Every girl wants to be a Disney princess. She takes pride in watching every Disney film just to determine which one she most identifies with – and then telling everyone (I am Cinderella and have enough plush dolls to prove it).
But these sorts of role models have been hard to come by in recent Disney productions, which are generally not considered classics whose characters are far from iconic. Older films like “Beauty and the Beast” or “Aladdin” are Disney essentials, whereas newer features such as “Bolt” and “Meet the Robinsons” are, well, not.
Then came “Frozen,” directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee’s musical loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.” While it is not of the caliber as some of the more traditional Disney films, its touching plot and indelibly cute characters bring back the Disney magic that has long been absent from the studio’s productions.
Princesses Elsa of Arendelle has a special gift: she can create ice and snow out of thin air. But she has trouble controlling them and accidently freezes her younger sister, Anna. Anna recovers, but Elsa grows fearful of her powers and tries to hide them – and herself – from the world.
Years pass, and when the girls’ parents die at sea, an older yet still cautious Elsa (Idina Menzel) takes the throne. The castle gates are opened for the first time in years for the coronation, and Anna (Kristen Bell) is excited to finally see the kingdom and all of its inhabitants. But when she agrees to marry an attractive Prince Hans (Santino Fontana), whom she has known for all of 24 hours, Elsa becomes angry, releasing her powers and trapping the shocked townspeople in a perpetual winter. In a panic, she runs away into the mountains. To set things right, Anna must go after her and try to find her with the help of ice salesman Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and his trusty reindeer Sven, whom she meets along the way.
Here, “Frozen” takes a direction that even Disney classics failed to try. Instead of focusing on a love story, Lee (also the writer) strays from tradition to put more emphasis on the sisters’ relationship: Anna desperately wants to help her sister, but Elsa is too afraid of losing control to get close to anyone. Hans and Kristoff do give the plot an opportunity for a romantic spin, but they are merely supporting characters in this tale of two sisters.
This isn’t to say the supporting characters have inferior roles, as they are all entertaining additions. The adorably awkward Kristoff has an especially good chemistry with the lively Anna. Of course, a Disney cartoon can’t go without comic relief, which comes in the form of Sven and Olaf (Josh Gad), a magical talking snowman. Sven may be a reindeer of few words, but Olaf has no filter and blabs every thought that crosses his mind, including his unusual fascination with summer.
The fantastic music from Kristen Anderson-Lopez and husband Robert Lopez energizes the movie as much as the characters. Lyrics are consistently heartfelt, and the songs allow the actors to showcase their full talents. Case-in-point: Elsa’s power ballad “Let It Go,” which perfectly suits Menzel, although it’s a shame that was her only solo number. Others are bright and fun, as Disney tends to be, like Bell and Fontana’s duet, “Love Is An Open Door.” The soundtrack may open a bit weakly, but it only improves throughout the film – and will almost certainly be adapted into a Broadway score at some point.
The animation also keeps the film alive with gorgeous and pristine detail. Every scene shows a perfect winter wonderland, especially Elsa’s ice castle set in the mountains that sparkles in the sunlight.
Unfortunately, it just can’t join the pantheon of a true Disney “classic.” The characters are loveable, but don’t leave a profound impact. The one exception would be Elsa, who struggles to accept and love herself, but for a movie in which the conflict revolves around her, she doesn’t have nearly as much screen time as her sister.
The focus on the sisters as a unit is a unique and ultimately successful move, but that makes it harder for audiences – and aspiring princesses – to identify with just one of them. However, the strong bonds of friendship and family are a welcome change from the “classic” insistence that a princess’ happy ending is finding her prince and make “Frozen” more than just a musical and visual wonder.
Stars: **** out of five