True love, princesses, magic, funny animal sidekicks and fantastic music. These are the ingredients we expect from a film like Frozen, and it delivers on all of them. But Frozen is different than anything we’ve seen in the genre from Disney before. Inspired by the Hans Christian Anderson story, The Snow Queen, it’s fun, funny, emotional and romantic, but it’s also deeper, more interesting and more complex than what we’re used to seeing. From its top notch cast, to its gorgeous visuals, its outstanding music and its empowering message, Frozen is a must-see for everyone.
Elsa and Anna are sisters and princesses in the kingdom of Arendelle, a land of trolls, fjords, mountains, the Northern Lights, stave architecture and reindeer. Elsa, the oldest of the sisters, was born with the ability to create and control snow and ice, which she and Anna use for their amusement, filling the main hall of their castle with mounds of snow as they laugh and play. One night, as they make the most of Elsa’s power, Anna is accidentally struck in the head by a blast of Elsa’s magic. The king and queen take Anna to the trolls who live in the mountains, who are able to cure Anna, but only at the cost of removing her memory of Elsa’s magic. The accident forces the king and queen to teach Elsa to suppress and conceal her abilities, forcing a wedge between the sisters because Anna has no memory of Elsa’s power and can’t understand why her sister would push her away. They shut off the castle from the outside world, and as the years pass, Anna, her red hair now containing a streak of white from Elsa’s magic, knocks continuously at Elsa’s door asking her to come play, while Elsa remains stuck in her room trying to hide her talents.
The sisters grow into women, but when their parents are killed in a shipwreck Elsa is forced not only to emerge from her room but to open up the castle gate and let the outside world in for her coronation as queen. Anna is thrilled, both at the prospect of having company for the first time and at the possibility that she might meet her true love at the party, but Elsa is terrified that her powers will slip out and cause harm. When Anna shockingly does fall in love at first sight with a visiting prince named Hans and the two decide to marry, she can’t wait to tell Elsa the news, but things don’t exactly go as she expected. The two sisters fight over Anna’s plan to marry someone she just met and the emotional shock of the fight causes Elsa to lose the control she has worked so hard to gain. When the gathered crowd reacts in fear at the spears of ice she creates, Elsa flees into the mountains.
Once free from the binds placed upon her Elsa fully unleashes her powers, thrilled to finally be able to let it all go for once, and she creates a palace of ice where she can live removed from those who fear and hate her. The only problem is that her powers are so strong that she has completely frozen Arendelle, turning the fjord to solid ice and covering the town in a thick layer of snow, turning summer into winter. Anna, now finally understanding the cause for their separation, is determined to go after Elsa, both to get her to stop the winter but also to finally reconcile now that all of the cards are on the table. She leaves her new fiancé Hans in charge, and sets off towards the mountains, accompanied by rough and tumble Kristoff, and his reindeer Sven, who sells ice for a living and is not happy at his profession becoming obsolete as a result of Elsa’s outpouring of magic. Along the way they’re joined by Olaf, a snowman created and given life by Elsa who resembles the snowman Anna and Elsa created as kids together, who has an obsession with the idea of summer and who agrees to lead them to Elsa’s palace.
However, when they arrive Anna finds that Elsa doesn’t want to go back, and instead of repairing their relationship the sisters find themselves driven further apart, both by Elsa’s magic and their conflicting personalities. The bond of the two sisters is at the heart of Frozen, and is what sets it apart from other so-called “princess movies”. Frozen is not content with romantic love being the only type of “true love” to strive for. It has romance for sure, but it also examines friendship and sacrifice, and the unconditional love of family. There is a feminist slant to the story as well, with Elsa having to deal with being told that she is something to be hidden away and ashamed of and trying to break free of that repression. But still the sisterly relationship of Anna and Elsa is the core of the film, particularly the struggle between love, competition and protectiveness over each other, and with two protagonists the audience is sure to find one to whom they can relate.
Kristen Bell voices Anna, and gives her a quirky, energetic style that is endearingly weird and random but heartfelt and sincere. Idina Menzel gives Elsa a passion and fire that no amount of ice and snow or fear and repression can quell, which battle inside her with the sense of guilt and shame she carries over the consequences of her powers. The two women give great depth of feeling to their voice roles and help ground the gorgeous imagery in real emotion. The rest of the cast is equally great. Jonathan Groff is sweetly disgruntled as Kristoff, who helps Anna not only because of his own self-interest but because it’s the right thing to do. Josh Gad is charming and funny as Olaf, whose modular body is a great source of laughs but whose love of something that will eventually melt him into a puddle is surprisingly beautiful. Santino Fontana is suitably romantic as Hans, and Alan Tudyk gets a small but fun role as the Duke of a neighboring region with his eyes set on adding Arendelle to his rule.
