Frozen, the new holiday hit from Disney, has been in development for almost as long as the studio has existed. As far back as the early 1940s, a film adaptation of The Snow Queen and several other fables by Hans Christian Andersen were considered by both Disney and Samuel Goldwyn, but the collaboration was never to be. Discussions of adapting the classic parable of good and evil as experienced by two young children were resurrected in the early 1990s in the midst of such hits as The Little Mermaid (another Andersen story), Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. Yet once again the project was eventually shelved, and Disney would choose to release several classics (and one or two misfires) during their famed Renaissance. Since then, in the past thirteen years or so, the studio has produced mostly mediocre movies that have been overshadowed by Pixar, and even Dreamworks, in their efforts to tweak their formula for a modern audience. So now, after decades of development hell, here comes Frozen, a film as much committed to being hip for a cynical audience as it is to evoking the style and tone of a bygone era for a nostalgic demographic. This is an exceptionally difficult, if not impossible bar to meet, and I’d be lying if I said Disney had pulled off a perfect landing with their latest.
Yet I’d also be lying if I said I wasn’t impressed with how well it manages this Herculean task (certainly far better than Hercules back in the day).
The plot of the film bears little to absolutely no resemblance to the source material, so a summary is necessary: two regal sisters named Anna and Elsa live in the kingdom of Arendelle (re: Scandinavia). Anna is fairly normal, if slightly rambunctious, whereas her sister has the power to control ice and snow. Yet after a nearly fatal accident, Anna’s memory of her sister’s powers is erased by a tribe of trolls who dwell deep in the woods and the King and Queen isolate Elsa inside the castle walls in an attempt to keep her sorcery a secret. While her parents try to help her control her powers, Elsa only grows more frightened and emotionally distant as means of protecting her loved ones from herself. I can imagine just how much more smoothly this would have gone with a court-appointed family therapist, but I digress.
The years pass, and while Anna attempts to instigate some sort of relationship with her reticent sibling, their parents suffer a fate that befalls nearly every parent in a Disney film, and the sisters are left with only each other and a kingdom to rule. This montage is portrayed through a song called “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”, and while I must admit I didn’t expect much from a song that shares a similar title with a memorable number from Cannibal! The Musical, I was pleasantly surprised with the economy of the storytelling and emotional impact of the sequence. The final image of the song in particular conveys a startling depth of sadness that is arguably the most acute portrayal of grief over the death of parents in a Disney film since Lilo & Stitch.
Three years later, Elsa is preparing for her Summer Coronation as Queen. The eldest sibling is terrified of the social cues she’ll have to maintain and keeping her powers at bay whereas the younger sister is elated at the thought of having life back in the castle and perhaps falling in love. Which is of course what happens when she literally bumps into Prince Hans, a dashingly handsome young man from the Southern Isles who seems to be the one for Anna (they finish each others’ sandwiches, after all) and they become engaged later that night. Anna approaches Elsa for her blessing of the union, yet Elsa actually refuses to grant it. It’s about time for someone in a Disney film to admit just how bizarre it is for any two people who just met to declare that they are soul mates.
This sets off a chain of events which reveal Elsa’s powers to the public and force her to flee the kingdom, inadvertently causing the land to fall into a deep winter. Anna is determined to find her sister, and thus sets off on a journey to save her home. She of course encounters a slew of colorful characters along the way, including Kristoff and his reindeer Sven (the wild man enjoys having conversations with the mute reindeer) and an enchanted snowman named Olaf who dreams of Summer, completely oblivious to what his morbid fate will be (this is wonderfully illustrated in his signature number, “In Summer”). Our heroes make their way through the winter wonderland towards Elsa’s newly constructed ice castle, and the vistas and landscapes are easily one of the best parts of the film. The animation in the film is absolutely top-notch for all of the characters, as is to be expected from a Disney film, but Frozen is a film you could really get lost in, from it’s imposing mountaintops to the multitude of trees covered in droplets of ice. One of the chief inspirations for the animators was Powell and Pressburger’s 1947 classic Black Narcissus, and the same painterly attention to detail can be seen here. In fact, Powell himself stated he was inspired by Disney films of the era for the look of his erotic thriller about nuns in the Himalayas, and thus the circle of influence closes upon itself.
Another solid aspect of the film are the songs. Written by the husband-and-wife duo Robert Lopez and Kristen-Anderson Lopez, the showtunes are certainly catchy, yet more importantly there is barely a number here that feels extraneous to either the plot or character development, a problem which plagued the otherwise decent The Princess and the Frog. The cast is certainly game for the music, with the majority being comprised of seasoned Broadway veterans, though I will say I was delightfully surprised with Kristen Bell’s heretofore unheard vocal range as Anna. The showstopper “Let it Go” will win over Oscar voters and Broadway fanatics with Idina Menzel’s commanding delivery, though I must admit I was fond of Bell’s work in songs like “For the First Time in Forever” and of course “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” She has a terrific voice, but never forgets to imbue Anna with an awkward and humble charm that counters well with her sister’s constricted demeanor and barely contained sadness.
So with all of these positive attributes, does the film live up to the hype as the finest Disney musical since The Lion King or even The Hunchback of Notre Dame? Well, yes and no. Yes, because it’s music is consistently good, it has some distinct and marvelous characters, and because it is a visual marvel that incorporates brilliant animation. Yet there are some problems I have with the film regarding a major twist in the final third (which I won’t dare spoil here). It’s clever in theory, yet it pales in comparison to a similar, far better executed twist in last year’s Wreck-it Ralph, and even the storytelling doesn’t quite handle it’s many elements as well as Ralph did. Yet the film maintains it’s heart and never betrays what it’s really about, which is of course True Love. A Disney trope, to be sure, yet with a distinct twist that surprised a jaded cynic like myself. And if Disney can, even in some small measure, surprise us after all these years, I’d consider that something to treasure.