Movies Without Pity

Frozen: She’s As Cold As Ice

by Ethan Alter November 27, 2013 6:00 am
<i>Frozen</i>: She’s As Cold As Ice

In 1989, an aquatic princess named Ariel lifted Disney out of its decade-long doldrums, ushering in a new period of creative and commercial success for the once-dominant brand in family animated entertainment. Two decades later, a well-coiffed royal scion named Rapunzel performed a similar feat, righting the Mouse House's course after it struggled to find its sea legs in a new (and largely computer animated) family entertainment landscape dominated by companies like DreamWorks, Blue Sky and, of course, Pixar. And so the hugely enjoyable Tangled beget the equally enjoyable Wreck It Ralph, which in turn beget Frozen, a spirited romp through a traditional Disney princess narrative that ultimately tweaks the formula in ways that make it exciting and new.

In a creative masterstroke that will warm the hearts of both audiences and Disney's merchandising arm, Frozen (which is loosely, loosely, loosely based on the Hans Christian Andersen fable The Snow Queen) doesn't give us just one princess to root for (and, afterwards, buy toys featuring ), but two. Born to loving royal parents in a vaguely Nordic kingdom, Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell) are best of friends as children, but their relationship sours after Elsa -- a one-woman snow machine -- accidentally hurts her younger sibling and subsequently spends much of her adolescence and young adulthood in seclusion, lest her ice powers harm anybody else. When Mom and Dad perish (yes, parents -- it's one of those Disney movies), Elsa inherits the throne and its accompanying responsibilities, while Anna's thoughts turn to matters of the heart, particularly after she crosses paths with the hunky prince Hans (Santino Fontana). A confrontation between the two sisters results in Elsa inadvertently causing an early winter and she promptly exiles herself to the mountains, while Anna mounts a rescue mission with the aid of handsome, but less-than-couth mountain dweller Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his silent reindeer Sven (who is more or less Tangled's Maximus with a kinder disposition and antlers on his noggin)… and a talking, singing snowman named Olaf (Josh Gad), because why not, really?

So far, so traditional. Using Tangled as a template, directors Chris Buck (whose previous credits include Disney's uneven take on Tarzan as well as the underrated penguin surfing mockumentary, Surf's Up) and Jennifer Lee (the first woman to direct a Disney animated feature -- take that, Pixar) offer up a similar mix of breezy comedy, opposites-attract romance (c'mon, you didn't really think that Hans would be man enough for Anna, did you?) and lively musical numbers. Well, lively from a choreography standpoint, anyway; musically, the songs (which were penned by Avenue Q co-creator Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez) are fair to middling, the primary standouts being Menzel's big solo number (which tries to out-defy "Defying Gravity") and an amusing ditty in which Gad's Olaf imagines the benefits of being a snowman in summertime. In other words, it's enjoyable without being especially compelling, lacking the mother/daughter drama at the center of Tangled or the imaginatively designed video game worlds of Wreck It Ralph. Frankly, the first hour of Frozen even pales in comparison to the short the precedes the feature Get a Horse!, a fabulous cartoon starring Disney's main mouse, Mickey. Introduced as a "rediscovered" black-and-white short from 1928, Horse proceeds to mix the past and present in delightful, unexpected ways. (I won't say how or why, but this short alone is worth the cost of the 3D ticket.)

It's in the last half-hour that Frozen displays a similar level of invention. Having set the table for a traditional, "male hero rides to the rescue" finale, Lee and Buck proceed to throw that hoary cliché (which even Tangled fell back on) out the window and instead bring the story back to where it began -- with Elsa and Anna, two sisters who depend on each other for play and protection. Powered by nuanced characterizations and very good vocal performances by Menzel and Bell, that relationship is the beating heart of the film and Frozen is at its best when it's brought to the fore -- as is in the prelude and the third act -- instead of serving as an excuse for the usual animated adventure hijinks. (To be fair, the movie's target audience of young kids won't be as bothered by those "usual hijinks;" it's their parents and/or grandparents who may find themselves a bit impatient with the film's more familiar aspects, having ingested them since, depending on their age, the first runs of The Little Mermaid, Sleeping Beauty or Snow White.) 2013 has been such a dire year for American animation in general that it's easy to overrate Frozen as a vault-ready Disney classic. It's not… but it does earn major points for turning the classic Disney model on its head when it counts.

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