During an interview for The Little Mermaid, songwriter and lyricist Howard Ashman remarked, “I just don’t think anything is quite as magical as a Disney cartoon fairy tale.” He said this as an artist who chose to leave musical theatre for what he viewed as its greatest kindred spirit: the animated film. Twenty-four years later, Disney is ready to believe that again with Frozen, a shimmering movie that unapologetically embraces its heritage, and also Disney’s reemergence as the dominating studio in family animation.
For fans waiting years to see Disney reclaim its lost animated magic, this is it. Frozen marks Disney accepting a truth that for over a decade it has seemingly avoided—nobody will ever do an animated fairy tale, let alone a musical, like the House that Mickey built. And when it is fully realized, there is nothing more enchanting. Making good on a promise Tangled made three years ago, Frozen is spellbinding.
Based loosely on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, “The Snow Queen,” Frozen is wholly the story of two sister princesses named Elsa and Anna from the seaside kingdom of Arendelle. Elsa, the elder, was cursed with a magnificent power at birth, which allows her to manipulate the elements of snow, ice, and other wintry charms. Unfortunately, she never learned to control this gift, and after a nearly fatal accident, her parents force her to hide the abilities and her own desperate soul away from the world, including a confused and lonely Anna. The two grow up with a heavy, frigid door always between them until the time comes for Elsa to become Queen. On that warm summer day, an increasingly willful Anna will finally peer through the chilling wall constructed around Elsa’s heart.
It should be said upfront that scholars of Hans Christian Andersen are not going to be pleased. This is a terrific return to fairy tales for Disney, but it is NOT Andersen’s fairy tale. Right down to transforming the protagonists into two female princesses related by blood, as opposed to a poor boy and girl who become lovers, Disney obviously goes in a different direction. However, after attempting to make this story into an animated feature for over a decade (originally it would have been lushly hand-drawn), Walt Disney Animation Studios finally cracked the tale by making it about two sisters, thus allowing the exploration of many unique facets for the company in a familiar setting.
And for those who love that setting, there will be much to adore here. Unlike many previous efforts, this is a narrative about the love and emotion between sisters and the ties that bind, as opposed to that of a lady and her prince who only walked once upon a dream about two seconds ago (that cliché is given a knowing wink and a nod too). Yet, many genre staples are still sprinkled throughout the movie, including a handsome prince named Hans, a dashing street rat called Kristoff, and his best buddy, a mugging reindeer. The biggest of these hilarity-catching tropes though is Olaf, a wide-eyed snowman voiced by Josh Gad with big dreams of one day enjoying summer. This cute little sidekick has such earnest sincerity brimming from his icy powder that his stuffed animal likeness is probably already pre-sold through next Christmas.
All of these characters are fitted into a surprisingly clever and twisty plot that serves them and their voice actors very well. But to the delight of parents tired of the post-modern snark cloyingly attached to almost all non-Pixar family films in the last decade, these are subservient distractions to the genuinely tender affection between Anna and the Snow Queen. Both characters are voiced with classic Disney princess optimism by actresses Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel. As the younger, more innocent of the two, Bell’s clean and luminous voice rings throughout the more traditional Disney protagonist songs of the post-Mermaid era. However, with the casting of Menzel as the frosty monarch, an actress best known for stage credits like Wicked and Rent, directors Chris Beck and Jennifer Lee take their animated project into the most theatrical of settings. Frozen is not only a return to the Broadway formula ushered in during the Disney Renaissance of the 1990s, it is the biggest evocation of it yet, as Menzel’s sinuous vocals wrap around the film’s biggest showstopper, “Let It Go,” which appears multiple times as a harmonizing reprise meant to counter the pure hopefulness of Bell’s transcendently buoyant “First Time in Forever.” If you have young daughters, be prepared to hear those songs many, many times in the near future.
This transfusion of added musicality is not that surprising with the husband-and-wife songwriting team of Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez being hired to inject their melodic mischief into this classical DNA. Consider that Robert Lopez co-composed the music and lyrics for Avenue Q, and collaborated with Trey Parker and Matt Stone on The Book of Mormon prior to Frozen. Together, they prove again that the relationship between theatre and animation can be as absolute as that of Anna and Elsa. A rich score from Christophe Beck of The Muppets reboot also aids their modernization of the Disney musical.
The images that the music serves are most gorgeously realized by a seemingly reinvigorated Walt Disney Animation Studios. While an ever growing number of “independent” animation houses spring up in this now totally CGI-world without any association to Disney, Pixar or DreamWorks, Disney proves that few if any can do intricate backgrounds and dizzying affects better than the epicenter of Walt Disney’s legacy. The visuals particularly pop whenever Elsa displays her cryokinetic powers across the kingdom. If it is made of ice or snow, it will literally pop out of the screen every time, whether you view it in 3D or not. However, there is some disappointment in the actual character models themselves. While they are still some of the best in any fully CG-animated film, and are miles ahead of most of the competition, there is admittedly something missing when compared to the warmth of the studio’s very own Tangled from three years ago. Indeed, Frozen's style sometimes feels a little too close to leaning on that first blast of revitalization. Plus, both are so fully realized in other departments that my nostalgic side can only wonder how they would look in the complete freedom and warmth of pencil graphite or cel-shading instead of digitized pixels.
Yet, this is nitpicking at a film that other than a specifically bizarre musical number involving trolls would appear as flawless as a newly fallen snow. This movie fulfills the promise made by Disney Animation when Tangled and Wreck-It-Ralph announced that a third coming of Disney ascension might be at hand. I would dare not say that it surpasses the Disney Renaissance at its peak, including masterworks like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, however it has more than earned the right to stand by those greatest efforts, and well above some of the lesser ones from the tail end of the 1990s.
While watching this picture, I was reminded of one of the first two or three times I ever went to a movie theater when my parents took me to a night showing of Aladdin at the age of five. The striking colors, iconic characters and euphoric music made it one of the most vivid experiences of my young life and instantly turned that animated adventure into a childhood favorite for many years to come. If you have young children, particularly daughters, Frozen will be that experience.
Den of Geek Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
***This article originally ran on November 18, 2013.
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