Thoughts on the two biggest pre-“Hobbit” Hollywood blockbusters of the season, both of which are playing at a theatre near you

I hadn’t heard of Suzanne Collins or her Hunger Games novels until the first film was released, and I watched it because I was asked to review it. Otherwise, I may have avoided it, the way I have managed to steer clear of the Twilight novels and movies. This isn’t snobbishness. I’m sure they’re a lot of fun. It’s just that you don’t have the time or the energy to keep track of (or keep getting into) every single pop culture mega-phenomenon, and I was probably quite content with having kept up with the Harry Potter series.

I followed every book religiously, awaited every film breathlessly, and got into which-is-better debates endlessly. I needed a break. But I quite liked the first Hunger Games film, which, in my reading, was a witty reimagining of school life as a literal war zone, where only the fittest will survive. I looked forward to the second one, called Catching Fire.

This time, though, I was lost. I found the film slow and uninvolving. The parts about the games are proficient thrill-generators — and how can they not be, with poisonous fog and savage apes and rival contestants who are even more savage? — but the film takes a long time to get there, and I still haven’t figured out the dynamics of the love triangle. Katniss seems to love Gale, but is she now falling for Peeta? Or is she just putting on an act, the way she’s been advised to?

I felt like all those who hadn’t read the Harry Potter books and complained that the films weren’t easily accessible, that they were filled with too much insider knowledge (that comes only from reading the books). I believe that it’s best to approach films with a blank slate, but with these films, maybe it’s best to prepare beforehand — if not with the books, then at least through the Wikipedia plot summary? Otherwise, it’s a little like playing a board game without knowing the rules.

I had a much better time at Frozen, another film I looked forward to. I loved Tangled, the earlier Disney animated film — and I believe that these charmingly retro fairy tale adaptations have turned out to be far more entertaining than the Pixar films, which, with the exception of Toy Story 3, have become increasingly formulaic. Of course, the Disney films follow a formula too.

Frozen has a message about true love a few too many power ballads. Most importantly, it has characters we’ve come to know as Cute Wisecracking Anthropomorphic Sidekicks, this time in the form of a reindeer, a family of trolls (they’re rocks, and they wear clothes made of moss), and, best of all, a carrot-nosed snowman named Olaf, who walks away with the movie. But there’s a difference between hewing to a formula and appearing formulaic — the former is comfort food for your wide-eyed inner child, the latter is cliché.

The animation, of course, is stunning. A block of ice looks like a block of ice — it has that crystalline opaqueness that must have taken the animators years and years to perfect. And when it snows, the 3-D makes it look like we’re trapped in a blizzard. But the Pixar films have fantastic animation as well. What makes Frozen (and Tangled) special is that the storytelling is old-fashioned in the best sense. There is no attempt to make the material contemporary, with hipness and pop culture allusions.

These films understand, as the ones made during the Walt Disney era did, that what draws us in is the timelessness of these tales. But to be fair to Pixar, these things come in cycles. We delighted in Toy Story, which came in 1995, a few months after the wan Pocahontas (from Disney), and Pixar went from strength to strength as the Disney animated films became... formulaic (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Mulan). And now, after almost two decades, the tide has turned.

My only major reservation with Frozen is about the songs. The “Broadway-style” tunes are generic and the lyrics (“Love is an open door/Life can be so much more”) are simple and banal. Perhaps this is intentional. You probably cannot have Stephen Sondheim levels of wordplay in a film whose primary audience is still in school, but for grown-ups (and for lovers of musicals), the charmless musical stretches are a drag. The greatest Broadway songwriting has wit, snap.

Take C’est moi, the number that Lancelot sings in Camelot: “A knight of the Table Round should be invincible,” he sings, and the rhyme comes later, in the line “No matter the pain, he ought to be unwinceable.” That’s not even a word, but it fits right in. It’s memorable because it makes us smile, and because it’s such a clever rhyme, and because it’s so... right. And it can be grasped even as it’s being sung on screen.

But if that’s too adult a musical, consider A spoonful of sugar in Mary Poppins: “A robin feathering his nest / Has very little time to rest / While gathering his bits of twine and twig / Though quite intent in his pursuit / He has a merry tune to toot / He knows a song / Will move the job along.” This is unquestionably child-friendly, and yet what clever little rhymes these are: nest/rest, pursuit/toot. A song in a musical isn’t just about the tune but also about the lyrics, and the best musicals serenade us with heart (the music) as well as head (lyrics).

Only Olaf manages that in Frozen, singing, “Bees a-buzz / kissable dandelion fuzz / And I’ll be doin’ whatever snow does in summer / A drink in my hand / My snow up against the burning sand / Probably getting gorgeously tanned in summer.” Not only are the rhymes fresh (buzz/fuzz, hand/sand/tanned), the tune mirrors perfectly the silliness of a snowman anticipating summer. Head, heart — it’s all there.


The pressures of not putting pen to paperJanuary 10, 2014

Back on the big screenJanuary 17, 2014