This review contains spoilers! You have been warned!
Frozen is the 53rd animated feature from Disney’s in-house animation studio… and it has princess characters. I honestly can’t say anything bad about the concept of princesses or princess movies. Especially since the best animated Disney movies tend to have princesses in them, from the studio’s first feature film, to the first animated feature nominated for Best Picture.
Frozen also happens to be another Disney adaptation of the work of Hans Christian Andersen, based on his story “The Snow Queen”. Disney has actually been on the fence about adapting this story for years, dating all the way back to the 1940s. One version was proposed as an animated segment in a biography of the author’s life. Another version was proposed as a traditionally animated film, with cartoon legend Glen Keane on board. There was also a version pitched by Harvey Firestein, but chances are the execs probably had their backs up from the moment someone said “Harvey Firestein wants to pitch an animated movie.”
The project finally found traction after the success of 2010’s Tangled. When I first heard the film had been greenlighted, I was somewhat confused. Earlier in 2010, Disney exec John Lasseter admitted that there were no plans to make more princess movies. Contributing to this decision was the fact that Tangled was Disney’s most expensive animated film ever, and making another princess movie would have probably bankrupted the studio. Also, they were moving away from traditional hand-drawn animation, a change that I still found myself unwilling to accept. As much as I liked Tangled, and even though some still frames seemed to hark back to well-rendered paintings of Disney princesses, the film in motion didn’t capture the same feeling as a hand-drawn movie. But nevertheless, it was something I was going to have to get used to. Because here we are, three years later, for the computer-generated Frozen.
First of all, I can’t start this review without mentioning the short at the beginning of the film. “Get a Horse” is a tribute to the Mickey Mouse cartoons animated primarily by Ub Iwerks, as well as cut scenes from Epic Mickey. I enjoyed it a lot, but Mickey Mouse is one of my favorite cartoon characters, so I may be biased. However, I believe this is something I’d like to discuss in a future Cartoon Palooza Shorty, so I’ll keep my comments brief:
As for the feature presentation, the tone is perfectly set right from the opening moments. A long time ago, two sisters live in a far-off kingdom in a Nordic region. One sister named Elsa has the power to conjure snow and ice. For the sake of a Disney allusion, she’s like a sprite from that Nutcracker segment in Fantasia. Elsa accidentally hurts her sister Anna with her magic. This prompts Elsa’s parents to take her to see some trolls for a magical remedy (roll with it… that’s the trolls’ mantra, anyways). Anna’s memories of her sister’s powers are purged, but her contact with Elsa is also limited, as her parents spend more time trying to keep her under control… kind of like the Code of Harry.
Eventually, the girls’ parents die in a storm at sea, which leads to Elsa becoming the next queen. Upon her coronation, the kingdom finally opens its gates, and now Elsa finds herself living with people again. I will give credit to both the animators and voice actress Idina Menzel, because Elsa’s animation and performance is perfect. You really get the feeling that she’s a confused person who doesn’t know how to control her emotions. It’s kind of appropriate that Disney now owns Marvel, because her character reminds me of one of the morally conflicted X-Men.
Elsa’s emotions go haywire when her sister Anna, who she’s just seen in person for the first time in years (which is alluded to in the song “Let’s Build a Snowman”) wants to marry the prince she just met the day of the coronation. This frustrates Elsa, causing her to go all Jean Grey on the place, and she runs off into the mountains while leaving the kingdom frozen in ice.
Disney movies really run the gamut when it comes to darker elements. There’s everything from Snow White, with just a few dark scenes, to something like The Black Cauldron which centers around a cooking pot that can bring forward an undead army. People forget that Disney has always had its share of dark moments, which can be mostly attributed to the source material they choose to adapt. It’s a no-brainer that a lot of the earlier Grimm tales were morality anecdotes that used grisly consequences to teach a lesson. Ex-Disney animator Don Bluth had a similar philosophy: as long as you have a happy ending, the story can get as dark as you like. It just so happens that one of the big reasons Disney had a hard time adapting “The Snow Queen” was that this was one of Hans Christian Andersen’s “darker” stories. I use quotations, because the story that The Little Mermaid is based on features the titular character turning into sea-foam while not marrying prince charming.
I’d like to say that Frozen is a lighthearted Disney tale, but the movie opens with a young princess who has to cope with her natural ability to conjure snow and ice. The parents that keep her from seeing the outside world out of fear eventually die, leaving her without any guidance for years. You know, as the Disney mantra goes:
Within the first ten minutes of the film, there was a lot to cope with, as far as traditional Disney movies go. This was veering into Hunchback of Notre Dame territory. Even the idea of snow is depressing. Snow is cold, bitter, and desolate. These are qualities attributed to one of our protagonists, who’s forced away from the outside world. Great. Ten minutes in, and I’m already teary-eyed.
Part of the irony is that most of the sad stuff happens during the song “Let’s Build a Snowman”. There’s a montage where the sisters are growing older, and growing farther apart. The moment when the parents die… well, just think back to the first ten minutes of Up. Though, as Papa Bluth mentioned, there will be a happy ending, folks!
