‘Frozen’ Review: Disney's Best Animated Musical Since ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (Video)

Proactive princesses and catchy tunes make for a winning combo in this updating of Hans Christian Andersen's “Snow Queen”

You can tell the folks at Disney have been agonizing over how to tell a story about pretty, pretty princesses that will make the marketing department (and taffeta-dress-buying little girls everywhere) happy and still assuage the progressives out there who want those little girls to aspire to more than just being rescued.

"FROZEN" (Top to Bottom) KRISTOFF and SVEN ©2013 Disney. All Rights Reserved.The paradigm-defying archer of Pixar’s “Brave” was certainly a step in the right direction, and with “Frozen,” they’ve got something that should please both sides: It’s about two beautiful sisters in a castle, yes, but it’s also about learning to embrace your own power and to overcome the fear of your own abilities.

Oh, and it’s a musical, too.

In the Scandinavian kingdom of Arendelle live two princesses: Anna (voiced by Livvy Stubenrauch as a child, Kristen Bell as an adult) adores her older sister Elsa (Eva Bella, later Idina Menzel), especially when Elsa makes it snow inside the palace’s great ballroom. Elsa, you see, has the power to summon any kind of wintry precipitation with just the wave of her hand. When Elsa accidentally hits Anna in the head with her ice-touch, the younger girl can only be revived by the Troll King (Ciarán Hinds), who erases Anna’s memory of the incident.

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Shaken up after almost killing Anna, Elsa hides away from the world in her room, terrified that she won’t be able to control her powers. Anna wonders why her sister has shut her out, and as she sings the poignant “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” we see the years pass and the girls growing up together but separately, on opposite sides of Elsa’s locked doors. (The songs are by Robert Lopez of “Avenue Q” and “The Book of Mormon” and his wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez; they previously created the lovely tunes for the underrated 2011 “Winnie the Pooh.”)

The death of their parents (this is a Disney cartoon, after all) makes Elsa the new queen, and Anna is thrilled that the gates will be opened and visitors will be coming to the castle for her coronation. One such guest is Hans (Santino Fontana), a visiting prince who immediately sweeps Anna off her feet. When the two rush to Elsa to announce that they want to get married, Elsa tells Anna to slow down and think it over. The sisters argue, and Elsa loses control, displaying her powers in front of everyone.

Elsa flees to the mountains and builds a hideaway — not unlike Dr. Manhattan’s Martian palace in “Watchmen” — but she’s so upset that she doesn’t realize that she’s left Arendelle plunged in winter. Leaving Hans in charge of the kingdom, Anna sets off for the highest peak to talk Elsa into bringing back the summer. Aiding Anna in her quest is ice delivery man Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), whose business is currently on hold until Elsa can reverse her spell.

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While Kristoff and Hans bring romance and intrigue to the story, it’s really about Anna and Elsa mending their fractured relationship and Elsa learning to embrace her power. It’s a great message, and never hammered home too obviously; there are lots of laughs (Josh Gad voices a snowman who dreams of experiencing his first summer) and tunes along the way to keep the female empowerment of “Frozen” from feeling too didactic.

With the exception of “Love Is an Open Door,” which sounds as if it came out of the “High School Musical” unused-song drawer, the tunes are terrific — moving, stirring, funny and catchy. Don’t be surprised if “Frozen” becomes yet another Disney animated feature to hit the Broadway stage; in this case, however, the transition promises to be fairly smooth, based on the strength of the material. (“Frozen on Ice,” meanwhile, seems inevitable.)

“Frozen” has the smarts to tweak itself — Kristoff’s reindeer Sven, unlike most other Disney animals, doesn’t talk, so Kristoff does both parts when they “converse” — but it doesn’t take the irony route that’s in vogue for so many current family films. While it lags the tiniest bit on its way to the conclusion, the script by Jennifer Lee (who co-directed with Chris Buck) and Shane Morris, based on the Hans Christian Andersen fable, really delivers; it offers characters to care about, along with some nifty twists and surprises along the way.

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Given that it’s a Disney cartoon, you probably already know how it ends, but what’s interesting about “Frozen” is that you may not predict how they’re going to get there. And for children’s animation, that’s a wilder ride than we usually get.

This is the best animated musical to come out of Disney since the tragic death of lyricist Howard Ashman, whose work on “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast” helped build the studio’s modern animated division into what it is today. And while “Frozen” may provide some new outfits for young princesses-in-waiting, it’s a movie that inspires inner strength to go with those outer ruffles.

  • Archimboldi

    I saw this at a preview screening in Manhattan and couldn't disagree more. The script is stretched much too thin and characters lack the kind of dimension that made the Disney Renaissance princesses so captivating. Disney seemed to oeager to insert colloquial dialogue and marketable characters (Olaf the Snowman — eek!) into what could have been a truly fascinating version of the fairy tale. It's sad that something so cynical and corporate is considered acceptable children's entertainment. I suggest that the writer of this article revisit Ashman's princesses to see just how more intelligent and timeless those films still are.

    Frozen is a step down for Disney. It makes the ho-hum Brave look like the apex of originality. We should expect more from our animated films. But as long as reviews like these shrug their shoulders in the face of such mediocrity the situation will never improve.

    • Taylor

      Can you say pretentious? Chill out, it's an animated film for goodness sake.

      • Hankenshift

        What's your point? That animated films are held to a lesser standard? Doing so only compounds the problem of animated films these days.
        And who said it was “children's entertainment?” And why? The film is fine–not the best, and not the worst. Just more of the same.

        • ebolaoutkast

          Exactly.

      • Jay

        Taylor, being “an animated film” is the worst excuse for “chilling out.” Using your narrow-minded Republican-type thinking, this is the reason why American animated films are normally the most sexist and anti-women genre in filmmaking.

