Even though they’ve been in bed pretty much since the beginning, Pixar effectively put Disney’s animation division out of business. Starting with Toy Story (and piling on with the expertly made Toy Story 2, Finding Nemo, WALL-E and more), Pixar continually made visually dazzling masterpieces with stories and music better than anything Disney was putting out at the dawn of the millennium. The double failures of adventuresome Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet – with their curiously interesting mixture of hand-drawn and CG animation – seriously hurt Disney’s coffers. Along with Home on the Range, Disney didn’t learn that better stories and more dynamic visuals were the solution, instead convincing themselves audiences had merely soured on traditional animation. However… Remember Chicken Little? How about Meet the Robinsons? Yeah. Me neither.
When Pixar knew they were doing a pretty good job helping keep Disney afloat – but weren’t appreciated through the company’s merchandising and theme park profits – they started looking for a new distribution deal with competing studios. Disney ended up buying Pixar, but putting Pixar chief John Lasseter in charge of their feature animation division. Lasseter rescued Toy Story 3 – planned as a direct-to-DVD sequel where Woody and Buzz are shipped to Japan – and threw out much of the pre-production work on The Frog Princess and Rapunzel Unbraided. Though Toy Story 3 was heralded as a masterpiece, Tangled (refashioned to sell fairy tale toys to boys through its hero Flynn Rider) and The Princess and the Frog (dimpled with awkward attempts to introduce the first African-American Disney princess) underperformed. They failed in striking a balance between Pixar’s Hawaiian-shirted wackiness, and Disney’s animators coming out of their immensely successful 1990s “renaissance”.
With Frozen, though, the kinks finally seemed to have worked themselves out. Based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, Frozen tells the tale of sisters Anna (Kristen Bell), and Elsa (Broadway star Idina Menzel), the privileged daughters of the king of Arendelle. Gifted – or cursed – with magical ice powers, Elsa lives most of her life secluded in the family palace, resulting in the inquisitive also Anna living behind closed doors. When it’s time for the elder Elsa to take the throne, her re-introduction doesn’t go as planned. When faced with the fear of losing her sister, she brings eternal winter to an unsuspecting kingdom and exiles herself to the mountainous wilds. She relishes her power no longer having to police herself, but is wracked with confusion and self-loathing. Anna ventures into the cold and snow to face her sister. Always sweet and optimistic, Anna believes she can fix everything just by talking to her sister, solving problems the way siblings are wont to do.
What makes Frozen almost revelatory is the way it deals with its female protagonists. Yes, they’re a little too skinny and attractive, but are not reliant on heroic princes or swashbuckling heroes. A prince (Santino Fontana) does show up, but spends most of the time supporting Anna’s orders to keep an eye on things while she’s away. Even the strapping young ice harvester/love interest Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) helps Anna on her adventure, but never mistakes for a damsel in distress. Even when she’s endangered in the third act, it’s because of her complicated relationship with her sister, not a moustache-twirling villain (one of those show up, too, but is deftly handled, and is its own message on who girls might want to trust once they get older).
Nothing about Frozen is undercooked or overwrought. (Well. The music’s a bit melodramatic, but it is Disney). As realized by co-writers/directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, Frozen isn’t a story that could’ve been told in two dimensions (even though there needs to be more of that, damn it). A Walt Disney Animation Studios production, a technical brilliance embraced likely in response to Pixar’s continual innovation – or thanks to it – is clear in Frozen’s breathtaking CGI renderings of ice and snow. The Norwegian-influenced Arendelle, and its comforting mixture of fairy-tale Europe, looks rich and gorgeous. Even the silly snowman/comic relief Olaf (Josh Gad) is – miraculously – one of the best parts of the movie.
- Amazingly realized characters (and CG animation)
- Big-hearted, Broadway friendly music
- Some needlessly “cute” (or merchandise-friendly) moments
- Could’ve used some story tightening
If audiences can embrace Disney’s first real attempt to do something different, while still adhering to many of its traditional trappings, Frozen will be the classic Tangled, The Princess and the Frog, and even Brave didn’t quite end up working out to be. And it deserves it. For the first time in recent memory – if at all – Frozen creates two girly-girl “princesses” that happen to be real characters, with a story more concerned with those characters’ sincere emotional awakening than them finding some archaic version of “romance”.
(Also coupled with Frozen is a new Mickey Mouse animated adventure, “Get a Horse!” Tipping its hat to its mascot’s storied history and hinting at everything possible by utilizing 21st century animation techniques, “Get a Horse!” is wondrous to behold, and great for children of all ages.)
Frozen, a Walt Disney Pictures and Walt Disney Studios Animation production distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, is 108 minutes long and rated PG.