In Frozen, family dynamics ice over an entire kingdom and the thawing process takes down some of the typical Disney formula with it. The latest Disney animated movie is an earnest and refreshingly unwinking princess story with plenty of conflict, but no easy villain, and nice romance, without the ultimate fate of any character depending upon it. It’s not a total evolution for the studio, but nor should it be. Despite some staleness, the Disney formula isn’t broken and certainly has its charms, with big-eyed storybook characters, beautifully designed and exquisitely shaded landscapes, and heartfelt schmaltzy fairy tale endings. But this new film, like Tangled, Disney’s 2010 riff on Rapunzel, takes the raw materials of an old story, this time Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen,” and injects into it a great deal of musical charm and surprising psychological depth. Tangled built its drama out of a smothering mother/daughter relationship warped by mother’s wicked witch status. With Frozen, there’s a hint of magic powers powering sisterly tensions that explodes in metaphor to be thrillingly resolved.
Jennifer Lee’s screenplay is a built on a relationship between two sisters, a dynamic rarely explored seriously, let alone allowed to power the entire plot of a major Hollywood family picture. Here, the sisters are Elsa and Anna, princesses in the kingdom of Arendell. As giggly little girls, they’re best friends, eager to play with slightly older Elsa’s magical abilities to generate and manipulate ice and snow. But a near tragedy leaves Elsa feeling shame. She remembers what happened, how she nearly caused the death of her sister with her growing powers. Her parents, understandably worried, close the gates of the kingdom and sequester Elsa, the better to keep Anna safe unaware of her sister’s capabilities. But Anna doesn’t remember her near-death experience and so reads the events as an inexplicable icing over of a beloved relationship. This is a rather nuanced and powerful exploration of sibling dynamics, and it comes to drive the conflict of the story to come.
Through a series of misunderstandings, Elsa ends up in self-imposed exile at the snowy top of a mountain and it’s up to Anna to find her and bring her back to the kingdom. Their falling out is infecting the whole kingdom, Elsa’s uncontrollable powers unwittingly sending Arendell into a permanent winter, at least until this situation is resolved. There’s a great blue, purple and white color palate to the iced over land. It gives new meaning – and good metaphoric use – to having an icy relationship with a relative. The script allows both women to grow slightly into their young adulthood, finding maturity through crisis, and learn how to love each other, magic power or not. The plot depends upon it. So does their relationship and, by extension, their kingdom.
Elsa and Anna are charmingly and expressively voiced by Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell. They imbue their roles with nuance, wit, depth of feeling, and a fine sense of sisterly tensions and affections. They have great voices, relaxed, funny, and tearful, before leaping octaves and scaling effortlessly into terrific pop ballads and Broadway numbers of the kind associated with the Disney Renaissance style of the 90s, with memorable music and lyrics by veterans of 2011’s Winnie the Pooh and Disney Channel’s Phineas & Ferb, Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez. Bell’s the star here, shouldering the bulk of the journey to the mountaintop and the struggle to reconcile sisterly differences and getting a few witty songs along the way. But it’s Menzel who gets the showstopper yearning ballad in which she begins the process of learning to love herself for who she is. It’s a family movie about princesses that’s all about how they get along by embracing what makes them unique and bolstering their self-confidence. What a refreshing sight.
Elsewhere in the story there’s a handsome prince (Santino Fontana) and a handsome young ice merchant (Jonathan Groff). The former starts out looking like the romantic figure, but stays behind, wishing Anna good luck on her journey, while the latter ends up helping her, tagging along as sidekick and maybe potential love interest. And, perhaps in a concession to Disney formula, Anna is joined by obligatory comic relief in the form of a big puppy dog of a reindeer and a small, funny, sentient snowman. He’s voiced by Josh Gad and gets a sort of clever little song about how much he wants to see summer. The little guy grew on me as the main characters make their journey and run into exciting complications.
The movie is a comfortable and comforting blend of Disney old and new. Directors Chris Buck (co-director of 1999’s Tarzan) and Jennifer Lee (in her directorial debut) oversee a production with sparkling fractals of visual delight, with rounded edges in the backgrounds and of the character design and giving it the best computer animated approximation of the studio’s hand-drawn house style. The music is lush and stuck in my head as I type this now, easily passing the leaving-the-theater-humming test.
Though I was enjoying the voice work, the dazzling animation, and wonderful songs, it surprised me how invested I was in the story. It’s involving enough I managed to wonder (or worry?) for a moment or two that Disney wouldn’t provide us with an uncomplicatedly happy ending. But maybe best of all is the way the conflict is built entirely out of the sister’s relationship and the villainous or romantic complications don’t ultimately factor into its creation or solution. Frozen’s commitment to making and keeping these princesses fully formed characters with a deeply felt relationship makes the film so satisfying and moving, even as it’s still a grand Disney entertainment in the best sense.