Disney’s latest animated feature Frozen is exactly everything I want from an animated feature coming straight from the Mouse House. It looks gorgeous, the writing is sharp and witty, it could be viewed by people of any age who would be enthralled by it, most of the songs are catchy and suitably inspirational, it’s got a great message, the characters are memorable, and there really isn’t much of anything bad to say about it. It’s the perfect family film for the holidays and a loveable slice of old school Disney magic.
Loosely based around The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen (who also provided the very loose inspiration for The Little Mermaid), Frozen follows the exploits of sisters Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell). Born into nobility, Elsa sits next in line for the throne of her kingdom, but has spent most of her childhood and teenage years locked away in her room for fear that her secret powers might go out of control and lead to trouble. Elsa can create snow, ice, and extreme cold simply by feeling cornered or threatened. Anna wishes she was able to spend more time with her older sis before their parents passed away. She’s estranged not by choice, but by chance, and even though they live under the same roof, neither have had a chance to bond before Elsa’s coronation ceremony. When the public display leads to a tiff between the sisters, Elsa turns summertime into the deepest winter and heads for the mountains. It’s up to Anna to hike up the side of a mountain to try and talk calm Elsa down and restore order to the kingdom.
It’s of little surprise that Frozen was co-directed by Chris Buck, who had previously directed Tarzan for Disney. Tarzan was a movie that I had on my mind throughout Frozen because it was the last time that every element that I listed off the top – the elements that make for a successful “Walt Disney Production” – worked perfectly in tandem. It’s a fractured fairy tale devoid of pop culture gimmickry or tongue in cheek reflexivity. Buck and co-director/writer Jennifer Lee (Wreck-It Ralph) focus on keeping things simple. The story is fun and engaging; never over complicated or needlessly dragged down by unnecessary seriousness. The emotions are heartfelt, but never cloying, even when delivered by an adorably bumbling anthropomorphized snowman named Olaf (voiced by Josh Gad). The jokes are situational and on point rather than feeling like the results of a focus group that was done to determine what kids think is funny. From top to bottom, Frozen had to take a lot of hard work, yet it still feels effortless.
Frozen also follows in the footsteps of Mulan and Brave to feature “princessly” characters that decide to take fate into their own hands, and both are deftly written and realized. Elsa isn’t inherently evil, but one can see where she could become a Darth Vader-styled despot. She’s trying not to let fear rule and ruin her life, but she can’t fully realize that the only thing she has to fear is fear itself. She’s a stronger, and arguably better, role model than Anna, who wants to marry literally the first young man to show a passing interest in her (voiced by the always delightful Alan Tudyk) before getting some sense talked into her by her mountain guide, Kristoff (Jonathan Groff). The film ultimately builds to a point where the sisters will have to meet each other halfway to resolve the situation, with only the most minimal amount of help from the men around them. It’s refreshing, and the emphasis on bonds between siblings is far richer here than any tacked on romantic subplot.
Also, did I mention the wise-cracking and charmingly naive snowman yet? Because he’s great, too, following in the great tradition of these films having adorable sidekicks. Olaf feels nothing but pure, unabashed joy. He loves warm hugs, roaring fires, and the concept of summertime, but he has no clue that any of those things could kill or harm him. He doesn’t have the concept to give good advice, or even take any for himself. All he understands and feels is love. There’s no edge to the character at all, and Gad sounds like he’s having a ball bouncing around like a goof.
Every element of Frozen screams “Classic Disney,” but I don’t exactly see anything wrong with that. Even though the songs don’t always hit the mark, it takes elements that have worked for the famed animation studio for decades and manages to create one of their best final products in years. It’s even better than the last couple of films that Pixar has churned out. It might be a long time before they produce something as memorable and classical as this, but it’s nice to know the studio still has it in them to produce something that doesn’t need to be cynical, edgy, or even all that hip to succeed as wonderful entertainment.
Also worth noting, is the short that plays before the feature, Get a Horse. A 3-D animated extravaganza that would make Charlie Chaplin proud with all the inventiveness on display, it’s also the first film to feature Mickey Mouse in ages. It’s pretty delightful.