The tradition of the Disney Princess extends all the way back to Walt Disney Animation Studios’ first film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves which, in 1937, was the first feature length animated film in history. Throughout its 53 feature films, princess fairytales have often been the most remembered and most loved output of this classic animation studio, with Disney Princesses becoming a brand unto itself in the early 1990s. Now, in 2013, Walt Disney Animation Studios finds itself in a continued period of transition. Beginning with The Princess and the Frog in 2009, this fabled studio has been reworking its formula and attempting new things in order to find its place within the now rather competitive feature animation market. Princesses often remain the ‘raison d’etre’ however, and that is certainly the case with Frozen. Loosely based on Hans Christian Anderson’s classic fairytale The Snow Queen, Frozen, written by Jennifer Lee and directed by Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, finds itself in the unique position of attempting to have its cake and eat it too. This is a classic Disney princess fairytale in the grandest of senses, while also working as a clever subversion of that very concept. It is a joy to behold.
It begins, as it should, with ice. What is immediately striking about Frozen is the absolutely stunning animation. Although I will admit to having a proclivity towards the textures of hand drawn animation, as technology continues to improve so does CG animation and Frozen may very well be the most accomplished and thus beautiful CG animation I have seen. I can only imagine how tricky ice and snow is to animate – the refractions of light, the unique textures, the very cold of it – and, to use a popular phrase, Frozen is a winter wonderland. Even without seeing the film in 3D I felt as if I could open my mouth and catch a snowflake on my tongue. The design of the kingdom of Arendelle is lovely, with a familiar, warm feel and an impressive castle at its center. The human characters have wide eyes and kind faces, and their design is undoubtedly modeled after the work in Tangled. Textures are the name of the game here, though, as you can see each perfectly modeled strand of hair on Sven the reindeer or feel the sharpness of icicles as light drops of water drip off of them. Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck clearly cared about each little detail, and the flow and pacing of the film is perfect. It floats and moves with determination, never wasting a moment and making each joke, song, and character count.
At the center of Frozen are sisters Anna and Elsa. Princesses of Arendelle, with Elsa about to ascend the throne to Queen, they have been estranged since childhood due to a traumatic incident that haunts both of them in different ways. Both of these characters are appreciably well-drawn and more complex than is standard for a Disney princess. Anna, voiced by Kristen Bell, is a slightly awkward and funny young woman with a clear thirst for life and a desire to find romance. At the same time, she feels shunned by her older sister while at the same time living in her shadow. Bell brings great spunk and warmth to Anna, and has a lovely singing voice that made me wish she had been making musicals for years. On the flipside, Elsa is the older sister and burdened with her icy powers. She feels lost and different (a feeling anyone can relate to, for a variety of reasons, that adds a unique subtext to this piece), and is worried about how people will perceive her. She allows this to consume her and thus she hides herself away. Elsa is a beautiful, dynamic character brought to life by Idina Menzel. Menzel’s musical talent is well documented and her big number, “Let it Go,” not only encapsulates the character perfectly but is pretty incredible. Menzel sings and belts her way to glory. The male characters in the film take second stage to the women, though both Santino Fontana and Jonathan Groff, Broadway veterans, bring charm and beautiful singing to the table. These roles are well written, Groff as Kristoff in particular, and he has an easy going chemistry with Bell that makes that particular relationship work well.
The film’s approach to the musical numbers is one of its greatest successes. Frozen’s songs are integrated into the narrative, moving the story and relationships along, setting the scene, and bringing us into the character’s perspectives. These are not stop-the-movie-and-sing numbers (though there is value to that too), and the songs by Bobby Lopez (Tony winner for Book of Mormon) and his wife Kristen-Anderson Lopez are almost instant classics. The songs are melodic, catchy, tonally appropriate, and feature incredibly witty lyrics. Songs like “Love is an Open Door,” reveal double meanings as the narrative progresses and “Fixer Upper,” is a romper of a production number, but there is not a dud among them. The Lopez team also wrote songs for Winnie the Pooh, and I hope this is just the beginning of a beautiful relationship between them and Disney. Christophe Beck wrote the film’s musical score, and it integrates with the songs perfectly. The film is musically harmonious.
As the film progresses it begins to become clear how although we are hitting similar beats to other fairytales, a subtle subversive commentary is evolving regarding these tropes. It is in this way that the film exists both as a fairytale in its own way and a deconstruction of it. Anna and Elsa’s relationship is the crux, and the way it plays into the final act is very clever indeed. As everything comes to a head and a climatic action scene occurs, Anna and Elsa assert their independence it is not only an emotionally affecting core but the final nail in the coffin for the standard fairytale ending. The film has romance and songs and castles, sure, but there is something thoughtful and self-aware at play here that I found highly intellectually engaging. Even the way the film handles its villain and colorful sidekick characters, notably Sven the reindeer, who is able to “talk” in a truly charming way, and Olaf, the snowman, feels fresh. In the wrong hands Olaf could have been an obnoxious and awful character, but he is utilized perfectly and is the warm, loving heart of the film. Josh Gad is terrific as the loveable snowman, and his number “In Summer,” is an ironic hoot.
If I have one complaint about Frozen it is that I wish there were more. It feels as if Kristoff is missing his own big number, and I would have loved a final rousing finale song. That being said, if one’s biggest complaint about a film is that it isn’t long enough, it is definitely doing something right. The visuals, music, relatively complex characters, and affecting core make Frozen a great success. It exists as a terrific and classic Disney fairytale in its own right while also providing a female-empowering, cleverly incendiary spin that feels somehow evolved. I can think of few better ways to spend this Holiday season than taking a trip to Arendelle with your family.
Frozen opens today in cinemas nationwide.