I grew up during the thick of Disney’s legendary Renaissance era so films like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King were a huge deal during the formative years of my childhood. As such, whenever Disney put out a film, I ended up comparing it against those ironclad classics. In hindsight, it was probably a bad idea as none of the movies that came after the peak of The Lion King came remotely close to the benchmarks set by those four. Eventually, things got to a point where the new movies weren’t even worth discussing.
In recent years however, there’s been a spark of creativity brewing up within the halls of the great studio. The Princess and the Frog was a delightful reminder of what they accomplished in their glory days; Tangled, the studio’s 50th animated feature, was a triumphant return to form, and last fall’s terrific Wreck-it-Ralph displayed the panache and creativity that rivaled Pixar’s best. With such an upturn in quality, the time is just about ripe for the studio to reclaim the throne.
Disney’s latest feature Frozen – a very loose version of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen – is the story of two Norwegian princesses – Elsa (Idina Menzel) and her younger spunkier sister Anna (Kristen Bell). For reasons left unexplained, Elsa was born with superpowers that allow her to shoot ice and snow out of her hands. Think of her as a gloomier version of The Incredibles’ Frozone. When one of her ice tricks accidentally injures Anna, Elsa becomes a recluse, hiding behind closed doors for years, and away from the public eye, until it’s time for her coronation. Unfortunately for everyone, what was supposed to be a bonding moment between the sisters ends in tragedy after they get into an argument. In the ensuing drama, Elsa suffers an emotional breakdown, loses control of her powers, and plunges the entire kingdom into a permanent winter wonderland. Ashamed and terrified, she flees the kingdom for the mountains.
Realizing the error of her ways, Anna swiftly decides to find Elsa, convince her to return, and naturally, bring the kingdom back to its normal state. Before leaving, she invests the keys to the kingdom to an honorable suitor named Hans (Santino Fontana). To assist her on the perilous journey into the mountains, Anna recruits a dashing mountaineer named Kristoff (Jonathan Gruff) and his loyal reindeer Sven. On the way up the mountain, Anna and Kristoff bicker, banter and… you see where this is going. They also meet an enchanted snowman named Olaf (a scene-stealing Josh Gad) who naïvely dreams of living in the summer.
Frozen certainly has all the ingredients of a future Disney classic. It’s rife with stunning animation – a sequence where Elsa runs across a fjord at night is a jaw-dropper. The Broadway-style musical numbers are reminiscent of the studio’s early 90s era musicals. The lead character is another strong and likeable female (two actually). And its themes of sibling relationships, independence and overcoming insecurities are noble ones. Yet, in spite of all these elements working in its favor, the movie never quite comes together.
The biggest issue with the film is that there isn’t anything exciting about the way the story unfolds. While writer-directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck throw in some clever twists on the old Disney hallmarks – they have fun with the “love at first sight” and “true love’s kiss” tropes – nearly everything else is a recycling of older movies. Tangled, whose grand success was a major reason why this film was put on the production fast track, is the most obvious influence. Aside from the obvious title similarities, a large chunk of Frozen (like Tangled) is devoted to a point A to point B physical journey of a bickering adorable couple. Like in the 2009 film, the female lead is a spunky, doe-eyed brunette whereas the male lead is a loveable rogue accompanied by a loyal mute sidekick (the horse there, the reindeer here). Frozen also adds a second sidekick in Olaf – a character that serves no purpose to the plot whatsoever. At least in his defense, he’s the highlight of the movie and Gad’s spirited performance makes him a joy to watch.
Yes, it’s true that a movie doesn’t need to present something original to be effective but when following a tried and true formula, crafting memorable, developed characters goes a long way. Alas, aside from Gad’s snowman, none of the characters in Frozen meet the bill. Anna and Kristoff start off as originals but soon enough, they settle into the stereotypical Disney romantic couple shtick. Worse, Elsa, easily the film’s most complex character, is shafted by the script and swept unto the sidelines after a showstopper of a musical number (“Let it Go”) midway through the film. That song, powerfully belted by Broadway star Menzel, is also the only song on the soundtrack that rings authentic and not like something manufactured for maximum impact in an inevitable Disney on Ice/Broadway musical adaptation.
As much as Lee and Buck try to keep Frozen balanced between scenes of slapstick humor, songs and screwball romance (as well as a tacked on villainous subplot), the movie would have been better served by a stronger focus on the central relationship between Elsa and Anna. It’s a rare and beautiful thing to see a mainstream studio-funded animated feature centered on the relationship between two women. It’s even rarer to see it coming from Disney! It’s disappointing then that the beautiful message at the heart of this film is stifled by the formulaic requirements of the Disney merchandizing factory. Frozen isn’t bad – it’s just a disappointing step back. Here’s hoping they rebound in a big way with Big Hero 6 next fall.