The royal family of Arendelle is hiding a secret. The eldest daughter, Elsa, was born with a magical gift that allows her to create snow and ice simply through thought. She uses her power for playtime with her younger sister, Anna, but one day she causes an accident that almost kills the littlest princess. Troll magic is used to wipe the memory from Anna's mind, and the castle closes its doors to keep Elsa separated both from the public and from her sister.
Years pass, and the two now-grown princesses prepare for Elsa's (IDINA MENZEL) coronation as the new queen. Anna (KRISTEN BELL) is excited as the event means not only more face-time with Elsa but also her first exposure to the outside world in a decade. Dignitaries and townspeople are invited in for the celebration, and it's not long before Anna has met and fallen in love with a young prince named Hans (SANTINO FONTANA). What should be yet another reason to celebrate instead triggers an icy outburst from Elsa that reveals her powers and terrifies her subjects. Accused of being a monster, she takes off into the mountains leaving a town trapped in permanent, crystalline winter behind her.
Disney's newest animated feature, FROZEN, is a fun and witty delight from start to finish. Far more of a musical than the studio's recent releases have attempted to be, the film ties together an unconventional take on princesses, heroes, and villains, with a melodic ribbon of songs both catchy and affecting. It's a treat for the eyes and ears, and while it doesn't try to reinvent (or redraw) the wheel it does make for some wonderful all-ages entertainment.
The film's setup (as described above) actually flies by fairly quickly before settling into the main part of the story involving Anna's efforts to find Elsa, and that energy rarely pauses for a visible breath. Anna's quest attracts an odd ensemble around her including a young ice vendor named Kristoff (JONATHAN GROFF), his trusty reindeer Sven, and a snowman named Olaf (JOSH GAD) given life through Elsa's magic.
That rushed feeling stings at first as some seemingly hefty dramatic beats are raced by with little time to feel their power. Speed aside, time moves forward in an otherwise graceful way thanks in large part to the film's second song, "Do You Want to Build a Snowman?" Anna's childish plea for Elsa to join her in play is delivered in a song that marks time as we see Anna age and hear the voice change until eventually Bell is singing the final refrain. It's a sweet song paired with the emotional attachment of sisterly love, and it's not alone.
As gorgeous-looking and highly amusing as the film is, it's the songs that deliver much of the emotional weight, and they succeed through a mix of Broadway-belters ("For the First Time in Forever", "Let It Go") and purely comedic ditties ("In Summer"). Composers KRISTEN ANDERSON-LOPEZ and ROBERT LOPEZ have previously worked on projects as diverse as Finding Nemo: The Musical and The Book of Mormon, and here they deliver a handful of memorable numbers that blend wit, exposition, and sentiment with audible life. On the downside though, the songs are front-loaded into the first two acts, and Menzel is only given one solo and one duet. As anyone who's seen and heard her in "Wicked" will attest, that's a criminal misuse of talent.
The script by JENNIFER LEE, who also co-directed with CHRIS BUCK, is equally lively, and (rushed setup aside) it does a magnificent job of crafting characters and emotion while teasing and deftly avoiding conventions. Sure there's a super skinny princess searching for true love, but the resolution is fresh, unexpected, and wise to its own history. Of course there's an animal sidekick for young Kristoff, but when man and beast engage in conversation it's with Kristoff providing a voice for his reindeer friend (because duh, animals can't talk). Snowmen can though, and while instinct says to fear Olaf as if he were the second coming of Jar Jar Binks, the writing (and Gad's performance) instead make him an essential part of the film's success.
The story makes some interesting choices on its way to a conclusion, and on more than one occasion it's the path least taken. In a sense, the snow is devoid of footprints leading towards conventional expectations. Instead, emphasis is shifted from traditional good and evil to a more flexible interpretation, and the typical princess career path ending in a man's arms is eschewed in favor of family, friends, and individuality.
Will Frozen thaw cold hearts and icy demeanors this holiday season? I don't know, I'm neither a doctor nor a meteorologist. But there's a very good chance that the film will leave you smiling, laughing, and humming aloud on your way out of the theater, and that has to count for something in a world over-saturated with CGI sequels ad nauseam and product placement in animated films.
THE UPSIDE: Very funny, smart, and energetic; catchy and memorable songs; unconventional where it matters; "In Summer" is hilarious; Mickey Mouse short preceding 3D screenings of the film is fantastic
THE DOWNSIDE: Setup feels oddly rushed; not enough Idina Menzel; the trolls
ON THE SIDE: Jennifer Lee is the first woman to direct a feature-length animated film produced by Walt Disney. Of course, technically, she co-directed it.