical number, but I've included it here because of how wonderfully they managed to work music into a thread of the story, giving the excuse to have a recurring musical theme without becoming too much of a musical.


Reindeer(s) are Better Than People (Frozen)

This brief aside shows Kristoff's misanthropic nature, and is a fun way to see Kristoff and Sven's 'best buddies' vibe.  It is short and humorous and doesn't do much for the story.  It was added as a way to get the talented singer, Johnathon Groff, to be able to sing something so as not to completely waste his talent.  Beyond that, there isn't much to say.  I found the song enjoyable and short enough that it didn't derail the story.


Mother Knows Best (Reprise) (Tangled)

The second reprise of the movie, this time it is a villain's song.  Gothel is trying her normal manipulation techniques but this time we get to see the growth Rapunzel has experienced on her hero's journey.  She cuts off Gothel's words with a resounding 'No!', contrasting her new-found strength with her earlier weakness.  This scene could have been done with dialogue but using a reprise adds brilliant symmetry and really highlights how far the hero has come on her coming of age journey.


In Summer (Frozen)

Here we are introduced to the character of Olaf, an animate snowman that was surprisingly not as annoying as the trailers suggested.   He is naively optimistic, dreaming of a season that would spell his certain doom.  His childlike optimism fits when you consider that he is likely the mental age of the girls that first created him at the beginning of the movie.  The cartoon-like visuals perfectly match his delusion, all the way down to the soft shoeing seagull   The timing of the song is a welcome bit of lighthearted comedy after the dark tones and action-heavy chase sequences that led to this point in the film.  The melody is somewhat catchy and some of the lyrics are truly clever.


Kingdom Dance (Tangled)

This might be my favorite sequence of the entire film.  I can't stop watching it.  It isn't a song in the traditional 'sing our feelings' sort of way but this is a prime example of how Disney can tell a story using only music and visuals.  Remember what I said earlier about 'show, don't tell?'  This is exactly that.

We get so much information here without having to rely on lyrics.  Look at her expression when she sees the kingdom of her birth for the first time since infancy.  They tackle the logistics of having very, very long hair in a crowded city.  We see Flynn and Rapunzel's relationship start to reach the point where they realize there is something is so obvious that even Maximus sees it.

Visually we're treated to a lush, colorful kingdom that really explores the color palette of the movie.  Deep greens, lush purples, and the royal sunburst emblem adorn the banners and chalk drawings of the cobblestones.  This is a city full of love and life, and Rapunzel fits right in.  It feels as if she's coming home, as if she's never left.  These are her people, and she charms them as she did the ruffians in the tavern, with her enthusiasm and tangible goodness.

The dance and the melody build with a frenetic energy that climaxes and suddenly stops with Flynn and Rapunzel in each other's arms, carried there by a dance that seems out of their control, much like the sequence of events that led to this moment.  The crescendo builds and suddenly stops abruptly, setting the stage perfectly for the next musical number and the realization of both of their dreams.


For the First Time in Forever (reprise) (Frozen)

The reprise of this song again focuses on the difference between what the two sisters want.  It is more musically complex than a lot of the other songs on this soundtrack.  Again, some of the lyrics are a bit distracting.  "Arendelle is in deep, deep, deep, deep...snow.  You kind of set off an eternal winter?"  I know this is how teenage girls actually talk, but it still feels pretty lazy.

Visually, the growing snowstorm is a nice touch.  As Elsa loses control of her emotions, the wind and snow build while the frantic, polyphonic harmony of the duet becomes more intense.  This is another scene that could have happened with just dialogue and I'm glad they went for a reprise instead, though the spoken parts feel operatic and clunky.


I See the Light (Tangled)

This scene is Tangled's ballroom moment from Beauty and the Beast.  It is the love song combined with fantastic visual effects that still leave me breathless.  We have Menken's palette of classic and contemporary mingled here with folk guitar blending in with classical chords.The lyrics, the melody, and the aesthetics have a beautiful simplicity to them that contrast well with the fast-paced montage of Kingdom Dance.  This is further emphasized by the mist creating a soft, almost dream-like quality to the scene in stark contrast with the HD crispness movie-goers are used to from the 3D genre.

