The Snow Queen, like many other Disney projects was in development hell for many years. Constantly revived and shelved, the project never seemed to properly take off and fans never knew when/if the film was finally going to be released. After the latest 2002 attempt was cancelled again, Chris Buck (director of Tarzan) pitched a new version to John Lasseter in 2008 and development started once more. Finally, in 2011, Disney officially announced the film with a new title and a 2013 release date. What nobody expected is that the new film, now called Frozen, was to become a critical darling and a box office behemoth that matched the run of The Lion King almost 20 years ago.
Like all Disney adaptations, Frozen is not a literal version of The Snow Queen, rather, it takes the general elements of the story and adapts them for modern sensibilities. The film effectively makes the story about two sisters, Anna and Elsa, the latter of which is the Snow Queen. Unlike the original story, Elsa is not a villain, but rather a misunderstood and repressed antagonist. Similar to Tangled, the filmmakers crafted a more relatable angle to the story. In the case of Tangled, it was a mother-daughter dynamic and here it is the sisters who take centre stage. Also, this story is not focused on romanticism (although there is some of that) but rather the sisterly love between the two lead female characters.
I'm not going to go into detail about what the story's about because chances are you've already see the film or know the general gist. I will focus on the elements of what makes Frozen so great and appealing, the elements that helped it become Disney Animation's most popular film in 20 years. First of all, I think the characters are wonderfully constructed. The two leads have very different personalities and they complement each other perfectly: Anna is an optimist, outspoken, childish, a little immature and generally funny; Elsa, on the other hand, is a repressed person, someone who lives in fear and darkness and is a woman of many contradictions. Both of them are multi-layered, and that adds depth to the story as they both learn things from one another that will help them grow as people and have a better relationship with one another.
One thing that I really liked about the film is that, for the first time, you can see the pressure of royalty. Let me explain: many Disney princesses (Ariel, Jasmine) want to do stuff that they're are forbidden to do or want to go against what's expected of them. In none of those cases though have they had the pressure of leading, since both of them have parents who are in charge. Here however, Elsa is expected to lead and all the pressures of being a queen fall on her shoulders. That, coupled with the fact that she has a curse, puts an immeasurable amount of pressure on her to be the "perfect lady" she's expected to be to rule Arendelle. I like this because, for the first time, the princess has to be in charge; she can't behave like a teenager or a girl, she has to keep up the appearance of regality in order to set an example for her people. She clearly is an unfit leader at the beginning of the film, but the appealing thing is that, by the end, she learns to accept herself for what she is and that helps her become the kind of queen she's meant to be.
Many have claimed that Frozen is a very "progressive" film and one that features many things that can't be seen in previous Disney films. I have to differ. While Frozen offers a fresh perspective and some very nice twists on the usual fairy tale story, I don't think that it's a film that's very different from the usual good Disney films - and that's a good thing. People tend to just remember the most popular films in the Disney canon and jump from The Lion King to Tangled forgetting everything in between. But, there are many films that can be also called "progressive" (Mulan, for example) and that offer great stories, but which are forgotten by the general public. Frozen offers a great story with many themes like love (not only in a romantic way), fear, appearances, neglect, forgiveness and more in a beautiful way and that's what it makes so appealing to everyone. I don't think it's a "one of a kind" Disney film, but it's certainly one that plays with its formula in unique ways and that's why it's a fantastic film.
If you have read my previous Retrospectives, then you know that I have a special fondness for the Disney Renaissance, especially the so called 'Big Four' films. In one way or another, most of the films from this new era have paid homage and have some relation to those films, and Frozen, perhaps, is the epitome of that. One can see many elements that links this film to those released more than 20 years ago, but the strongest link is the music. Like with the Renaissance films, music is a strong component of Frozen and fortunately composers Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (Winnie the Pooh) have produced some of the best pieces in Disney history. Songs like "Do You Want to Build a Snowman?" or "For the First Time in Forever" are great compositions that move the story forward in a meaningful way. Of course, the pièce de résistance is the show-stopper and instant classic "Let It Go," which is destined to become one of the most recognisable tunes from the Disney canon. This empowerment song accompanies one of the most accomplished scenes in the history of the studio, as Elsa liberates herself from appearances and fear and transforms herself into a beautiful force to be reckoned with. The best Disney songs are the ones that advance the plot or develop a character and I can't think of a song that does this better than "Let It Go".
The animation matches the music in sheer gorgeousness. The animators really pushed the envelope with this film, making a (mostly) white environment look absolutely phenomenal. Backgrounds are breathtaking and Elsa's castle is out of this world. Character design is also superb, making all the characters' actions look fluid and natural. The cast is great as well, with Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel giving powerhouse performances as the two leads (particularly Menzel) and Josh Gad breathes life into what is likely the best sidekick character since Timon and Pumbaa, the one and only Olaf. The rest of the cast is great as well, even if their roles are not as showy as those three.
Since 2007, Disney Animation has been slowly building a new identity and with Frozen it seems that they have achieved their climax. Could it be a second Renaissance? I'm not sure yet as I think we need to see what they have in store in the future, but Frozen certainly has put them on top again. I think everyone (including Disney) was surprised at the level of success that this film has achieved. I never imagined it would achieve numbers to rival The Lion King. Many cynics have said this is because there was no direct competition for the film and, while that is true, I can't imagine the film succeeding this much if it was bad. Frozen has sparked a rabid fan-base that has watched the film over and over again, and who know all the songs by heart. Just check how many covers "Let It Go" there are on Youtube and you can see the level of popularity of the film. Is it the best film since The Lion King, as many have claimed? Hard to say, as there are many post-Lion King films that I really love, but one thing is true: Frozen is one of the very best Disney films and it's destined to become a Disney classic. For 20 years Walt Disney Animation Studios has been overshadowed by other studios but, like the phoenix, they have risen again. Welcome back. Rating: 5/5.
Coming Soon - Animated Classic #54: