It’s no secret that I’m a Disney fan, but that doesn’t mean that I love everything they do. The Black Cauldron still leaves me cold, most of their TV programming holds no interest for me, and the proposed Avatar land at the Animal Kingdom theme park strikes me as an extremely shortsighted move. So while a new animated Disney film is cause for excitement around my house, there’s never a guarantee that I’m going to love it. While I was cautiously optimistic for Frozen – Disney’s latest computer animated feature - I still had my concerns. The character designs felt a little too familiar, the teaser trailer didn’t wow me, and my hopes for a “girl rescues boy” story were dashed when I learned that Disney had scrapped the original “Snow Queen” storyline. There were still enough positive points in what I was seeing to get me excited, but the concerns remained.
Luckily, I needn’t have worried. Frozen is an excellent movie, among the best that Disney has produced in many years. Like The Princess and the Frog and Tangled, it follows in the footsteps of the classic Disney animated fairy tales in all of the best ways. But unlike the other two films, it does so while forging its own path and giving the old formula some truly fresh material.
After an introduction featuring a song about the wonders of ice, we meet the young Princess Anna and her older sister Princess Elsa. Elsa was born with the ability to create and shape snow and ice, a talent that she uses to entertain her little sister. When an accident during their play leaves Anna injured and Elsa’s powers out of her control, the girls’ parents isolate them from each other and the rest of the kingdom in an attempt to protect them. Years later, an argument between the sisters reveals Elsa’s powers to the world and sends Elsa into self-imposed exile. With her kingdom trapped in snow and ice, Anna must find her sister and help her control her powers to save their people from eternal winter.
One of the most exciting things about Frozen is evident in the summary: this is a story we haven’t seen in a Disney movie before. You still have many of the standard Disney tropes, like magic and comic sidekicks. And yes, there is a love story in there too. But the movie is still ultimately about the relationship between the two sisters. After so many Disney films – particularly the fairy tales – where “boy meets girl” is the main plotline, it’s refreshing to see Disney tackling a different narrative and letting the romance take a back seat.
The focus on the two sisters is not the only pleasant surprise in Frozen. There’s a twist towards the end of the film that was met with audible gasps both times I saw it. I’ve seen plenty of animated films that feature “surprises” that surprise no one, so a plot twist that is genuinely hard to see coming was a welcome change from the norm. But equally surprising were a number of messages I did not expect to see in a Disney film: that parents can screw up and not be around to make amends for it, that love at first sight doesn’t always work out, and that true love means more than two people kissing and getting married. A new kind of story is an exciting change for Disney and the new themes that come along with it are equally exciting.
Musicals are as much Disney’s bread and butter as fairy tales, so it’s no surprise that Frozen includes characters singing about their hopes, fears, and predicaments. The film’s musical numbers are penned by the husband and wife team of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez. Lopez’s Broadway credits include the Sesame Street parody Avenue Q and the send-up of religious culture The Book of Mormon, while Anderson-Lopez previously worked on the Finding Nemo musical stage show for Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park and collaborated with her husband on the songs for Winnie the Pooh. Their collaboration on Frozen has the feel of a modern Broadway musical while still remaining distinctly Disney. The fusion of old and new is a breath of fresh air after the largely forgettable music from animation regulars Alan Menken and Randy Newman in other recent Disney musicals. Not every song is a hit; the opening number in particular doesn’t do much beyond commenting on the role of ice in the film. But the overall score is one of Disney’s strongest in years. The clear standout is “Let It Go,” Elsa’s anthem celebrating her new-found freedom to be herself, ice powers and all. Spectacular visuals of Elsa exploring what she’s capable of creating and Idina Menzel’s tour de force vocal performance combine to make this number an emotional highlight of the film and ensure that the song will be covered by wannabe Broadway starlets (and the occasional Lady of Comicazi, when no one’s listening) for years to come.
As the title suggests, I do feel like I owe an apology to Olaf, the snowman who features in so much of the advertising for the film. Disney marketing tends to push their comic relief characters extra hard when they’re trying to sell a “princess movie” to a male audience. Because of this, I often feel I’m being informed that I will love the comedy sidekicks well before I have any reason to. I feared that Olaf would end up serving no purpose in the story beyond forcing in comedy bits where the filmmakers felt a laugh was needed. I was happy to be proven wrong. Olaf is both genuinely funny and a solid part of the storyline. He is largely clueless, but it’s a natural extension of his innocence – which ties into the innocence of Anna and Elsa’s relationship in their younger days – and his newness to the world. Olaf is a baby, delighted with everything from having a carrot shoved through his face to meeting new people – who are inevitably terrified by the sight of a living snowman – to warm hugs. His musical number – “In Summer” is one of the most wickedly funny songs in any Disney movie, detailing Olaf’s naive dreams of enjoying the comforts of the warmer seasons that he has never experienced.
No movie is without its flaws and Frozen is no exception. As many people pointed out before the film was even released, the visual style is extremely similar to Tangled. While both are beautiful films in their own right, I’m kind of disappointed that Disney hasn’t been more adventurous with the look of their computer animated features. (Rumblings of a future film in the style of the short film Paperman have me hopeful that more visually diverse films are yet to come.) The trolls who come to Anna’s aid in childhood are stale in both design and character. While I appreciate that they aren’t treated as all-knowing magical creatures who sweep in and save the day, they feel like they could have wandered in from any movie. The solution to Elsa’s inability to control her powers feels rushed and borders on the kind of generic “love fixes everything because it’s so great” moments that make even my Disney loving eyes roll. It’s especially frustrating because the scene could have worked so beautifully if it had been better tied into the film’s central message of “love is stronger than fear” rather than a quick “Yay, love!” wrap-up. None of these problems outweigh the movie’s good points, but they do cause it to stumble at times.
My hope going into Frozen was that it would concentrate on the two sisters and deliver some high quality animation. I got that, along with a whole heap of other delights I wasn’t expecting. Frozen packs the emotional punch of the best Disney animated films without ever becoming a retread of any of them. It’s both classic and modern, and proof that Disney can still deliver when it comes to animation.