Sometimes Disney Animation has found itself to be it’s own worst enemy. By this I mean that when they have a hugely successful film at one point in time, it will put a lot more constrictive pressure on whatever they have coming up next. And when you’re in the business of making animated films that take 3-4 years to create, it’s very hard for a company like them to correct course in order to do repeat business. For the most part, Disney has had better luck than most, but there has been a pattern in Disney’s history of some of their most ambitious films failing to meet expectations, while audiences gravitate to the less ambitious but entirely groundbreaking follow-ups. This started back when Fantasia (1940), a film that Walt Disney put so much of his own effort into, flopped at the box office; and in the following year,1941, modestly budgeted and slapped-together Dumbo became a huge success. The same thing happen again to Disney with the costly Sleeping Beauty (1959) and it’s follow-up 101 Dalmatians (1961), and once again with The Black Cauldron (1985) followed by The Great Mouse Detective (1986). The trend actually reversed in the 90’s with the disappointing Pocahontas (1995) following-up The Lion King (1994); Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) following The Emperor’s New Groove (2000); and finally with Treasure Planet (2002) following Lilo & Stitch (2002). Suffice to say, both trends have been common in Disney’s history.
So, when trends tend to dictate the success rate of your output, it’s understandable why Disney has stuck so closely to the genre that has given them the most success; the fairy tale. In the last five years, we have seen no less than three fairy tale adaptations from the Disney company; 2009’s The Princess and the Frog, 2010’s Tangled, and this year’s new release, Frozen. It’s clear that they are aware of their tradition and are very intent on carrying it on generation after generation. But following formula does have it’s risks, and that sometimes comes about when breaking from tradition has actually paid off for the company. As I illustrated earlier, sometimes a project that looks like a sure winner will fail to perform either when a new trend will appear or when people lose interest in the formula. Frozen comes to theaters with a lot of expectations on it’s shoulders, which can be both a benefit and a curse to it’s prospects. Last year, Disney found success with the very well made Wreck-it Ralph (2012), which was a huge departure from the Disney formula that paid off in a big way. This only puts Frozen in an even more difficult situation of following this success up by returning to it’s traditional roots. This is the knowledge that I brought with me when I saw the movie, and while Frozen does a fine job of making a beautiful and engaging animated film that I’m sure will please audiences worldwide, I can’t help but feel that some of that tradition did have a negative effect in the end.
Frozen is the 8th fairy tale adaptation from Disney, and the second taken from a story by Hans Christian Anderson. Based, loosely, off of the story of The Snow Queen, the film follows the lives and adventures of two princess sisters in a fictional Scandinavian kingdom called Arrendale. The eldest sister, Elsa, has been cursed from birth with the power to magically create ice and snow, which her family tries to conceal from the world and even from the younger sister, Anna. After their parents are killed at sea, Elsa is soon crowned Queen and forced into facing the kingdom that she has been shuttered away from all her life, all the while struggling to control her powers as they become more powerful and erratic. After an argument at her coronation ceremony with Anna, Elsa accidentally reveals her sorcery to the public, which leads her to flee into the mountains in exile. Anna, hoping to reconcile with her sister, follows after her and leaves her fiancee Hans in charge of the kingdom. While on her journey, she gets help from an ice gatherer named Kristoff, his reindeer Sven, and an enchanted snowman named Olaf. Unfortunately for Anna and Elsa, the lack of control over the Queen’s powers has left the kingdom clouded in an eternal winter, and the bond between them is not so easily mended.
One of the things that I can say that the movie does very well is it’s story-line. I’d say that this is the most competently put together fairy tale adaptation that Disney has done since Beauty and the Beast (1992). While I did like aspects of both The Princess and the Frog and Tangled, I do feel that they had something lacking in the story department. And let’s not forget the complete mess that was Pixar’s disappointing Brave (2012). With Frozen, it is clear that the filmmakers actually put in the effort to make the story as compelling and consistent as it possibly could be. I especially like the fact that this movie is a little self-aware of its Disney and fairy tale tradition, and at times finds funny ways to poke fun at it. At one point in the movie, Anna falls deeply in love with Hans, a very Prince Charming-type character, and they agree to marry, even though they only met that same morning. Elsa rightly points out that love at first sight is not true love, and I’m sure that many people have been wanting to hear someone say that in a Disney movie for years. Despite these few meta moments in the film, the story actually does work well within the familiar fairy tale tropes and overall feels very much in line with some of the best Disney fairy tales.
One of the other things that worked very well for Frozen was the voice cast. I’m glad that Disney chose not to cast any big celebrity names in this film, and instead went for the people who were the best match for the characters. Certainly the casting of Elsa and Anna were important, and here they cast Broadway actress Idina Menzel (Wicked) and TV actress Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars, Forgetting Sarah Marshall) in the respective roles. Idina in particular delivers an exceptional vocal performance as Elsa, and helps to make her one of the most compelling Disney characters that I’ve seen in quite a while. Kristen Bell is charming as Anna, and while the character is a little too perky at times, Bell manages to get the finer parts of the character right. Another Broadway vet, Josh Gad (The Book of Mormon), shows surprising restraint as the comic relief character Olaf, who would have come across as obnoxious if played by the wrong actor. Instead, Olaf’s comical hi-jinks actually compliments the film very well, and Gad’s performance has a lot to do with that. Also, actor Jonathan Groff (TV’s Glee) gives a nice eccentric performance as Kristoff, helping him to stand out from the typical leading man in Disney movies. I particularly liked how Kristoff externalizes conversations with his voiceless pet reindeer Sven, and yet it seems like it’s exactly what Sven would say if he had a voice. Overall, everyone does their job well here and creates a well rounded cast of characters that I know will quickly become popular to fans young and old alike.
