Frozen, the latest Disney animated pic, is from the same studio that’s seen success over the last few years with the likes of Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph. A fair bit of that new-generation sensibility is in effect here, but Frozen also reaches hard to recapture the late-80s/early90s Disney magic. So while Frozen is a good movie, and one kids will certainly enjoy, it fails to make a firm choice about what kind of story it’s chasing, and ends up squandering some of its promise as a result.
Frozen very quickly introduces us to the cast of characters that will occupy the majority of the story at hand. Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel) are tight-knit sisters and princesses of the Kingdom of Arendelle. Elsa has the magical ability to create snow and ice from nothing, but after an accident that nearly kills Anna, Elsa is forced to hide her abilities from everyone, including Anna, who is left with no recollection of Elsa’s powers.
The story proper only begins years later, when the princesses, long sequestered in the castle (go figure – these are Disney princesses in movie based on a story by Hans Christian Anderson), open the gates for Elsa’s coronation as queen. A sequence of unexpected events mean things don’t go as planned, Elsa’s powers are exposed, and she flees the kingdom, accidentally dropping it into eternal winter in the process. Anna goes after her, and the stage is set.
Really, it’s this setup that makes the rest of the film’s plot (which I won’t spoil here) feel wasted. Throughout the opening act, Anna is the focal point, but Elsa is never far off either, and is certainly never a direct antagonist. In fact, she’s a very sympathetic character, and we see her alone enough to consider her nearly as much the protagonist as Anna. Watching both Anna and Elsa react in their different, though both flawed, ways to the archetypical new world (the opening of the castle gates to wider society) is very compelling. There’s lots of fertile ground for character growth for both women, especially in relationship to one another as sisters. The first act also does a great job of setting Frozen up as a story about growing up, as both sisters need to learn how to relate to others on a personal level, as well as to society at large.
But it seems that Frozen’s creators didn’t have the confidence either in themselves or in their audience to see this sort of character drama through. Anna leaving in search of Elsa quickly shoehorns the plot into an adventure yarn, and the storyline ends up closely resembling the original Shrek, with enchanted snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) standing in for Donkey and Kristoff and Sven (an ice harvester and his reindeer) mostly unnecessarily tagging along for the ride. The trouble is, there was purpose in Shrek’s adventure tale: Shrek returns the princess to Lord Farquad and recovers his home as a prize. Here, there’s no such motivation. Anna wants to bring Elsa back from self-imposed exile, but that action isn’t expected to automatically resolve any particular problem the characters face.
That’s roughly how most of Frozen’s plotline goes: it’s not exactly bad, it just doesn’t get the characters quite where the story wants them to be. There are plenty of fun scenes (one with a Swedish shopkeeper is particularly memorable), but also some rather baffling choices. And this is where we get back into something I mentioned at the top: Disney leaning a little too hard into what’s expected of Disney princesses in a Diney animated movie.
Frozen could very well have been – and nearly is – a movie devoid of a love story outside the love found in friendship and family. But at some point, it seems it was decided that Frozen must have a traditional love story, too. Without going into too much detail, the male/female relationships among the main characters are overwhelmingly platonic in action, and it didn’t feel like romance was needed. But at one point it seems that two of the characters decide they are suddenly one another’s true love, and it comes as the potential resolution to a high-leverage plot point. The idea that love, regardless of source, is something that is built over time is a major part of one character’s arc, but that character is never wholly disabused of the notion that love is something that springs into existence fully formed. It ties back around to the fact that the plot never quite lines up with the intended character progression.
Since this is an animated Disney musical, it’s also worth taking a moment to discuss the songs. Unfortunately, there’s nothing here that will rival The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast, and not by a long shot. Frozen is actually more reminiscent of The Princess and the Frog, Disney’s last attempt to produce a new animated “classic.” There are some passable numbers here, but there’s also a distinct lack of cleverness. Several of the songs, including a couple very early in the movie, feel very tacked on, as though there were an external mandate of a song rather than the music being something that welled up out of the character. This sense is compounded by the fact that some of the lyrics are, well, rather banal. Listening to a character sing about some everyday occurrence not important to the story just because it completes a rhyme gets annoying pretty quickly. The vocal performances are quite good, with Idina Menzel standing out as Elsa, but the songs are just a bit lacking.
The Verdict: 3 out of 5
I feel as though I’ve come across more negative on this film than I actually feel. Let’s not mince words – this is a fun movie, particularly if you’re going with younger children. The animation is gorgeous, and there are some very entertaining, if fairly one note, supporting characters to go with potentially complex leads.
That said, it’s impossible to overlook the fact that this movie was almost something very special. Frozen is caught between trying to take some very big risks and being chained to the Disney animated heritage. The result is a film that is different enough to not be accused of retreading old material, but also very limited in the story that it’s allowed to pursue. Frozen is a fun movie, and a good movie, but it lands far from a great movie.