With the Disney 52 reaching a conclusion that will inevitably be rushed, the powerhouse studio scupper my plans by releasing their 53rd animated feature film, Frozen. So in the middle of reviewing the latter films, I’m jumping ahead a few years to look at this immensely popular new film from the studio. It feels a bit defunct to try and assess its place within the canon as there are still a few I’m left to see. As such you won’t find any ‘the best Disney film since The Lion King/Snow White/Tangled style comments here – besides, I’ve enjoyed all of Disney’s most recent films so it wouldn’t go back far. I’m just pleased not that Disney are returning to form, but maintaining it.
Frozen tells the story of two sisters, Elsa and Ana, who are separated as children after Elsa accidentally injures her sister with her magic, ice creating powers, so she is sectioned off until she can control them. After their parents’ tragic death Elsa becomes Queen, but after Ana falls in love with the dashing Hans of the Southern Isles quite hastily, Elsa reveals her powers and casts the nation into deep winter. Ana must then go and persuade her sister to bring summer back. It’s (extremely) loosely inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s the Snow Queen, but Disney have bigger fish to freeze than faithfully adapting the writer of The Little Mermaid once more.
Immediately Frozen establishes the central dynamic of the film as between the two sisters as opposed to between a man and woman. After an eerie, largely pointless opening about how great and dangerous ice is it cuts to Elsa and Ana as children, seeing their friendship play out before they are separated. The second song in a Disney film is often the one that reveals the central desire of the hero – think ‘Part of Your World,’ ‘Go The Distance,’ or ‘Reflections’. At first glance it may seem like that role is given to the third song in Frozen – ‘For The First Time In Forever’ is about how lonely Ana is and wants to meet people and, specifically, a man. It’s the kind of Disney song that would normally be the ‘hero’s desire’ song. The second song, however, is actually more fitting: ‘Do You Wanna Build A Snowman’ is about how Ana longs for a relationship with her sister. From the off, other relationships are secondary and so it is in the rest of the film where Ana’s romantic confusion is superseded by her love of her sister. It builds to a fascinating, dramatic finale that marks a noteworthy change of direction for a studio usually obsessed with romantic love, particularly in fairy tale settings.
With the focus on the siblings, the role of villain becomes less clear as well – is it Elsa? The Duke of Weseltown? The ice itself? Elsa battles with her dark side and – in the musical highlight of the film – almost succumbs to it, which is a refreshingly mature exploration of character for Disney. Obviously it is done in a way in which everything is spelt out for the young audience, but the tension between good and evil has become significantly more nuanced since the days of the Golden Age, as has the approach to romance, which similarly undergoes a knowing face-lift. On most narrative fronts, Frozen take significant steps forward for the studio.
It’s a shame, therefore, that it falls into some age old traps that have plagued the House of Mouse since day one. The female characters, whilst interestingly written, are still waistless waifs with big eyes, so generically fake that one wonders if they have used the exact same model for both sisters that was previously employed for Tangled. If Disney really want sassy, revisionist Princesses their next step is surely to animate some that look like humans. Then there is the Duke of Weseltown who is utterly extraneous to plot or theme, harking back to Disney’s occasional need to overfill a film with characters. Sven the reindeer, meanwhile, is just Maximus with antlers, leading some to say that Disney are resting on their Tangled laurels and that this film is simply par for the course.
Such accusers must be ignoring not only the steps forward with storytelling that Frozen takes, but also the artistry with which the story is told. Musically, Frozen is Disney’s most Broadway film yet thanks to songs by the people behind Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon. Vocals cross over each other, high notes are hit and there is even a comic song that doesn’t add anything to the plot. The cast, too, are veterans of the proscenium arch, featuring actors from Wicked, Spring Awakening and The Book of Mormon, belting the songs out with remarkable conviction. Even the way the shots are framed and the characters move feels ready-made to be put on the stage. It wouldn’t be surprising if a big budget production makes its way to New York in the near future.
Then there is the animation, which I’ve left until last because it’s probably the thing that most people care least about in terms of what makes it good, but I geeked out about in a big way. The texture of the snow itself is ludicrously detailed to the extent that you can see individual grains as the characters plough through it. Compare the fineness of detail here to the blockiness of landscapes in something like Ice Age and the difference in quality is immediately evident. It’s so good it will make animation nerds cry a little. If you didn’t notice how good the animation was that’s because they made it all seem so effortless.
Frozen is the real deal, featuring progress in storytelling, astonishing animation and great songs. It’s the best Disney film since…