Tim here, to talk about the last big animated release of 2013, and easily the best to come from a big studio all year: Frozen, the 53rd film in the Walt Disney animated feature canon. Adapted very loosely from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen”, it’s a fairy tale about two sisters, princess of the small kingdom of Arendelle: Elsa, first in line to the throne, voiced by Broadway icon Idina Menzel, and clumsy Anna, voiced by Kristen Bell. Elsa was born with a touch of magic to her, and can create snow and ice from her hands, and when this terrible secret reveals itself on the day she’s to be crowned queen, she flees the kingdom in terror, leaving behind a thick blanket of endless snow.
Let’s clear out the low-hanging fruit first: “best Disney movie in 20 years” is just plain silly. It’s the best Disney movie since Tangled, maybe. Except for the instantly-forgotten but wonderful Winnie the Pooh. Anyway, let’s not get all daffy and pretend this is a movie at the level of achievement reached by The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, or Aladdin. It has some very wonderful elements, and a gorgeous song in Elsa’s “to hell with y’all” anthem “Let It Go”, which is absolutely every bit the “Defying Gravity” knock-off that Glenn identified, though I’m inclined to say that it’s better than its evident model. In fact, there’s probably nothing about Frozen I don’t like, up to and including the comic relief snowman Olaf (Josh Gad), who is incorporated into the movie far more elegantly and with far less gruesome “buy this toy!” stridency than the trailers suggested would be remotely in the realm of possibility.
But liking is not adoring, and for all its charm and handsome craftsmanship, this is a by-the-books animated feature in a lot of ways. There’s the expected glut of ot of anything-but-timeless comedy – from Anna especially, much too vividly a young woman of the 21st Century in her vocal inflections and vocabulary to stand alongside Ariel or Belle as a terrific fairy tale heroine. And there’s the de rigueur “bouncy adventure than emotional sequence then chase scene then emotional finale” structure that has a stranglehold on pretty much everything that credits John Lasseter among its producers these days.
Conventions being conventions, though, Frozen makes much stronger use of those conventions than a lot of things – like I said, it’s almost indisputably the best American animated this feature this year (if you want to throw down for The Croods or Monsters University in comments, I admire your pluck if not your taste). The characters are nicely personalized, the work of the late addition of Jennifer Lee as co-director (the first woman to ever receive a directing credit on a Disney animated feature), particularly Elsa. In fact, if I had one nagging complaint that started after “Let It Go”, about 35 minutes into the movie, it’s that Elsa is so transparently a more interesting character than Anna, and a story centered on her would be richer and more dramatic.
Even so, the story that Lee and co-director Chris Buck (last seen ‘round Disney way with 1999’s Tarzan) chose to tell is a pretty fun one, adventurous and brightly-paced, anchored by a pair of playfully unserious performances from Bell and Jonathan Groff as Kristoff, the marginally-insane ice salesman and reindeer-lover who helps her find Elsa. “Fun” sounds like a bit of a dirty word in comparison to more artistically-suggestive adjectives, but it’s an entirely important quality for a movie to have, and Frozen is an excellent delivery system for some of the best fun that any movie has offered all year.
It’s also really, unbelievably beautiful. It’s not quite as game-changing as Tangled, with its exquisite painterly colors and textures, but the lighting, or “lighting”, or whatever you want to call it, is easily the best in any CGI movie that Disney has made yet. And not even the obvious stuff, like the way that the snow reflects and softens light, a keen example of animated realism, though that’s certainly nice to look at.
Something as simple as a dusky interior room is uncommonly beautiful and lovely in Frozen. And it points to something else the movie’s doing that’s pretty exceptional, which is that the film has an unexpectedly muted look to it, a rarity among rarities in contemporary animation, which is typically driven with urgent, unstoppable force towards making everything hyper-saturated and poppy and practically glowing with colors that dominate the eye rather than draw it in. In contrast to that general trend, Frozen is unusually soft, and unusually pastel, and this ends up nicely augmenting the feeling of a placeless fairytale. It is dreamy-looking and abstracted, to its great benefit.
Even if it’s not a flat-out masterpiece of family fantasy, or the wonderful return to musical form some of us might have hoped for (there’s a lot of perfectly listenable dross on the soundtrack), this is still a pretty great animated picture. Like Tangled before it, it’s hemmed in by its allegiance to narrative tropes that it’s attempting to criticize, and it’s too obvious how much it wants to be thought of in the same breath as Disney’s 1990s films. But more than its problems, what comes through is its beauty and charm, and a sense of epic scale missing from most children’s films. It’s not quite the Disney of yore, but it makes it clear that the Disney of today is in pretty good shape. B+