Any time you leave a movie theater humming show-stopping songs from an animated film, you know you have a winner. It has been ages since a movie left me feeling the way Frozen did, and though it may sound like hyperbole, it’s probably the best Disney movie I’ve seen in practically two decades (excluding the works of Pixar or stories where the main characters aren’t human).
Like Disney’s Tangled, Frozen is very much a CGI-animated film that still feels rooted (no pun intended) in the classical Disney hand-drawn style (both movies even seem fixated on magic hair to some degree). But while Tangled was experimenting with a new way to bring Disney’s classical lineage into today’s world, Frozen stands firmly confident now that the groundwork has been set, and in many ways is a much more mature film than Tangled ever was. That is not to say it is without humor…far from it! But its themes and emotions resonate stronger, and the main characters in Frozen are dealing with conflicts much more complex than those usually seen in a traditional Disney film.
Loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, Frozen refreshingly tells the story of two sisters at emotional odds with one another. The Pixar film Brave was lauded by some as finally being a “feminist” animated film, due to its mother-daughter relationship and that it was co-directed by a woman. But I felt Brave ultimately lacked much depth, as (spoiler, I guess?) the maternal stuff tended to boil down to a sassy redhead yelling at a bear and not much else. With Frozen the two sisters feel real, and you can sense that they really love each other despite their inner turmoil; it’s heart-wrenching and feels like it comes from a real place. I’d be curious to know how much co-director and writer Jennifer Lee drew upon her own childhood. For a large studio film such as this to have such a true voice is no easy feat.
Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself without explaining even a hint of the plot…in the movie younger sister Anna (plucky Kristen Bell) loves playing with her older sister Elsa (Idina Menzel, who blew me away with her vocal chops). Elsa, however, has magical powers allowing her to create ice and snow from her fingertips. One night while playing as children Elsa accidentally injures Anna with her snow powers. Anna is healed due to some magical help that I’ll keep secret here, but Elsa decides she must conceal her abilities and shuts herself away, withdrawing from the world and her sister. Unfortunately one can only keep emotions bottled up for so long, and on the night of Elsa’s coronation the dam bursts and she smothers her kingdom in perpetual winter, fleeing to the mountains. It’s up to Anna to find Elsa’s ice castle, reach out to her older sister, and thaw her frigid heart. Frozen’s positive theme about letting others in rather than shutting them out isn’t entirely new, but rarely has it felt so honest in an animated story.
I also applaud Frozen for being such a feminist film without outright rejecting the idea of princesses. It would be easy for a modern movie to shrug off the notions of princesses as out-dated and unfit for today’s world, especially given that here princess Elsa flees into the wilderness and refuses her crown. But Frozen is far more interesting and subversive than that. Without giving too much away, it’s safe to say that Frozen thinks there’s quite a bit of good to being a princess, but that princess shouldn’t just sit around waiting for their prince to sweep them off their feet either–they should take action!
For example, opportunistic Anna agrees to marry handsome prince Hans (also a redhead, so it seems as if they are made for each other) after singing and dancing with him for only one evening. This sort of scene would be right at home in and older Disney film such as Snow White, Cinderella, or Sleeping Beauty. But when Anna tells Kristoff (a young man who has agreed to help her find Elsa in the mountains) how quickly she has been betrothed to Hans, Kristoff is incredulous and calls Anna crazy for being so impetuous! And even the classical idea of “true love” in this film extends beyond the traditional male-female kiss on the lips we’ve seen so many times before; there are other types of true love at work in the world too. Frozen doesn’t renounce the traditional ideals of the fairy tale, but it definitely wants us to be aware that sticking too them too strictly can have undesired results. As a side note, Tangled did a pretty good job of this too (Rapunzel cuts off her classic golden locks to become a bit of a brunette tomboy at the end…but still a princess!), and even Wreck-It Ralph was very smart in its reversal of gender roles (seriously, watch it again). It’s nice to see Disney coming up with clever ways to empower their female characters while still allowing them to be feminine.
And of course I can’t leave this review without mentioning the songs. Frozen has some of the best music I’ve heard in a Disney movie since the golden age of Alan Menken, Howard Ashman, and Tim Rice. One sequence in particular, as Elsa belts her heart out while building her new fortress of solitude around herself, caused the audience I saw the film with to erupt into spontaneous applause.
My only dock against Frozen (aside from the lackluster title) is that the “comic relief” characters aren’t as strong as some we’ve had in the past. Olaf the Snowman (Josh Gad) and Sven the caribou are fun, but they aren’t anywhere near as endearing as Pascal the chameleon and Maximus the horse in Tangled, for example. But this is a minor complaint in a film with stunning animation, great characters, a moving story, and songs that you will not soon forget. Classic Disney is back with a vengeance, and the concept of a “princess” finally feels empowering rather than a girl in the high tower waiting to be rescued. Or, if she does need rescuing, it’s her own inner demons she may need rescuing from, and possibly another princess is the only one who can be up to the task.