When I was 16 years old, I took my then-infant cousin to the cinema, notionally as a treat for him. The only thing available for us to see was Disney’s Beauty And The Beast. He quite liked it, save for an insistence that he needed a toilet break at an inopportune moment. Me? It blew me away. It still does. It’s one of my favourite films of all time, the best Disney animated movie, and the film I’ve watched more than any other. It unlocked a lifelong love (quite often a tough love) of Disney animation, that’s killed my bank account ever since.
The biggest compliment I can thus give Frozen is this: somebody watching it is going to feel the same way about Disney’s latest that I felt over 20 years ago when I first saw Beauty And The Beast. At its peak, Frozen is Walt Disney Animation Studios firing with everything, demonstrating why it’s emerged in recent years as the most interesting mainstream producers of feature animation (with terrific features such as Wreck-It Ralph, Tangled, The Princess And The Frog and Winnie The Pooh). And this is very much a Disney film, the kind you feel nobody else could make. It’s a fairytale, but co-director Jennifer Lee’s screenplay manages to modernise it, whilst never losing the feeling of tradition. There’s no cheating here – it’s the story itself that’s been made more relevant, rather than any gimmicks attached around it.
But I’m racing ahead. This is, as longtime Disney geeks (guilty as charged) will happily tell, the final realisation of the many, many attempts to bring Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen to the big screen in animated form. Many brilliant Disney people have tried before, most notoriously when a fascinating-looking hand-drawn venture fell apart just over a decade ago. But the team this time around, led by co-directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck (Tarzan), have utterly cracked it.
They’ve done it by adjusting the story, and making it the tale of two sisters, Elsa and Anna. This single switch, of making the lead two characters related, has immense pay-off. Courtesy of an excellent opening sequence, we learn that both have magical powers, but an accident puts in place what looks like a lifelong division between the pair. This is most wonderfully demonstrated by the tremendous, moving song ‘Do You Want To Build A Snowman?’ And to zoom in on that for a second, it’s that one song bundles together so much of what Frozen gets right.
Firstly, it demonstrates that this is a film with personal – rather than world-ending – stakes at heart, that matter all the more as a consequence of being so contained. It’s a song ostensibly about a physical door between two sisters – giving nothing away – that symbolises them being driven apart.
It’s also a song that sees Disney heading back to Broadway – just as it did in the late 80s/early 90s – for its muscial spark. And it finds it, not least in the firm of The Book Of Mormon and Avenue Q songwriting pairing of Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, who penned the tunes here (backed by a gorgeous Christophe Beck score). They prove inspired choices, as does the lead voice pairing of Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel, with Disney’s casting department eschewing huge movie star names for absolute musical talent and appropriateness for the key roles (further examples: Alan Tudyk, Josh Gad and Jonathan Groff. There’s not a weak link in the voice cast).
It’s a big series of decisions, and pretty much every one of them is bang on. Disney ran away from songs sung by characters as a storytelling device for a while, but in Frozen, it demonstrates that when done properly, that approach can result in something really rather special. It’s back to the old adage of economical storytelling through terrific songs. At least three of the numbers here are flat-out excellent, and one of them – ‘Let It Go’ – will be winning an Oscar next year. You can put me down for a quid or two on that.
Still, it’d be remiss not to note that there are moments in Frozen when you wonder if it’s veering a little bit too close to Beauty And The Beast, or possibly taking an ingredient from one or two other features (which I won’t name for fear of spoiling the film). Furthermore, as much fun as the supporting characters are – Disney Stores will sell a lot of Olaf toys – we’re not quite at the level of Sebastian or Cogsworth here. That said, when the focus is firmly on Anna and Elsa, as it is for most of the film, Frozen is just terrific. Much will be made of the fact that we get two female leads powering a Disney movie here (heck, two female leads powering a blockbuster movie full stop), but that overlooks something even more fundamental: the two main characters are both superb creations, who you can’t help but care about and, to varying degrees, root for.
Directors Buck and Lee have clearly approached the whole project with real intelligence. They’re adept at spotting when to pull back on the songs, they put some gorgeous cinematic sequences on the big screen – the animation really is something to behold – and they generate more than one goosebump moment in the sublime telling of the story.
Furthermore – crucially – they get that it’s the small things that matter, and by getting so many of those less showy moments spot on, the big moments soar. To their further credit, Frozen‘s also not scared of taking a few interesting left turns, which again, we won’t spoil here. That the film’s a virtually seamless marriage of comedy, action, drama and music is some achievement as well.
It’s an almost pinch-yourself moment when you realise that The Snow Queen has burst out of a sustained term in development hell and ended up as good as it is. It’s not a faithful telling of the story by pretty much any measure, and if you’re a Hans Christian Andersen purist, chances are you’ll be setting up a Tumblr or Facebook protest page in the coming weeks. But as a mainstream family animated motion picture, it finds Walt Disney Animation Studios in incredible shape, the peak of a turnaround that started quietly with Meet The Robinsons, and has been building for years.
Frozen‘s brilliance isn’t good news for everyone, though. Right now, if I was one of the team making Walt Disney Animation Studios’ fascinating-looking 2014 release, Big Hero 6, I’d be breaking out in a cold sweat at the thought of following it into cinemas. For everyone else? This is the best Walt Disney Animation Studios movie in a generation, and the best family movie – by a considerable distance – of the year. It’s an astounding piece of work, and the kind of film that we’ll still be buying on whatever’s replaced DVD in 30 years’ time.
Just wonderful. In the sage words of Marty McFly, “Your kids are gonna love it…”
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