Frozen Fever

Frozen Fever ★½

“She thinks you’re an idiot! Well, clearly, she’s wrong.”

Brevity has its virtues (hence the wantonness of my own writing). It is the soul of wit, as the Bard wrote. It eliminates waste and the opportunity for distraction. It is not necessary, of course, but it can be beneficial, both on the page (as in the George Saunders observation that “[a] novel is just a story that hasn’t yet discovered a way to be brief”) and on the screen (as in Hitchcock’s declaration that “[t]he length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder”).

Since the advent of the feature-length film, one of the most popular outlets for short subjects has been the animated short, due in part to its target audience (the inevitably and increasingly short attention-spanned youth) and in part to its utility as a proving ground for those in the expensive and time-consuming world of cartoon production. From the groundbreaking “Gertie the Dinosaur” to the brilliance of Chuck Jones to Pixar’s current-day offerings, animated shorts have long delighted audiences, their brevity permitting them to stray into landscapes like surrealism and silence that longer films, for reasons both practical and commercial, might eschew.

Of course, a short film need not be avant-garde—it can be a straightforward musical-comedy romp, or a heartfelt ode to sisterhood, or an absurd farce about a difficult-to-stage event, or a developing romance, or an amusing story of extraordinary familial expansion. It is, however, unlikely to be all of these things, particularly if its runtime is under eight minutes. If brevity is the soul of wit, clarity of purpose is the soul of short-storytelling.

Yet one need not have either clarity of purpose or respect for one’s audience if one is following up the highest-grossing animated film of all time. No, in that case, one need simply be, for even if one is a steaming pile of hot garbage—which is exactly what “Frozen Fever” is—one may still ride high on coattails made of contempt for the intelligence of children and the patience of their parents and—mostly—of freshly minted cash.

Where might one begin cataloguing the bedeviling horror that is “Frozen Fever”? At the beginning, naturally, with its obvious inciting event—a modern-day Oscar Wilde’s brilliant notion to build a short story around Queen Elsa’s (Idina Menzel) quote from Frozen that “the cold never bothered me anyway.” What if, said this cargo short-clad Mark Twain, the “cold” to which she referred were a head cold. And as Athena sprung forth from the head of Zeus, so did “Frozen Fever” emerge, fully formed, overstuffed and ungainly and without a care in the world for its victims.

Overstuffed and ungainly, you say? How so? Forthwith is a plot summary of “Frozen Fever” (deep breath): Queen Elsa wishes to throw her sister, Princess Anna (Kristen Bell), a birthday party, as Anna has never before had a proper birthday party, her name-day having been overshadowed by her elder sister’s tormented adolescence. Assisting Elsa in this plan are Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), who wishes to make known his adoration for Anna; Sven, Kristoff’s blessedly mute reindeer; and Olaf (Josh Gad), an anthropomorphic snowman and Jar-Jar Binks-like abomination who has, against all odds, not been locked in a furnace and evaporated to the heavens. Complicating Elsa’s machinations is an oncoming head cold, leading to much sneezing and—thanks to Elsa’s mercurial powers—the concomitant production of “snowgies,” miniature snow-urchins full of mischief and marketing potential. While Elsa leads Anna throughout the castle and the kingdom of Arendelle to discover her many birthday presents, Kristoff and Sven must guard the castle concourse from an ever-multiplying army of snowgies and from Olaf, who in turn believes the snowgies to be his relatives. Overlaying all of this are numerous Frozen callbacks, including gags involving characters involved with none of the foregoing. Oh, and the whole thing is a musical revolving around a new tune, “Making Today a Perfect Day.” And it runs less than eight minutes. That it does not detour into discussions of whale skeleton measurements and cetology is something of a minor miracle.

