Warning: Spoilers for Frozen and The Lego Movie
The big new animated movie of the summer is set to be How To Train Your Dragon 2. At the least, it may provide a break for families who’ve been consumed by two animated films in the last seven months.
Just when the phenomenon that was Frozen began to die down a tiny bit, The Lego Movie came along to pick up the animated baton. Although almost no one expected either Frozen or The Lego Movie to take off like they did, with both critics and audiences, they have become impossible to ignore even months after their release. Now that The Lego Movie is out on Blu-Ray, it and Frozen are destined to babysit kids – and even a lot of adults – at home for months, just as they did in theaters.
Although Frozen and The Lego Movie are about as different as possible on the surface, they used a lot from the same bag of tricks to conquer the animated landscape. Here are the similar elements that show how a new breed of Disney princesses/queens, and a new breed of multi-purpose building blocks, became the biggest runaway hits since last fall.
Defying low expectations
Disney almost always makes money with animated films, and had been on a nice mini winning-streak with Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph before Frozen came along. There was a good chance it would have become a hit and won over fans, but no one expected a billion-dollar behemoth that everyone would sing along to for months.
Nevertheless, those tempered expectations were a lot higher than those for The Lego Movie. The very idea of making a full length movie from Legos seemed absurd, if not a downright corporate shill job. The only ones who might have had hope were those who knew that Phil Lord and Christopher Miller – who turned the absurd idea of making a 21 Jump Street movie into a surprise success – were at the helm. Otherwise, there was little reason to expect anything special, to coin a phrase.
Hiding the special parts from the trailers
Frozen succeeded in spite of one of the most misleading marketing campaigns ever. Every ad and trailer presented the most generic parts of the story, and were mostly dominated by the talking snowman Olaf – with Princess Anna and especially Queen Elsa virtually non-existent.
There was virtually nothing to indicate that this was really a story about fractured sisters, that the cursed queen at the center was much more than a villain, and that Olaf actually had deeper meaning to the story other than to sell toys. What’s more, they even hid the song “Let It Go” until it took over the Internet and the entire world.
By sheer accident, the poor ad campaign for Frozen worked to its benefit, once everyone found out what was really in store. At that point, word of mouth took over and provided the best advertising possible. If the trailers had accurately reflected what kind of movie Frozen really was in advance, then who knows how much bigger or smaller it would have been.
The Lego Movie wasn’t as egregiously misleading in its ads, since it did give away that an ordinary Lego construction worker would save the world. It was also more upfront in leaking its signature theme song “Everything Is Awesome” in advance. Regardless, the trailers didn’t give away just how meta and satirical the story really was, or how these little Legos poked at the very fabric of the movie adventure formula.
Like with Frozen, the elements that really made The Lego Movie special were hidden away, until people actually saw them in theaters – then kept coming back for more. In that regard, the success of these movies reflects a time where all the best parts of every film weren’t given away in trailers, and needed to be seen in full context.
Doubling down on meta commentary
The Disney fairy tale movie formula has been mocked and parodied for decades, especially by Shrek and other pretenders. Disney had already spoofed itself with Enchanted, but this was one of its first fully animated films to mock the studio’s time honored stereotypes. The minute Queen Elsa tells her sister that she can’t marry a man she just met, it not only sets the action in motion, it debunks over 70 years of “love at first sight” Disney animated love stories – in increasingly brutal ways, as it turns out.
This spirit is carried over right to the end, as the notion of “an act of true love” takes on a different meaning than Disney usually goes for. By then, Frozen had already set itself apart from the Disney filmography – at least just enough to look like it was blazing a new trail.
For The Lego Movie, it’s satire doesn’t come as sharply out of nowhere, at least for those familiar with Lord and Miller. Like in 21 Jump Street, they knowingly use a generic storyline that’s been done in dozens of hits before, and make light of the formula and its stereotypes at every turn. But they go even deeper down the meta hole in the third act, as they turn out to draw from much more than Legos and movie epics.
With so many tongue in cheek layers – many of which come as a total surprise – The Lego Movie turns out to have much more on its mind than the simple setup would suggest. Frozen worked the same way, which helped it get embraced by much more than just the initial target audience too. As such, it wasn’t just little kids who needed to go back to these films for multiple looks.
Insanely catchy, multi-layered theme songs
Even before John Travolta bungled Idina Menzel’s name at the Oscars, Frozen had been immortalized for all time by her work on the song “Let It Go.” It’s now hard to remember a time where people of all ages weren’t singing along to it, posting their cover songs of it online, claiming it as a theme song for repressed people of all walks of life, and hailing it as an inspiration.
However, it may take a few renditions to see that “Let It Go” isn’t all about really letting go. After all, despite how Elsa is letting herself run free for the first time in 13 years, she is technically locking herself away in yet another castle – made of ice this time — and shutting the door on her sister and the rest of the world like she’s always done. In that regard, it isn’t a song about freedom as much as it is about another form of Elsa’s self-imprisonment, if one really digs deep down. And of course, it is a deceptive freedom that collapses in on itself before long.