The visuals are stunning, particularly the look of Elsa’s magic and the way the ice crystals of her palace play with the light. Frozen was co-directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, and each focused on a different aspect of the production, which allowed the film to be crafted in a relatively short span of time without the final product feeling rushed. Lee, who also wrote the screenplay, has crafted a story that plays with audience expectations, twisting the standard tropes of villain and love interest until we’re left questioning everything. In many ways Elsa, as the Snow Queen, is the “villain” of the piece, in that she threatens the kingdom with her magic, but she’s also the most sympathetic character of the bunch and the suffering she causes is not the work of evil but instead that of a hurt young woman reacting to the fear of those around her. And as for the love interest, well I’ll let you discover that on your own. While Frozen may seem like it fits the mold of what we would expect from this sort of film, in reality it takes what we think we know and turns it upside down, and as such is one of the more creative films, in terms of storytelling, to come out of Disney in recent years.
And then there’s the music. The songs, written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and her husband Robert Lopez, are uniformly fantastic, ranking right up there with those of the Disney Renaissance from the likes of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman and Elton John and Tim Rice. Given their background (Lopez wrote the songs for Avenue Q and Book of Mormon) it’s understandable that the songs have a distinct Broadway flavor, which suits the style of the film perfectly. From the opening “Frozen Heart” sung by ice harvesters which sets the tone of the film, to the cutely romantic “Love is an Open Door” to the show stopping “Fixer Upper”, every song fits nicely into the story. Particular highlights are Anna and Elsa’s character-defining songs, “For the First Time in Forever” from Anna which gives us a look into the live she has been forced to live thus far, and “Let it Go”, Elsa’s first opportunity to finally be free from the rules holding her back, which is by far the highlight of the film. Each song is woven into the story, and each serves a purpose either to advance the plot or to explore the depths of our characters. Idina Menzel is of course a dynamite singer, and “Let it Go” will bring “Defying Gravity” to your mind, especially considering it was written specifically for her. Kristen Bell’s singing ability surprised me with her voice, which was one of the big unknowns going in. My only complaint is that there isn’t a real song for Kristoff, which is a shame considering that Jonathan Groff is a Broadway vet with a great set of pipes. The film’s score by Christophe Beck helps tie everything together, and features some really beautiful choral arrangements.
Of course, Frozen owes a lot to the 2011 film Tangled. Tangled paved the way for Frozen both by proving that there is a place for computer animated musicals, and by showing that so-called “princess movies” still have an appeal. In a lot of ways, Frozen and Tangled feel like two sides of the same coin. They have a similar visual style, though Tangled’s extra-long production time gave it a tactile quality that Frozen occasionally lacks, and in fact Rapunzel makes a quick cameo in Frozen if you’re watching hard enough (not to mention that the painting that inspired the look of Tangled can be seen hanging on a wall in Anna and Elsa’s castle). Both have all of the standard Disney tropes from the beginning of this review. But where Tangled was a very focused film, Frozen is more expansive and broader. I would hesitate to say that one film is better than the other, though I can see Frozen having a wider appeal than Tangled, but your preference for one in particular will probably come down to personal taste. One thing that sets Frozen apart is that it contains seven distinct songs (plus reprises and minor songs), which is a big step up from the typical 4 or 5 from most animated musicals. I can only hope this is a trend going forward.
Disney has always stood a bit apart when it comes to their films. They try to balance what they feel the audience wants with taking risks and doing something different. Some of their gambles pay off and some most certainly don’t, but it’s refreshing to see a studio blazing their own trail. Frozen (and Tangled before it) is unlike the rest of modern animation; it features no adult oriented humor or double entendres for parents, it contains no extended scenes of slapstick or fart jokes to get kids laughing, it aims for the heart. It’s refreshing to me to see that Disney is still willing to make animated musicals like those I grew up on (while still leaving room for the likes of Wreck-It Ralph and the works of Pixar), because I still think there’s a place for movies designed to appeal to everyone, regardless of age or gender, without having to pander to a particular crowd. In that way, Frozen rises above the fray and transcends the preferences that normally divide us. There’s something here for everyone if they’ll only take a look, but that sort of mass appeal does nothing to dull the story, production or message within. I hope its success will lead to another Disney Renaissance, and considerably more films in this vein. I believe in true love in all its forms, just as Frozen does, and I think we can always use more of that in the world and in cinemas.