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.
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.
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.
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.
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.