Disney’s Frozen has all of the signifiers of another tired princess retread. A gorgeous young woman sets off an epic quest that hinges on the pursuit of true love’s kiss. She’s joined by a cadre of wacky sidekicks – in this case, a gruff iceman, a friendly snowman and a terse reindeer. Along the way, she encounters unfamiliar creatures, battles the forces of evil and eventually (spoiler alert, though not really) saves the world and restores the kingdom to peace and prosperity. Oh, and true love’s kiss and stuff.
But look closely at the beating heart of Frozen, and you’ll find just enough intriguing subversions of the formula to justify a return to these tropes. Princess Anna (Kristen Bell) rarely fulfills the role of damsel in distress, especially once she’s gotten used to interacting with actual human beings after years secluded in a cavernous castle. The forces of evil aren’t misunderstood monsters hungry for power, but the internal confusions of a young woman struggling with powers she doesn’t fully understand. True love’s kiss comes in many forms, romance ultimately proving to be insufficient. And in the end, it’s not the valiant prince that saves the day, but the power of well-established familial connections.
The prologue confidently establishes the stakes and introduces the film’s gorgeous blue-and-white color palette. (The animation, overseen by veteran animator Chris Buck and the film’s screenwriter Jennifer Lee, is uniformly excellent, capturing the subtleties of human expression and the scope of the expansive kingdom with equal precision.) Anna and her older sister Elsa (Idina Menzel of Broadway’s Wicked) live together with their parents, the king and queen. The sisters get along famously until Elsa discovers that she has the power to freeze the world with her bare hands. On an innocent morning of sisterly bonding and snowman construction, Elsa accidentally endangers Anna’s life, prompting her parents to forbid her from revealing her magical powers or interacting with Anna until she’s gained control.
On the day of Elsa’s coronation, the sisters finally reveal themselves to the rest of the world. But when Anna falls hard for the dreamy Hans (Santino Fontana), Elsa finds herself unable to contain her powers of cold. She escapes from the kingdom and retreats to an ice castle on the far side of the world, leaving a bitterly cold trail in her wake. Anna sets out to persuade her sister to restore the kingdom’s warmth, alongside the aforementioned sidekicks.
The movie’s middle section goes a bit slack, especially in comparison to the compelling sweep of the events at the castle. Anna meets Kristoff* (Jonathan Groff of Broadway’s Spring Awakening) and his trusty reindeer Sven, and another romance tentatively blossoms. Soon afterwards, they stumble upon Olaf (Josh Gad of Broadway’s The Book of Mormon), an energetic snowman with a heart of gold. These sidekicks mostly serve as midstream distractions from the stagnant narrative, but they provide moments of fine comedy. A jaunty side trip into Olaf’s fantasies of summer heat is particularly charming, though Christoph’s faux-dialogue with his mute companion runs a close second.
The narrative twists and turns in the final third keep the plot engaging, especially as various characters reveal their true colors. The touching climax includes a few moments of genuinely powerful imagery, none more so than a static shot of Anna, shall we say, fulfilling the promise of the title. Everyone gets his happy ending, though – this is a Disney movie positioned as the season’s most appealing family entertainment, after all.
Did I mention that there are songs? And they’re good! The simplest metric for the success of a Disney film is to track the number of songs you can hum, or at least recall in some detail, after you’ve left the theater. The verdict? Solidly successful. Menzel’s impassioned delivery of “Let It Go,” in which Elsa takes responsibility for her powers, resonates most strongly.
Outside of the songs, the vocal performances are hit-and-miss: Bell and Menzel’s speaking voices are perhaps not different enough to reflect the characters’ differences, and Groff’s delivery (and his character, for that matter) is largely anonymous. On the bright side, Gad’s boundless enthusiasm perches Olaf right on the edge of annoying without ever sending him to the dark side, a delicate balancing act indeed.
Frozen isn’t quite as rousing as I might have liked, but it’s pleasant and satisfying, especially in its puncturing of the fairytale notions of true love. Will it stand alongside Tangled in the recent renaissance of high-quality Disney animation complete with Broadway-caliber melodies, well-respected vocal performers and sneakily feminist narratives? Time will tell, but Frozen is a worthy, icy contender in that canon.
* In the original version of this review, I misspelled Kristoff’s name as Christoph. Scandinavian scholar Emma Zaballos correctly observed that Scandinavian languages have neither a “Ph” nor a “Ch” sound. Thanks, Emma!