As you already know by now, the blockbuster family holiday movie for 2013 is the latest offering from the Walt Disney Animation Studios, Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee’s Frozen. This having been a less-than-stellar year for animated features – especially compared to 2012 – I wanted to like Frozen better than I did by the end. It’s certainly an enjoyable enough outing for kids, but I’m afraid that I just can’t align myself with those reviewers who are hailing it as the best thing since the glory days of the House of Mouse. Brave (2012) was better by a long bowshot.
That’s not to say that there aren’t things to like and admire about Frozen. Visually it’s a stunner, exploiting modern 3-D technology to a degree not seen before in Disney animated films. (The short that precedes it – an updating of a crude early Mickey Mouse cartoon titled Get a Horse! – does so even better, and delivers a Poughkeepsie joke into the bargain.) The look of the movie draws primarily upon three rich fonts of inspiration: Norwegian folk art and architecture, the rugged landscape of coastal Scandinavia and the beauties of ice itself – especially the fractal potential of ice crystals multiplying via the application of magic. Sometimes, especially when self-exiled Princess Elsa decides to take full ownership of her scary elemental freezing powers, the ice becomes the architecture, and that’s something to see.
Unfortunately, it’s at that same point in the film, when Elsa (Idina Menzel) launches into her big power ballad “Let It Go,” that one can no longer evade the conclusion that Frozen the movie was created not so much for its own sake as to rationalize the production of Frozen the mega-budget Broadway musical (and infinitely expanding road companies thereof). The first musical number in the show – a sort of work chant by Sámi ice harvesters – has an ethnic feel, raising expectations that the songs will meld nicely into the story and not become overly intrusive. But by the time we reach “Let It Go,” all hope is lost; what little plot there is in Frozen will clearly be driven more by the songs than by action or dialogue. Opera fans might not mind, but I did.
The storyline of Frozen – allegedly based on Hans Christian Andersen’s much darker tale The Snow Queen, but barely recognizable as such – is fairly flimsy: Two sister princesses are left to fend for themselves after their royal parents die in a wreck at sea. Elsa, the elder, has inherited a sort of family curse in which ice shoots out of her fingers when she’s upset. A childhood mishap in which Elsa unintentionally freezes her younger sister Anna’s brain forces Elsa to become a recluse because she can’t control her powers. Feisty-but-gawky Anna (Kristen Bell) chafes at being confined in the royal digs, and promptly falls in love with the first visiting prince (Santino Fontana) to cross her path on her sister’s coronation day (cue Anna’s big boffo duet here).
The new queen reacts harshly to the hastily planned wedding; losing her cool, she quickly freezes her entire realm and flees to create a lofty ice palace in the wilderness (cue spectacular set rising up through the stage). Anna pursues her with the help of a cute-but-crude mountain man named Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and his faithful reindeer Sven. A rather irritatingly cutesy talking snowman named Olaf (Josh Gad) is introduced into the story at this point; his antics will doubtless charm small children, but his big song (fantasizing about how great summer must be) was the movie’s nadir.
Once the sisters meet again, Elsa unintentionally lodges an ice crystal in Anna’s heart, which we have been told by the local trolls (who are much more genuinely cute than Olaf) will eventually prove fatal. Only an act of true love can melt the shard. The rest of the mostly predictable plot revolves around which of Anna’s two suitors will save her.
But this being 21st-century Disney, in which princesses have thankfully progressed beyond needing princes (or noble-hearted commoner lads) to rescue them, the requisite act of true love proves to be other than the romantic sort. And that theme, more than anything else, is what makes Frozen a wintry confection worth experiencing – especially for those of us with daughters or granddaughters. It took the movie studio that made being a princess an obsession for generations for little girls a long time to get it, but it seems that the core message of the women’s movement of the 1970s has finally percolated into the fairytale towers of Anaheim: Sisterhood really is powerful.