Holiday titles offer a two-fer review
There are a number of titles hitting theaters over the Thanksgiving break, so here is a two-fer, featuring the more buzzed-about titles:
In Disney’s perpetual franchise-milking factory, there was little doubt that its singular original princess picture “Frozen” would never be a one-and-done hit. After banking a billion dollars in ticket sales, becoming the studio’s highest-grossing animated film of all time, spawning a stage production, and raking in countless additional dollars in merchandising sales (so much so that even Disney reported the film created “brand fatigue”), “Frozen II” was inevitable.
Six years after the release of the original, the question remained, just what would filmmakers do? Would they steer into bold, uncharted territory that reflects the new ages of the original’s former target audience? Or would they play it safe and stick to what made the first so successful, but more of it?
Picking up three years after the last film, we spend the first few scenes getting reacquainted with our leads: the snow-making Queen Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel), her sassy sister Princess Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell), Anna’s hunky log-splitting beau Kristoff (voiced by Jonathan Graff) with his reindeer Sven, and their frolicking frosty friend Olaf (voiced by Josh Gad).
All is blissfully boring in their kingdom of Arendelle (so much so they dedicate an entire musical number to how little changes). But the gang find their kingdom in jeopardy from ancient natural forces, which leads Elsa and Anna into the unknown just outside their kingdom. And even with this wind-up, the film never once feels like it’s going off into anything remotely dangerous or uncharted.
It’s particularly beautiful and richly animated, and while the characters break into songs about coping with change, the film itself seldom strays from its origins. In fact, “Frozen II” seems more fitting for a new title to be released on the Disney Plus streaming service than a theatrical release.
The songs, once again written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, are ritualistically rousing, but none hint at the earworm longevity of “Let it Go,” or “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” Audiences are more likely to exit the theater humming those numbers than anything heard here.
The film feels crafted from carefully calibrated focus-group tabulations and will certainly satisfy the countless kiddos that will flood theaters over Thanksgiving break, but “Frozen II” will more likely send them home to stream the original on Disney Plus rather than back for repeat viewings at the theater.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Those looking for a biopic on the late Fred Rogers would be best to check out last year’s documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.” In fact, even though beloved children’s television icon Fred Rogers is front and center in all the marketing, he is not the central character of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.”
That would be Lloyd Vogel (played by Matthew Rhys), a version of Esquire magazine writer Tom Junod, whose 1998 article was the inspiration for the film. When we first meet Lloyd, he looks like he’s far from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood: cynical, caustic and with a hair-trigger temper. We learn fairly quickly that the source of his conflict is his estranged pop (played by Chris Cooper), with whom he comes to blows at his own sister’s wedding.
Lloyd pours everything into his work, which often means his wife and infant son take a back seat. His reputation has even followed him to his office, where his editor assigns him to write a piece on the immortal Fred Rogers (played by Tom Hanks), because, as his editor states, Rogers was one of the few subjects willing to be interviewed by Lloyd.
Determined to dig beneath the “character” of Fred Rogers, Lloyd begins to realize that there may not actually be another side, and that, in fact, Rogers is the real deal. Meanwhile, Rogers takes the times they spend together to interview Lloyd as well. Rogers sees the pain in Lloyd’s life and realizes that underneath his gruff exterior, there is a genuinely good person.
The filmmakers have structured “Beautiful Day’s” storyline to resemble an episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” right down to Mr. McFeely delivering Rogers a tape to show on Picture Picture on how magazines like Esquire are made. It’s almost Charlie Kaufman-esque in its approach, but far more mainstream. It all makes for a nice nostalgic mix to balance the gritty realism of Lloyd’s life.
In reality, the author’s piece on Rogers ended up as the magazine’s cover story, received multiple awards and started a friendship between Rogers and the author that lasted until Rogers’ death in 2003. It would have been great to see how these two wound up becoming such tight friends, but the writers more often focus on Lloyd learning to grow up, accept his past and become a better person. It’s obviously a good message, but told one too many times before.
Still, there’s enough reason to see “Beautiful Day” just for the portrayal of Rogers by Hanks (essentially the Fred Rogers of film). Because Rogers was so ever-present for generations, the challenge to not merely mimic his mannerisms but to humanize him simultaneously was surely no easy task.
Hanks rises to the challenge, making Rogers soft-spoken and selfless without elevating him to a saint. He gives us glimpses of the pain and frustration Rogers told us was OK to feel, but also conveys his earnest compassion and concern for well-being with sincerity.
While the film’s narrative falls a bit short of the dedication Hanks demonstrates in the role, it’s still a worthwhile cinematic excursion that could have almost been as worthy as Rogers himself.