In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Disney Animation Studios had a marvelous revival and created some of their best films with (in chronological order) The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. Since then, the luster has faded but there have been bright spots like Mulan, The Emperor’s New Groove, Lilo & Stitch, Tangled, and Winnie the Pooh. They even had terrific one with The Princess and the Frog, but as 2D animation dies and the 3D becomes default, the 2009 picture looked like the end of an era. But with Frozen, directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee have conjured up a film that is among the best in the studio’s history. The movie gracefully glides around conventions, and combines magnificent music and lovable characters with an artistry and style rarely seen in 3D animated family films. It is a picture that recalls Disney’s classic films, but also strides boldly into the 21st century.
Elsa (Idina Menzel) was born with the ability to create ice and snow, but because she can’t control it, she feels like she’s a danger to others, especially her sister Anna (Kristen Bell). The extroverted Anna doesn’t know about Elsa’s power, so she’s confused and saddened that her beloved sister has locked herself away. When their parents unexpectedly die, Elsa reluctantly takes the throne, but (no pun intended) loses her cool during a verbal fight with Anna. Elsa, unable to cope with the emotional stress, accidentally throws their kingdom of Arendelle into endless winter, and then runs away to be alone and free. Anna, along with the help of reluctant ice salesman Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and talking snowman Olaf (Josh Gad), makes the journey to Elsa’s ice castle to repair their sisterly bond and unfreeze the kingdom.
There’s so much to love about Frozen, but at the top of the list is the emphasis on Anna and Elsa’s relationship. Anna still has an infatuation with the charming Hans and romantic chemistry with the flustered Kristoff, but her greatest love is for her sister. Elsa may be the antagonist, but she’s not the villain. It would have been so easy to make Elsa power mad and vengeful, but she’s mostly scared and guilt-ridden. She’s an incredibly sympathetic character, and it’s a fresh spin on depicting estrangement between siblings. Anna has so much life and enthusiasm, and we want to see her share it with Elsa.
The bond between Anna and Elsa is the primary relationship, but all of the characters gleefully click together. The cuteness of Anna and Kristoff’s relationship compensates for Kristoff being slightly less interesting than his love-interest, and Lee’s script cleverly finds ways to bring the two leads closer together. Additionally, the movie never relies too heavily on its non-human characters, Olaf and Kristoff’s reindeer, Sven. Just as it would have been unimaginative to make Elsa evil, it would been equally lazy to let Olaf carry the comic relief burden with lame jokes. Instead, he’s delightfully hilarious, his childish naivety is adorable, and most importantly, he’s not overused.
Buck and Lee’s story works with remarkable precision and efficiency. The narrative is never rushed, and it never needs to slow down since every scene is developing the characters and their relationships in a meaningful way. Anna can go from cute to melancholy to odd to defiant and never miss a beat. Frozen creates a flurry of emotions, and like Elsa, perfectly controls the flurry. There were plenty of laughs at my screening from both kids and adults, but when a shocking moment came along, there were gasps, and even a grown man in the audience shouted, “No!” The film earns every emotional beat.
While Frozen is constantly sweet, funny, and moving, it can be totally sublime when it comes to the musical numbers. Composer Christophe Beck provides the baseline music that wouldn’t be out of place in any of Disney’s classic animated movies while still retaining a distinct feel. But Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez‘s songs take the film somewhere truly special. The moment I got home from my screening, I rushed to my computer to download the soundtrack. The songs range from good to classic. “Let It Go” proudly stands alongside “Part of Your World”, “Circle of Life”, “A Whole New World”, and any of the songs from Beauty and the Beast. Even the weakest song, “Fixer Upper”, still had a nice peppy beat and some good jokes. Menzel, Bell, and Gad ring out with beautiful voices, but I was a bit surprised that Groff, a musical theater actor, only has a brief “duet” with Sven.
The animation matches the majesty of the music, and once again I have to cite “Let It Go” as a highlight. There are plenty of subtle touches throughout the movie when it comes to animating snow (especially the way it sticks to clothing), but when Elsa finally breaks free and builds her ice castle, the animation is jaw-dropping. The way blending of colors and fractals is gorgeous, and the movie is worth the 3D ticket because the filmmakers clearly considered how to effectively use the technology rather than tacking it on because that’s what animated movies have to do these days.
Classic Disney movies and the current state of animated family films are a blanket that’s sometimes warm and comforting and at other times frustrating and restrictive. Buck and Lee are aware of what we’ve come to expect—the primary love story has to be between the male and female lead, the oddball comic relief must overshadow the other characters, CGI animation is sterile and flavorless, 3D is an afterthought—and then shatters those expectations. Frozen acknowledges its predecessors and respectfully honors them, but it also cheerfully skips away from the beaten path, and takes us to a magical new world.