It is less a love anthem and more of a climax of their journey.  It is the film's emotional peak, the realization of their original dreams and the moment where they find new dreams.  45,000 individual lanterns were animated for this sequence, making it the most visually impressive moment I have ever seen in a Disney movie.

This is also an important moment for the characters.  Rapunzel retains her enthusiasm but now we see Flynn's cynical, roguish facade start to crack.  She charmed the ruffians, the citizens of her kingdom, and finally her enthusiastic optimism has even penetrated his sarcastic, world-weary front.  They both realize now that they have reached their dreams (riches, the floating lights) that they have both changed and now want different things.  "Do you know what I mean?" "I'm starting to..."  It is the moment that we've been building to the entire movie and it feels well-deserved and well-executed.

Some have criticized it as being derivative of The Little Mermaid's boat scene or the magic carpet ride of A Whole New World, but I think it visually outshines both of them.  The song itself is kept simple stylistically and feels more like a backdrop for the moment in the story and the lanterns themselves, rather than a musical number designed to sing about how in love they are.


Fixer Upper (Frozen)

So the premise here is Kristoff is bringing a girl home to his raucous, large, family who comically misreads their relationship.  Hijinks ensue.  The lyrics continue to un-subtly repeat the theme of the movie: "People make bad choices if they're mad or scared or stressed, but throw a little love their way and you'll bring out their best!"

The whole number has a very Fraggle Rock vibe to it and I can't believe I missed the bestiality joke the first time I saw this. "And his thing with the reindeer that's a little outside of nature's laws!"  The overall message is mixed.  He needs work and you can change him but you can't really change him because people don't change but you should love him because love fixes everything.  The music manages to be incongruous with the rest of the soundtrack as well as instantly forgettable.  It is an an unfortunate song to end the soundtrack. Some sort of duet with Anna and Elsa or even the underutilized Kristoff and Anna would have been a nicer note to end on.


Something That I Want (Tangled)

First, I love the animation style here.  It is lighthearted and fun and reminds me of early Disney animation, (specifically Robin Hood, Aristocats, 101 Dalmations and Winnie the Pooh). The song itself is upbeat and brings back that 60's rock vibe that fits with the overall musical theme of the movie.  As far as end credits songs go, Grace Potter doesn't do a bad job, though this isn't a stand out number either.  I'm perfectly happy leaving the theater to this song and not listening to it again.  It isn't bad, just not memorable or something I'll find myself singing to myself later.


Saturday, August 23, 2014

Tangled vs Frozen

It was November of 2013 and the United States was in the middle of one of the coldest winters in recent history. Ice and snow covered the continent like a Bizarro-world blanket and pundits were competing to see who could use the word 'Snowpocalypse' the most often and with the least irony. Meanwhile, a growing number of Millenials were coming of age, bringing with them concerns about gender equality, misogyny, and a certain level of cynicism towards tradition. Lastly, the success of Glee, Pitch Perfect, Wicked, and the Book of Mormon musical joined stars like Neil Patrick Harris in bringing Broadway musicals into the pop culture consciousness like never before.

It was the perfect snowstorm. America didn't stand a chance.

Frozen dominated the winter of my discontent. On March 2, 2014, its 101st day of release, it surpassed the $1 billion mark. It was lauded by critics as the best Disney film since Beauty and the Beast. The show-stopping "Let it Go" went viral, with adorable children and talented voice actors making covers that easily surpassed 25,000,000 views on Youtube. Statistically, it is almost certain that merely reading the preceding sentence has gotten Idina Menzel's voice belting those three words in your head for the rest of the day.

Soon, it will be a year since Frozen debuted and the praise has begun to cool. It currently has a respectable 89% freshness rating on meta-criticism site Rotten Tomatoes, with 87% approval by the audience. By strange coincidence, this is exactly the same two scores the movie Tangled received. However, Tangled suffered from a botched Dreamworks-eque marketing campaign and received nowhere near the initial media frenzy and pop culture penetration. Now that we can step back and look at Frozen with a little critical distance, it is time to compare these two films and decide which is the greater piece of art.