The premise establishes those possibilities by keeping it simple. Two sisters, Anna and Elsa, are born into the prosperous world of royalty in the kingdom of Arendelle, but the oldest of the two hides a phenomenal secret: she has special powers that allow her to generate snow and ice through a mere wave of the hand. In the early scenes, both she and her younger sister, Anna, are playing in the castle with these abilities when a near-tragic accident befalls the younger; as a consequence, Elsa is advised to live out much of her life in total isolation, lest Anna (or anyone else in a kingdom full of uninformed types) be subjected to anymore danger from her wild abilities. Alas, after their parents die suddenly in their adult years, the kingdom demands the crown be passed to the eldest of the daughters – a notion that Elsa is uncomfortable with, since it would require her to have more of a public presence in a time when she has yet to find control over her growing skills.
Anna, no longer remembering her sister’s precious abilities, begins to ask questions when they both emerge together in adulthood. Why did Elsa close off from her sister when they seemed so close in youth? Why does she always wear gloves? What’s with the reserved, detached façade? And most importantly, what caused the strands of white hair on Anna’s head? There is discernible tension between them, though neither has reasons that stretch beyond misunderstanding or stubborn conviction. That these dynamics are grounded in the framework of a traditional fairy tale laced with new awareness certainly adds a level of cheeky delight to the mix, and when the movie dabbles with the most prominent of all fairy tale clichés – the “true love at first sight” gimmick – I was pleased to find that a supporting character had the audacity to make this keen inquiry: “didn't your parents ever warn you about strangers?”
Many of the staples of animated movie formulas follow suit. The goofy sidekick, a wisecracking snowman created out of magic named Olaf (Josh Gad), is more than just a conduit for hair-branded misadventures that inspire comical dialogue; he is also a narrative symbol of the innocence of the sisters (the running joke of his carrot nose being constantly pursued by a reindeer, however, is particularly amusing). Then there is an obligatory prince named Hans, a fetching and love-struck sort who develops daggers for the youthfully naïve but beautiful Anna early on before being relegated to palace watchmen as she sets off to find Elsa (why the movie isolates him is at first befuddling, but a surprise twist in the third act cements the reasoning). On the other hand, an actual villain dead set on deathly destruction – so prominent in most fairy tales – is not part of the mix here; in its place, rather, is the idea of social intolerance as an evil instinct, and when Elsa’s powers are discovered, she is shunned for knowing magic and driven out of her kingdom in a display of fearful judgments. The animators nonetheless are eager to show off that ever-so-celebrated mysterious fairy tale fortress in the mountains as a visual device, and when they dispatch their newly exiled queen into the unforgiving wilderness, she celebrates her freedom by using those powers to create one of the more imaginative ice castles of the movies (not to mention one of the more memorable songs of recent Disney musicals).
The central conflict, however, remains a constant in fueling the journeys and interactions: because Elsa has no control over her own fear, the magic has caused the entire kingdom to fall into an eternal winter, and only, we sense, the power of love and understanding can melt those facets away and give her control over her special abilities (as well as renew the lost friendship she had with her sister). That “Frozen” incorporates these lessons is nothing new by any stretch of the fairy tale premise, but to wrap them in a style and tone that seems eager to pull classic sensibilities into a slightly modern context is thoughtful. One gathers that this is not merely a mandated decision, either; the directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, both fairly new to the fold of animated pictures, seem like the kinds of ambitious filmmakers who are driven by the impulse to use classic stories as relevant underpinnings, and the screenplay by Lee uses awareness of the Disney predecessors as a launching point for a series of plot twists and characterizations that seem more inspired by the youthful keystones of today and all that goes with them.
And how about those movie artists seated at the computer screen? Here, beyond a shadow of a doubt, they create a space so intricate and detailed that it rivals the best of the Pixar endeavors, and the characters – be they animals, humans, or blocky abdominal snow guardians – emphasize the collective synergy of the animators, who give many of them unique looks while putting them through rigorous detail standards (imagine, if you will, how long it must have taken them to perfect the movement of hair follicles and lively facial expressions). The title, I suspect, is also an ironic statement: at a time when our standards have been undermined by the ambivalence of Hollywood in using technology to a transparent disadvantage, can our expectations be anything less than icy, even when it comes to feature animation? “Frozen” emerges from a place of purity that melts such pessimistic attitudes. This isn’t just a rousing childhood fantasy, but one that challenges adults by asking them to step outside of the comforts of their skepticism for two hours of pure joy and imagination.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Children’s/Fantasy/Musical (US); 2013; Rated PG for some action and mild rude humor; Running Time: 102 Minutes
Kristen Bell: Anna
Idina Menzel: Elsa
Jonathan Groff: Kristoff
Josh Gad: Olaf
Santina Fontana: Hans
Produced by Peter Del Vecho, John Lasseter and Aimee Scribner; Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee; Written by Jennifer Lee; based on the story “The Snow Queen” by Hans Christian Andersen