Frozen (2013)

The Ice Queen cometh. "Frozen."
The Ice Queen cometh. “Frozen.”

Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee. Screenplay by Jennifer Lee; story by Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee, Shane Morris; based upon the fairy tale “The Snow Queen” by Hans Christian Andersen. Produced by Peter del Vecho. Edited by Jeff Draheim. Songs by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez. Music by Christophe Beck. Production designed by David Womersley. Art direction by Michael Giaimo. Starring Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Santino Fontana, Alan Tudyk, Ciarán Hinds. 

We approach every Disney animated feature like a new verse in an old song, or a re-enactment of a long-cherished ritual. We know exactly what to expect: there will be dashing heroes, plucky heroines and cute sidekicks. We’ll visit exotic locales, hear good songs, witness teeth-gnashing villainy, be told a love story or two. And we’ll see splendid animation, from the best in the business. It’s a tradition that has its roots all the way back in Disney’s first animated epic, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), and although there have been attempts to re-invent the material, for the most part the familiarity is a comfort. We know what we’re getting, and we like it that way.

The new musical from Disney, Frozen is the company’s fifty-third animated feature, and it is a very conscious attempt by the studio to recapture the glory days of its “modern” 1990s renaissance, where films like Beauty and the Beast (1991) and The Lion King (1994) boosted the studio to the heights of its power (Beauty was so good it netted a best picture nomination, which had never been done before, or since). Frozen doesn’t touch the quality of those classics, but that’s only a problem for those of us with long memories. For everyone else, Frozen will be a fine and sweet family adventure, and it sits well next to Disney classics of recent years like Tangled and Wreck-It-Ralph…both of which are somewhat better than Frozen, but I digress.

The story, in what may be a happy first for Mouse House, focuses not on a man but on two sister heroines: Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel). Elsa, the elder, is destined to be queen one day, but she suffers from a terrible curse: she has the ability to create ice and snow out of thin air, especially under emotional duress. A childhood accident injures her sister and causes the two girls to become distant and cold (heh) to each other, until years later during Elsa’s coronation. When Anna meets a hunky prince (Santino Fontana), falls in love and announces their engagement, Elsa loses her cool, literally. Accidentally freezing the entire kingdom and fleeing to the mountains, Elsa builds a crystal palace while Anna gives chase, soon accompanied by a strapping, silly mountaineer (Jonathan Groff) and a goofy talking snowman (Josh Gad), who basically has the Robin Williams role. I mean the Nathan Lane role. I mean the Eddie Murphy role. I mean…

Students of the Disney formula can take pause now and realize that we may have one love interest too many; the way that is addressed forms some of the pleasures of Frozen, which are mild, but genuine. There’s also room for dramatic examples of sisterly love, an evil snow beast and magic creatures of the forest, as well as some political machinations back home. It’s all a little busy, and the story lacks cohesion, but I give them points for upending a couple different Disney clichés, including one key moment that I won’t reveal (you’ll spot it when it comes). Perhaps too much time is spent on the romances and not enough on what should be the primary focus, the bond between Anna and Elsa. But it’s still an impressively-mounted production, with welcome dollops of humor supplied by Gad’s snowman, perhaps the biggest beneficiary of Disney’s playfully anthropomorphic style since Aladdin’s flying carpet (or more recently, Rapunzel’s hair). The other character designs, however, are fairly dull: the costumes are lush, but the facial expressions feel plastic and stiff, more like “Thunderbirds” than anything else. Maybe their faces are already frozen solid.

The songs, by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (Book of Mormon), are uneven: catchy at best, forgettable and jarring at worst. The movie’s showstopper is “Let it Go,” a ballad sung as Elsa forges her new identity as a snow queen, and although Menzel has a famously terrific voice, she belts it to such a degree it feels like it goes straight to pop single. Bell has a fine voice, heard especially during the sly, sneakily subversive “Love is an Open Door.” Gad gets one of the funnier bits as he fantasizes about warmer climates (“In Summer”), not realizing that, as a snowman, his warm-weather life expectancy would be uninspiring–a lot of mileage is gotten out of the fact that Gad’s snowman, like many Disney companions, is endearingly dim. The film’s weakest number, “Fixer Upper,” sung by a gaggle of thoroughly annoying magic trolls, is an attempt at humor so clumsy and disconnected from the narrative stakes that it slinks offstage with all but an embarrassed cough, and doesn’t do much to forward the feminist agenda that is supposedly Frozen‘s bread and butter. When Frozen one day goes to Broadway (or perhaps we’ll get Frozen on Ice, natch),  my prescription is to immediately cut “Fixer Upper” and never speak of it again.

Frozen does not re-invent the wheel, and besides a brief moment at the end, doesn’t really challenge the Disney paradigm as meaningfully as it may think it does. And it’s not one of the studio’s best films. But it’s cheerful, pleasant, warm-hearted family entertainment, and on a chilly holiday night, that will do just fine.

GRADE: B

NOTES: Bonus points to Frozen for putting in an “Arrested Development” reference within the film’s first twenty minutes.

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