Frozen (2013)

Frozen inverts many of the expectations of what a Disney film is. The result is the best story to come out of the studio in years. Yes, the typical trappings are there, but screenwriter Jennifer Lee finds a way to take these elements and weave a different tale, one that is more complex, holistic and less of a fairy tale than you’d expect from a Disney film.

Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idna Menzel) are princess sisters in a coastal kingdom. They grow up close and Elsa harbors a secret power that they use to play together: she can produce ice and snow at will. But when Elsa accidentally almost kills Anna, a healer wipes Anna’s memory of Elsa’s power and Elsa decides to hide, afraid to hurt her sister and others with the power she contains. And when their parents die at sea, the two coup up in the castle, practically strangers who hardly see each other.

Anna dreams of the grand adventure life might take her one day while Elsa worries of what will happen when she faces the world. When Elsa finally comes of age and coronation day arrives, Anna meets the world with glee and pleasure, she meets it so swiftly that she falls in love with Hans (Santino Fontana),  the first man she meets. The evening swiftly leads to a hasty engagement and when the two go to Elsa for her blessing, things turn bad. The sparks of emotions that fly reveal Elsa’s power and she flees the city after inadvertently bringing about a premature winter. Now the city is convinced that Elsa must be hunted down and be made to stop the winter.

This setup allows the film to flip two of the most common Disney tropes: the evil villain and the love at first sight trope. Elsa is not maniacally wringing her hands in the hope of destroying her city, she’s just scared and has more power than she can control. Her refusal to explore and understand her emotions means that when pushed, she’s driven to lash out instead of maintain control. She lashes out through fear and doesn’t want the power she posses.

The swift Hans and Anna romance, as done in a clever musical number, accentuates the absurdity of the swift romance. Here are two people who know almost nothing of each other and mistake infatuation with love. As the story develops, it eventually unmasks the entire affair as nothing more than a charade. Further distancing the story from the stereotypical romance arc, the film’s declaration for the need of an act of true love is automatically assumed to be a romantic act, but the actual act ends up coming from somewhere else.

In its best moments, Frozen is a story about two sisters and how their outlooks on life inform how they relate to people and each other. While the film follows Anna more than Elsa, it shows that her fearless sense of adventure can lead to just as much trouble as Elsa’s fear of letting anyone get too close for fear of hurting them.

However, these more complex and progressive storytelling elements are held back with a couple of stereotypical Disney tropes. The first is that there is still a romance story. The gruf, antisocial Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) continues the trend of more roguish male romance leads such as Flynn Rider (Tangled). Given that a lot of what makes the film interesting is the sister relationship, spending time on the romance falls back on a far less interesting story.

Also, there’s the sidekick. While not always problematic in Disney films, Olaf (Josh Gad) talking snowman is a huge misfire for the film. He’s tonally inconsistent with the film. His sense of humor and dopey characterization feels out of place in the more dramatic world of Frozen. He’s a character out of a Dreamworks film and often forces humor into scenes that don’t necessarily need to be funny.

The musical numbers are decent. Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez do a valiant job, but here the pieces aren’t as polished as they should be. Sometimes, it’s the limitation of the singers. Kristen Bell is an okay singer. Other times the tunes just ring a bit hollow or don’t quite have the right wordplay or tempo. The best number is easily “Let it Go” with “In Summer” coming in at a close second. The rest, while having their moments, aren’t as good as Disney’s usual standard of musical quality.

And that’s a shame because the animators did an astounding job of creating some magnificent sequences to go with these numbers. The “Love is an Open Door” duet early on is an energetic, playful montage that finds a lot of fun ways to leverage animation and movement to convey the passing of an entire evening in a few minutes. The aforementioned “In Summer” sequence is a wonderful throwback to Astaire/Kelly era numbers and the visual of a snowman in the summer is a visual paradox that the animators use to craft some charming visual gags.

While Frozen makes some strong strides for Disney’s princess storytelling, as a holistic film, it’s the weakest of Disney’s latest offerings. The story is better than Tangled, but the musical numbers aren’t up to snuff and the character of Olaf  hold the film back. The storytelling is a move in the right direction and keeps Frozen afloat amid its few nagging flaws.

© 2013 James Blake Ewing