Disney Animation Studios has been on a roll for the past few years. 2010’s Tangled, last year’s Wreck-it Ralph and the just-released Frozen all have a charm that we hadn’t really seen from Disney pretty much since Pixar emerged in the 90’s as the premier purveyors of family entertainment. Tangled was the breakthrough, a proof of concept of sorts that finally established Disney’s ability to replicate their signature deeply expressive animation style in the 3D digital world. There was a noticeable technological deficiency in films like Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons that reinforced their other storytelling difficulties. The animation of these films wasn’t bad or anything, but it didn’t seem to feel like the hand drawn Disney films of old. Tangled and Wreck-it Ralph fixed that, and you could tell that they had turned a corner. Frozen also marks the first Disney animated film co-directed by a woman (Jennifer Lee, who co-wrote Wreck-it Ralph), and has quite the new pedigree to live up to.
Nominally inspired by Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen” (and I say nominally because it’s mentioned in the credits and there’s….snow…and stuff), Frozen follows the story of Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell), a princess in a vaguely Scandinavian kingdom who shares a castle with her parents and her sister Elsa (Idina Menzel, who established the most well-known version of Elphaba in Wicked on Broadway), who has the ability to spread ice and snow with only her touch. An incident early in their lives leads to the necessity for Anna to forcibly forget her sister’s powers, driving a rift between them Anna cannot understand. The rift deepens when their parents are taken from them, and reaches its climax after Elsa’s coronation as queen, wherein her powers are revealed to the kingdom during a moment of stress, causing Elsa to flee into the mountains as an endless winter descends. Anna must set out to bring her back and break the spell with the help of a colorful cast of characters.
Much of Frozen falls into a pretty standard Disney princess formula. It’s been tweaked and prodded over the years, but much of what we see should be familiar to fans. The reindeer Sven is an analogue to the horse in Tangled. Olaf the anthropomorphic snowman is the latest in a long line of non-human comic relief providing sidekicks. The story, on a basic level, doesn’t necessarily go in any direction you wouldn’t expect. So the success of Frozen depends on two factors: the success and worthiness of the formula in itself, and this film’s specific ability to execute the formula in an effective way.
It’s not too much of a stretch that the formula works. We’ve been watching it for years and years. Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid follow this pattern. So does Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Sleeping Beauty. Obviously they all have their own lens the formula is seen through, and their own character perspectives, but we know it works on film. The lens of Frozen strives in its own direction by centering around the relationship of these two sisters. Anna is our heroine; we see the majority of their relationship through her point of reference (the song “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” does its best impression of trying to crush your feelings Up-style, though it doesn’t reach those levels of rapturous anguish). The extended prologue excellently establishes the frustration in both Anna and Elsa as they are kept apart for reasons beyond their control, with the added flavor of Anna’s confusion for why her sister has given her the cold shoulder (wink) paired with Elsa’s mix of fear and guilt, as she knows she is the reason for their predicament.
It’s also refreshing that there is no arch villain in Frozen. The lack of a clear black hat along the lines of a Gaston or Maleficent or Ursula makes the events play out with a surprising spring in their step, a joyous sense that you honestly don’t know where the danger is coming from. Even as Elsa begins her self-imposed exile, she is never villainous, but simply misunderstood. When the villain does make him/herself known, it is a legitimate surprise. Lee and Beck easily could have established the character’s true motivations earlier on through some good old fashioned Disney moustache twirling away from the other characters, but not doing so results in a wonderfully unexpected moment when we can least afford to face betrayal. Additionally, the choice of villain is a send-up of one of the more groan-y aspects of the Disney princess playbook (going into further detail would enter spoiler territory). The film’s other major piece of formula, Olaf the snowman, falls a little too far into the scale of juvenile humor to ingratiate the kiddies (a necessary evil), but Josh Gad does manage quite a few zingers that appeal to everyone, and his song is wonderfully odd.
The biggest weakness, unfortunately, is many of the songs. The lack of Alan Mencken (composer for the majority of Disney’s animation golden age in the 90’s, as well as Tangled) is felt, as many of the songs don’t fit the action or gel as well as in films past. Many of them are quite well constructed Broadway-inspired numbers in their own right, but within the flow of the plot and the scene by scene action of the movie, they feel shoehorned in. Characters seem to start singing because this is a Disney princess movie, and that’s what you do in Disney princess movies. It’s fitting that once the film really gets moving, there’s nary a tune to be found. The two songs that work the best (the aforementioned “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” for its excellent character-building work, and the big showstopper “Let it Go”) feel like they should belong, but more often than not the songs feel like they’re something that needs to be gotten through than organically reinforcing the characters and themes of the movie.
I would have loved to see what this film would have been like without the musical numbers (though losing those two songs might not be the best idea). It is otherwise gorgeously animated (ice effects and refraction can be a hell of a way to show off your lighting skills) standard Disney princess film that sets itself apart a little bit thanks to the vigor it displays in telling its story. Some more innovation could have elevated it, but it remains an infectiously enjoyable family film.