Three years ago, it would have been ridiculous for Rapunzel and her compatriots to dream of a white Christmas. The animators behind 2010’s Tangled had enough on their hands working out the intricacies of creating strand upon strand of lifelike hair for the movie’s long-locked princess before they could even dream of creating something as delicate and complicated as snow.
For their next fairy tale, Disney animators had no choice but to study ice — and tons of it — to understand the weird ways in which it catches and refracts light, and then figure out how to put it in a starring role. Making Frozen took some progress on Disney’s part, in more ways than one.
But that’s a hard move to gauge coming from one of the most confusingly progressive companies in the world. Disney has already built entire theme parks as love letters to the world of tomorrow, where humanity strives for peace and science and where the sterile architecture swoops into infinity. At the same time, a man who built his vast fortune on cartoons that suggested to little girls that “happily ever after” is an hourglass figure and a stony-jawed dude founded the company.
With that in mind, first-glancers wouldn’t think much of Frozen, the company’s sleek new franchise with a frosty gimmick. The movie’s gender-neutral re-titling (it’s loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen) and rakish non-prince character call up thoughts of Disney’s last fairy tale flick, Tangled. Kristen Bell’s sassy princess whips out wisecracks and many a “totally” with little difference from Mandy Moore’s Rapunzel. Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez — former Tony Award winners, just like Disney veteran Alan Menken — waste their talents with plenty of moving and forgettable vocal numbers. Idina Menzel familiarly belts her head off in a song about embracing what makes her different as the Snow Queen — Jonathan Groff maybe gets a note in once.
Altogether, Frozen feels like one of Disney’s most musically unadventurous titles to date. (A side observation, however: Josh Gad will be Hollywood’s go-to comic relief within the next few years. He’s better here than he was in The Book of Mormon.) Every song is delightful until about seven seconds after it ends. After that, the thrill melts.
Even the story starts out off-puttingly stale. After a touching prologue, protagonist Anna meets her handsome prince, who’s, like, totally just like her. They sing about being MFEO around the made-for-Magic Kingdom Nordic castle and kick off a classic Disney monster chase (“Kill the Beast!”) when their immediate engagement upsets Anna’s snow queen sister enough that she reveals her secret ice powers. Elsa the snow queen runs off into the mountains and creates an eternal winter while Anna pursues alone. It’s edge-of-your-seat and by-the-book.
However, at this point in the story, something already doesn’t add up. The handsome prince stays home, leaving room for the smart-aleck ice hauler and his reindeer to mess with the status quo. Of course our princess can’t love both, and if you think the movie’s sermon will be one of respecting inner beauty, then nice try. Without revealing too much, this complication is what saves Frozen. Rather, this complication is what makes Frozen an absolutely brilliant story that turns everything Disney has ever taught completely onto its head. But again, that would be revealing too much.
And even if the story and the music aren’t to your liking, Frozen would still be a fantastic movie on mute. The abundant ice looks impossibly rendered (the animators’ homework clearly paid off), and the movie packs in plenty of exciting set pieces and shimmering costumes ripe for many gift shops.
Shortcomings aside — and maybe here they’re exaggerated — Frozen is a movie Disney can be and should be proud of. It is one that unravels decades of preconceived ideas of what true love really means. Disney may embrace the future of technology, but their storytelling seems to be coming along just as smoothly.