FROZEN Review: A Deep Freeze
When you have kids and over the years they clamor to see every cartoon that hits the screens and you do everything you can to get them there because that’s your move, you eventually grow tired of it all – the form, the bad jokes, the repetitive jokes, the repetitive bad jokes, the overall product, the product tie-ins, all of it. Even the quality efforts – things like 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph and Brave – get lost in the fog of bore. So tired had I grown of the genre, a look back at the reviews I’ve written since this time in 2011 – over 130 across several websites and 100 of those this calendar year – reveals I have reviewed a total of one animated film: 1988’s Akira, for DVD Verdict. That’s right. The only animated film I have reviewed in the last two years is a Japanese import from 25 years ago that I have loved since I first saw it … 25 years ago.
Then I had an epiphany. I found religion. I found Frozen.
Inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen story “The Snow Queen,” this Disney offering tells the tale of sisters Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel). Born to the king and queen of Arendelle, Anna and Elsa (the latter the slightly elder of the two) are best friends as children until a playtime incident involving Elsa’s secret power – the ability to manipulate all things cold, from temperature to precipitation – accidentally injures Anna. Magical trolls help Anna, but in the process they must erase the memory of the incident – and all other fun times involving Elsa’s power – from Anna’s memory. Their parents also do everything they can to suppress Elsa’s power, which results in Elsa becoming a recluse in her own home, growing up isolated and all but alone, hiding in her room, and losing her close relationship with her sister.
Years later, when Elsa assumes the throne from her late parents, her powers are exposed and she accidentally freezes the kingdom. Unable to reverse the process, Elsa flees to the mountains where she wants to live in solitary self-exile so her powers won’t harm anyone. Anna, still yearning for that bond from her youth, enlists the help of a neighboring kingdom’s Prince Hans (Santino Fontana) to run the Arendelle kingdom while she hires Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), a mountain man and ice salesman, to help her pursue her sister. With some further help from Olaf (Josh Gad), a talking snowman, Anna must save her sister from self-loathing, her kingdom from an eternal winter, and herself from a surprising villain.
My only regret is that I didn’t see Frozen sooner. It’s magnificent.
Starting with the animation, the icy setting allows for rich blues, crystalline clears, and frosty winter whites, all brought to sparkling life by the animators. And having a character who manipulates ice allows for constructs – from staircases to bridges to Elsa’s mountaintop castle – to be created by artists with amazing gifts of architectural design as well as a mastery of the animated recreation of refraction and reflection of light.
The songs of the film are simply divine. Every number, written by the husband-and-wife songwriting team of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, perfectly captures the mood of its scene, and each has a real Broadway musical feel to it (with every number I felt like I was listening to a stage production, not an animated soundtrack). And even though Disney creation Demi Lovato has a pop single attached to the film (a cover of “Let It Go” as performed in the film by Menzel), none of the songs in the film feel like they are gunning for a Billboard slot.
Yet for all of the audiovisual razzle-dazzle, Frozen‘s greatest strength lies in the complexity of its characters and their relationships, the tragedy that befalls them, and the little things that Disney DOESN’T do.
Elsa doesn’t suffer emotional pain from a singular event; her issues are layered and deep. At a young age, she is responsible for harming her little sister, an event that, alone, could have had a long psychological impact. Screenwriter Jennifer Lee raises the stakes by creating parents who are perhaps the worst kind – not evil, but a combination of truly well-intentioned but terribly misguided. Rather than work with Elsa to understand, live with, and control her powers, they tell her to hide them. This is their elder daughter and they tell her that the thing that makes her special, that makes her unique, must be suppressed with all of her might. It ruins her childhood as she has no guidance whatsoever, only an endless supply of gloves to cover her hands. This has ramifications years later, when her parents die. She is thrust into the spotlight only to be exposed, and had her parents simply dealt with her gift instead of calling it a curse, all would have been fine. The freezing of Arendelle, the subsequent peril she puts Anna in, everything else, traces back to that one dreadful parenting decision. Past Disney efforts would have made only the injury to Anna, or the parental death, the singular tragedy, but instead the film offers multiple interconnected tragedies that span years. It’s pathos worthy of live action drama, yet masterfully offered as animation. (The shots of young Elsa, alone in her room, are just devastating.)
Anna is a new, refreshing breed of Disney princess. She’s the heroine without the curse/power (see: Rapunzel in Tangled). She’s a victim of her family but not THE victim (see: Cinderella in Cinderella); let’s call her victim-adjacent. She’s heroic and a natural leader, but she never needs to be formally defined as such (see: Mulan in Mulan). She needs help, but she’s no damsel in distress (see: Aurora in Sleeping Beauty). As it happens, she gets help from a man, but only because it happens to be a man who is there at the time; had Kristoff been Kristinoff, the help needed and hired would have been the same. She is not pursuing the love or approval of a man (see: Ariel in The Little Mermaid, a princess aching for a prince’s love AND her father’s approval). While there is a subplot about Anna’s near-instant engagement to Prince Hans, it is played very realistically as the impetuous action of a young girl confused and panicked, not one needy for love. She is hopelessly optimistic yet never comes across as the type to dot her I’s with little hearts (see Snow White in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs). I think I love this most about Anna. She is the embodiment of positive thoughts – a can-do dynamo who knows the goodness that lives inside her sister and has the determination to dig it out.
Anna is an amalgam of the best parts of Disney’s other princesses.
Of course an animated film wouldn’t be complete without comic relief from a sidekick, and once again Disney avoids things it has done before. Olaf is the funny sidekick who gets the best lines. However, in his humorous ways, he is never acerbic (see Iago in Aladdin), obnoxious (see Terk in Tarzan), or neurotic (see Sebastian in The Little Mermaid), and he never tries to upstage the star (see Meeko in Pocahontas or Abu in Aladdin). In Josh Gad’s hands (voice?), Olaf is funny, but sensitive and sincere, and possibly the most genuine character to come out of Disney in a long time. He isn’t funny to be funny, he’s funny because he is Olaf, and Olaf is funny without trying.
Disney is also smart enough to recognize that the antagonists don’t always need to upstage the protagonists, and that sometimes villainy can be as subtle as being an impediment to the goal. You will find no bombastic mustache-twirlers in this film, only bad that gets in the way of good, and that’s plenty.
All of this is what I mean when I say the joy of this film is in the things Disney doesn’t do. It’s as if they finally learned from their history – instead of dooming themselves to repeat it.
With Frozen, Disney has shown the potential for a new renaissance – one it hasn’t experienced since The Little Mermaid in 1989. These things can always turn quickly, but I’m hoping that based on the critical response to this film, Disney will worry less about the marketing and focus more on the magic. They’ve got one of the best films of the year on their hands, animated or otherwise. That’s what they need to repeat.