I was surprised to see so many people saying how much they enjoyed Frozen. From what I’d seen, it looked as if it’d be basically interchangeable with Tangled, which was perfectly competent and entertaining, with fine-but-forgettable songs that technically didn’t need to be there.
And a lot of Frozen does seem familiar — similar character designs, similar characters, replace the non-talking sidekick horse with a non-talking sidekick reindeer — but it somehow manages to do it a little better. My brain kept wanting to put the movie in the “competent but nothing exceptional, don’t get too attached” category, but every time I tried, the movie would do something else to win me over.
There’s a lot of singing, and one of the main characters is voiced by Idina Menzel, who sings everything very hard. I sometimes get the impression that she knows I’m not a huge fan, so she’s trying to win me over in sheer volume. (I don’t feel particularly bad saying I’m not a fan, since there are billions of people in her target audience, like for instance my mother, who think she’s the best). And apparently Kristen Bell does all her own singing, which makes me wonder why she doesn’t sing more often in stuff.
But here’s the thing: the songs were forgettable, but they didn’t really feel like filler. They did what musical theater is supposed to do, which is advance the story with music and lyrics. I wouldn’t say that the songs were “classic” musical theater, like what Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast were shooting for, but they did seem stronger. Everything in Tangled seemed to be shooting for some nebulous Disney Radio pop audience; Frozen‘s songs seemed targeted directly at fans of Wicked. (Not that I’ve actually seen more than a couple of scenes from Wicked, so take my assessment with a big old salt lick).
All of the character designs were really appealing, and if that’s what they’re sticking to as Standard Disney Animated Feature Model, I’m all for it. The environmental design was terrific, never threatening to take attention away from the characters but delivering some fantastic imagery (the Ice Castle you’d expect, the sailing vessels tumbling in cracking ice that you might not expect).
And something you just don’t expect from a Disney animated feature: the dialogue was excellent. Dialogue in these things is supposed to be serviceable, setting up the next scene or the next punchline and making sure to get the 42 required mentions of being true to your dreams. Here, the lines seemed to transition effortlessly between modern romantic comedy and Disney fairy tale, more often than not sounding like something actual human beings would say. Alan Tudyk was great as the Duke of Weasel-town; much like I completely didn’t recognize him in Wreck-It Ralph, I had no idea it was him voicing this character as opposed to someone who’d been an established voice actor for decades. Josh Gad was a wacky sidekick who, incomprehensibly, was actually genuinely funny. And I think Kristen Bell can pretty much do no wrong.
Since I knew little about the movie going in, and I wasn’t familiar with the Hans Christian Andersen story it was “inspired by,” I spent most of the movie having no idea what was going to happen. Which is another unusual thing for even live-action romantic comedies, much less Disney animated ones — you’re supposed to be following along looking for minor variations in the standard formula, not wondering how the situation’s going to play out exactly. One of the reasons I liked Brave was that it was so unapologetically weird for a formula movie; Frozen isn’t nearly as strange, but it has its moments.
In fact, my only gripes about it are that the troll characters, once they’re given an entire scene with accompany musical number, are pretty predictable “animated movie side characters.” That whole segment felt more like TV animation to me, and it seemed strangely out of place. My other complaint is that a villain is introduced towards the end, and it seemed predictable and unnecessary. There was a ton of opportunity for purely character-driven conflict; I think it would’ve been more interesting to see it play out without having someone practically come out and declare evil intentions.
But apart from that, I couldn’t help but love it. And the really imaginative Mickey Mouse short beforehand, too, which seemed like something that would play in the Disney parks, with all of the in-theater water effects. The short did what the best animated gag-heavy shorts do: take an idea and run with it, exploring all the different possibilities. I would’ve thought it was impossible to make Mickey Mouse interesting again, but with things like that and the new 2D Mickey Mouse shorts, it seems like they’re actually doing it.
And with Wreck-It Ralph and now Frozen, it seems like Disney Feature Animation is re-establishing itself as the makers of modern classics. They were in danger of getting their “brand” muddled — while shooting for Pixar, they could’ve ended up more like Dreamworks. Instead, they’ve landed at distinct other place, which feels modern, but can still trace its heritage back at least to Sleeping Beauty.
Also: stay through the credits, not just because it’s polite but because there’s a brief post-credits sequence. And look for the disclaimer message in the credits scroll, about the opinions that don’t necessarily reflect that of the Walt Disney company.