For a while Pixar reigned supreme in the world of animation, capturing the attention of audiences both young and old with films that managed to appeal to us not only from an entertainment perspective, but emotionally as well. At the same time Disney Animation fell into something of an identity crisis with films like Brother Bear and Chicken Little, but in 2010 they again found their footing with Tangled and again in 2012 with Wreck-It Ralph. Now, in 2013, the studio has returned to the world it knows best with Frozen.
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Frozen strikes an impressive balance of humor, heart and everything that's worked for ages in Disney's best animated features. Telling a story inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale "The Snow Queen", Frozen follows two princesses of Arendelle -- Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel) is the eldest and soon-to-be Queen, and Anna (Kristen Bell) the free-spirited, slightly awkward and naïve younger of the two sisters.
At a young age, Elsa and Anna were the best of friends, but when an accident as a result of Elsa's ability to conjure ice and snow almost kills her sister the two young girls' relationship isn't the same. Elsa shuts her sister out, concealing her powers from her sister, afraid of hurting her. It isn't until several years later that Elsa comes out of hiding, but it's a day that soon finds her running from the castle walls and labeled a sorceress after her emotions get the better of her, and the secret she's kept hidden for all these years is revealed as she accidentally turns Arendelle's summer into an eternal winter.
Written by Jennifer Lee (Wreck-It Ralph) who co-directs with Chris Buck (Surf's Up), the story's main appeal is its lack of a big bad villain that must be overcome. Instead of a story hellbent on destroying someone or something, it's about coming together and finding something positive in our differences and accepting people for who they are. This isn't to say the film doesn't have it's share of foes, though this isn't a movie all about beating the bad guy.
Frozen also doesn't concern itself with casting big name actors in supporting roles, hoping A-list celebrities will attract audience attention, rather than focusing on the film's story. Kristen Bell is probably the most recognizable name in the film's voice cast and she's surrounded by a pair of actors that have largely made their claim to fame on Broadway in Idina Menzel and Josh Gad, the latter of which plays a hilarious little snowman named Olaf that comes to life and dreams of dancing in the sun on the beach. In a lot of ways Olaf reminded me of Sid the sloth in the Ice Age franchise, though the comedy here is cleaner and, in fact, much funnier.
Olaf enters the story after Elsa makes for the forest and Anna takes off after her, where we eventually meet the ice-selling mountain man Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and his reindeer Sven, who is essentially a rehash of Maximus, the horse in Tangled given his canine ways, but it's a welcome rehash. Groff is a perfect example of the kind of actor an animated film needs to cast, not necessarily a big name (most who know him probably know him as Jesse St. James from "Glee"), but a kindhearted voice rather than someone we associate with anything other than his character in this specific movie.
For better or worse, Frozen doesn't attempt to venture into the upper stratosphere of storytelling, it keeps things incredibly simple with a page-by-page, storybook-style telling that prefers to briskly move through the narrative rather than lingering on moments for too long. At times this is jarring and a bit abrupt, but for this story the style mostly works.
The couple of minor villains are paper thin and the themes are kept simple, keeping children easily engaged, but it isn't as if adults will be left twiddling their thumbs as there are a few surprises and moments of legitimate tension. In fact, several members in my audience audibly gasped at a late in the game revelation. But I'm almost certain it's not so much for the reveal, but because of what what the revelation meant for the characters they'd come to so quickly love.
The film's strength is in these characters as well as keeping the idea of an animated Disney musical alive, the best of which comes with Elsa's "Let It Go" (written by Tony Award-winning duo Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez of "Book of Mormon" fame) which is an absolute knock-out moment. The animation, the song, Menzel's voice and the entirety of that four minute segment is quite powerful as it beats to the film's thematic heart.
Overall, Frozen may be simple, but it's strengths are more than enough to overcome its lack of complexity. While it will likely resonate more with younger girls, it isn't a film young boys or adults will have any problem enjoying. There are more than enough laughs between Olaf and Sven, a giant snowman and great animation to keep everyone interested, not to forget some serious moments of tension as well.
It's amazing to think Disney is in the midst of three great animated features in a row and it still feels like they are climbing over the wall Pixar placed in front of them. But if they continue to make films such as Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen every ounce of respect they may have lost is sure to come back tenfold.