So, how come my review sounds a bit down on the film. Well, it’s a complicated feeling that I have about this movie, and it really has to do with where Frozen fits within the Disney formula. Like I’ve said before, Disney’s legacy has been both a blessing and a curse for some of the movies in it’s catalog, and some of that works against Frozen. While I think the story is pretty solid, and does a commendable job of injecting new ideas into the Disney formula, the movie as a whole feels a tad too unfocused. The problem I had with the film is that one character in particular, this being Elsa, was so strong and had such a compelling role to play in the story, that it kind of overwhelmed everything else. And unfortunately, her story-line is not the thing that gets most of the focus in the film; instead Anna’s story-line is given precedence. This would be more of a problem if Anna was an uninteresting heroine, but thankfully she’s better than that. Somehow, I felt that the script put too little emphasis on it’s most interesting character, and that was not a good thing in my book. Also, as solid as the story-line is throughout most of the movie, it does have a rather weak ending. And this comes after a really strong final act that has some really out of left field twists. What I think happened was that the writers didn’t know how to end their story, and instead they just slapped together a really pat and underwhelming epilogue that doesn’t feel at all like it belongs in the same movie.
When it comes to judging new Disney films, I try to leave tradition at the door and just judge a movie on it’s own merits. But when you have movies that rely so heavily on where they stand among other classics, I can’t help but include tradition as a part of my assessment. Frozen tries very hard to be a return to the classic Disney fairy tale standard that was set so high with movies like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. Unfortunately for Frozen, I feel like it’s striving for something that it really shouldn’t try to reach for. The reason why The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast were such astounding successes in their time is because they weren’t trying to match their predecessors. There was a 30 year gap, between Mermaid and the last fairy tale film before it, which was Sleeping Beauty, so the pressure on it was much less. As a result, The Little Mermaid could play by it’s own rules and in the end it set a new standard for the Disney fairy tale. Beauty and the Beast, likewise, built on that new standard while at the same time sticking to it’s own rules. Frozen, unfortunately, plays it safe and that’s why I feel it falls short of those previous classics. That being said, it comes the closest to that standard than Princess and the Frog and Tangled, and especially Brave ever did.
One thing I will say that Frozen does live up to with the previous classics is with it’s musical score. The songs fit much better in this movie than they have in any other previous Disney musical in the last 20 years, which is quite a feat. Some songs in it are just okay, but there are a few that really stand out. One particular song called “Let it Go,” sung by Elsa during her exile, may just be the best song I’ve heard in an animated film since “A Whole New World” in Aladdin (1992). Yes, even better than any song from The Lion King. It helps when you have a Broadway-trained singer like Idina Menzel singing it, and she uses those impressive pipes to full effect here. It’s the kind of song that will give the audience chills (no pun intended) and in a good way. The songs were written by Broadway vet Robert Lopez and his wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez, both of whom have written some very non-Disney appropriate music in the past for musicals like Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon. Despite their previous work, their musical numbers here actually are very clean and fit right in place in the overall Disney songbook, especially “Let it Go”. Also, I want to add that the visual look of this film is outstanding. This is the first 70mm Disney fairy tale since Sleeping Beauty, and the filmmakers make great use of the wider frame. The landscapes down to the interiors of Elsa’s ice palace are all a wonder to look at, and it really makes this a world well worth delving into throughout the movie.
So, maybe I’m being unfair to the film by having too high a standard, but having grown up with Disney movies all my life, I feel like I have to hold something like Frozen up to some higher scrutiny. The film for the most part does pass the test, but I would be lying if I said that I thought it was a masterpiece. It’s just okay. In the pantheon of Disney films, I would put it somewhere in the middle and maybe a little bit more into the better half. It’s just a testament to how much I care for the Disney legacy, and how many great films they have made in the past. On the bright side, Frozen is one of the better films that Disney has made in the last decade; though I will say, I enjoyed Wreck-it Ralph a tiny bit more. I do hope that the movie does well, and I’m sure that most people will like it better than I did, and they should. It does do well by the Disney Fairy Tale brand, and both Elsa and Anna have earned their place alongside Snow White, Belle, Cinderella, Ariel, and the other Disney Princesses. Despite it’s flaws, it does take the Disney formula in the right direction and elevates the animated medium as well. It says a lot when Disney actually has done something better in the last couple of years than Pixar. For all accounts, this is the movie that Brave should have been. So, while the Disney tradition has clouded my opinion on some aspects of the movie, I do like what Frozen represents, which is a solid story-line with great characters, who more than most films in the last decade, do deserve to be a part of the Disney legacy.