Ever since Pixar creative head John Lassiter assumed control of Disney’s animation department, Disney has entered into an animation renaissance that is approaching the quality of its Little Mermaid through Lion King era of animation. However, it’s been more than twenty years since Ariel flipped her fins into the heart of her Prince Eric with hardly a word of human interaction. Now, princesses need more than just a handsome prince. They need emotional connection and they have to work for their happy ending. Princess and the Frog might have kicked off this tradition in the world of Disney animation, but Frozen may be the crowning achievement of this new Disney renaissance.
Loosely, loosely based on the Hans Christian Anderson (who’s Little Mermaid Disney adapted, launching their previous renaissance) tale, The Snow Queen, Frozen exists as a film that should charm both boys and girls, children and adults alike.
The film opens on two princess sisters: Elsa, the older and Anna, the younger. Anna wants Elsa to get up and play in the snow with her. The twist? Elsa can create their snow in the ballroom of their palace. Elsa has the ability to create snow and ice with a wave of her hands and this ability cements a close bond between the two children. However, an accident leads their parents to feel Elsa needs a better control over her ability. As a result, they shut Elsa away from Anna and take Anna’s memories of Elsa’s ability away from her. As a result, the sisters become more distant and estranged. Following their parents’ deaths, Elsa finds herself even more isolated and Anna even more hurt and confused as why her sister continues to shut her out. Both find themselves prisoners in a sparsely populated palace.
We then flash forward a few years to Elsa’s coronation. Anna (now voiced by Kristen Bell), now an eager teenager, flutters through the castle, singing about the thrill of finally letting the world into their lives, while Elsa (Idina Menzel) fears her ability will be revealed to their town and the persecution that could result. At the party following the coronation, Anna meets and falls in love with the charming Prince Hans (Santino Fontana) and decides they must instantly marry.
When Elsa refuses to grant her permission, Anna lashes out and Elsa loses control of her powers, casting the town into an eternal winter. Elsa retreats to a mountain and a self-created ice palace. Anna, with the help of a rugged ice seller named Christophe (John Groff) and his anthropomorphized reindeer named Sven, and Olaf (a scene stealing Josh Gad), a talking snowman who somewhat masochistically can’t wait to see what happens when winter becomes summer, follows after her, in the hopes of getting her to reverse the spell she has unintentionally cast.
It’s nearly impossible to discuss Frozen without mentioning the Broadway smash, Wicked. Both feature a story about the bond between two young females, both feature a girl with abilities she struggles to control and that keep her separate from the rest of society, and both are voiced by Idina Menzel.
However, her casting is not a crass attempt to draw audiences in with that parallel. Her voice is phenomenal and she imbues Elsa with the appropriate mix of danger and fear. She ensures Elsa remains sympathetic and tragic. In the original Anderson story, the Snow Queen is en evil, malicious force. Here, she’s just a young girl who, like Carrie White or X-Men’s Rogue, that has an ability whose manifestations she cannot control.
The entire voice cast is first-rate. Kristen Bell makes Anna’s plucky, flighty nature endearing rather than irritating and Jonathan Groff makes Christophe a likable leading man. However, it’s Josh Gad the blindly happy, optimistic, snowman, Olaf who makes the biggest impression. Most of the film’s biggest laughs come from his character, who dreams and sings about what a glorious time he’ll have when it turns warm, unaware of the consequences such a weather shift will have for him. Gad’s optimistic eager to please voice, used so effectively on stage in Broadway’s smash hit Book of Mormon, ensures both kids and adults will be charmed by his blissfully unaware character.
Robert Lopez (Avenue Q and Book of Mormon) and his wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez have crafted songs that are both moving and clever and feel as close to Disney’s glory days of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s The Little Mermaid tunes as anything the studio has ever done, and visually, the world Frozen creates of stark, white snow and shimmering ice castles is the one of most glorious visual treats I’ve seen from an animated film in years.
However, all of these virtues would be near meaningless without an emotional center in which all of these charming characters can exist.The plot may be familiar, but that doesn’t make for an weaker experience. Almost any plot is based around similar tropes, and anyone who uses the phrase “predictable” or “doesn’t break any new ground” are simply critics who wish to point out their own cleverness and cinematic awareness. Familiar plots that remain effective are impressive because they have the daunting task of making tropes seem fresh and engaging, and Frozen accomplishes that. It is ultimately about the repairing of a sisterly relationship and the bond that sisters share, and that bond works as the involving emotional center of the film. It does for sisters what Pixar’s Brave could have done for mothers and daughters but failed to actually accomplish. It’s a story with strong, sympathetic female characters. There may be a love story, but it’s not the film’s focal point. The film’s emphasis is on its two female leads and is all the more satisfying as a result. It isn’t a perfect film, some of the plot strands do not entirely add up and a third act twist makes the film slightly less interesting than it could have been. However, these are tiny, minor nitpicks and to complain about them is to reveal the cold cynical lump of coal that exists where a warm, beating heart should be. The film may be called Frozen, but it’s the most heart-warming animated of the year.