Review: FROZEN

You’d have to have a heart of ice to not love FROZEN, Disney’s best animated musical in nearly 20 years.

The cold never bothered me anyway.

–Elsa

Not that it appeared to hurt its box office any, but the marketing team has done something really weird with Frozen. The commercials have revealed very little of the actual plot, focusing much more on the goofy snowman and nearly shunting Anna, the actual protagonist, off to the side. Why? Because it’s a princess story, and boys allegedly avoid princess stories like a herd of rainbow unicorns. That’s why Disney renamed Tangled (and nearly re-named The Princess and the Frog), and haven’t really let on here that this is an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.” And did you even know it was a musical?

There was certainly a time when that wasn’t a liability. The classic Disney features starred a long line of princesses, and the modern “Golden Age” kicked off with Ariel and Belle. “Disney” and “Princess” are practically synonymous, and no one has minded until the 21st century, when there are so many other options for entertainment and studios still want to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. But bait-and-switch or no, one simple truth can’t be denied: Frozen is pretty darn wonderful — even transcendent.

Two royal sisters, Elsa and Anna, have a tight-knit relationship as young children, and one of them has been born with a unique ability: Elsa, the oldest, can magically create ice and snow. One night spent in the castle’s ballroom skating and building snowmen takes a dark turn when Anna, the younger, non-magical princess, takes an accidental hit of magic power to the head, and is only restored to health at the cost of her memories. Elsa is hidden away, the castle gates are closed, and Anna (free-spirited, and bored) has no idea why.  When the day comes years later for Elsa’s coronation, the power she’s been working so hard to keep under control is let loose again, freezing the kingdom in an eternal winter, and Elsa runs away into the mountains afraid and ashamed. Now Anna is the only one who has a chance to set things right.

The relationship between the sisters is a powerful one; Anna has grown up hurt and betrayed, shut out by the sister she loves and never given the reason. Elsa wants desperately to be “normal,” but is afraid of hurting people with her ability, so she closes herself off from the world: first as a child, and then as an adult in her own ice fortress of solitude. A lesser film would have made Elsa a clear-cut villain, but Jennifer Lee’s superb screenplay is more nuanced than that. In fact, there’s not even really much of an antagonist at all until the third act — all the conflict is driven organically by the siblings. And once Anna gets on the road to find her sister, assisted by a young ice merchant named Kristoff, the film really takes off. I’d even go so far as to say that Frozen does for sisters what Pixar’s Brave tried to do with mothers and daughters — the emotions at play here are more truthful, more universal, and the story avoids the more obvious narrative shortcuts to get there.

But — like the commercials — I’ve already buried the lead here. The real stars of this film are the Broadway-ready songs, from husband and wife team Kristen Anderson-Lopez & Robert Lopez (Avenue Q). They’re fun, melodic, feature a number of bona fide showstoppers — and most of all, are brilliantly sung by perhaps the best vocal cast Disney has assembled since Beauty and the Beast. As Anna, Kristen Bell is hilarious and spunky, with several tunes that show off her pipes. Josh Gad (The Book of Mormon) is the scene-stealing snowman Olaf, brought to life by Elsa’s magic and possessing an unlikely fascination with summertime (“I enjoy warm hugs!”) He’s genetically-engineered to be your kid’s favorite character, but directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck manage to thankfully not over-use him. He nearly walks (waddles?) off with the whole film, if not for the titanic vocal performance of Idina Menzel (Wicked) as Elsa. Her big solo, “Let It Go,” brings down the house, and I can hear it already being practiced by thousands of teenage girls across the country. All the best Disney musicals have that one iconic number (“Part of Your World,” “Colors of the Wind”), and this one is a real knockout.

It seemed for a while like Disney would never quite recover from the death of legendary songwriter Howard Ashman, and with so many kids films now just appropriating pop songs or churning out unmemorable tunes, it’s almost scary to hear a soundtrack in 2013 this confident, this well-constructed. If they have plans of having Frozen follow The Lion King to the Great White Way (and you know they do), you couldn’t ask for a better foundation. In fact, one of my few quibbles is that there’s not enough music — the best songs are in the first half of the film, and Jonathan Groff (Spring Awakening) is criminally underused as Kristoff. He only gets one number, and it’s a throwaway ditty at that! He’s wonderful in the role, but there’s a moment later on that’s practically begging for him to get a solo, and the film (perhaps expediently?) zooms past it.

The animation is once again flawless — I particularly loved the many ways they represented snow and ice, all of them gorgeous — and the character design is immensely appealing, though so similar to Tangled that they could perhaps be set in the same universe (the story even hits some similar beats, but that’s not a total detraction as they’ve been the same beats for a century). While that film had a more painterly quality, harkening back to the Cinderella/Aurora era, Frozen brings the full might of technological advancement to the party. The frost-fractal effects are really quite astonishing, and beautiful in their own way.

And of course, there’s an endless number of Easter eggs hidden in the landscape and in the margins, and more surprises in the twisty-turny, stereotype-busting plot that I wouldn’t dare spoil here. The film manages to uphold “Disney Ideals” while slyly undercutting them at the same time (like an early gag where Anna’s song is interrupted by her crashing into a horse) — the humor is subversive, but not at the expense of the characters. Anna is a feisty, intelligent heroine who might wish for a prince, but can do just fine on her own, thanks. Of course, the “independent princess” has actually been a trope of its own for several years now, but the Anna-Elsa dynamic at least puts a spin on it.

Disney had been trying to produce a version of “The Snow Queen” literally for decades — Walt himself was unable to crack the story, and it languished in development hell until recently, but to watch Frozen you’d expect to have stepped off the rack fully-formed. Even with some minor complaints here and there (particularly in the final third, which I won’t go into detail about for obvious reasons) it’s not hard to hail this as a new classic, worthy of a spot in the Disney pantheon alongside their best. It’s total eye candy, laugh-out-loud funny, and has the best soundtrack since The Lion King. I know my daughter — who was enraptured from start to finish — will watch it over and over again, and I won’t even mind.

(The attached short, “Get a Horse!”, is also extremely clever. It’s an “original” Mickey Mouse cartoon, with a twist that will be particularly fun in 3-D.)

Grade: A-

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