For much of the past decade Walt Disney Animation Studios was suffering from something of an identity crisis. The studio's bread and butter—traditional, hand-drawn animation—was falling out of favor with audiences once again. The Disney Renaissance, which began with "The Little Mermaid" and continued through some of the studio's biggest hits, was flagging. The animation was still peerless, but obscene micromanagement from Michael Eisner and a defeated staff, who felt that the studio was paying more attention to Pixar than them, led to increasingly lacklustre material. Audiences preferred the more technologically advanced 3D computer animation that studios like DreamWorks Animation were churning out regularly and the question of what a Disney animated movie was, exactly, remained in the balance. Thankfully, with "Frozen," that riddle seems to have been solved.
Over the last few years Disney Animation has solidified and with "Princess and the Frog" and "Tangled," have refocused on the classic fairy tales that fueled both golden eras of Disney Animation. "Princess and the Frog" was genuinely magical, but it often felt like the audience was resistant to the old school animation, and "Tangled" was an attempt to make those classic tales multi-dimensional, which worked (mostly), but was somewhat sabotaged by forgettable songs and occasionally clunky plotting. With "Frozen," the lessons learned from those previous movies have been sharply utilized. "Frozen" feels like classic Disney animation. If someone had announced "Frozen" as the studio's follow-up to "Beauty & the Beast," no one would blink. It's that good.
"Frozen" is very, very loosely based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale "The Snow Queen," a story that proved so difficult to crack that Walt Disney himself couldn't figure it out, back when he was attempting to reenergize the studio after World War II. In "Frozen," we're first introduced to Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel), members of a Norwegian royal family, as children, and we learn that Elsa has the power to create snow and ice; it was something she was born with. But after an accident ends up injuring her sister, she is forced to hide her abilities and grows emotionally distant from Anna (particularly after her parents are tragically killed).
The story begins, in earnest, on the eve of Elsa's coronation, where the gates to the kingdom are finally flung open. This is where Anna meets the handsome Hans (Santino Fontana), a prince from a neighboring country, as well as the scheming Duke of Weselton (Alan Tudyk), which everyone pronounces weasel-town. It's also where Elsa loses her shit, exposing her powers to the assembled masses and, eventually, casting the kingdom into a perpetual wintery state. It's up to Anna and the rugged mountain man Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) to get to Elsa and convince her to return the kingdom to the appropriate meteorological conditions for the season (she's frozen the fjord solid and all those from visiting kingdoms can't leave). In brief: If they can thaw Elsa's heart then maybe the kingdom can be saved. Easier said than done, of course.
One of the most remarkable aspects of "Frozen," as imagined by director Chris Buck (Disney's "Tarzan") and writer/co-director Jennifer Lee ("Wreck-It Ralph"), is that Elsa is never made out to be the villain. In less nuanced hands, she would have been a witchy sorceress hell bent on snowy destruction, like the Wicked Witch of the West meets Dr. Freeze from "Batman & Robin," but here there's significantly more shading. The movie's big musical number, "Let It Go," belongs to Elsa, and it's not a song of malicious intent; it's one of empowerment. (The second time we saw the movie, this number was met with spontaneous applause). Elsa is emboldened by her powers, comfortable with the icy world she's able to create for herself. She even refashions her wardrobe to reflect her glittery new surroundings.
In fact, for a movie that has gotten such heat for some comments made by an animator about the female characters, "Frozen" is completely female-positive. Anna is a wonderfully clumsy, headstrong young woman, like Belle in "Beauty & the Beast," who thinks she can do just about anything (even if she's done very little). Throughout the course of the movie, she realizes that falling in love is something that happens naturally and not a situation that can she can manifest herself (like Elsa's snowflakes). She also realizes that a true act of love might be different than the storybooks make it out to be. Certainly the credit lies largely with Lee, who does a wonderful job in her screenplay, of nimbly playing with conventions and tweaking the past without ever tipping the whole thing into a world of "Shrek"-like parody or alienating those who love the classicism of the older Disney fairy tales.
"Frozen" is a singularly gorgeous movie, too. Representing snow the way it is here hasn't been attempted before in animation, and the amount of different types of snow, and the way that it it evokes certain emotional undercurrents of the story is truly breathtaking. To some, the snow can bring life, but to others, it's nothing but darkness. The design work, seemingly inspired by classic Disney illustrators like Mary Blair and Marc Davis, some of whom worked on the original Walt-led version of the story, is stunning, especially when the story takes some unexpected twists (we're not revealing anything here, sorry).
Perhaps the most endearing aspect of "Frozen," and the thing that really pushes it beyond the realm of something like "Tangled," are the songs, by the husband-and-wife songwriting team of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez. There are a handful of unforgettable songs, most notably the aforementioned "Let It Go," which we first heard Menzel perform at this summer's D23 Expo, and "In The Summer," a buoyant ditty performed by Olaf (Josh Gad), a living snowman brought to life by Elsa's magic, who more or less steals the show. The Disney Renaissance lived and died by its songs (many written by the dearly departed Howard Ashman); it's very clear that the Lopezes knew how important their songs would be and they do not disappoint.
Disney Animation seems to know where its place is in the company and what kind of movies it should be producing, now, alternating between more modern material and the classic Disney fairy tales of yore, like "Frozen." And this film is an incredibly strong addition to that lineage, one full of genuine magic and awe, where ice castles can materialize out of wintery air and snowmen can dream about hot weather. As far as animated movies go, it doesn't get that much better than "Frozen." It's a new Disney classic. [A]