On the surface, Frozen is a film that follows in the tradition of the Disney princess film, what with it being about two princesses, Elsa and Anna. The former is the heir to the throne but she has a special power that threatens to turn her into an outcast. The latter her loving sister who is willing to do anything to help her. A deeper look into it, however, reveals that there is much more to it. The commercials feature a quote saying that it’s the best Disney film since The Lion King. For me that is completely false. Although it will take a few more viewings, as of right now, I’d say it’s quality equals the first five films Walt Disney himself oversaw (Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, Bambi), and even surpasses a couple of them.
For this review, rather than going with the usual format, I have chosen to break it down into sections highlighting what made it such a great film for me.
Tempting though it may be to compare the music to that of the other Disney musicals, especially the legendary Howard Ashman/Alan Menken ones, the truth is that it cannot be done. With The Little Mermaid and Beauty & the Beast, their two Disney collaborations (and even Little Shop of Horrors), they would strive for a more traditional, often more dramatic Broadway sound. There is almost none of that here. Robert Lopez made a name for himself in theater by writing the music for Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon. Both of these standout, amongst other thing, for their clever un-PC content, fun wordplay, and a swift and smooth flow despite all the different things that go on. He then, along with his wife Kristin Anderson-Lopez, brought this style to family audiences wih their first Disney film: 2011’s Winnie the Pooh, and it was a perfect match. For Frozen, they toned down the theatrics a bit and complemented it with a bit of a pop edge, which is fitting given the approach the script takes to the story. With songs such as “Let it Go” and “For the First Time in Forever” and a complementary orchestral score by Christoph Beck, the Frozen is one of the top musical achievements in the studio’s history. Even so, there is a bit of a problem with it as it feels as if it lacks a final musical number after it’s all settled. Perhaps a reprise of “Love is an Open Door” would have sufficed, but that’s my biggest problem with the film. But in the end, a musical score that sneaks in an Arrested Development quote is fine by me.
Design & Animation
When I would watch the trailers for this film, one of the things that made me doubt the final product was that the overall design looked derivative of Tangled and a bit too simplistic. But in the end neither of these was true. As far as the design of the world of Arendale is concerned, we only caught brief glimpses of it in the marketing. In reality it is a beautifully designed world that combines various aspects of Nordic culture. This is especially visible in the interior designs of the main castle, with halls and ceilings filled with beautiful details. Once the “eternal winter” starts, and the majority of the action takes place outside, it’s understandable that it won’t be as visually lush as Tangled, but even so there are enough visual pleasures to satisfy the need for eye candy.
As far as character design go, the film has taken some heat because the characters of Anna and Elsa look similar to Rapunzel. Before the movie came out I had a problem too, but because of the apparent lack of creativity and not for the “it sets an impossible standard for girls” that some are going on about. But once you start watching the film and you get to know them and see the different details in their faces, and their personalities shine throughout, there really are no similarities between them. There are also some that want to chastise the film for lack of diversity. Diversity is one of the things I want most in film, but given the fact that the inspiration for the film is a fairy tale written by a very white Danish writer and the film is very much overflowing with Norther European design influences, all I have to say to these detractor is “really?” Besides, Tangled and Frozen take place in the same world (there’s even a brief cameo from Rapunzel and Flynn).
As of right now I’d go as far as putting Frozen up there with Ratatouille, Monsters University, and Rango as the apex of the best computer generated animation has to offer.
The Script & Story
One of the things the marketing tried to do was hide the fact that this was another princess movie. Yet, they didn’t really have to do it because while it does involve two princesses, it’s very different from any they have done before. The princess aspect of it is a mere concept to get things moving in the first act in the film and to reach the climax. The rest is a quietly groundbreaking take on sisterly love, and how that bond is as strong, if not stronger than the one you can have with a significant other. It does feature a love story, but it takes a back seat until the third act. Another refreshing take is the fact that the villain is not really a threat until the very end, and when this person does come into the picture it feels organic (and a bit obvious). And in the tradition of the best Disney films, it’s features a sociopolitical message relating to one of today’s most talked about issues, but it’s not offensive (or as obvious) as, say, Dumbo or Peter Pan.
Not surprisingly, Frozen feature an array of voice performances that range from good to great. There are three performances that I would rank in the latter category. The first one is, of course, Idina Menzel as Elsa. With her she had to portray someone who is youthful and full of desire, but also has to sound ashamed and afraid of her gifts simply because her parents told her to hide because it wasn’t normal. All of this is comes through in her performance, especially when she sings the instant classic showstopper “Let it Go.” Then there’s Kristen Bell playing Anna, the sister with whom we spend most of the film, and she was actually the perfect choice to play her. I like to refer to Anna as the Disney princess for the Tumblr generation due to her overtly playful nature, rapid-fire speech which is sometimes seems to be made up of a slipstream of thoughts, and her love for food. Bell very much embodies this in her voice, and she’s perfect. The one flaw is that her voice, as lovely as it is, doesn’t have much range, therefore when she sings opposite Menzel she doesn’t stand a chance. Finally there is Josh Gad’s as Olaf. From the marketing it looked as if he was going to be the annoying and unnecessary comic relief that would kill the film, but surprisingly he wasn’t. His character is kind of important to the story between Anna and Elsa. Gad has to deliver humor that varies from loud and fast to deadpan and he kills it every single time. He also nails his musical number.
The rest of cast is also good, but they suffer because they are in the same film as those other three. Alan Tudyk, following his performance as King Candy in last year’s Wreck-it Ralph, gives another “I can’t believe that’s Alan Tudyk!” performance as the apparently villainous Duke, but it’s a minor, if fun role (one that once again references Arrested Development). Santino Fontana sounds appropriately dreamy as Hans and kind of justifies Anna falling head-over-heels for him. Jonathan Groff also gives an appropriately dreamy performance, but with a hint of sarcasm and no self-awareness. The only downside is that he wasn’t given a substantial musical number for him to use lovely singing voice. And Ciaran Hinds has a good role as a wise troll, but as is usually the case with every one of his roles, he’s great and severely underused.
Under the outstanding direction of Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee (the first female director credited in a Disney Animation feature), it’s become clear that we are under another golden era for the studio, one that is already on the level of the one from the 90s, and could surpass it due to the greater diversity of the stories being told. Bring on Big Hero 6, Zootopia, and Moana.