Though its problematic production past is not a very distant memory, Disney has still been looking for the kind of creative home run that greeted its ’80s revival with The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, and Beauty and the Beast. While it’s found a few viable candidates (Tangled, the exceptional Wreck-It Ralph), it hasn’t discovered the right combination of character, concern, and charm — until now. Frozen is that triumph, a thrilling reinvention of The Snow Queen as filtered through a modern lesson in girl empowerment and buoyant Broadway musical. This is not only one of the House of Mouse’s recent victories, it’s a classic that can live right alongside the various other gems in the studio’s substantial treasure trove of same.
The story centers on two Princesses — Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel). The former has a magical power that can manipulate the cold. The latter is just a youngster enamored of her older sister. When a childhood accident causes concern, Anna is told to resist her abilities. Another family tragedy unleashes them fully. Still, Anna and Elsa try to function, even opening up the kingdom to visitors for the first time in forever.
When a handsome Prince named Hans (Santino Fontana) makes a play for the younger royal, her sister goes ballistic, allowing her powers to be on public display. The resulting rejection from her people causes Anna to flee, but Elsa won’t have it. She decides to go after her, and she asks a local lad (Jonathan Groff) and his pet reindeer to act as guide. As she heads off into the wilderness to find her sibling, she meets up with a friendly animated snowman named Olaf (Josh Gad). Unfortunately, those she left in charge back home do not have Anna or Elsa’s best interests at heart.
With its emphasis on personal responsibility and conviction and a collection of songs that will have you singing long after the final credits have rolled, Frozen is a decidedly defiant Disney experience. It breaks down established genre barriers while delivering the kind of uplifting message that will have mothers cheering for their often overlooked daughters. This is not to say that the movie is actively anti-male, it’s just that we become invested in the lives of these little ladies and don’t mind seeing them taking center stage while doing so. Bell and Menzel are so good in their roles, so capable of carrying to character and a tune, that you find yourself smiling every time the incidental music to another showstopper begins.
Everyone here is excellent — with one exception. Josh Gad. He’s not excellent, he’s phenomenal, guaranteed to go down in House of Mouse history as one of the studio’s most enduring, likable, and (most importantly) marketable entities. He nails every single one of his jokes and offers up a musical musing on what it would like to live in the sunshine that literally steals the movie away from everyone else. Every time Olaf is onscreen Frozen finds the kind of humorous humanity that only a magical pile of snow can provide. Along with the pitch-perfect Princesses and the solid supporting work from everyone else, the movie makes its home in a happy place and never lets go.
All credit to former animator Chris Buck and his co-director Jennifer Lee. They remember what made Disney animation great and, even working outside the non-pen and ink parameters of CG, they score a significant aesthetic victory. Lee’s script (with story help from Buck and Shane Morris) delivers on every beat, from goofball cartoon slapstick to serious emotional heft. We feel for these characters and want to see them succeed. When obstacles are put in their path, we root for their victory and dread any setbacks.
The result is a new benchmark, a film that fans will find themselves revisiting over and over again. For years now, many in the movie business wondered when Walt’s world would see another significant cinematic score. With Frozen, they’ve found it.