Ever since Walt's death in 1966, Disney Animation Studios has constantly struggled to find a consistent vision in how animated films should be made, often prioritizing financial success over artistic integrity. The 70's and 80's saw many bland, low-budget efforts like The Rescuers (1977), Robin Hood (1973), The Fox and The Hound (1981), and The Black Cauldron (1985) that lacked the story and animation polish that made the company a household name. The movies of the early 90's are considered by many critics and Disney enthusiasts as the "Disney Renaissance," a return to quality with such larger-than-life musical event films as The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), and The Lion King (1994), before deteriorating into uniform mediocrity once again with such failures as Home on the Range (2004) and Chicken Little (2005). More recently, however, Disney has been back on the upswing with well-made films like Tangled (2010), Winnie the Pooh (2011), and Wreck-It Ralph (2012), but with this year's 3D effort Frozen, Disney is back in the business of making classics.
Loosely based on Hans Christian Anderson's The Snow Queen, Frozen tells of Elsa (Idina Menzel), a princess with the uncontrollable ability to emanate ice and snow from her hands. After her parents are lost at sea, Elsa is now the rightful heir to the throne, but the pressure becomes too much when her power is accidentally revealed to her sister Anna (Kristen Bell) and she flees the city she was destined to rule. In her solitude, Elsa unleashes her powers and creates her own castle in the mountains, but inadvertently causes an unnatural winter over the land. Now with the help of a mountain man named Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and a talking snowman named Olaf (Josh Gad), Anna has to brave the icy mountains, confront her sister, and find out how to stop the eternal winter.
Without giving too much away, I will say that I found some story elements a bit clumsy. Frozen could have been a very unique Disney film in that it has plenty of conflict to tell a very compelling story without an actual villain. Unfortunately, I suppose because Disney felt obligated to do so, a villain is thrown in for the third act. There's a reason I did not even mention him in the synopsis, because the twist was completely out of nowhere and does little to effect the story overall. But still, this is a very unique Disney film in that it embraces many traditions from the House of Mouse's 76-year filmography, but also subverts many others in the best way possible. Apart from that one nitpick, I can find very little wrong.
Anyone opposed to seeing a musical Disney princess movie will probably want to stay away from this one, as it features many of the tropes that would scare away your average testosterone-driven viewer: glitzy scenery, elaborate musical sequences, damsels in distress, a Prince Charming archetype, et cetera. It would be a shame to skip Frozen, however, as those who choose to do so will miss out on some absolutely stunning animation, impressive voice acting, genuinely funny characters and jokes, and some of the finest song writing of at least the last decade.
Let's talk about the above statement I just made about the song writing. Yes, it's really that great. The lyrics are clever and funny in many moments, heartfelt and gut-wrenchingly meaningful in others. They serve their purpose in providing impressive visuals to dazzle in every way they can and should, but they go the extra mile by fleshing out characters and portraying emotional complexities of the characters like many of the best musicals do. I'll wrap this bit of overwhelming praise for the music up by saying if "Let It Go", sung by Idina Menzel, does not get at least a nomination for Best Original Song at the Oscars, what little faith I still have in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will be totally lost.
Disney became famous by creating the animated film, becoming the standard for animation quality and Frozen lives up to that reputation with ease. Beautiful scenery and subtle character movements put this movie above all others of its type this year. The eyes are often referred to as "windows to the soul", which is extremely difficult to portray in the best animated movies, but Frozen puts plenty of life into its characters by making the eyes tell the audience almost everything about what's happening below the surface. Visual flare added to accent the musical scenes are very detailed and an absolute joy to watch, evoking the very busy scenery of "Be Our Guest" from Beauty and the Beast or "I Just Can't Wait to Be King" from The Lion King, without ever being overwhelming. It is all very meticulously crafted, and it shows in every frame.
Speaking of life, the voice acting is stellar across the board. Kristen Bell is funny, likable, and a fantastic singer. Idina Menzel (known for the leading role in the Broadway musical Wicked) provides an emotionally deep voice that tugs at the heartstrings whenever she opens her mouth. Props also have to go to Josh Gad for his comedic timing as the living snowman Olaf: he had every opportunity to make the character as annoying as any cartoon sidekick to make the kids giggle and the adults groan, but thankfully Gad takes the high road by almost becoming a parody of that kind of comic relief that we are so used to in kids movies, offering the right kind of humor for all ages without being crude or inappropriate.
I have wanted to say this for a long time: Disney is back. Acknowledging what has worked before, but paving its own path at the same time, Frozen is the best Disney movie in quite a long time. Every element that goes into making an animated movie is pitch perfect, a high point that many filmmakers could only dream of. Despite one hiccup in the story, that hardly matters when everything else is done so right. It reminds us why Disney is such a powerful presence in American and world culture and shows that the company is more than just a soulless conglomerate, but a studio still trying to make the best on-screen stories it can.