(Editor’s Note: This review was originally published on November 18th, 2013.)
After nearly seven decades of on-and-off development and the announcement that the film has spawned not one, but two new Disney princesses (an unprecedented turn in Disney, uh, world), there’s plenty riding on the success of Frozen. Fortunately, the 3D computer animated musical feature from directors Chris Buck (Surf’s Up, Tarzan) and Jennifer Lee (who helped pen Wreck-It Ralph) feels both traditional and fresh, thanks to some sweetly twisted takes on the expected, a bevy of catchy songs, and a pair of new princesses worth investing in. (Also, it includes both an adorable reindeer named Sven and an anthropomorphic snowman named Olaf who have the ability to melt even the iciest of hearts.)
Though the film is rife with some traditional Disney tropes – the concept of “true love” fixing everything, the need for parents to be dead, strange but cute animals, magic – Frozen frequently flips many of these plot points on their head, though audiences might need to patient for the inevitable payoff. The film centers on a pair of princesses – Elsa and Anna of the apparently Scandinavian-set made-up kingdom of Arendelle – whose childhoods were marked by an intense and playful bond. Eldest Elsa has a magical trait (her parents will later be asked if she was born with her ability or cursed with it, and the line between the two blurs spectacularly) that allows her to create ice and snow with her mind (and some dramatically thrust hands). Baby sister Anna delights in her sister’s ability, but when Elsa’s burgeoning powers get away from her and stun her lil sis into a coma, she’s faced with a terrible challenge – Anna will be okay, but she must have all memory of her sister’s magic removed, and Elsa must never remind her with an icy trick or snowy treat.
Overwhelmed with the fear that she might hurt her sister again, Elsa sequesters herself away in the palace, effectively shutting her (and the rest of the royal family) off from the rest of the world (or, in this case, the kingdom). Of course, a number of horrible things follow from Elsa’s choice – Anna doesn’t understand and their parents die while on a trip abroad (traveling by boat is tricky). Once Elsa (now voiced by Idina Menzel) comes of age and is due to be crowned as queen, Anna (voiced energetically by Kristen Bell) thinks their time apart is finally over and that real life can begin. Of course, she has no idea that her sister is magical in the least, and she certainly doesn’t know that Elsa’s powers have grown exponentially in the intervening years.
No, the coronation doesn’t go so well, and soon Arendelle is plunged into eternal winter, Elsa has fled to the icy mountains, and Anna is tasked with thawing out both her kingdom and her sister.
While Anna eventually finds herself at the center of a love triangle between two seemingly equally loving (if different) suitors (voiced by Jonathan Groff and Santino Fontana), the true love story at the heart of the film is between the two sisters. It’s a charming and meaningful departure for Disney, and it’s a choice that makes Frozen stand out from the animated crowd. Anna’s quest is a noble enough one – save the kingdom and such – but it’s rooted in her unwavering love and affection for her sister, a sister that she is desperate to understand. Frozen essentially tracks the (possible) rise of a supervillian, so it’s no surprise that the film credits Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” as an inspiration, as that classic fairy tale centers on the nefarious Snow Queen, who can only be defeated by love (and, yes, a bit of ingenuity). The Disney team has, however, made the story their own, and the differently dramatic sisters at its heart are instant classics.
Frozen is a musical in the classic Disney sense – there’s plenty of breaking in and out of song at (occasionally) random moments – but the film’s big numbers, including “Let It Go” and “For the First Time in Forever,” work to beautiful effect. The film also features a bevy of satisfying laughs, most of which come from Groff’s sardonic ice farmer Kristoff and the Josh Gad-voiced snowman Olaf (who, yes, looks deeply creepy in still art but who is surprisingly charming and spry in the actual film).
Walt Disney himself was compelled by Andersen’s many tales, and had attempted to shepherd an adaptation of “The Ice Queen” since back in the 1940s, though the project was shelved in 1952, brought back to life in the late 1990s before being again shelved in 2002, was once set for a Pixar feature, only to then be briefly brought back to life at Disney proper in 2010 only to again get cancelled, before finally assembling its latest incarnation in 2011. In short – this is a tale that’s beloved by Disney and has been a long-time passion project for the studio – and it shows.
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