If you're one of the many people I've talked to who can't wait to avoid Frozen like the plague, citing a goofy talking snowman and a return to oft-maligned "Disney Princess" storytelling tropes as your reasons, let me reassure you: I felt the same way, but this (very loose) adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen is Disney Animation’s best feature since The Lion King, and for the record, there have been some pretty great films in the interim (The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, Lilo & Stitch).*
Preceded by the wonderfully ambitious and genuinely funny new Mickey Mouse short Get a Horse, the latest “Disney Princess” movie features not one, but two royal damsels: Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell). Elsa was born with the power to manipulate ice to her will, but when a childhood accident nearly kills Anna, her well-meaning parents shut her away in the hopes of sparing Elsa from a world that would hate and fear her, giving her a massive complex in the process.
Years later, Elsa and Anna’s parents die and Elsa is crowned the new Queen of Arendelle. Anna, who was also quarantined in the castle, but remained completely ignorant to her sister’s abilities, immediately falls in love with Prince Hans (Santino Fontana), and after an amusingly naïve musical number about love at first sight, they get engaged. Elsa refuses to allow her sister to marry someone she only just met (because seriously, who does that?) and the two of them have an argument that finally reveals Elsa’s hidden talents and accidentally triggers a second Ice Age.
For the longest time, Frozen has no villain. Inner conflict run amok, a sibling quarrel and the threat of freezing to death are more than enough to keep the story involving. Anna is determined to find her sister – who has retreated into an ice palace atop a nearby mountain – in order to have a meaningful conversation with her, and to express her love and support. That Elsa can’t hear those words is devastating and sad. That Anna’s escort – an ice salesman named Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) – has no respect for the princess because she got engaged to someone after only just meeting him is amusing, clever and subversive without being smug about it.
Although Frozen pleasingly progresses beyond the usual “Disney Princess” motifs – I’m reasonably sure that Elsa is the only Disney Princess to actually graduate to Queen status – it is also an unabashedly romantic, adventurous and sumptuous production. The ice worlds of Arendelle are lovely, the characters are as expressive as their classical 2D counterparts, and the sidekicks are atypically memorable. Kristoff has a talking reindeer named Sven, but Kristoff has to perform Sven’s voice himself because reindeer can’t actually talk and Sven’s been living alone in the woods too long.
More special – surprisingly – is the instantly marketable snowman Olaf (Josh Gad), whose innocent enthusiasm proves genuinely endearing, and whose ironic dream of a perfect summer day plays like a minor tragedy instead of an insipid joke. His song is funny, his dialogue is funny, but his character deserves to be taken seriously because he’s a sympathetic, emotional being who only just happens to be a snowman.
As Frozen progresses in dramatically sound, sometimes unexpected directions, one thing becomes abundantly clear: original animated musicals have had terrible music for far too long. Even the less offensive song scores – Tangled comes to mind – have neglected to provide audiences with a single, unforgettable, showstopping number in years. Frozen has two. Josh Gad’s “In Summer” is a delightfully wry confection, and Idina Menzel’s “Let It Go” is the kind of passionate, from-the-diaphragm power ballad that will no doubt become a karaoke staple just days after the film’s release.
The rest of the songs, particularly “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” and “Love is an Open Door,” are fun to listen to and boast thoughtful, clever lyrics that – unlike most musicals these days (or ever) – often feel like they were genuinely made up on the spot by people who just couldn’t help but sing their feelings. Christophe Beck’s score, easily his best, is epic and memorable and elevates a warm, loving and thrilling fantasy tale to greatness.
Despite occasional, welcome commentary about the backwards themes of Disney Princess movies past, Frozen is a sincere addition to the canon, with lovable performances, gorgeous animation, impressive songs and an unusual take on a familiar type of story, one that thrills at all the right moments, but not for the reasons that we’re used to. I suspect it will thaw the iciest cynic and cool the most heated detractors of the Disney fairy tale genre. Frozen really is a beautiful and unique snowflake… reminiscent of the rest, but really, there’s nothing quite like it.
*Pixar is a different entity.