Disney has been trying for decades to adapt Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.” Having kicked off the so-called Disney Renaissance with The Little Mermaid, a different adaptation of an Andersen story, the studio spent a few years trying to get its version off the ground, but eventually scrapped the project. Since then, however, Pixar honcho John Lasseter has assumed creative control of Walt Disney Animation, ushering in a new wave of critical and commercial successes: the consecutive hits The Princess And The Frog, Tangled, Winnie The Pooh, and Wreck-It Ralph. And in that time, Disney’s take on “The Snow Queen” has finally coalesced as Frozen.
While Andersen’s original story is a complex tapestry of characters, Frozen focuses instead on a few denizens of a small Scandinavian kingdom. Instead of a villain, the Snow Queen is Elsa (Idina Menzel), a young princess born with the ability to manipulate cold. So scared is she of this power that she hides in a castle, away from her younger sister, Anna (Kristen Bell). On coronation day, after finding herself still unable to control her gift, Elsa flees in a fit of rage that completely freezes the land, and it’s up to Anna to convince her sister to return. Helping her are Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), an ice merchant with a reindeer that acts like a dog, and an enchanted snowman (Josh Gad, whose broad take on the happy-go-lucky lunkhead is a good litmus test for the film’s humor).
Initially, Frozen was to reunite much of the creative team behind Beauty And The Beast, including songwriters Alan Menken and Glenn Slater (whose work on Tangled played a big part in that film’s success). Instead, the finished movie features tunes by Robert Lopez (The Book Of Mormon, Avenue Q) and his wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez. They’re humorous songwriters and a good match for Bell’s plucky vocal performance. But a few of the songs are clunkers; the standout piece is a duet between Elsa and Anna, at a moment when reconciliation becomes further complication.
It’s not often that Disney Animation outdoes the storytellers at Pixar. But the parent studio has much more experience with lead female characters, and a modern take on female independence is the best aspect here, especially when judged against the reductive princess fantasies in the Mouse House vault. Frozen does for sisterly relationships what Brave should have done for mothers and daughters—and the frigid distance and lopsided maturity helps the sibling bond feel more like a maternal one. Rebuking the simplistic romantic tropes of its fairy-tale predecessors, Frozen isn’t quite as accomplished as The Princess And The Frog, Wreck-It Ralph, or Tangled. But in its simple pleasures, it’s every bit as enjoyable as Winnie The Pooh, with a strong and valuable moral undercurrent to boot. Most importantly, this is a long-needed step in the right direction to a more varied depiction of female characters in Disney’s canon.