Anna goes on a quest to find her sister, along with an ice-delivery man named Kristoff, his reindeer Sven, and a self-aware snowman Elsa creates named Olaf. They’re your traditional stock sidekicks/male counterparts, with a slight twist. In Olaf’s case, the creators managed to find something really funny and heartwarming about this character. Olaf was the name of the snowman Elsa built with Anna when they were kids, so essentially, Olaf is Elsa’s subconscious apology to Anna for growing apart. There’s a scene where Elsa doesn’t even realize that she created a talking snowman, and yet he looks identical to the one they built as kids.
Another interesting quality about this character is the humor. I always felt that some of the best comedy comes from two things that are complete opposites coming together. In this case, Olaf is a snowman who wants to enjoy the summer. Just reading that sentence makes me giggle, as I can imagine a Charles Addams comic panel highlighting this joke. Though, it isn’t a just a throwaway gag—The songwriters give Olaf a musical tune that takes this joke to town. Put simply, there were lines in this song that made me laugh hard.
And then there’s Kristoff. Here’s a character that was raised by the trolls from earlier, which I can only assume is Disney’s way of trying to capitalize on Laika’s upcoming movie The Boxtrolls. However, there’s an interesting dynamic between him and Anna, both of whom come from similar walks of life, but manage to have different outlooks. On top of that, Kristoff isn’t designed like your traditional prince charming. And then we get to Anna’s earlier love interest, and this is where those major spoilers come in. I warned you…
The twist is that the villain is the man Anna thought would be her future husband, a guy named Hans. This… may have been predictable. Let me explain. Hans is the 13th child in his family, making him the farthest from assuming his kingdom’s throne, which is why he wanted to marry a princess from another kingdom. It gives him a motive, hinted at by subtle gestures and lines throughout the film. I wouldn’t say it’s a bad thing if you didn’t catch it early on. With the way the script was handled, it could have caught some people by surprise. For me, you never knew his angle; and when an opportunity presented itself to him, like taking over the kingdom in the sisters’ absence, it seemed likely that Hans had his own prerogative.
The movie also made it clear that Hans shouldn’t be trusted when they would reinforce the notion of “true love at first sight.” I especially like how the concept played out during the film, because it feels like Disney admitting defeat. In some ways, it’s like the movie is telling you, “Yeah… it was cute in Snow White, but if you ever think you instantly want to marry someone you met for 12 minutes, chances are you need professional help.”
It also reminded me of another earlier Disney film that took the prince charming stereotype and turned it on its head: Beauty and the Beast. Gaston was the muscle-bound hero who wanted to win Belle’s heart, but his arrogance only drove her away. The final reveal that Hans is not the man Anna thought he was seems to hark back to that same reversal from years ago, but for different reasons.
This is part of the problem I had with the movie. It took the qualities of Disney’s best films, and added some new twists in hopes that this would be as big as Beauty and the Beast. Sometimes it works well, but other times it feels over-calculated. For example, the movie begins with a song that seems like it was taken straight from Dumbo. Actually, as I watch that scene again, it almost seems like they ripped off “The Song of the Roustabouts”, right down to the imagery and animation. Though to be fair, while that song had racist overtones, this was significantly… whiter.
My biggest annoyance was with the Anna character. I understand she’s sheltered, and her parents didn’t have a lot of time to spend with her. Especially since they wanted to make sure Elsa wouldn’t freeze the fjords by sneezing. However, I couldn’t help but think about the other sheltered but wacky Disney princess voiced by Mandy Moore in Tangled. What sets apart Rapunzel from Anna is that you actually feel like she’s been living alone, far away from the truth. So once Rapunzel steps out of the castle to go back to the kingdom, you can’t help but root for her. I wanted to see Rapunzel take back the throne, dammit!
Anna, on the other hand, just seems dumb. The choices she makes throughout the film make no sense, and oftentimes it’s hard to root for her. And when she does make the right choice, it doesn’t feel gratifying. It feels more like a calculated effort to have a character make a sacrifice or a hard choice in order to generate empathy. Which is not to say Kristen Bell did a bad job. If anything, her singing voice really brought me back to Belle from Beauty and the Beast… which may be part of the whole thing with the studio trying to mathematically reconstruct the success of that film.
I wouldn’t say that Frozen is as dark as The Black Cauldron or The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I will say that it’s hard to know if I like it more than Tangled or not. They come pretty close, but in the end, it makes me feel good that Disney’s trying something new while still following tradition. It’s too early to say if this marks the beginning of a new Disney Renaissance, but since The Princess and the Frog, I feel the studio has at least been on a roll…
The voice acting in Frozen is spot-on, the animation is beyond gorgeous, and it manages to hit the right chords even though it’s guilty of skating through the motions. I highly recommend the film for animation fans, because if you’ve been dealing with the crap that came out this year, this is most likely going to be a breath of fresh air.