Although they’re largely positive, the reviews for Disney’s Frozen, an animated adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” with the voices of Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel, have a hedging quality to them: The Chicago Tribune‘s Michael Phillips says it “basically works,” which is not a quote likely to be gracing a whole lot of posters.
But there are few such reservations attached to reviews of Get a Horse! the short film that precedes it. Not every review of Frozen acknowledges the feature’s short-subject companion, but those that do tend to rave. The Los Angeles Times‘ Betsy Sharkey calls it “nothing short of terrific,” and The Hollywoord Reporter‘s Todd McCarthy goes so far as to compare it to Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. and Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo. At Vulture, Bilge Ebiri writes:
Oh, and get there on time. Get a Horse! the 3D short that plays before Frozen, is absolutely eye-popping. It blends the aesthetics of the original Mickey Mouse and savvy use of the proscenium to create what must be the most startling 3D experience I’ve ever had. No joke, it nearly turned me into Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show; I kept taking my glasses off to make sure that Mickey fucking Mouse wasn’t standing right there in front of me.
While one hesitates to take issue with a critic who manages to slip a passing reference to a century-old Thomas Edison short into his review, I must here depart from the estimable Mr. Ebiri and say that Get a Horse! is a clumsy, charmless attempt to link Disney’s hand-drawn past to its computer-generated 3D future. It feels about as inspired as an interoffice memo.
Advance promotion for Get a Horse! — this being Disney, the short is an automatic Oscar contender, with its own pre-release campaign — suggested the studio had unearthed a previously unseen Mickey Mouse short from 1928, but that turns out only to be the setup for the film’s punchline. Beginning with a dim, flickering black-and-white image that in 3D seems to hover in the middle of the theater like a wandering spirit, Get a Horse! literally breaks the fourth wall as Mickey and his pals bust through the screen and spill out into the “modern” world of stereoscopic CGI. The only thing that’s genuinely vintage is Walt Disney’s voice, which the filmmakers sampled and reshaped to give voice to their thoroughly modern Mickey.Part of what rankles about Get a Horse! is its self-serving subtext. As many critics have noted, Frozen is a callback to the “Disney Renaissance” that began with 1989’s The Little Mermaid — which like Frozen was loosely adapted from an Andersen story — an unabashed musical whose casting favors Broadway names like Menzel, Jonathan Groff and Josh Gad over established movie stars. Get a Horse! forcibly extends that continuity by six decades, linking Disney’s current product to its founder and mascot — you know, the one that would have entered the public domain long ago were copyright law not irredeemably corrupt.
But in “breaking through” the 2D frame like some cartoon ’80s hard-rock act, Get a Horse! implicitly slights the tradition it purports to homage. It tells viewers — not just children, but anyone who’s never seen a black-and-white Mickey short — that the “classic” format is something to be patiently endured until the real action starts. Even though both are modern creations, the 3D animation looks garish and clunky next to to the faux old-school imagery, but it’s loud and attention-grabbing, “awesome” in a manner that suggests Mickey’s new pal Poochie could show up at any minute.
In a review at Cartoon Research, animator Mark Kausler goes into detail about the ways that Get a Horse! fails to recapture the spirit of Disney’s early work. (Be sure to scroll down and read the response by Get a Horse! director Lauren MacMullan, who says “I was always being urged to have the plot spool along quicker than was normal for the era, and to have Mickey burst out of the 2D as early as possible, in case we lose the mainstream audience.):
The animation in Get a Horse! is very good, but not really of the 1928 period. The action is mostly on ones, very frantic throughout, and has the total immersion, roller-coaster mind set of this century’s animation. The Barn Dance has one of the best sequences ever done with the silent era style, and that’s when Mickey is dancing with Minnie and his shoes grow to enormous size as he clumsily steps all over her body (see frames below). Although author and historian Mike Barrier would characterize this kind of thing as “violation of the body,” which in his view held back the development of personality in drawn animation, I see it as true CARTOON acting. Mickey’s shoes don’t grow big just for the hell of it, they grow to convey his utter ineptness in dancing. Minnie’s body isn’t stepped on and stretched and distorted because Ub was playing with the medium; her body is “violated” to show what’s in her mind and her attitude toward Mickey’s dance steps. In Get A Horse, there is some “violation” going on, as when Mickey creates a step ladder out of his leg for Minnie to climb upon, but it doesn’t serve the acting well, there is no real reason for Mickey to make a step ladder out of his leg than showing off the flexibility of his cartoon body.
(Note: “On ones” means that a new drawing is created for each frame, rather than every other as was more often the case in early animation.)
Frozen itself is an amiable mess, with a handful of dynamite songs, lively performances, and confused story structure that arbitrarily shifts points of view to avoid dealing with the fact that in Andersen’s original story Menzel’s frozen-hearted princess is the villain. It’s transparently inspired by Disney’s far superior Tangled, which was also about a young woman overcoming emotional trauma, but sets that aside for amusing but slightly desperate sequences involving an animated snowman. (More troubling is the fact that said snowman has been the centerpiece of Frozen‘s marketing campaign, which literally buries its female protagonists.) But it doesn’t leave the sour aftertaste of Get a Horse! which insults Disney’s history while pretending to honor it.