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FROZEN – Christophe Beck

December 2, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

frozenOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

Frozen is the 53rd official animated feature in the Walt Disney canon. Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, Disney veterans who previously worked on The Little Mermaid, Pocahontas and Tarzan, the film is loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairytale The Snow Queen, albeit significantly ‘Disneyfied” and turned into a full-fledged musical. The story involves two princess sisters from the kingdom of Arendelle, Elsa and Anna, voiced by Kristin Bell and Idina Menzel. As she grows up, Elsa begins to manifest powers that allow her to manipulate snow and ice, culminating in an incident at her coronation as Queen that leaves Arendelle under a blanket of eternal winter. Elsa flees from her home, distraught, but Anna resolves to reconcile with her sister. Teaming up with Kristoff (voiced by Jonathan Groff), a gruff mountain man, and Olaf (voiced by Josh Gad), an anthropomorphic snowman, Anna sets off into the frozen wilderness to find the Snow Queen with the fate of the kingdom in her hands.

The songs for Frozen are by husband-and-wife composing team Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, who previously worked for Disney on the Winnie the Pooh movie in 2011, and who co-wrote both Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon on Broadway. Their songs are decent, but oddly unmemorable, and certainly anonymous enough to make one long for the days when Alan Menken would collaborate with Howard Ashman and Tim Rice. The two showstoppers are clearly “For the First Time in Forever” and “Let It Go”, the first of which features prominently in the film’s trailers. These two are classic Disney ballads – all soaring melodies and searching, profound themes about being true to yourself and all that stuff – and the Demi Lovato version of “Let It Go” is a virtual shoo-in for an Oscar nomination. It’s very good indeed, although I do prefer Idina Menzel’s performance in the film itself. The other songs are pretty enough, although two obnoxious Disney kids in “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” are saccharine enough to put a diabetic in a coma. Oddly, the Lopezes have a peculiar habit of having their cast sing muffled from behind hands or through mouthfuls of food, which is more than a little off putting. The lyrics are clever, though, and one of the comedy songs, “In Summer”, has a couple of clever zingers about the potentially watery fate faced by snowmen when the ice thaws.

The score is by Christophe Beck, who seems to be the new go-to guy for the mouse house following his successful assignments on the reboot of the Muppets franchise and the acclaimed animated short Paperman. In terms of the score it’s interesting how, in recent years, the organization has jumped around trying to find its musical identity. Whereas Alan Menken was the undisputed Disney composer for almost the entire 1990s, in recent years composers ranging from James Newton Howard to John Powell to John Debney to Henry Jackman and more have all written one or more scores for the studio, leaving it with a curious lack of a signature “sound”. It remains to be seen whether Christophe Beck’s score will be successful enough for him to confirm him as Alan Menken’s more permanent successor, but on the strength of his work here, he deserves at least a shot.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Frozen is one of the best scores of Christophe Beck’s career to date – it’s certainly on a par, quality-wise, with some of his other acclaimed scores such as the first Percy Jackson movie, The Seeker, or We Are Marshall. Beck’s score musically explores the story’s Scandinavian roots, incorporating regional instruments such as the bukkehorn – an ancient wind instrument made from a ram’s horn – and Sami vocal techniques, such as kulning (a sort of Norwegian yodeling) into the fabric of the score, alongside a traditional 80-piece orchestra and choir. The opening and closing cues include two performances of “Vuelie”, a lovely piece inspired by traditional Norwegian music, performed by the Norwegian all-female vocal group Cantus in the former, and by singer and musician Frode Fjellheim in the latter.

The rest of the score tends to be more straightforwardly orchestral, a mix of soaring string-led melodies with dreamy, icy, twinkly percussion built into the orchestrations, and some quite powerful action music for the more dramatic material in the film’s second half. Of the more tranquil and/or lighthearted pieces, “The Trolls” includes some magical-sounding performances for harp and harpsichord which are quite playful, while the coronation piece, “Heimr Arnadlr”, features original lyrics in Old Norse and a beautiful ecclesiastical aspect with layered vocal harmonies that Handel would have enjoyed. The “Winter Waltz” is light and pretty, and “The North Mountain” and the lovely “We Were So Close” combine some light comedy with moments of sparkling wonderment, but it is in its darker moments that the score really comes into its own.

