Disney has perfected the modern princess. Princess Anna, the hero of Frozen, is funny and smart, sometimes awkward, always brave. She loves to be pretty but she’s not afraid to get dirty. She’s romantic and wants true love, but she’s also capable and doesn’t need to be saved. She kicks so much ass that it’s almost a bonus that she’s surrounded by wonderful, lovable characters in a superbly animated film. That the movie is filled with show-stopping soon-to-be perennial songs doesn’t hurt either.
Based loosely on Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen, Frozen is about two sisters who were once best of friends but who have drifted apart. Older sister Elsa has, in the aftermath of their parents’ tragic death, hidden herself away because she’s possessed of a powerful frost magic, an ability that accidentally hurt Anna when they were young. Anna has no memory of the incident and grows up alone, sad that her sister has turned away, never understanding Elsa’s solitary struggle.
When Elsa comes of age to become queen their kingdom - closed off since her powers manifested - is opened for the celebration. Anna goes to her first party and falls in love with the first handsome prince she meets, but a fight with Elsa makes the new queen accidentally bring about an eternal winter. Elsa flees to the mountains and Anna pursues, hoping to mend her sister’s heart and restore summer to the land.
Frozen merges all the eras of Disney animation delightfully. The rotoscoped action grace of early Disney cartoons is represented, as are the big Broadway-ready numbers of the 90s resurgence. And it’s all created in gorgeous, often stunning CGI. I’m a hand-drawn die hard, but even I must admit that the icy landscapes of Arendelle come to absolute life, and the ice palace that Elsa creates is a wonder of light refraction and beauty. The movie simply looks glorious.
It handles the talking animal sidekick issue in a most unique way. On her journey Anna teams up with Kristoff, a hunky, anti-social ice salesman (who looks more than a little like a hot Bill Maher) and his pal reindeer, Sven. Rather than have Sven talk, Frozen has Kristoff hold conversations with his sidekick, putting on a wacky cartoon voice to hold up the reindeer’s side of the conversation. Broadway’s Jonathan Groff voices a very amiable Kristoff, who only gets one minor song - surely that’s a crazy oversight.
Also getting one song is Olaf, a snowman Elsa accidentally brings to life. On paper Olaf is the worst character ever created, but in motion he’s a joy. Olaf loves warm hugs, and his song is all about his excitement for summer - he’s never experienced the heat, but he’s pretty certain he’s going to like it. Josh Gad, the original Elder Cunningham in Book of Mormon, brings lovable energy to the selfless snowman’s every moment.
Maybe it’s just because I’m an avowed Wizard of Oz fanatic, but there’s something about this quartet of Anna, Kristoff, Sven and Olaf that reminded me of Dorothy and friends. It isn’t that the characters quite exactly map but rather that the energy is the same; in Oz the four come together quickly and smoothly, feeling like they’ve been old friends forever. There’s that same dynamic in Frozen, which doesn’t waste time making these characters all the best of friends.
Perhaps some of that Wizard of Oz feeling comes from the presence of Wicked’s Idina Menzel as Elsa, the Snow Queen. More than that, Frozen feels like an origin story in the Wicked mold, where we see the beginnings of a woman who could be a terrible terrifying regent of evil - if her sister doesn’t help her. Menzel gets a whopper of a number, Let It Go, that’s going to be a karaoke staple for years to come. Kristen Bell’s Anna is a spunky hero who you love, but Elsa is a far more complicated and fascinating character, one whose depths Menzel plumbs. The screenplay, by co-director Jennifer Lee (Chris Buck also directed), pits Anna’s natural, unfettered energy against Elsa’s need to control herself. Where Anna is open, Elsa is ashamed of what’s inside of her, always trying to be the ‘good girl’ for her people. It’s a powerful metaphor for women who don’t quite conform to society’s expectations, who have something in them that is valuable and beautiful but not recognized as such. Elsa fights against her true nature, and it causes her to become an ice queen, and to freeze her very country.
Is Elsa gay? I think there’s certainly a valid queer reading to be found in the film. It isn’t like she has a girlfriend - or any romance at all - but the idea that she was born different (it’s explicitly specified that she was born this way, not cursed) and that her difference makes her not a ‘good girl’ (a phrase repeated) lends itself to that interpretation. If we read Elsa as gay, Anna’s quest to show her that she is loved and accepted becomes all the more profound.
Even without that reading, Frozen’s themes are deep and beautiful. It reclaims the concept of true love saving the day, recasting it for the 21st century in a way that makes the caring heart of a woman as powerful as the sword of her prince. The movie offers sly commentary on its own genre, with lots of fun being poked at Anna’s immediate engagement to handsome prince Hans and Kristoff being slightly sarcastic, but it never reaches Shrek meta-levels. Frozen is, at heart, a straight arrow version of the classic Disney cartoon musical. It’s just an exceptionally excellent version of that.
If there’s one thing keeping Frozen from being absolutely perfect it’s that it’s missing a song. Too many of the numbers are in the first half, and I would have liked to see one more song from Kristoff towards the end. He certainly has a big emotional moment that lends itself to a number. I could quibble about the action finale, but Frozen wraps that up in an inspired way that touched me deeply.
Frozen is a throwback to the quality of the 90s Disney animation renaissance, but with a very modern feel. It straddles the classic and the current in a way that will delight Disney geeks of all stripes, and its wonderfully girl-powered story melted the heart of even a Disney cynic like me.