It’s the best animated musical since Beauty and the Beast.
There. I said it.
Walt Disney Feature Animation’s new film, Frozen, shows that a third golden age of Disney-style animated films (hinted at by The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, and Wreck-It-Ralph) may have just begun, and it should be the film that earns the studio an Oscar this year. It’s simply that good.
Loosely inspired by Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen, this is a story where villainy is less personified by a bad guy with a big production number, and more by misunderstanding, lack of trust, and overprotective parents who shield one child at the expense of another. Born with the power to create ice and snow, Elsa is the eldest princess and heir to the throne of Arendelle. Her parents, worried what that power might do to her little sister, Anna, encourage Elsa to hide her powers away, to control them–and in doing so, isolating her from them, her sister, and even their kingdom. Ultimately, though, it isolates Elsa from herself, creating a young woman full of uncertainty and fear.
On the day of her coronation as queen, Elsa is pushed too far by the well-meaning, but naive Anna, who has never understood why her sister has been so standoffish for so many years. She loses control, unleashing her icy gift on her own people. In fear for them and for herself, she runs to the North, where she unwittingly unleashes an eternal winter that threatens to destroy the very kingdom she has just sworn to protect. Determined to make things right, Anna sets off after her, and the story takes off.
Beautifully animated and designed, Frozen is a testimony to the power of the Disney look that was ushered in by Glenn Keane and Ariel in The Little Mermaid in 1989. Since then, there has been an agreed-upon “look” for Disney’s heroes and heroines, and that is not lost in Frozen. Although there is a slight “Disney family” resemblance between the two heroines of this film and Rapunzel in Tangled, that is the only similarity. Unlike the previous film’s naive but spunky lost princess, both Anna and Elsa are two young woman who know what they want out of life, yet have competing ways of achieving their dreams. And unlike nearly every Disney princess, ever, Anna and Elsa are complete in themselves. These are two young women that I would love either of my two daughters to aspire to be like.
These are spelled out–or better said, sung out–in several simply outstanding musical numbers that help form the best complete score to a Disney animated musical since 1992, with Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s songs for Beauty and the Beast. In that film, every song was a winner and helped further the story to its heart-wrenching conclusion. And while there have been many great Disney musical films since, on the whole, they have not been this good.
The songs, by husband and wife team Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, are uniformly excellent, and form a cohesive story that moves the film along, adds dimension and life to the characters, and helps the audience understand their hopes, dreams, and motivations. From “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” which shows the two sisters growing apart to “For the First Time in Forever,” in which Anna exults in the future and finally open doors of her life, to Elsa’s showstopping “Let It Go” and a hilarious, well-intentioned tribute to the warmest season with “In Summer,” there is not a bad song in the bunch. There’s not one but two great love songs, several songs inspired by the Norwegian-based setting–and one of the best songs is a silly throwaway number about the smells of reindeer and people. It’s the best collection of songs in one Disney film in the first time for, well, forever, and the composers deserve a multiplicity of awards both now and in the future for creating truly musical songs.
Voice acting is top notch across the board, with Kristen Bell (better known as Veronica Mars) surprising with a clear and warm singing voice as well as excellent comedic timing. Idina Menzel (best known as Broadway’s Wicked Elphaba) does not surprise when she belts out her big song, but what does surprise is that I completely forgot that the woman best known for “Defying Gravity” doesn’t make one think of her previously most famous role. She is Elsa, and she brings warmth and vulnerability to a character that is thought to be villainous for much of the film. The two male leads, an ice vendor named Kristoff and a prince named Hans, are both well played–and with many laughs–by Jonathan Groff and Santino Fontana.
But the biggest surprise is Josh Gad’s performance (and the winning animators who drew him) as Olaf, a snowman who is friendly, completely naive, a little crazy, and deeply in love with summertime and all things and places warm. In the pantheon of great Disney sidekicks, Olaf is right up there with the greatest: Dopey, Jiminy Cricket, Jaq & Gus, Timon or Pumbaa. It’s not just because he’s funny (although Gad’s delivery is quite funny and his song will definitely leave audiences laughing), but because he is funny and has heart. When he decides to help Anna reconcile with Elsa, it could literally destroy him–and yet, as he says, “Some people are worth melting for.”
This is a story with an act of true love–although what it is might surprise you. It has a few big set pieces like a race across a frozen fjord or when Elsa creates her ice palace. Christophe Beck’s instrumental score hits the right note with hints of Norwegian folk and choral music highlighting passages and bringing great depth and life to the story. There is a very big twist toward the final act that will probably surprise you as much as it surprised the audience we previewed the film with, which is why I do not recommend reading any storybooks based on the film, or anyone who blogs too much information about the film or its characters. The twist sets the stage for the third act, and the film is that much more powerful because of it.
Co-directed by Chris Buck, who has very long pedigree with Disney (including Tarzan, The Fox and the Hound, The Rescuers Down Under, and Pocahontas), and Jennifer Lee, who most recently wrote Wreck-It-Ralph, Frozen is an unexpected and altogether wonderful film. The trailers for the movie do not do it justice, which shows that Disney’s marketing department doesn’t trust its product. From the one-word title to the lack of any mention of its musical pedigree (until a final trailer said “…since The Lion King” which is a bad comparison, since its true heritage is the far superior Beauty and the Beast), it looks like a typical animated family film that you will forget after you throw away the popcorn container.
Frozen is unforgettable. If you’re like me, when it’s over, you won’t be able to leave the theater. Which is okay, because you may have just watched the beginning of the next great golden age of Disney animation. For the first time in forever, Disney has produced a film that is practically perfect from start to finish.
But it opens with something even more unforgettable. An eight minute tour-de-force of animation inspired by the earliest Mickey Mouse cartoons, Get a Horse. Again, like Frozen, I don’t want to give too much away. It needs to surprise you, for in that surprise you will be delighted, you’ll laugh, and you’ll realize why Disney remains the place where animated films should be made. Featuring hand-drawn animation, the original 1920’s Disney voice cast (including Walt himself as Mickey), and–again, a huge twist that turns the film completely upside down-–Get a Horse is the best 85th birthday Disney can give to the Head Mouse.
One final note. Every film these days seems to open in 3D. 99% of those films don’t really add anything except cost.
Frozen and Get a Horse are simply stunning in 3D. From snowflakes to carrots to jalopies to flying horses, I’ve not seen anything fully capture the power of what 3D can add to a film until now. I highly recommend catching the films in 3D if you can.