“Elsa and Anna” has some cool timpani rhythms and strident string runs towards its conclusion, foreshadowing what is it come, but things really take off during “Sorcery”, where Beck ramps up the tension and terror, has the strings mimic the sound of swirling, frost-kissed wind, and showcases the kulning vocals for the first time. The bukkehorn crops up as a hunting herald in the subsequent “Royal Pursuit”. As the score progresses, cues like the frenetic “Wolves”, the galumphing “Marshmallow Attack”, the muscular “Summit Siege” and the forward-thrusting “Return to Arandelle” are genuinely exciting and energetic, some of the best action music I have heard Beck write to date. There’s a repeated brass triplet motif that flows through many of these action moments that is just terrific, and when everything comes to a climax in the four-minute set piece “Whiteout” – orchestra, choir, and the soulful kulning – the result is outstanding.

Perhaps the one main drawback in the score – stemming from the fact that the score composer and songwriters are different – is the general lack of any crossover between the two. There are some gentle allusions to the song melodies here and there – the ostinatos underneath “Coronation Day” come from “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”, for example, while some of the chord progressions from “We Were So Close” seem to be from “Let It Go”. But, for the most part, Beck’s score and the Lopezes songs are two distinct, separate entities, and that gives the soundtrack as a whole something of a disjointed feel, a lack of an organic connection between the two elements. Much of the film’s pre-release press sang about how Beck worked with Lopez and Anderson-Lopez on incorporating their songs into arrangements in the score, and how the trio’s goal “was to create a cohesive musical journey from beginning to end”, but I genuinely don’t hear any direct statements of any thematic material from the songs anywhere other than in the “Epilogue”, and it’s very frustrating.

In the bigger scheme of things, and taking into account Disney’s rich history of music in their animated films, Frozen is a comparatively minor work. When compared against the likes of Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, or even Mulan, let alone the likes of Pinocchio or Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – well, there is no comparison really. But, taken on its own terms, there is a great deal for score fans to enjoy, especially in the action music, while fans of the Lopezes work on Broadway will probably enjoy the show-stopping ballads quite a bit as well.

Note: this is a review of the single CD, standard release version of the Frozen soundtrack. A special 2-CD expanded edition set also exists; the second disc of that release contains demo recordings of songs and score compositions, unused outtake recordings, and instrumental versions of the film’s main songs.

Buy the Frozen soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Frozen Heart (written by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, performed by the Cast of Frozen) (1:45)
  • Do You Want to Build a Snowman? (written by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, performed by Kristen Bell, Agatha Lee Monn, and Katie Lopez) (3:27)
  • For the First Time in Forever (written by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, performed by Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel) (3:45)
  • Love is an Open Door (written by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, performed by Kristen Bell and Santino Fontana) (2:07)
  • Let It Go (written by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, performed by Idina Menzel) (3:44)
  • Reindeer(s) are Better Than People (written by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, performed by Jonathan Groff) (0:50)
  • In Summer (written by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, performed by Josh Gad) (1:54)
  • For the First Time in Forever – Reprise (written by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, performed by Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel) (2:30)
  • Fixer Upper (written by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, performed by Maia Wilson and the Cast of Frozen) (3:02)
  • Let It Go (written by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, performed by Demi Lovato) (3:47)
  • Vuelie (1:36)
  • Elsa and Anna (2:43)
  • The Trolls (1:48)
  • Coronation Day (1:14)
  • Heimr Arnadlr (1:25)
  • Winter’s Waltz (1:00)
  • Sorcery (3:17)
  • Royal Pursuit (1:02)
  • Onward and Upward (1:54)
  • Wolves (1:44)
  • The North Mountain (1:34)
  • We Were So Close (1:53)
  • Marshmallow Attack! (1:43)
  • Conceal, Don’t Feel (1:07)
  • Only an Act of True Love (1:07)
  • Summit Siege (2:32)
  • Return to Arendelle (1:38)
  • Treason (1:36)
  • Some People Are Worth Melting For (2:06)
  • Whiteout (4:17)
  • The Great Thaw (Vuelie Reprise) (2:29)
  • Epilogue (3:04)

Running Time: 63 minutes 40 seconds

Walt Disney Records (2013)

Music composed by Christophe Beck. Conducted by Tim Davies. Orchestrations by Dave Metzger, Tim Davies and Kevin Kliesch. Special vocal performances by Frode Fjellheim and Cantus. Recorded and mixed by Casey Stone. Edited by Fernand Bos, Earl Ghaffari. Album produced by Jake Monaco, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez, Christophe Beck, Chris Montan and Tom MacDougall.

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