It’s official: Disney is courting the smart-moms demographic with its latest princess movies. In Tangled (2010), Rapunzel didn’t wait around for a prince to climb up her hair. And in Frozen, romance plays second fiddle to the evolving relationship between two estranged royal sisters. These princesses still wear sparkly dresses, the better to sell millions of tie-ins to parents of 4-year-olds, but they have personalities that go beyond “feisty” and make hard choices. That’s a breath of fresh air.
Nordic air, to be precise. The production team has jettisoned most of the plot of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, leaving it with a credit for “inspiration.” (Script credit goes to Jennifer Lee [Wreck-It Ralph], who codirected with Chris Buck.) That’s ironic, given that Andersen’s is one of the few fairy tales in which a girl saves a boy. But Disney has veered in a different direction, turning the “snow queen” from a cold-hearted witch who willfully brings eternal winter upon the land to a misunderstood girl with an unwieldy superhero power. The result is a movie less tense than it might have been — there’s no villain worthy of the name — but also more emotionally resonant.
Elsa (voiced by Tony winner Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell) are heirs to the generically Scandinavian kingdom of Arendelle. Their parents separate them after Elsa accidentally endangers her younger sister with her ability to turn summer to winter and flash-freeze most anything. The king exhorts his eldest to conceal her powers, dooming her to a life of repression. When, after a sequence of unfortunate events, Elsa embraces her inner ice queen in the spectacular ballad “Let It Go,” any viewer who’s ever been labeled “different” is likely to be on her side.
The more conventional Anna, who just wants to do princessy stuff and roll back the perma-freeze Elsa has wrought, is an equally sympathetic figure. Frozen starts strong, with musical numbers that establish the sisters’ troubled bond and teenage Anna’s frenzied eagerness to escape her lonely palace life by engaging herself to the first hot nobleman she meets (Alan Tudyk).
Later, the film loses some focus, as Anna embarks on an Oz-style quest studded with the usual busy action sequences and comic-relief characters. For the littler viewers, there’s plenty of slapstick involving a summer-obsessed snowman (Josh Gad) and matchmaker trolls. Older ones are more likely to appreciate the sassing that flies between Anna and her reluctant companion, Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), who’s basically Han Solo with a reindeer BFF instead of a Wookiee.
The object of the heroine’s quest is a witch/Darth Vader who doesn’t really want to hurt anybody, and that’s a bold switch in the formula that Disney half pulls off. By default, this fantasy’s only real villains are selfish profiteers — a believable twist, if not the most compelling one.
The songs by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez grow less clever and hummable as the movie continues, but the visuals remain gorgeous. The Arendelle palace teems with Nordic decorative motifs and rich hues — teal, magenta, turquoise — while Elsa’s arctic mountain lair sparkles beneath crimson sunrises and sunsets. The anthropomorphic snow critters she creates are less interesting than their environment, but overall, Disney has crafted another animated landscape magical enough to keep everybody in the family from fidgeting for nigh on two hours.
And those moms who don’t want their daughters piningly opining that “Someday My Prince Will Come”? They may have issues with the sparkly dresses and tiaras, but I think they’ll be pleased with Frozen’s twist on the notion that true love conquers all.