Disney’s Frozen thaws the Ice Age of the animated musical

3 1/2 out of 4 stars

At long last, the Disney princess has returned to the big screen.

But this time, it doesn’t look like she needs Prince Charming to save the day.  This is a breed of princess that takes action and responsibility, solving her problems her way.  This is a story of a relationship and love not yet touched upon in a Disney classic.  And the best part?  The princess still gets to belt her lungs out to some pretty great tunes.  Yes, the Disney animated musical returns to its former glory in the new and exciting fantasy adventure Frozen, based loosely on Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale “The Snow Queen”.  A knockout voice cast and clever dialogue saves a somewhat flimsy story, and Disney’s young 3D animation studio hasn’t had a better showing yet.

Elsa-Frozen-Disney-Movie-idina-menzelElsa and Anna (Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell, respectively) are young sister princesses in the Scandinavian-inspired fairy tale kingdom of Arendelle.  Elsa is born with uncontrollable powers that allow her to create and control ice and snow, abilities that have been kept secret from the rest of the kingdom.

 Of course, the inevitable happens and Elsa’s secret is discovered at her coronation ceremony.  She flees to the mountains to protect her kingdom from herself as well as to finally find the freedom for which she has yearned.  What she doesn’t know is that she has unknowingly unleashed a permanent winter upon the kingdom, and it is up to the scrappy Anna and some Disney-style sidekicks to find her and restore summer.

The Little Mermaid began the Ashman/Menken-dominated era of film, where beautiful and clever songs were combined with fantastic worlds and iconic characters.  While Disney attempted to hold on to this reign, nothing past The Lion King ever really landed with a mass audience.  The most recent attempts, The Princess and the Frog and Tangled, had great intentions, but the products never quite reached the ambitions.

Enter Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez.  Mr. Lopez, co-writer of the hit Broadway musicals “Avenue Q” and “The Book of Mormon”, is known for his riotous, profane lyrics and mannered tunes that act as tributes to classic musical theatre.  He has pulled back on the irreverence, yet held full throttle on the clever lyrics he and his wife Kristen have construced for Frozen.

download (1)More importantly, the couple have brought back what the masses have been craving in a musical film: songs that stay with you.  From the heartfelt “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” to the hilarious “In Summer”, the Lopez’s clearly know how to create a wide range of contemporary Broadway-style songs that keeps the Disney spirit aloft. Christophe Beck provides a beautiful instrumental score as well, including a stirring introductory movement that channels “Circle of Life” without outright imitating it.

Thankfully the other aspects of the film are not overshadowed by the powerhouse music, a problem often found in earlier Disney attempts.  Screenwriter Jennifer Lee (known for Wreck-It Ralph) makes her directing debut alongside Chris Buck (Tarzan and Surf’s Up).

Under their hand, the humor and characters are not buried beneath the schmaltz-trap Disney princess stories are known for. Unfortunately there are still some plot points that seem a little contrived and a character or two that seem shoehorned into the story (the plot rides on some big twists, so I won’t give too much away).  However Lee brings her quirky, contemporary humor to an honest, heartfelt screenplay with strong character portraits.  These feel like living and breathing people, fantastically acted by a phenomenal voice cast.

Jonathan Groff gives a humorous, organic performance as Kristoff, a wandering ice salesman.  He teams well with the equally strong Kristen Bell.  However the movie is near stolen by a hilarious Josh Gad as Olaf, an enchanted snowman who isn’t the brightest bulb in the box (he longs to bring summer back, unaware of the consequences to him personally).  And everyone has a rocking pair of pipes on them as well, particulary Ms. Menzel in her knockout solo, “Let It Go”.

Walt Disney Animation Studios took a huge leap a few years ago with Tangled, their first solo attempt at 3D animation (films before this were made in conjunction with Pixar).  Frozen is a strong example of their ability to create beautiful landscapes with a strong, consistent style.

The character silhouettes show strong influences of old Scandinavian art, which is well-balanced by an organic environment in jewel tones.  Elsa’s ice castle in particular is a wonderful technical achievement as she uses her powers to construct it, displaying some gorgeous textures and contours.

Pixar has dominated the animation field for nearly two decades now, from the game-changing Toy Story all the way to the heartwarming Up.  It is simply unheard of to see Disney rise above the competition in this period of film.

Yet Frozen is a huge step back in the right direction for possibly the most recognizable and influential animation studio in film history.