        • SpiritedLass

          I see that YOU'RE using your Democrat-type habit of assuming and stereotyping. How very “progressive”. By the way, how's all that “hope and change” workin’ out for ya? ;)

          More on topic, Frozen looks like it's a ploy by Disney to sell more Princess toys. This movie has TWO of them. Ka-ching!

          • fhctbfgh

            How's John McCain working out for you? (Insert sarcastic emoticon)

            And stereotyping is way more republican. But go ahead and defend a group that will never want you to have the same rights as a man.

    • Tim

      PRETENTIOUS!!! I am not at all disregarding the renaissance films, but Tangled was amazing. In my opinion,Tangled was the best film since Beauty and the Beast!

      • WinterRose

        Because having a clearly educated and informed opinion that differs from your own automatically makes someone pretentious? Some people are looking to get different things out of their entertainment and I happen to think that Archimboldi gives a very accurate and fair critique of Disney's more recent films. You may not agree with it and you may even be looking to get an entirely different experience out of your entertainment, but you might want to analyze the points he is bringing up rather than having a knee jerk reaction to name calling.

        • RBBrittain

          IMO it's Archimboldi who had the knee-jerk reaction. The first Frozen trailer to me looked like a ripoff of the Ice Age movies, with Olaf as Scrat and his nose as the acorn; but I already knew Olaf was NOT the focus of this movie. Though I still think Olaf is Frozen's weak link, you can't judge the movie by him alone…

          • WinterRose

            Archiboldi stated that he also saw it in a preview. He's not critiquing based on a trailer – he has stated he saw the actual movie. He saw, judged and critiqued it. That is not a knee jerk reaction. It's having (apparently) an unpopular opinion. Personally, I'm not juding Frozen on his review solely – I plan to see it for myself regardless of the reviews (though based on trailers and Disney's recent works, I really don't have high hopes for it). That said, I happen to find his assesement of Disney's recent animated films to be accurate in terms of my own evalutaion. There is no “right” or “wrong” in art and beauty because they are purely subjective experiences. Some people might love it. Some people might think “Tangled” is the best Disney film. Some might think “The Little Mermaid” is. That's fine. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions. But for myself and others who agree with Archiboldi's assessment, his critique might be valueable and on target.

    • Jo

      I saw an early screening of this animated film as well and I couldn't agree more. Everything about this film felt so forced, a majority of the songs felt out of place, and the connection to the characters was nonexistent. The artwork was phenomenal, which was to be expected, but the lackluster script left me disagreeable to the whole film. It honestly felt as though Disney took what audiences laughed most about in Tangled and Brave, then crammed them into Frozen, regardless if it flowed well.

      Remember the dog-like horse, Maximus, from Tangled? You get that in Frozen. Remember the girl that goes against the norm in Brave? You get that in Frozen. To make such a rehash worse, Disney has added in the ‘comic relief’ Olaf, which screams marketing just as annoyingly as Universal's Minions.

      Frozen felt like a movie that shouldn't have gone to theatres, but instead was released as a holiday special on the Disney channel.

      • wink

        if you saw an early screening, then you saw a very rough cut of the movie. the film was tightened and the finish product is a vastly remarkably improved version. give it another chance and you'll see what i mean.

      • dgfdgbh

        Wait, so we have a female lead breaking gender stereotypes, an animal companion, and a comic relief fantasy creature?

        Oh no you guys, I think we're watching a Disney movie.

    • Nicole

      I agree, the characters all lacked dimension. I feel that there needed to be more of a plot instead of just going to find her sister to get summer back. I wanted to learn more about the characters. I felt like in just about every other scene they tried to be funny and that they were trying to hard with the script. I did like that when her heart was frozen, her sister performed the act of true love instead of the male I think that was a positive change so things are not always about the princess and the prince falling in love and kissing at the end. Overall, I just felt like there needed to be more of a story to give the characters more dimension.

    • gяαcєℓιℓz ღ™ ツ

      I thought that the ‘marketable character', Olaf, is very important to the film. I don't disagree that he is marketable. However, there is more to him than that. Ever since Anna's accident, all that Elsa's powers had created were destructive. However, when she created Olaf, it showed that her powers are beautiful, and can give life. Honestly, I don't know why you'd think ‘Frozen’ was a step-down for Disney, because I thought that it was more of a step-up. But everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and I thought that I would share mine with you guys. :)

  • Ariel

    I'm glad you enjoyed the movie. Nice review! I'll be sure to look forward to this one. :)

  • bookie39

    How do they have the nerve to say that this is a version of the Snow Queen??? Aside from the fact that there's snow and there's a reindeer, I don't see much resemblance.

    • Ariel

      In every article I saw, they said it was loosely based on the Snow Queen, not that it was an adaptation of. But I see what you're saying. I still think it looks like a good movie though. :)

      • Tim

        Exactly. Bookie39 doesn't know what they're talking about

      • RBBrittain

        +1. Since when has Disney copied a fairytale EXACTLY? The Seven Dwarfs didn't have names till Walt named them. Hans Christian Andersen's Little Mermaid did NOT get the prince like Ariel did. If you want the original fairytales, go read the books…

    • samba85 L

      If Disney movies ended the way they did in the books, then I would have been very depressed throughout my childhood.

      • Monster Fortynine

        That's why we are depressed now ..lol

  • blahblah

    doubtful

  • simba

    I got to say that this movie took a special place in my heart. Coming from a person you watched this movie 2 in the last two weekend. I'm going again this weekend. This movie as great lion king.

  • hotdogwrap

    I'd say this is the best animated movie I've ever seen, and the best Disney has ever released. It's something very special- very different from what Disney usually puts out and on the level of the classics.