The newest incarnation of the venerable Hans Christian Andersen fable, The Snow Queen, BBC's 2005 Christmas offering, is a visually impressive (at times), but emotionally empty exercise in CGI artistry - and little else.
Hans Christian Andersen, the Danish poet and author who is still known the world over for his children's tales such as The Ugly Duckling, The Little Mermaid, and Hans Brinker or The Silver Skates, wrote The Snow Queen in 1845, and its influence has been felt in literature and films ever since. Reading the tale now, it's easy to see direct and indirect influences on other fantasy works such as Baum's The Wizard of Oz, Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, and Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia. Numerous filmic treatments have been attempted over the decades, with this BBC production being the latest. Unfortunately, the emphasis here is on special effects, and not the story, and thus The Snow Queen becomes ultimately, a collage of pretty pictures with little narrative weight.
Originally designed as a live concert experience, featuring the music of Paul K. Joyce and the computer-generated images of director Julien Gibbs and his graphics company Intro, The Snow Queen symphonic concerts were then expanded into this 56 minute combination of live-action and computer animated images. With the music and graphic images obviously thought out first for the concerts, Andersen's actual story, often told through the lyrics in the songs, is a decided "also-ran" in this film version, with the acting a mere afterthought, as well. The decision to short-change real storytelling for a "trippy" (the director's words), impressionistic film really misses the point of Andersen's original work. After all, his story has endured for over 150 years; its message of love over death, framed within the fantasy elements of the plot, have intrigued readers and filmmakers for literally centuries. Why the director of The Snow Queen thought the story could play third fiddle to the music and images is beyond me.
The Snow Queen concerns young Gerda (Sydney White), who spots a shivering, cold young boy, Kay (Pax Baldwin), huddled outside her home. Her mother (Juliet Stevenson) eventually takes pity on the boy, and brings him into the house (after Gerda has thrown down a blanket to him to fend off the cold). Soon, the two are close friends, but a sudden appearance by the Snow Queen injures Kay. He's hit in the eye with a icicle, which we later learn is really a shard of glass from the evil Looking Glass (that shows the evil inside men). Kay becomes ugly in spirit, and eventually goes off willingly with the evil Snow Queen. Gerda, heartsick that her friend Kay has vanished, goes on a magical trek to find Kay, aided by a raven (voice of Patrick Stewart), and other friends along the way. She eventually find Kay, and battles the Snow Queen for his life.
The story of The Snow Queen has been altered significantly from Andersen's original - and this deviation hurts the film. Foremost among the changes are the fact that Kay and Gerda don't grow up together as friends in this film version. The brevity of their initial interaction doesn't give us a chance to believe they're such good friends (in fact, we never really get the feeling she's in love with him - they're more brother and sister here), and this speeding over of a critical part of the story is indicative of many similar problems in The Snow Queen. As well, we only see the most fleeting of cruel acts by Kay (he knocks the head off a snowman), so we never really understand that a significant change has occured in his personality. The elimination of the Grandmother character, who in the original work tells the children of the Snow Queen story, further speeds up the proceedings, but robs the audience of a firm rooting in the plot's backstory. Thus, the Snow Queen (who looks suspiciously like Cruella de Ville) merely appears as a special effect meant to impress when she shows up - not as an integral part of the story as she should be.
Indeed, the insistence on the part of the producers to put the story last succeeds in putting the effects first - with typical results when special effects wag the story dog. Quickly, the average viewer becomes quite bored with The Snow Queen, because there's nothing to hang the admittedly beautiful computer images on; we're presented with sequence after sequence that illustrates artistry of computer, but paucity of storytelling technique. While the animated backgrounds do have an impressive look (much like a ViewMaster scene come to life, with steely grays, blues and whites giving an antique patina to the proceedings), a choice was made to make the live actors in the film move with a herky-jerky, almost stop-motion effect. It's a most distracting artifice, and one that may indicate that the producers didn't trust their original idea of integrating live-action with the computer-generated backgrounds. If the actors (who deliver their lines in either flat or hammy inflections) can't be directed in a skillful enough manner to match the graphics; well, just turn them into computer-generated automatons, as well, making them look like something out of a bad A-ha music video.
As for The Snow Queen's music, to each his own, I suppose, but I found the various songs and chants by Joyce irritating in the extreme. Alternating from bloated "New Age" warblings to faux Gregorian chants, the music of The Snow Queen is modern tuneless banality at its most pretentious. If we're not given lyrics that describe actions we just saw (thanks for the repetition), we're given screeching, stream-of-consciousness gobbledegook that puts the viewer at arms' length. The worst example of this is towards the end of The Snow Queen, when the phrase, "The Laplander and the Finland woman," is repeated over and over again to the point of insanity. I'm sure everybody involved thought this kind of grinding modern atonality was "significant," or "artistic," but the two young kids I watched this with asked me after the fourth repetition, "When is it going to stop?" Amen, kids.
The widescreen, 1.78:1 enhanced for 16x9 TVs image for The Snow Queen is pristine, with bright, vibrant colors.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 stereo audiotrack is quite strong, with nice separation effects during the "action" scenes.
There's a 14 minute documentary, The Making of The Snow Queen, which gives a thorough look at the process that went into giving the film its distinct look, featuring interviews with the crew and artistic personnel involved.
The Snow Queen is a visually impressive five minutes that quickly turns into a slide show of pretty post cards. Where Andersen's classic fable fits in with these images is anybody's guess, but clearly, the story came last on the producers' "to do" list. We never really believe in the cyphers that pass for characters in The Snow Queen; they're merely more props for the computer artists to manipulate for effect. Not helping matters is an overblown, ineffectual musical score. If you think I'm being too hard on a show designed for young audiences, my young kids were bored, too (they, and I, prefer the Russian animated version from 1959). If you feel adventurous, I recommend you rent this BBC version of The Snow Queen, but ultimately, it's as cold and chilly an emotional experience, as its decidedly fake backgrounds.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.