Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen" is invariably described as "the beloved fairy tale," but it's improbable that anyone really likes it that much. Although Andersen took pride in it, "The Snow Queen" is not one of his better stories. It’s long and episodic, the religiosity is laid on with a trowel, the characters aren't terribly interesting, and there’s no confrontation between the forces of good and evil. The story just stops.
The new film of The Snow Queen, directed by Vladlen Barbe and Maxim Sveshnikov, has received more interest that it would otherwise generate because it’s being released just a few weeks before Disney's Frozen, which was inspired by Andersen's story.
In this version, Kai (voiced by Marianne Miller) and Gerda (Jessica Straus) are brother and sister who were somehow separated when their wizard-parents were blasted by the icy wrath of the Snow Queen (Cindy Robinson) for creating mirrors that threatened her. They share a cute meet in their grim orphanage-factory when Kai helps Gerda save her pet ermine, Luta. Orm (Doug Erholtz), a motor-mouth troll sent by the Snow Queen to kidnap Kai, arrives and botches the job. So he joins Gerda and Luta on the quest to rescue Hans.
Their travels echo the journey in the original, but with weird twists. In Andersen's tale, Gerda visits an old gardener whose flowers tell her they know from their roots that Kai has not been buried in the soil and must be alive. Here, the gardener is interested only in money and attacks Gerda with an ivy-serpent.
Barbe and Sveshnikov give the film the feeling of a watered-down work from DreamWorks and Blue Sky. The characters natter endlessly, with incongruous wisecracks and flatulence jokes. There are two obligatory roller coaster rides over icy hills. Not even small children will be surprised when Orm turns out to have a good heart after all, and aids Gerda by turning into a polar bear when she’s attacked by some weird ice creatures. The by-the-numbers face-off between Gerda and the Snow Queen ends with Gerda using her parents' mirror to turn the evil sorceress back into the unhappy little girl she was before her mistreatment by thoughtless children embittered her.
Lev Atamanov's 1957 Snow Queen was one of the very few foreign animated features released in the US during the 1950's. (It was reissued on disc in 1998 with a new dub.) Like many of the Soviet-era fairy tale features, the film was heavily rotoscoped, but offered striking art direction, inspired by Russian illustrators. Sadly, the new film offers little new or original. It's a badly animated film made by obviously inexperienced CG artists at the Wizart Animation studio in Voronezh.
The viewer can't help wondering why the filmmakers chose such an elaborate story for their first film, rather than a more modest tale better suited to their skill level. The elaborately rendered hair, fur, textures and effects are wasted when the basic acting and animating are so weak. Snow Queen was reportedly made to about $9 million; The Secret of Kells, Ernest and Celestine, and many Japanese features had similarly modest budgets, but their limits become unimportant because the stories are compelling and the characters endearing.