But it is not just “Frozen Fever”’s overly busy nature that sinks it—that alone would make it merely mediocre. Instead, nearly every input is bizarrely misconceived, suggesting some strange combination of inattentiveness and misguidedness and lack of purpose and viewer-directed antipathy on the part of its creators. Having nothing urgent, or even particularly worthwhile, to say, “Frozen Fever” cannot be bothered to say anything sensible or at least palatable, and with the Walt Disney Animation Studios bureaucracy’s vision clouded by dollar sign-shaped floaters, the short bypassed even the mildest quality control measures on its way to its innocent and unsuspecting audience.

Consider, for example, “Frozen Fever”’s most prominent innovation relative to its predecessor—the introduction of the “snowgies,” a new merchandising opportunity reminiscent of an Arctic Furby. The snowgies are clearly meant to be adorable little scamps and to capitalize on the confounding popularity of Olaf (of whom more, oh so very much more, later). Yet it apparently never occurred to anyone that these snowball mogwai are—or at least appear to be—created from Elsa’s frozen condensed snot and spittle. To be sure, “Frozen Fever” does not spell this out as such, but one of the main themes of the short—indeed, its title theme—is Elsa’s battling her illness to put on Anna’s party, and her increasingly mucus-bound state is referenced constantly by her evermore gloopy vocals and her frequent nose-wiping. This, combined with the snowgies’ birth by way of Elsa’s sneezes, makes the secretion connection hard to overlook. Yet this disgusting association cannot be dismissed as a bid for the youthful toilet-humor vote—if that were the explanation, surely it would have been made explicit. Instead, as little balls of icy saliva-snot crawl through punch bowls and on cakes, an overwhelming filmmaking ethos of “eh, whatever” seeps in—the sense that the creators could not be bothered to care about what they were doing or why, since audiences would eat it up regardless.

This sensibility pervades every one of “Frozen Fever”’s nooks and crannies. Olaf, the unfunny funny sidekick of your nightmares, returns, having become no less loathsome during his absence. Olaf remains shockingly ugly from a visual perspective—a decided problem when he is meant to be adorably cute (and when one had a free hand in designing him from scratch). Worse, Olaf fails at his most basic function—comic relief. Early on, writers Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee, and Marc Smith have Olaf pronounce his inability either to read or to spell—a non sequitur of the sort that passes for humor in the Frozen universe, as though declarative statements of dim-wittedness are inherently riotous. (This pronouncement follows the uncommented-upon revelation that Olaf can teleport—he delivers it sitting on a table next to Kristoff, Sven, and Anna’s cake, despite having been shown immediately before walking away from them across the courtyard.) On its own, this weird non-humor would be bad enough, yet the filmmakers are not content to leave bad enough alone. Rather, they double down on their obvious contempt and disinterest by later having Olaf reconstitute the banner reading “HAPPY BIRTHDAY ANNA” (which the snowgies have dismantled)—an effort that leads to a banner reading “DRY BANANA HIPPY HAT.” As with Olaf’s earlier pronouncement, there is no cleverness or wit in this misspelling; it is simply a random assemblage of words that is supposed to be humorous by virtue of its existence. Worse yet, how has Olaf—who has not five minutes earlier proclaimed without prompting his complete lack of spelling or reading capabilities—managed accidentally to reassemble these letters into four real, correctly spelled English words rather than unpronounceable gobbledygook? And he does this not once, but twice (as seen in a later shot in which the banner, partially shown, reads “HAIRY ANT BAND,” which, in fairness, is far funnier than his first attempt). The odds against this are staggering—but, you know, children are idiots and their parents are their slaves, so why should we care?

