Classic fairy tale takes Disney to a winter wonderland
Directed by Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee
Cast: Kristen Bell, Josh Gad, Idina Menzel
Disney has a big problem. It’s called Disney. Despite the fact that the Walt Disney Studios have spent the last 65 years peddling princess-centric, animated fairy tales—and doing pretty good at it by all indications—the company seems faintly embarrassed by this fact of late. When 2010’s take on Rapunzel came out, the film was titled Tangled, conveniently leaving out any mention of the famous princess at the center of it all. Television ads and trailers heavily favored supporting hero Flynn Ryder over Rapunzel in the hopes that Disney could turn around its core demographic and appeal to little boys as much as little girls. Frankly I don’t remember Disney ever failing to draw an audience for a movie no matter how “girlie” its subject was. The solution, it would seem, is a simple one: Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Just provide more diversity and more realism among your princess protagonists. That worked pretty damn well with 2012’s wonderful Disney-Pixar collaboration Brave.
And yet, here we are looking at 2013’s Frozen. The fairy tale’s original title (Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen) has been heavily genericized to hide any trace of femininity. Trailers again favor the male support over the (not one but) two ladies at the center to the tale. And television commercials have featured a puzzling football-related theme, utterly disguising the fact that this is Disney’s first full-fledged musical in many a moon.
To be fair, it may not be Disney as a whole that’s embarrassed by the product. It seems like the company’s advertising department is the only one involved in this cover-up. Because the film itself is an unapologetically old-fashioned wallow in princesses, magical kingdoms, funny sidekicks and inspirational ballads. It is—to be perfectly clear—pure, uncut, medical-grade Disney.
Frozen is a heavily rewritten take on Hans Christian Andersen’s 1845 tale. Those familiar with it won’t find a lot of the original story left standing. Then again, most classic fairy tales—be they of the Anderson or Grimm variety—are rather bizarre and require significant tweaking to turn into feature-length films. Thankfully the narrative we end up with is a clever one. In the mythical Scandinavian kingdom of Arrendelle, we’re introduced to loving sisters Anna (Kristen Bell from “Veronica Mars”) and Elsa (Broadway baby Idina Menzel). Unfortunately elder sis Elsa was born with magical powers that allow her to summon snow, frost and ice at a mere touch. Scared of her uncontrollable abilities, Elsa’s royal parents lock her away in the family castle. Years later Anna has grown into a curious but lonely girl and Elsa is a frightened recluse.
At her official coronation, Elsa loses control of her powers and turns her kingdom into a icebound wonderland. Fearful of what she’s done, she runs off to hide herself on a nearby mountaintop. Determined to get to the bottom of her sister’s pain, Anna sets out to find her. She soon joins forces with a handsome young mountaineer (Tony-nominated actor Jonathan Groff), his pet reindeer and a magical talking snowman (The Book of Mormon’s Josh Gad).
The film, written and directed by Jennifer Lee (who penned Wreck-It Ralph) & Chris Buck (who’s worked with Disney since 1981’s The Fox and the Hound), does several things very well. The drama is well thought-out and the characters are smartly written. Gad contributes the lion’s share of laughs as the snowman with the sunny disposition. The balance of humor, action and drama is nearly perfect. (Unlike, say, Aladdin, which gave Robin Williams way too much leeway.) It’s also novel to see a relatively villain-free Disney movie. Elsa is never portrayed as a monster—instead she’s simply a confused young woman, scared of her abilities. Especially refreshing is our protagonist Anna, who becomes a “modern” Disney princess without resorting to that lazy trope of having her pick up a sword and rush into battle. (Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, Snow White and the Huntsman, I’m looking at you!) She solves her problems through a combination brains, empathy and action. As a result the film’s climactic twist on an old fairy tale standby, true love’s magical kiss, is both appropriate and rather lovely.
There are a few criticisms to be leveled at the film, but they’re slight. Kristen Bell is wonderful in the lead role and sports a fine singing voice. Up against such heavyweight Broadway talent as Menzel, Gad and Groff, however, she seems outmatched. Of course not every song—written by Avenue Q and Book of Mormon tunesmiths Kristen Anderson-Lopez & Robert Lopez—is an Oscar contender. There are a few real standouts, though. (If Menzel isn’t belting one out at next year’s Oscars, something has gone seriously wrong.) The film’s conceptual design—borrowing elements from several Nordic lands—is solid but not as memorable as some of the other classic cartoons. Until we get to the Snow Queen’s icy, geometric palace, it’s mostly just snow and trees.
Between the soaring power ballads, the romance, the adventure, the hilarious companions and the crafty moral, Frozen may be the most Disney-ish Disney film since The Little Mermaid. Maybe the House of Mouse should take this film’s lesson to heart and not be afraid of its own power. Learn to love yourself, Disney—princesses, power ballads and all.