"For the first time in forever," Disney has released an animated musical that feels like it exists just to be a film. Not once did it feel like this was a test for a new stage musical, which wasn't exactly the case with Tangled and The Princess and the Frog. Frozen is the story of sister princesses, Anna and Elsa, who have lived under lock and key in the castle since a childhood accident. Elsa, born with ice magic, accidentally hit Anna while they were playing together in a winter wonderland of Elsa's own creation. Her parents, under the advice of magical trolls living on the outskirts of the kingdom, separated Anna and Elsa and locked up the castle to protect their children. Now old enough to assume the throne, Elsa has no choice but to reopen the castle for her inauguration as Queen. She still cannot control her powers and accidentally freezes the entire kingdom while fleeing from society for everyone's benefit. Anna is the only one who can convince Elsa to return summer to the kingdom.
Writer/director Jennifer Lee (writer, Wreck-it Ralph) adapts the story she created with co-director Chris Buck and Shane Morris into one of the most enjoyable American animated films to come around in a long time. Frozen is given time to wander between various subplots that create a far more expansive universe than suggested by the Hans Christian Anderson source material. Anna and Elsa's relationship is the throughline; everything else is world-building.
You have Anna's love at first sight moment with Prince Hans, the youngest of 13 brothers from a kingdom to the south. Anna's rescue mission puts her in contact with Kristoff, an ice salesman, and Sven, his best friend who happens to be a reindeer. That trio stumbles upon Olaf, the living snowman created by Anna and Elsa the day of the childhood accident. The story jumps between Elsa, Anna's rescue mission, and life at the castle, slowly laying down the foundation for a spectacular ending.
The quality of animation in Frozen is stunning. The eyes are so large on all of the characters to allow for a massive range of emotions onscreen. The choreography of the characters during the songs is really clever. From Elsa stomping to the top of the mountain in time to the faster beat of "Let it Go" to Olaf's Golden Age-styled soft shoe routine to "In Summer," the movement of the characters perfectly sinks with the incredible score by husband and wife duo Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez. The beauty of the snow and ice even surpasses the awe-inspiring visuals of Happy Feet, especially during the action-packed finale.
Perhaps the most note-worthy element of the film is the voice acting. Specifically, the singing. Every major role in the film is filled with a Broadway musical veteran. From Kristen Bell (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer) as Anna and Tony-winner Idina Menzel (Wicked) as Elsa to Josh Gad (The Book of Mormon) as Olaf and Jonathan Groff (Spring Awakening) as Kristoff, the leads are all incredible trained singers and actors. Even Santino Fontana as Hans, with one small duet early on to his name, was a Tony nominee for Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella. They're all the perfect matches for Robert Lopez (the Tony Award-winning composer of Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon) and Kristen Anderson-Lopez's musical score. They know how to create an emotional wallop but never overplay their hand to saccharine.
Frozen works as well as it does because of the ingenious casting of Idina Menzel. You cast Idina Menzel in a musical because she knows how to tell a story through song. "Let It Go" is the most honest, emotional, and powerful musical performance I've seen onscreen since John Cameron Mitchell's breakdown from "Exquisite Corpse" to the closing credits of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The difference is Idina Menzel does it just with her voice. "Let It Go" is her big song and she makes the most of it. Even more impressive is her spoken character arc as Elsa. You believe that her Elsa really is just trying to do the best thing for everyone but has no control over her life or powers. So much of her dialogue in the latter part of the film is short bursts of confusion and Menzel adds the subtext needed to make this more than just a simple fairy tale.
The only flaw in Frozen is that the ending is foreshadowed a little too heavily. Anna's character suffers an unwelcome sameness caused by the writers' desire to turn a major Disney trope on its head. The payoff is spectacular, but it's hard to see a character go from strong and happy to ditzy stereotype for so much of the running time.
The core of the film, though--the relationship between Anna and Elsa--is inspiring. There are so many important messages that come out of the interactions between the sisters that just aren't shared enough in modern media. That they come out so naturally in the story of Frozen really is a triumph.
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And if you haven't seen it, let "Let It Go" in its entirety convince you. This is partly how Disney is campaigning for Best Original Song at the Oscars; it's a lock.