A little before 2000, Disney began to phase out its animated movie musicals. It wasn’t that people stopped wanting enchantment at the movie theater, but rather a cold, hard fiscal decision: the films continued to gross less and less and newer ideas for family entertainment were capturing audience attention and dollars.
Undoubtedly, however, Disney wanted back into the musical business, to create a nostalgia market and perhaps re-create the golden years of the early ’90s. After the traditionally animated “Princess and the Frog” failed to revitalize business for classic fairy tales, Disney took to the story of “Rapunzel” and gave it a modern twist, calling it “Tangled” and giving in to CGI entirely. Here, it seemed, was the formula for fairy tales in the 21st Century.
Confident in its success, Disney took another classic tale in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” and slapped an adjective title on it to give it a contemporary feel. “Frozen,” however, throws ever further back to fairy tale musicals than “Tangled,” which tiptoed back into the lyric-laden waters with some help from legendary songster Alan Menken. With “Frozen,” Disney has definitely let itself go (yes, that’s a pun on the film’s biggest track) with a film full of magic and princes and princesses and musical numbers.
Anyone who grew up in Disney’s animated prime or simply recalls it fondly will feel instant kinship with “Frozen” and its dainty, fair-skinned, doe-eyed heroines, charming heroes and beloved animal companions, coming together in a story of family, adventure, danger, betrayal and true love.
Princess sisters Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel) shared a close bond as children, but when Elsa’s magical frozen touch nearly took Anna’s life, their parents — the king and queen — vow to isolate and Elsa to control her powers. They also wipe Anna’s memory of her sister’s magic, so she grows up wondering why Elsa has shut her out. When Elsa comes of age to inherit the throne, the castle finally opens its doors, but Elsa loses control of her powers during the coronation and an eternal frost sets over the entire Scandinavian kingdom of Arendelle. Terrified of what she can do, Elsa banishes herself to the mountains and its up to Anna to find her and a solution to her frozen enchantment.
Anna comes in a similar mold to Rapunzel, the beautiful heroine who is a little clumsy and awkward but also wacky and exuberant. She fawns over Prince Hans (Santino Fontana), whom she meets at the coronation and falls for quickly, but she’s otherwise full of self- determination and bravery. Elsa is more poised and pragmatic, until she sings the aforementioned “Let It Go” and embraces her abilities.
The heart of “Frozen” is a story of sisterly love and dedication, as well as finding one’s courage in the face of great fear, but it of course has all the trappings of a contemporary family film. Disney pulled a good deal of misdirection in the marketing, highlighting Olaf the living snowman (Josh Gad) and the wintery adventure of Anna and her escorts, the ice peddler Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and his trusty reindeer, Sven. Absent was any hint of a mushy love story and singing. But even the commercial ploys of the film surpass expectations. Olaf, for example, is unlike any comic relief character in an animated film that you could think of. He has some running physical gags such as his carrot nose and how his body moves independent of his head, but Gad gives him a completely different sense of humor — some combination of wide-eyed wonder, witty observational humor, cluelessness and more. You can see the influence of screenwriter Jennifer Lee (“Wreck-It Wralph”) in some of the film’s humor for sure.
Lee co-directed with Chris Buck (“Surf’s Up,” Disney’s “Tarzan”), who knows his stuff in terms of making action-oriented, environmental digital animation. There’s lots visually going on in the film between the ice powers and snow-covered action sequences, all of which look exceptional.
“Frozen” does seem to walk a line in the story in terms of being cliché and defying convention. A lot of plot points and outcomes are predictable in spite of a few small twists and the characters, especially Kristoff and Sven, are a little formulaic, with brief moments of originality. On the other hand, for example, there’s not a clear, malevolent villain in this movie. There are bad characters, but Disney almost always establishes an evil figurehead. In “Frozen,” much of the conflict comes from the characters’ fear and how this magic is keeping everyone from being happily ever after. At least that’s different.
The original songs from “Book of Mormon” composer Robert Lopez and wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez don’t rival the Menken glory days, but they do go for that style in a few instances (“Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”, “For the First Time in Forever”) in addition to some more modern-sounding Broadway-style tracks (“Love Is An Open Door,” “Let It Go”). In terms of where the songs go structurally, a few feel more like interruptions than positive additions, but it’s fair to allow some time for Disney to get back in the musical swing of things.
Disney has taken a big step forward in making its musical fairy tale brand relevant in the digital age with “Frozen,” and though they should exercise a bit of caution before stepping on the accelerator with these kinds of projects, there’s no question we could all use this kind of enchantment a bit more regularly.
- Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee
- Written by Jennifer Lee, Chris Buck, Shane Morris, Hans Christian Andersen
- Starring: (voices) Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad