Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Kristen Bell
Disney animation has pretty much been a disrespected big brother ever since Pixar came along. Although Disney distributed all of Pixar’s masterpieces, it has rarely gotten credit, especially since its non Pixar-related films had been forgettable. But now that Pixar has lost its perfection in recent years, Disney has actually had the stronger cartoons of the two, with Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, and now the new hit Frozen that does their old formula right – while tweaking it every once in a while.
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The land of Arendelle is home to a princess named Elsa, cursed with the power to create wintery elements – a power that could harm her sister Anna and everyone around her. As such, the castle is closed off and a fearful Elsa retreats into containment and isolation, even from Anna. But when the castle doors are reopened for Elsa’s coronation, the quirkier Anna is eager to welcome in the world – to the point of falling in love with visiting Prince Hans within hours. Yet it sets off events that exposes Elsa’s power, causing her to run away and accidentally doom Arendelle to permanent winter. This leads Anna to head into the snowy lands to bring Elsa back — encountering young mountain man Kristoff, his reindeer Sven and a talking, heat loving snowman named Olaf along the way.
With Frozen, Disney is right in their usual fairy tale mode – even loosely adapting it from a Hans Christian Andersen story, like they did with The Little Mermaid. They also have not one, but two princesses to add to their collection as well. However, Frozen’s first little twist on the Disney tradition is that Anna is one of their more funny, oddball princesses – while Elsa may be among their most tragic.
No one would get any of this from Frozen’s trailers or promos, which makes them all the more atrocious – and makes it all the more remarkable that it broke Thanksgiving box office records anyway. One look at the ads and it’s easy to think it’s just second rate Disney, and all about the talking snowman — with barely a hint of Anna and virtually no glimpses of Elsa at all. It’s giving Disney the benefit of the doubt to suggest they wanted the real story to be a surprise, which makes it both pleasant and a big relief.
For maybe the first time in a Disney animated film, at least in recent memory, sisterhood is the real focus. But it is both a fractured and powerful one in Frozen, as Elsa hides herself from her sister and makes it look like she doesn’t love her – yet she loves her so much that hurting her is her greatest fear. As for Anna, she goes so overboard with her eagerness to meet new people and fall in love, it fits the stereotypical Disney princess formula to a tee. However, Frozen actually mocks and parodies that old cliché over and over, in a bit of Enchanted level ribbing – yet more than that, it sadly shows that Anna doesn’t really know about love because Elsa never let herself show her.
Despite the sad undercurrents, the fairy tale satire and the rare case of two independent Disney sisters/princesses, Frozen is still a Disney movie through and through. As such, it still has to have traditional elements to balance it out, like lush animation – which isn’t hard in a winter wonderland – comedy from some animal sidekicks, kid-friendly action, and songs. Especially songs in Frozen’s case.
There is a real Broadway feel to the musical element of Frozen, much like in the 90’s Golden Age of Disney. It probably has to do with so many Broadway veterans involved, as Avenue Q and Book of Mormon lyricist Robert Lopez writes the songs along with his wife Kristen, while Broadway stars Idina Menzel and Josh Gad sing a few of them.
Frozen’s soundtrack includes the cutesy turned sad “Do You Want To Build A Snowman” to detail Anna and Elsa’s declining relationship, “For The First Time In Forever” as Anna’s theme, the soaring “Let It Go” as Elsa finally enjoys her powers at long last, and the ultra ironic “In Summer” to accompany Olaf the snowman’s summer fantasies. With these numbers, the Lopezs and composer Christophe Beck prove that while Frozen gently mocks some Disney traditions, it can still do a lot of good with them.
Yet while the old and new schools come together in noteworthy ways, Frozen inevitably can’t merge them together all the time. Once the old road trip formula comes about, the poignancy of Elsa and the sisters shattered bond gets lost a bit more than it should. While it comes together to tweek another old worn cliché by the end, there’s a sense that it should be more emotional than it already is- or perhaps would be if the old Disney or old Pixar had a crack at it. The foundations are already there to make Frozen touching, but exploiting them just a little more would have really put it in the Disney pantheon.
This is especially annoying, considering how well some foundations do work. Among them is Anna, who’s cut from the somewhat naïve, lovesick Disney princess cloth, yet in a different and quirkier way than most. It’s a rare case of a princess being the actual main character – one that even Tangled didn’t always pass — and getting to be as funny as some supporting players. This serves Kristen Bell perfectly in voicing Anna, as she also shows some impressive pipes on the songs as well.
As for Elsa, she is the beating, tragic, not quite yet icy heart of Frozen, instead of being another evil sorcerer or queen. It makes it fitting that they brought on Idina Menzel to voice her, since her signature role was the similarly misunderstood Wicked Witch of Wicked. In fact, when Menzel utterly belts out “Let It Go” it brings back countless memories of “Defying Gravity” making it even more of a joy to see Elsa’s rare taste of freedom.
Olaf is the real pleasant surprise, since the marketing centered on him to such an extent, he seemed destined to become annoying. Since Josh Gad has often gone overboard in his non Book of Mormon parts, such as in Love and Other Drugs and the short lived 1600 Penn, it could have been a recipe for disaster. But once again, the marketing thankfully painted the wrong picture, as Olaf is 100 percent on the right side of the fine line between cutesy and annoying. With Gad far more sweet than overbearing, perhaps the promos’ Olaf hype was on the money after all, despite being misleading about the actual movie.
While the sisters are the main characters, there are still boy characters around, although the women don’t revolve around them for once. Kristoff is voiced endearingly by Jonathan Groff – a Broadway and Glee veteran who actually doesn’t do as much singing here – while Hans is set up as a pea in Anna’s pod, though that’s part of the satire. With Elsa not being the villain, evil is actually on light display in this tale, but the closest example is a duke voiced by Alan Tudyk – a memorable evil voice for the second Disney film in a row after Wreck-It Ralph.
Frozen may be a case of the parts and certain themes working better than the whole, once the whole thing is more closely examined. It takes chances by Disney standards, and when it doesn’t, it still works the traditional elements better than many post 90s’ efforts.
Still, that does make it more disappointing that greatness remains out of its grasp. But for the parts, songs, characters and relationships that come closest to greatness, Frozen further thaws the gap between Disney and the top of the animation food chain.