Disney’s new feature, Frozen, stands as evidence that the studio has apparently embraced computer animation as the only way to make films; the moderate success of The Princess and the Frog convinced them to turn to the new technology because in today’s economy, “moderate success” is considered failure. Now that they are primarily a CGI animation studio, they’ve applied the old Disney standards to the new work, and fortunately the result is gorgeous. From the rugged mountaintop where the Snow Queen’s castle gleams to the little seaport village trapped in eternal winter by her power, Frozen glistens and sparkles like a crisp winter morning. Beyond the settings, the character design and animation are evocative of the classic Disney films; the characters move like animated cartoon characters; gone are the days when CGI characters moved like marionettes.
There is an old saying, “once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is deliberate action.” With that in mind, it’s safe to say that the Walt Disney Company has deliberately rejuvenated their feature animation department. Following on the heels of Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph, this film effectively closes the door on a recent history that includes such misfires as Meet the Robinsons, Chicken Little and Home on the Range.
As for the story…. the opening credits say that Frozen is “inspired by The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen.” That’s fair, because the story told here bears almost no resemblance to Andersen’s fairy tale. There’s snow and there’s a queen, and that’s about all they have in common. This actually works in Frozen‘s favor, since “The Snow Queen” is kind of a weird, surreal story with a lot of preaching and moralizing going on. Frozen takes a more traditionally “Disney” approach. One could view it as a sort of prequel to the fairy tale, since Andersen’s story starts with the Snow Queen already a recluse in her icy tower, while Frozen tells us how she got there.
A brief synopsis:
Elsa and Ana are sisters; Elsa is heir to the throne of Arendelle, a typical fairytale village in the Nordic lands; little sister Ana is her best friend who loves the fact that Elsa was born with the magical ability to create ice and snow with a wave of her hand. After her power accidentally injures Ana, their parents decide to close off the village to the outside world and Elsa retreats into her room, shutting herself away from everyone, especially Ana, for fear of injuring her again.
Years later, when the time has come for Elsa to assume the throne, the village gates are opened and life returns to normal, until Elsa’s abilities are revealed and she flees the frightened mob, ascending to the mountaintop, there to construct her palace and embrace her new life. Ana, believing Elsa to be in trouble, follows after with the reluctant assistance of a young mountain man named Kristoff and his pet reindeer, Sven. Along the way they meet a living snowman named Olaf, one of Elsa’s creations.
Idina Menzel voices Elsa, with Kristen Bell playing Ana, and the relationship between the two, combined with their soaring vocals, is more than a little evocative of the Broadway smash Wicked; if nothing else, Frozen stands as proof-of-concept that Wicked really needs to be done as an animated film rather than live action.
All of the voice actors in Frozen give top-notch performances; I fully expected Olaf to be incredibly annoying, but Josh Gad makes him likeable from the outset and keeps him that way throughout; Glee‘s Jonathan Groff brings a laid-back naturalism to his turn as Kristoff, and the rest of the cast, from Alan Tudyk’s Duke of Weselton to Santino Fontana’s charming Prince Hans, all perfectly invest their roles with life.
If the film has a weakness, it would be the music. The songs by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez are pleasant enough and serve the needs of the story, but most of them are completely forgettable, with only “First Time in Forever” and Elsa’s dramatic “Let it Go” making any kind of lasting impression. Too many of the production numbers follow the current fad for over-processed vocals, with renders many of the lyrics virtually unintelligible. Fortunately the visuals more than carry those scenes.
The recent trend of “Disney Princesses” who aren’t sitting around waiting for their prince, a trail blazed by Mulan and followed memorably by Brave‘s Merida, continues in Frozen. Neither Elsa nor Ana is particularly obsessed with romance or princes, though Ana’s immediate infatuation with Prince Hans serves as a striking subplot to the main story. It’s pretty clear that her reaction to the prince is primarily a longing for human contact of any kind after having spent several years in virtual isolation and shut out of her sister’s companionship. She’s more lonely than romantic, and her courtship takes a backseat to rescuing her sister.
Frozen also continues the Disney tradition (pioneered by Pixar) of including an animated short film before the feature. This time it’s “Get a Horse!” starring Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow, with Pegleg Pete in the villain’s role. It looks for all the world like a classic Mickey short from the 1930s until it pulls out some surprises. More than Frozen, “Get a Horse!” demands to be seen in 3D.