And so it goes. Olaf, devotee of all things warm, like fire and summer, loves ice cream cake, character development being an apparently forgotten art. But don’t think that the original Frozen is forgotten, for callbacks abound—such as nefarious Hans (Santino Fontana) being smacked with a giant snot snowball in a cutaway that exists for no other reason than to pat on the back those who remember the long ago halcyon days of 2013; or Marshmallow (Paul Briggs), giant snow-monster, making a cameo as the proprietor of an impromptu boarding house for the now-massive snowgie population (“Don’t ask!” exclaims Kristoff, leading Mr. Roper to scowl while Jack Tripper mugs in the background.); or Elsa, considering toppers for Anna’s birthday cake, creating a series of tableaux from the original film, including one in which Elsa cradles the seemingly dead Anna, because nothing says “Gratulerer Med Dagen!!” like a reminder of that time you were mired in near-fatal tragedy. It is lazy and dispiriting and reaffirming of the mercenary rather than artistic motives behind “Frozen Fever.”

Is there more, you ask? Yes, dear ones, so much more. The centerpiece of Elsa’s carefully planned birthday extravaganza, which she has been orchestrating for weeks, is a scavenger hunt on which Anna will follow a string that will lead her to her many presents. This sounds utterly lovely—except, of course, that the string disappears and reappears indiscriminately, terminating with certain gifts, meaning the game into which Elsa has put weeks’ worth of effort fails on its most basic terms without Elsa on hand to serve as the guiding force rather than the string. And the gifts Elsa gives Anna are a rather odd assemblage—a bracelet, a cuckoo clock, a bouquet of sunflowers, a hoagie (in Norway?), a family portrait, a scarf, a fishing pole, a snow globe, a strange lighted-and-feathered headdress (which Olaf somehow purloins at the closing courtyard celebration, despite Anna not having brought her gifts with her). They are not bad, exactly, but they seem to lack the clear throughline or especial thoughtfulness that would be the hallmark of the world-beating shindig of which Elsa keeps speaking (though, interestingly, if one Googles several of them, one will find not references to the short or its predecessor but links to memorabilia available at your finest online and bricks-and-mortar retailers). And this matters—the whole point of “Frozen Fever” (or one of its many points pinging around like overexcited gnats) is that Elsa wants to make Anna a “perfect day.” How is her day made perfect by a sandwich? What perfection-granting meaning is bestowed by a scarf (hung on one of the strings in such a way that its method of delivery is to hit Anna in the face, making its placement either shockingly ill-conceived or shockingly cruel) or a snow globe (which Elsa claims is “the best” in a heartbreaking case of damning with faint praise)? “Frozen Fever” does not know and so never explains.

Ah yes, and then there is the song. Frozen, as you will no doubt recall from the nationwide “Let It Go”-based tinnitus that has only recently begun to abate, is a musical. “Frozen Fever” follows suit, with songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez returning to pen “Making Today a Perfect Day,” an earworm about how this will be the best birthday ever, which, like the rest of “Frozen Fever”’s plot, sounds like something a desperate writers’ room would deploy in season seven of an exhausted sitcom, right after the episode where one or more main characters go to Russia/to space/back in time. As with much of the underwhelming Frozen soundtrack, “Making Today a Perfect Day” is not without catchiness (the chorus will certainly lodge in the listener’s ear), but it is irritatingly underbaked. Mimicking cut-rate Elton John in the worst possible way, Anderson-Lopez/Lopez employ lyrics like “We’re making today a smiley face, all shiny and new” and “I even got Kristoff and Sven to take a shower” (Sven, mind, is a reindeer) without apparent shame. It fits with the rest of “Frozen Fever” in that it sounds like an unrevisited first draft. It also fits in that it is embarrassingly bad.

Directors Buck and Lee try to infuse the sisterly warmth that led so many to enjoy Frozen by showing Anna caring for an ailing Elsa in the film’s penultimate scene, but a few seconds of feigned emotional heft cannot register amid the cacophony of the surrounding tumult (or with the undercutting final tag with Marshmallow and the snowgies). Instead, it lands like everything else—cynical, ill-considered, frenzied yet lifeless. But afterward, one can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that “Frozen Fever” took less than eight minutes of one’s life. It may be terrible, but it is, as its classification reminds, short. Just not short enough.

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