It’s been a while since Disney has released a full-fledged Disney musical. The last foray for Disney into this genre was "The Princess and the Frog" which, after a long hiatus from the form, used traditional animation and featured the first African American Princess. But the film didn’t do as well as expected, so aside from a few songs thrown into the terrifically entertaining "Tangled," the tradition that began with "The Little Mermaid" seemed to have been lost.
Not anymore. While Disney’s new holiday offering "Frozen" is being advertised as the wintery sister of "Tangled," this is a full-fledged musical with terrific songs and a plucky princess.
The story opens with a swift introduction of burly Ice Men in the mountains of a small village in an unnamed country. We meet a young Kristoff and his faithful reindeer Sven, before moving quickly to seaside kingdom where we meet young princess sisters Anna and Elsa. The two girls wake up one morning and go play in their massive castle, where it is revealed that Elsa was born with magical powers allowing her to turn things to ice and snow at will. But as they are playing, Elsa accidentally puts Anna’s life in danger. In order to protect her, their royal parents take them to a magical troll who wipes Anna’s memory of Elsa’s powers. Their parents then decide to keep the two girls apart so Anna will never be put in danger again. (Hello, emotionally abusive parents!)
Well, those parents die in an accident, leaving the now young-adult Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel) alone in their kingdom where they remain separated. But a new queen must be crowned, and Elsa reluctantly accepts the throne. But some frustration at the Coronation Ball causes Elsa’s powers to be revealed, and she inadvertently sends the kingdom into an eternal winter. Elsa runs off into the mountains to be alone; Anna decides to go after her to make things right. Along the way she meets the now-adult Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and a snowman named Olaf (the hilarious Josh Gad). The three team up (along with the fully grown Sven) to find Elsa and get her to change the kingdom back to summer. But more importantly, Anna just wants her sister back. Convincing her to do so, however, will be more problematic then she expected.
There’s much more to the story, but that’s best left to your own discovery. While not all of it is predictable, it does follow a fairly familiar format, but that isn’t a bad thing. In fact, within the formula, the creators play with the conventions of the genre and turn them on their head -- which is thrilling. In fact, Disney has come under a bit of fire for its portrayal of its hapless heroines, and here they’ve given our lead Anna enough independence and can-do spirit that the need for her to be rescued by any sort of knight on a white horse is gone.
Writer Jennifer Lee ("Wreck-It Ralph") plays with a lot of the genre’s normal conceits. For example, the ruse that two characters tend to fall in love within one song is joked about, while another character remarks on how all of their problems could have been solved had one secret been revealed early on. "If she had just told me, none of this would even be happening!"
The biggest difference here is that "Frozen" is told using computer animation rather than traditional hand-drawn animation. Otherwise, this is a throwback to the wonderful musical adventures of the ’90s, and it’s a welcome return.
Directors Chris Buck ("Tarzan") and Jennifer Lee have manifested a beautiful world that sparkles and glows with frosty imagination. Elsa’s ice castle is a wonder, and the animation is consistently breathtaking. There’s an inventiveness here that makes other studio’s efforts seem quaint by comparison. Buck and Lee wisely don’t fall back on pop-culture references although some of the characters are fairly modern in how they act and speak, and that’s part of the fun of it. By avoiding the "Shrekness" it could have been, "Frozen" becomes a classic story of sisterly love and fierce independence.
Along with terrific songs by Robert Lopez ("Avenue Q," "The Book of Mormon") and wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez ("Winnie the Pooh"), and wonderful voice talent by Bell (who knew she was THAT great a singer?), Groff, Menzel and Gad, Disney has a holiday hit on their hands and a welcome return to form. This is a surefire crowd pleaser, and one of my absolute favorite movies of the year!