'Frozen' revels in Disney traditions while quietly upending them
Frozen Walt Disney Studios
Director: Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee
Screenplay: Jennifer Lee, inspired by the story The Snow Queen, by Hans Christian Andersen
Starring: The voices of Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Santino Fontana, Ciarán Hinds and Alan Tudyk
Rated PG / 1 hour, 48 minutes
November 27, 2013
(out of four)
The misconception about princess movies - or, specifically, Disney princess movies - is that they all ultimately boil down to a fairy-tale romance. In reality, this is rarely the case. More often than not, the defining relationship(s) is found elsewhere. For Ariel, it was her father; for Snow White, it was the dwarves; for Cinderella, it was the mice and the stepsisters; for Rapunzel, it was her (adopted) mother. Last year, Pixar's Brave went so far as to give us a princess that had no love interest at all (!). The list goes on. (Beauty and the Beast is the rare exception that was primarily about a budding romance.)
And now we have Frozen, a charming and intermittently brilliant musical fable that gives us one of Disney's warmest love stories in years, this time between two sisters. The obligatory love interest is borderline irrelevant from an emotional standpoint; in fact, this is where the movie flashes an impressive, if subtle, subversive streak, using one romance to underscore the absurdity of another.
When Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell), the younger of the two princesses of Arendelle, meets and instantly falls in love with Prince Hans (Santino Fontana) in a hilariously over-the-top singing Meet Cute, it's clear the filmmakers are mocking the very Disney romances they're simultaneously trying to emulate. It's equally clear that Hans will ultimately not be good news, making their courtship duet even more absurd in retrospect. And when Anna later meets up with a handsome loner, the movie makes the point even clearer. ("You got engaged to someone you just met?!")
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Back to the central relationship between Anna and her older sister Elsa (Broadway star Idina Menzel). From the moment we see the two together as children, we know they're inseparable; they mischievously sneak out of their rooms in the middle of the night to play, and that playing typically involves Elsa and her particular ability to conjure ice and snow out of thin air. A harmless ability, it seems, until an accident nearly takes Anna's life.
The king and queen take the sisters to see (what else) magical trolls, who save Anna's life but in the process remove all her memories of Elsa's abilities. They warn that Elsa's potentially dangerous power will only enhance over time. And so the kingdom is shut off from the outside world, the guilt-riddled Elsa a willing participant in her own exile, even if it essentially breaks off her relationship with her sister.
As functions of the plot, the trolls and the memory wipe are all well and good; but upon any sort of reflection, it becomes obvious that the trolls either have inexplicable limitations to their powers, or aren't very good at what they do, or simply have very poor judgment. Or some combination of the three. They can save Anna's life and erase her memories, but they apparently can't do anything to help Elsa control her power. They can foresee the danger that power might produce, but still manage to put into motion the very suppression and the very events that cause mayhem across the kingdom years later. And why Anna not remembering her near-death experience would be any help to either her or her sister is completely beyond me.
And so, in hindsight, the trolls are a rather annoying plot mechanic - their only usefulness is their ability to conjure plot complications out of thin air. We go along with it because the movie remains entertaining, but a little more thought into the story mechanics may have gone a long way.
Disaster strikes on the evening of Elsa's coronation, as Anna unwittingly sets off her sister's rage with the announcement of her spur-of-the-moment engagement to Prince Hans. Elsa, who as the years have progressed has proven less and less capable of controlling her powers, freezes the entire kingdom - previously a temperate climate - and escapes into the mountains, with Arendelle at risk of falling under a permanent winter. Anna, believing for some reason that Elsa can undo what she's done (even though it's clear she has no ability to control it), takes off after her, leaving the kingdom under the control of her betrothed and eventually joining forces with the aforementioned handsome stranger, Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his pet reindeer Sven, and a charmingly naïve snowman, Olaf (Josh Gad).
There's a rare and impressive sense of consciousness bubbling under Frozen, both in the sophistication of its characters and social ideals, and in regard to its place in the context of the Disney animation legacy. That the story revolves around a young woman being forced to repress her physical and emotional instincts is telling enough - and can be interpreted in a number of ways. The way the filmmakers try to keep their focus (at times more successfully than others) on the complex relationship between two sisters is equally impressive. The way they sadly, achingly grow apart in the years after Anna's accident is handled expediently, but with grace and poignance. Anna, one of the strongest lead characters Disney (or Pixar) has created in some time, doesn't easily fit in with past Disney princesses; rather, she seems to be something of a modern comment on them.
From a technical standpoint, Frozen - like Tangled - is computer-animated but with aesthetics that draw clear inspiration from the simple and graceful hand-drawn work of Disney classics. The music is mostly terrific - highlighted by Elsa's showstopping "Let it Go" - and the ending delivers in a way that reinforces the importance of the central relationship, rather than falling back on what may have been a more traditional cop-out. There's still not all that much need for the Kristoff character - his romance with Anna is one of the obvious weak links; a road-trip pairing of Anna and Olaf would have worked well enough - but at the very least, writer/director Jennifer Lee and director Chris Buck seem to fundamentally understand what their story is really about. Movies like this and Brave may have their share of flaws, but they also demonstrate, in ways both subtle and blatant, a bold expansion on the inherent strength and independence of Disney's best animated heroines.