Disney is finally showing genuine signs of self-awareness, guys. I thought it would take another decade or so myself, but it seems like they finally understand what their moves need to be in order to continue keeping their animation domination seat warm in the 21st century. “Frozen” is as much a note-perfect harkening back to the Golden Age of Disney princess flicks as it is the next logical step in their evolution.
Don’t let the Olaf the snowman-centered ad campaign fool you. At its heart, “Frozen” is a love story between royal sisters Elsa and Anna very VERY loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale “The Snow Queen.” Elsa (Idina Menzel) is born with the inexplicable ability to conjure ice and snow, and mortally wounds her younger sister Anna (Kristen Bell) when they’re both children. The only cure wipes out any memory of magic ever existing in Anna’s life and leads to the king and queen to lock Elsa away from her sister until she has a better grasp on her powers. Being a Disney movie, their parents die in a ship wreck while away on business, and Elsa is next in line for the throne. On the day of her coronation, Elsa reacts harshly to her sheltered sister’s insistence on marrying a nobleman she just met, musical number and all, and accidentally unleashes her powers for all to see. Embarrassed, Elsa runs off into the mountains, isolates herself in a fortress of ice, and unintentionally leaves Arendelle draped in eternal winter, leading Anna to chase after her and bring her back as the rightful queen.
…and this is the set-up. Screenwriter Jennifer Lee has the Disney princess formula down to a science, with the aforementioned first act being a marvel of screenwriting efficiency. The characters of Elsa and Anna are very different from many of their predecessors, regardless of what the faulty ad campaign may have you think. Lee portrays both girls as capable and strong-willed, yet stuck in their own arrested development; Anna’s starry-eyed optimism comes from her sheltered upbringing and desperate longing for human contact and affection, while Elsa’s isolation from those around her has forced her into a sort of perpetual puberty, ashamed of what makes her special and having been trained by her parents to “never feel, never reveal.” See where this is going?
Beyond the subversive undertaking of Disney princess lore, “Frozen” has all of the other elements you’d expect: goofy supporting characters, namely flustered ice salesman Kristoff and his moose Sven and Olaf (Josh Gadd), an adorably naïve snowman brought to life by Elsa’s magic. The ad campaign gears you up to hate the little guy, but he doesn’t show his face until about an hour into the movie, and is just funny enough to bowl you over by the end. His gimmick is that he’s a snowman who’s obsessed with experiencing the summer sun, which is especially cute given his origin, and Gadd really nails the naïve optimism of the goofy side character perfectly, making him saccharine without being grating.
Speaking of perfect casting, Menzel is sinisterly well cast as Elsa, especially because most people still know her from her work in the Broadway show “Wicked.” Her booming voice deceives Elsa’s initially quiet body language and is absolutely dynamite with the songs. “Let It Go” will be this generation’s “Reflection,” I’m telling you.
Regardless of its excellent cast and self-aware critical eye, “Frozen” isn’t perfect. The rest of the cast fits their character stock types a little too well (with one out of nowhere exception that I won’t spoil), and it’s a little on the long side, with a third act sequence involving Kristoff’s family that could’ve been trimmed a bit in particular.
Even so, “Frozen” is within striking distance of Golden Age Disney princess status. In a year where France’s “Blue Is The Warmest Color” proved once and for all that romance knows no gender set, “Frozen” finally shows that the Mouse House understands that the narrative thrust of love doesn’t always come from hormonal lust. It’s not what you’re expecting. Give it a chance.