On the surface, Frozen seems to be a reprise of all the familiar Walt Disney animation tropes: an evil queen, an intrepid princess, a dashing hero, a dastardly villain and some cute sidekicks (personable reindeer; talking snowman).
But look closer. Directors Chris Buck ( Tarzan) and first-timer Jennifer Lee (who previously co-wrote the script for Wreck-It-Ralph) use Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen as an inspiration — not a foundation — for a funny, exciting and visually dazzling adventure that qualifies as a full-blown musical. There are eight original songs, written by the husband-and-wife team of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, all of them terrific. An eventual Broadway adaptation is almost certainly assured.
But for now there’s the movie, which has the ring of classic Disney seamlessly combined with a modern-day sensibility. Nothing about the movie feels formulaic, beginning with the central relationship between the two sister protagonists: the young Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell), who loves and worships her older sibling Elsa (Idina Menzel), who is blessed (cursed?) with the power of turning anything she touches into ice. After their royalty parents are killed in a quick, subtle montage, the two girls have only each other to rely upon. But Elsa, fearful of hurting Anna with her uncontrollable powers, shuts herself in her bedroom, avoiding all contact with her younger sibling, who doesn’t understand why she has been ostracized.
The plot of Frozen doesn’t follow traditional Disney rules. When she comes of age, the Queen Elsa, who inadvertently brings ruin to her kingdom by unleashing a permanent winter, runs away into the mountains and builds a solitary ice castle to live in —she’d rather be an outcast and live a solitary life than cause anyone harm. Anna, meanwhile, falls for a charming prince, Hans (Santino Fontana), who proposes marriage after spending just a few hours with her. But first she must bring her sister back home, relying on the help of an ice salesman, Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), and his reindeer Sven to navigate the snowy mountain range.
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The best non-Pixar, latter-era Disney animated movies — The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King — were all, at heart, love stories with supernatural obstacles for the protagonists to overcome. Frozen is different: The story is driven by the love Anna feels for her sister, who is neither evil nor crazy (Elsa is reminiscent of one of the mutants from the X-Men, an extraordinary person who doesn’t know what to do with herself and has no one to guide her). Their bond is what fuels the movie, the same way the mother-daughter bond fueled Brave. But the movie sneaks in romantic complications — Anna gradually realizes she’s fallen in love with two men, radically different from each other —and there are plentiful sight gags, from the snowman Olaf (Josh Gad), who longs to enjoy summer oblivious to the disastrous effects that would wreak on him, to Kristoff’s reindeer, who doesn’t speak but registers as strongly as any of the voiced characters.
Frozen has monsters and villains and sequences of high adventure, but they erupt when you least expect them to, giving the movie a fresh, groundbreaking feel. Menzel is a renowned singer, so her fantastic musical numbers are no surprise. Bell ( Heroes, Veronica Mars) is the real revelation, unleashing a lovely voice that makes you reconsider the talents of this likable but underused actress. The 3D effects in Frozen are gorgeous — the plentiful snowflakes are so realistic, you’re tempted to catch them with your tongue — but it’s the film’s use of sly humor and remarkable CGI animation that lead you to lose yourself in this unconventional, engaging tale. Nearly every other major Hollywood studio is cranking out cartoons these days, but Frozen reminds you why Disney does it best.
Special note: Frozen is preceded by a short film, titled Get a Horse!, that mixes vintage black-and-white Disney animation with startling contemporary effects. To reveal what the film does would be no fun, but you will be delighted by how director Lauren MacMullen uses 3D in her six-minute movie. Her picture is a giant cherry atop a delicious, deep sundae.