‘Frozen:’ Advance Film Review

I am clearly not the target audience for the whole Disney Princess thing, but I did happen to gain a clearer understanding of the whole phenomenon during a recent trip to Disneyland.  Little girls below a certain age are allowed to come to the park dressed to the nines in their best Princess swag, resulting in a Pre-K sea of ruffles and magic wands.  On this particular day, I noticed a guy who looked very much like he might have been an MMA fighter.  He had muscles on top of muscles and tattoos on top of tattoos.  He looked to be about mid-20s and the sort of guy you definitely wanted on your side if fisticuffs were in order.  I noticed that he was kneeling down in front of a little girl who must have been his daughter or his niece.  Very gently, he adjusted her tiara and made sure her hair was just right, and then smoothed out the ruffles in her dress.  It was a moment as beautiful as it was unexpected, this extremely intimidating dude showing overwhelming, almost feminine, parental care.  If it weren’t a violation of boundaries (and a little bit creepy), I would have snapped a photo of them.

Disney purchased Marvel Comics, because they were having trouble selling to young boys.  Clearly, they had the girls with their stable of beautiful princesses, but they were having trouble creating characters that resonated with boys.  In a way, I think that’s all sort of bunk.  Good storytelling transcends all demographics.  I don’t have to be a 6-year-old girl to find a princess story compelling, if it tells a good story and has engaging characters.

Especially not when that story is as good as Frozen is.                

Based on the Hans Christian Anderson story The Snow Queen, Frozen is a home run in nearly every regard and holds up nicely with Disney’s run of classic animated films from the early '90s.  It may not quite reach the level of Beauty and the Beast, arguably the best Disney movie of all time, but it’s still a major artistic achievement.

Elsa and Anna are sisters (voiced by Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell, respectively), but Elsa has a big secret.  She has the power to create snow and ice, not unlike Frozone in The Incredibles, though she never gets to say, “Woman, where is my super suit?”  Fearing that the townspeople will never accept her because of her power (People fearing a powerful woman, that would never happen.), Elsa and Anna’s parents have sequestered Elsa away alone in the castle until Elsa will assume the throne.  Once very close, the sisters become estranged to one another, despite living under the same roof.

Years pass and Elsa’s coronation day arrives, the gates to the castle are opened, and the townspeople arrive for the event.  Things do not go well as Elsa’s powers are revealed.  The scene plays out a little like the prom scene in Carrie, and Elsa flees, inadvertently blanketing the kingdom in eternal winter.  Anna is determined to find her sister, and she sets out with the help of an ice salesman named Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and his trusty sidekick reindeer named Sven.  Along the way they are joined by an anamorphic snowman named Olaf (voiced by The Book of Mormon’s Josh Gad) who provides high quality comic relief while never not reacting properly to what’s going on.  (That’s been a big pet peeve of mine for a long time, that comedy sidekick characters act as non-stop joke machines and seem completely oblivious to the events going on around them.)

There’s so much to praise here I almost don’t know where to begin.  For starters, the film is simply beautiful to look at.  I am mostly on the fence about modern 3D technology, but CG animation seems to take full advantage of that depth of field.  The icescapes of Frozen are dazzling in 3D.  I know quite a few people who are unhappy about Disney using computer animation over the traditional hand drawn techniques, but old-school technology simply couldn’t have produced these results.  Yes, the film is computer animated, but the character designs still retain that classic Disney look.  It’s the best of both worlds.

The voice cast has been extremely well chosen, selecting great voices over obvious stars.  I am a big, big fan of Kristen Bell’s going way back to her Veronica Mars days, and she is perfect as the plucky Disney heroine.  The role takes full advantage of her range to play both strength and comedy.  I knew she could sing, but I had no idea she could go toe to toe with Maureen from Rent.  Speaking of which, Mendel’s role is smaller but not lesser.  The film is a full-on musical, and both women get a chance to show off their impressive pipes.  Mendel gets a song called “Let It Go” that lets her voice defy gravity.  Groff is also a veteran of the Broadway stage (He was in the original cast of Spring Awakening.), and he’s very charming, though he doesn’t get much to sing.  I was worried about the snowman, but it turns out Olaf is a charming scene stealer.  Gad’s comedic stylings can be a little over the top, but he’s restrained and endearing here.  Plus, the snowman gets a great song about the virtues of summer.

The songs are provided by Avenue Q and Book of Mormon collaborator Bobby Lopez and his wife Kristen, and they are pretty fantastic.  This is by far the best Disney musical since Beauty and the Beast with songs that exist not just to be catchy but to advance the story and define characters.  I’m not much of an Oscar prognosticator, but I can’t imagine Frozen not getting multiple nominations for original song.

After all those awful Twilight movies, it’s refreshing to see a movie that young girls will see that provides not just one but two strong female characters.  The film deals with the importance of sisterly love more prominently than it does with finding a prince charming, and that’s very refreshing and progressive.  As Annie Lennox once said, sisters are indeed doing it for themselves.

The only quibble I really have is the film doesn’t have a classic Disney villain which I think would have ratcheted up the stakes.  Over the years, Disney animation has created perhaps the best rogues gallery in movie history with everybody from Cruella de Ville to Ursula the sea witch, and I would have loved to have seen somebody better than who we get here. (I won’t say who, because it’s a bit of a spoiler.)

Still, that’s a minor contention in an otherwise fantastic family entertainment.  Frozen is high art that’s also accessible to any age group, and that’s not always easy to pull off.  It’s also the best film from the Disney Animation Studio in three decades.  If you can’t tell, I liked it a lot.

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