Directors: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee
Writers: Hans Christian Andersen, Jennifer Lee, Chris Buck, Shane Morris
Starring: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathon Groff, Josh Gad, Alan Tudyk
Release Date: November 27th, 2013
Runtime: 1 hr. 42 mins.
MPAA Rating: PG
Walt Disney Studios’ winter 2013 release Frozen is the latest in a string of animated films the studio has put out over the last several years (other titles include Brave, Tangled, and Wreck-it Ralph). This time around, they rely on the tried and true Disney formula of basing the story on a beloved fairy-tale, in this case Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.” As usual, Disney plays with the story enough to make it their own, and adds in some music and dance numbers for good measure. How does this particular interpretation hold up?
On a strictly “is this film entertaining” level, Frozen does well. It is not, however, terribly true to the source material. The Snow Queen and the heroine that goes after her are now sisters, princesses of Arendelle, a kingdom that becomes shrouded in perpetual winter. Elsa [Idina Menzel] is the elder, and she has a gift: she is able to summon wintery cold at will, and sometimes when she doesn’t will it. Her younger sister is Anna [Kristen Bell], and the story begins with the two of them sneaking into a ballroom (at Anna’s instigation), to make snow drifts and play. An accident happens, and two things result: Anna loses her memory of her sister’s power, and Elsa retreats into a self-imposed exile, refusing to play with her sister lest she hurt her. They become orphaned, and further estranged as they grow older, although Anna can never quite figure out why her sister is so cold (yes, pun intended) toward her. As Elsa ages, her powers increase, to the point that she must wear gloves at all times lest she accidentally unleash them. The inevitable happens, and in a very public way; she flees Arendelle as the entire kingdom becomes an unwelcome winter wonderland.
The rest of the movie follows the adventures of Anna as she tries to get her sister back, and to end the winter that has taken over. In her travels she is aided by a young woodsman named Kristoff [Jonathon Groff], his dog-like reindeer companion Sven, and an enchanted snowman named Olaf [Josh Gad, played to great comic effect]. There is also a love interest in the form of Hans [Santino Fontana], a youngest son from the neighboring Southern Isles.
Anna faces many travails, and nearly dies, learning to recognize true love and forgiveness in the process. Being a Disney film, much of the darkness of the original Andersen story is missing, as is a lot of the strong sense of female agency from the fairy-tale. The story’s Snow Queen is older and clearly powerful, and is no relation to the young heroine, who is neither a princess, nor is very old. She is aided and hindered primarily by women, and the additions of Kristoff, Hans, and Olaf really change the tenor of the tale, and reflect a missed opportunity by Disney to produce a strong female-led story with the unnecessary addition of several male tropes and stereotypes. Does Anna really need a love interest? Can’t she be knowledgeable enough not to need a scruffy-yet-lovable guide? The most grievous error in this regard is the agency of the primary antagonist, Elsa. She’s never really portrayed as being evil, although she makes a few poor and hasty choices. In fact, in another move that reduces her agency, much of her initial mayhem is not intentional, but is brought about by strong emotional response. This kind of reliance on female stereotypes of emotionalism and an inability to think logically really weaken the overall strength of the story – where we could have had a strong, decisive Elsa, we instead get a misunderstood and emotional woman running away from her responsibilities. She does gain strength later in the movie, and does show agency, so she is ultimately recuperable; but some of the writing choices weaken her unnecessarily and keep her from entering the upper echelons of Disney’s greatest powerful women antagonists, such as Maleficent or the Queen from Snow White. Regarding the added male characters, I found that both Sven the reindeer and Olaf are nice additions, and feed into the Disney requirement for cute and marketable characters that small children will identify with. I have to admit that I also found myself laughing at their antics; however, I can’t help but feel that Disney could have done something so much more with this story.
The music and singing is excellent, with both Bell and Menzel doing their own work. “Let it Go” and “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” are the two best tracks, with the former being the sweeping epic signature song of the movie, and the latter being the Broadway-esque musical piece with a pinch of fun in the lyrics. “Let it Go” is up for an Oscar award this year, and it would be a worthy winner in my opinion, although I suspect that “Ordinary Love” from Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom will take the prize. In addition, the animation is top-notch, with some of the snow effects particularly dazzling.
The movie is funny with some light moments, but there is definitely enough darkness to ensure that parents stay close to their little ones’ sides. This isn’t your grandmother’s Maleficent, but Elsa’s Snow Queen can still be scary. I do recommend the movie, but with the caveat that the short story by Hans Christian Andersen is the superior telling.
Steve’s Grade: B
Flawless animation, great soundtrack, and humorous subplots don’t entirely make up for the fact that Disney has toned down “The Snow Queen” so much as to make it barely recognizable. Take your children, but stop by the bookstore on the way home to pick up Andersen’s original.