The latest animated feature from Disney has received enormous praise, and deservedly so. Disney hasn’t quite mastered CGI yet, but they more than make up for it in storytelling prowess. When it comes to serving up a story full of heart, no studio can top them. And this time they’ve really outdone themselves.
** Spoiler Alert **
My praise begins with the script, as it rightly should. It is compelling, generous and efficient. More after a brief synopsis.
Elsa, princess of Arendelle, has the magical ability to create ice and snow, but she must hide it to prevent causing harm or fear. Her sister, Anna, unknowing of Elsa’s powers, thinks she is responsible for the rift between them and is desperate to make amends. When Elsa reaches the age to take the throne, her emotions get the better of her and her power is unleashed at the coronation. Arendelle is thrust into a perpetual winter as Elsa flees into the mountains and hides herself in an enormous ice palace.
Meanwhile, others intent on destroying Elsa capture her and are set to kill her. Though Anna has fallen in love with Kristoff and believes his kiss will save her, she instead goes to defend her sister. In the same moment that she rescues Elsa, Anna turns to ice. But because her sacrifice was an act of true love, her heart and the rest of her thaw and Elsa learns that love is the key to mastering her gift.
Trust me, that was brief. I’ve found “synopses” for Frozen that are four pages long.
The plot is very layered, especially for a children’s movie. I only told you about two of the storylines. There are at least three more. Despite their number, it isn’t the least bit confusing for a couple reasons. First, everything works to the same end, coming together naturally with thrift and at a steady, brisk pace. Second, the character of Olaf is a naïve observer who can state the obvious without it coming off ham-handed, so an adult can laugh at the simplicity of his assertions while a child is gently ushered toward the moral of the story.
The crowning achievement of this film, however is that Disney has finally managed to produce what so many have demanded of them for the longest time: an anti-princess movie. Fairly or unfairly, the specters of Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty have hung over every Disney princess of the modern age. I personally feel that those three have been caricatured as less capable than they really were. Still, the ongoing demand is for heroines who are increasingly spirited, independent, and less interested in romance.
While romance still plays a big role in Frozen, the climax of action veritably spits in the eye of “true love’s first kiss.” That, in time, may become a mark against the film, just as the spunky princess who “gets the guy” was ultimately deemed unworthy even as she upended the trope of the prince who gets the girl. Still, I think the focus on sisterly love, an overdue reminder that love isn’t limited only to the romantic sense, is a real narrative coup for Disney.
Another area where Frozen has received lavish praise is on the music. Disney has taken a slightly different approach to the songs in this film than in previous musical features. Probably owing to the number of films that eventually found their way to Broadway, Disney tapped Broadway songwriters for the musical numbers and filled the cast with veterans of song and stage. The result is a distinctly modern musical sound. It also makes the film seem as though it was adapted from the stage instead of the (very probable) other way around.
The Broadway sound lends an instant familiarity to the music; there are more than a few earworms in the bunch. Having musical theater veterans on both sides ensures that the songs are packed and delivered with dynamism, power and expression. For the most part, the songs propel the plot while being able to stand just as well on their own.
The intro tune, “Frozen Heart” is easy to overlook but does a nice job of setting a Nordic tone for the film. The next song, “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” is absolutely wrenching with its mix of cheer and longing. All that angst is released by “For the First Time in Forever,” a swelling, expository piece that is easily the most “musicalesque” number. The quirky, guitar-strumming duet “Love is an Open Door” is also a stage number that forces a broad smile and is regrettably brief.
The mood turns sharply with “Let it Go,” the show’s triumphant keystone song, sung powerfully by Wicked’s Idina Menzel. (Sorry, Demi Lovato, but you just don’t hold a candle.) This is where Elsa flees and feels free for the first time and is accompanied by spectacular visuals as she builds her ice palace. It arrives a bit early to be an Act I closer, but maybe they’ll work that out before it hits the stage, because it would be perfect.
Reindeer(s) are Better than People,” a faux-duet novelty. It is little more than an extended one-liner set to music that is predictable and oh, so worth it. The introduction of Olaf the snowman leads into “In Summer,” another humorous piece (basically, Olaf longs for summer) that sets up a running gag for the rest of the show.
The only song I don’t care for is “Fixer Upper.” It feels contrived and formulaic, like it is trying too hard to be cute. But you can’t win ‘em all.
This is the only aspect that offers a mixed bag. The animation certainly does not deserve a thumbs-down, but Disney doesn’t hold the mastery over CGI that they hold over hand-drawn animation. There is something of an unfair comparison embedded in that critique, but that’s a topic for another day.
You may have heard some slight controversy over the two main characters’ design, that they looked too much like Rapunzel from Tangled. Below is a comparison; I’ll let you be the judge.
The real disaster of character design is Olaf. Don’t get me wrong. I love the character, he’s adorable. And I understand the need to make a snowman who looks unique. But, really. Look at him.
Conversely, the settings are magnificent. The backdrop of the Norwegian fjords is beautifully rendered, as are the snowy mountains. The kingdom of Arendelle is replete with quaint Nordic flourishes, and the CGI technology is really in its element as we witness the formation of Elsa’s ice palace.
Frozen is a huge win for Disney and it shows just how the company can compete and lead in the CGI arena. They delivered what people expect, a strong narrative, enjoyable music, and colorful characters. To keep moving forward, they only need to stick to those along with some technical ironing and, of course, a little luck.