By Alan Mattli
Even though Disney’s animation studios have been working at the forefront of technical innovation for the better part of eight decades now, their cinematic output rarely achieves the impeccable quality of its production values. One could therefore argue that it is in fact not the animation that makes or breaks a Disney musical, but that the crux of the matter lies in the plots the studio concocts. It is not surprising, then, that Disney traditionally soars when adapting, however loosely, inarguably great literature – The Lion King offered a working take on Hamlet, while the Victor Hugo-inspired Hunchback of Notre Dame remains for the most part one of the studio’s most mature efforts –, but struggles, plot-wise, with the simplistic fairytale material it so often cultivates (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, for instance, owes much of its enduring reputation to its historical importance).
Audiences have rightfully grown weary of the limited possibilities of the princess-in-distress fairytale narratives – a tendency that famously led to the so-called late-millennium “Disney Renaissance” (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King). The pendulum may have swung back since in terms of source material – perhaps because “classic” Disney is continually outmatched creatively by its Pixar subdivision –, but efforts like The Princess and the Frog or the splendid Tangled are arresting exercises in commendably subverting the Disney formula. The same holds true for Frozen, the latest film in this vein (loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen) – even though directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck (Tarzan, Surf’s Up) are at times overly eager to sacrifice dramatic coherence for the sake of narrative convenience.
Their motives for doing so, it must be said, are sincere though. Much like (the superior) Tangled, Frozen goes out of its way to circumvent the pitfalls of the Disney fairytale musical, most notably by broadening the understanding of the “true love” trope: the film doesn’t revolve around a heterosexual relationship between prince and princess, but around the plagued relationship between Princess Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) and her sister Elsa (Idina Menzel), born with magical powers that allow her to control ice and snow, who accidentally plunges her kingdom into eternal winter. Buck and Lee do find potent drama in this constellation and even take the time to ponder how Elsa is affected by her power, which isolates her both spatially and mentally. It is implied on more than one occasion that given enough time, Elsa could very well end up following in the footsteps of Snow White‘s Evil Queen or Sleeping Beauty‘s Maleficent, joining the ranks of Disney’s iconic villainesses.
But convention ultimately does creep in, as the film seeks to pair off Anna; first with a wily prince (Santino Fontana), and, after an unconvincing twist, with a rugged mountain man (Jonathan Groff). Still, apart from the sometimes questionable dramaturgy, Frozen ranks as a successful entry into the Disney canon. Engrossing in its standout moments – Idina Menzel’s powerful rendition of the film’s musical centrepiece, the passionate “Let It Go”, being one of them –, diverting even during its weaker passages, it is carried to glory by a dedicated voice cast, a colourful array of side characters (Josh Gad’s heliophile snowman Olaf comes to mind), stunning animation, and beautiful compositions, which create a self-contained fairytale world rich in nuance and texture. In a year of mostly unremarkable animated films, Frozen stands among the best.
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