Regardless, the vast majority of audiences still sung along to “Let It Go” for months – then stopped just long enough for The Lego Movie‘s “Everything Is Awesome” to invade their brains. It was much less emotionally complex and less suited for Broadway than “Let It Go”, yet it was another animated tune that just would not get out of anyone’s head.
But like “Let It Go,” “Everything Is Awesome” has more troubling meanings under the surface. While it is a catchy song of unity for main character Emmitt and the audience, it is really an ode to conformity and blind obedience that keeps the masses enthralled to evil Lord Business. Then when the final revelations about the Lego society come to light, it can be read as an even deeper ode to blind denial and an orderly way of life at all costs.
Most movie fans will keep singing along to “Let It Go” and “Everything Is Awesome” for years to come. Yet while they might mean to sing about personal freedom, unity and endlessly catchy melodies, there are many less uplifting themes lurking underneath those infectious hooks.
Game-changing third act twists
Although both Frozen and The Lego Movie use slightly unconventional tactics in their first two acts, it still looks like they are headed for conventional endings in the third act.
But just before predictability sets in, Frozen comes almost out of nowhere with a twist about a key supporting character that shifts the entire landscape – and sets the stage for the later twist on the conventional “act of true love” ending. As for The Lego Movie, Emmitt’s supposed destiny to save the Lego realm from Lord Business takes on a stunning new meaning, once the real truth about the universe is revealed – setting the stage for an outcome more touching than a typical epic final battle.
These game-changing twists may come out of nowhere at first glance, especially in Frozen. But in future viewings, it is more obvious that they were being set up and layered in the entire time, which makes these movies look quite different the second time around. Not only do these surprises throw further wrenches into the formulas these films have mocked all along, they each set up more unconventional climaxes that leave a lump in viewer’s throats – even in The Lego Movie.
Emotional character animation
Even if the storytelling wasn’t up to snuff, Frozen and The Lego Movie would be appreciated for their visual splendor no matter what. But the true visual wonder is in the characters themselves, and how they give better acting performances than most of their human contemporaries.
Elsa is an acting tour de force onto herself, with her fearful body language, constant wrenching conflict and regret on her face, and her rare moments of joy. In fact, “Let It Go” is as uplifting for Elsa’s long overdue smiles and childlike wonder than it is for the music and Menzel’s voice. That is why it has to be seen in the movie, not just listened to on the soundtrack.
Lego’s aren’t designed to have much emotional range, and are much more restricted in their movements. Yet in The Lego Movie, there are still moments when the tiny, limited little face of Emmitt gets to convey a lot of emotion. In the scenes when Emmitt sees what his co-workers really think of him, and when he makes his final plea to Lord Business, it shows the best acting by a children’s toy since the Toy Story films.
Spot on voices
While Frozen has become synonymous with Menzel’s vocal work, it would be criminal to forget the comic and singing stylings of Kristen Bell as Anna. But the real casting coup was Josh Gad, who has often been irritating in his non Book of Mormon parts, and was voicing a character in Olaf that seemed tailor made to irritate. Yet Gad and Olaf became the most scene stealing Disney sidekick pair since Robin Williams and Aladdin’s Genie.
The Lego Movie had a bigger name all-star cast, with Chris Pratt setting the bar for his unlikely live action superhero in Guardians of the Galaxy, Will Arnett as one of the most perfectly cast Batman’s in any realm, and added help from Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks, Nick Offerman, Alison Brie and Charlie Day. But the real coups were Liam Neeson and Morgan Freeman, two once great actors who’ve wasted away in paycheck roles for some time – and yet got to be more lively and funny as Lego’s than they’ve been as humans for years.
Putting audiences through the emotional wringer
For all the catchy Broadway tunes, pretty snow powers and talking snowmen, Frozen is often one big downer of a movie. The low expectations and misleading trailers never hinted at how painful the separation of Elsa and Anna, and their struggles to be united again, would be. In fact, the entire “Do You Want To Build A Snowman” montage and the second half of the opening coronation ball sets a tear-jerking pall that only “Let It Go” can cure.
Of course, The Lego Movie isn’t as much of an emotional movie, as it is more concerned with satirical comedy and action – for the most part. But when the revelations of the third act come about, and when the true meaning of the battle for the Lego universe unfolds, viewers – especially fathers and sons – may be surprised to get a little something in their eye by the end.
When Frozen and The Lego Movie first opened, not everyone may have expected to feel these feelings, to get music so thoroughly stuck in their heads, or to see such new ways in taking on old formulas. But millions got that swept away over the last seven months anyway, making these two unlikely animated hits some of the most profitable and acclaimed movies of any genre in the last year – for obvious, similar reasons.