Frozen is a
modern—make that post-modern—Disney
spin on Hans Christian Andersen’s The
Snow Queen. With its show-stopping renditions of soaring new songs, it
evokes the best qualities of classic Disney musical fairy tales, adding the
kind of humor and irreverence that clearly identify it as a work of today. And
if it’s busier with story twists than a vintage Disney film—perhaps more than
it absolutely needs to be—it still has all the elements of a crowd-pleaser.
By turning the two protagonists of the story into star-crossed sisters, screenwriter and co-director Jennifer Lee has given the narrative a fresh feeling that’s certainly welcome. She and co-director Chris Buck, a Disney veteran whose credits date back to The Fox and the Hound, make a compatible team who understand how to balance the traditional and the new. The look of the snowy (and icy) film is impressive from start to finish, and the cast of characters includes amusing figures like a beefy mountain man who talks to his reindeer pal Sven and a goofy but good-hearted snowman named Olaf, perfectly voiced by Josh Gad.
Comedy relief is a vital ingredient because even in Lee’s reinvention, the Andersen tale is dark and full of heartache. Two royal sisters who are close as children are forced to live separate lives within the same cloistered castle after it’s discovered that the future queen, Elsa, has the uncontrollable power to turn everything she touches into ice. Her younger sibling Anna doesn’t understand why she’s been shut out, but retains her faith in their sisterly love —even after the kingdom is overtaken by a wintry blanket in the midst of summer. A handsome prince from a neighboring country sweeps the impressionable Anna off her feet, but their romance is put on hold as Anna determines to rescue Elsa from her self-imposed exile.
The songs, by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez (whose credits include The Book of Mormon and the most recent Winnie the Pooh feature) gives showcase tunes to the powerful but frightened Elsa, voiced by Broadway’s Idina Menzel, and the brash but unstoppable Anna, voiced by Kristen Bell. With hip, modern lyrics that revel in contemporary vernacular and include words like “gassy” there’s no mistaking these for old-fashioned Disney anthems, but their presentation puts them over, and the same is true for comedy songs like Olaf the snowman’s ode to a season he’s never experienced, “In Summer.”
One thing is certain: there’s never a dull moment in Frozen, which throws in a fearsome snow monster, a life-and-death race to rescue one of its principals, and unexpected character twists that continue right up to the finale. Female empowerment is a major theme here, neatly played and organically woven into the story—yet there is still the time-tested ingredient of a girl’s moony-eyed first brush with love. The difference is that the girl (Anna) isn’t a princess on a pedestal, but an all-too-human character who’s clumsy and naïve. Frozen manages to hit all the emotional bases for kids and kids-at-heart who grew up on Walt Disney’s famously cathartic stories.
Once upon a time, the Disney studio owned the world of animated features; now it faces a wealth of competition. But Disney still reigns supreme when it comes to sweeping musical fairy tales, with all their built-in emotions. Frozen proves that there’s still a lot of mileage in this brand of storytelling.