I think it’s clear that we’re in the midst of a second Disney animated Renaissance, albeit slightly more modest than the first one which began with 1989’s The Little Mermaid. With John Lasseter’s arrival from Pixar, the House of Mouse has shown an eager desire to both revive and reinvent its “princess” stories. The Princess and the Frog and Tangled were tentative first steps. But now Frozen arrives to redefine what these figures are supposed to be, and in the process perhaps show the way to Disney’s animated future.
Indeed, these are the first princesses who actually seem born to rule: doing real, important things rather than fulfilling the tweener fantasies about gowns and balls and boys and stuff. The eldest, Elsa (voice by Idina Menzel) possesses the power to control snow and frost: a power that almost killed her sister Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) when they were younger. She’s learned to repress it lest the people she rules turn on her with a torches-and-pitchforks party. But in the process, she pushes Anna away, and on the day of her coronation, it all goes to pot.
The energy focuses on these two, though Anna has a pair of potential suitors (one handsome and charming, one snarkier but still charming) to keep up appearances. And the format closely follows the Broadway musical model that’s served them well since Howard Ashman’s day. This time, they’ve tasked Book of Mormon scribes Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez to handle the songs. They’re bolder and showier than the typical Randy Newman rut previous animated features have slipped into, and well-suited to a positive but comparatively serious story like this one. It’s big and brassy, but never overwhelming, and the showstopping centerpiece “Let It Go” (accompanied by the staggering creation of an ice palace from Elsa’s powers) makes a strong case at the Best Original Song Oscar this year.
That’s a good thing because some parts of Frozen reflect a slightly rushed schedule. Not in the story, which sparkles under directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, and finds the right tone for a tale that requires no small amount of delicacy. But some of the animation feels a little rushed: a few cut corners and speedy renderings that suggest haste winning the battle over quality. It still looks good, just not quite as good as we’ve come to expect from Disney.
The trappings, too, sometimes cling a little too close to the past for comfort. There’s a few colorful sidekicks – a reindeer and a snowman, the latter of whom I tried so hard to loathe before voice actor Josh Gad won me over – who clearly serve to sell toys first and participate in the tale second. The plot stumbles from time to time, and while it endeavors to strike out in new directions, it still can’t leave the sanctuary of the mothership like it should.
Contrast that, however, with a refreshing take on some of Disney’s classic tropes like true love and the value of friendship. Frozen received a lot of buzz around the studio for its “twist” ending, and while it’s not quite as surprising as it appears, it carries a wisdom that sneaks up on you if you let it. The screenplay carries its share of clever lines (Bell makes the most of them), and the pacing is brisk and upbeat. We expect all of that from a Disney film, but by altering the traditional formula in subtle ways, this one shows us that they’re unwilling to simply rest on their laurels.
You can see that most in the two sisters, in the way they bounce so agreeably off of each other, and in the fact that they resemble no Disney princesses that have come before. Elsa is reserved and somber, afraid to unleash her power and consumed with the guilt of carrying it in the first place. Anna is bright and effervescent, but also a bit of a klutz and given to awkward ramblings when she gets nervous. That comes on top of the bravery and strength and stalwartness we’ve come to expect from such figures. In short, they’re the kinds of figures that little girls can really relate to, instead of just presenting a perfection that no one can actually achieve. They’re such strong personalities that the movie doesn’t even need a traditional villain, though one eventually shows up. It’s their dynamic that pulls us along, makes us care, and ultimately lifts Frozen above the by-the-numbers also ran it might have become. These are not your mother’s heroines, and animation is just a little bit stronger for them as a result.