Disney’s highest-grossing animated film to date, ‘Frozen’ is a sometimes sentimental, sometimes satirical piece of work that is very nearly overbalanced by its structural wonkiness. Attempting a plot synopsis, the basic set-up requires probably double the exposition of the rest of the narrative. Let’s give it a go anyway.
‘Frozen’ is set in a small principality in … well, the accents suggest Germany, Norway or Cheswick; character names include Anna (pronounced Ar-nuh), Elsa, Kristoff, Hans and Olaf, which hint at anywhere from middle European to eastern Europe via Scandinavia; and much of the action takes place in a coastal town called Arendelle, which sounds like something out of Tolkein’s Middle Earth. But since the story’s based on Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Snow Queen’, let’s cut our losses and call it Scandinavia.
(Incidentally, that’s “based on” as in one of the characters is a queen, and the setting is very wintry.)
So, in a small principality in Scandinavia, sisters Elsa (voiced by Eva Bella) and Anna (Livvy Studenrauch) live a happy life at the royal palace; their parents, the king and queen, are good and kindly. Elsa has a “talent” she was born with: the ability to conjure ice or snow from her fingertips in much the same way as Peter Parker can fling out webbing at will in his Spider-Man guise. This ability is much utilized by Anna, who encourages Elsa to build elaborate snowscape playgrounds for her in the grand halls of the palace. One day, things get out of control and Elsa accidentally flings a chip of ice that strikes Anna in the head. Desperate, the king and queen take Elsa and the unconscious Anna in the woods above Arendelle and seek the preternatural assistance of the trolls who live there. Their healing of Anna – which involves eliding her memory of the incident – and advice to the king and queen that Elsa’s gift needs to be controlled is witnessed by a young boy who has become cut off from a group of ice-cutters. This lad is subsequently taken in by the trolls and raised as one of their own. (Thus far, and we’re only about half way through the scene-setting, the POV has switched from Anna to Elsa to the now troll-adopted ice-cutter boy.)
Anyway, the royal party return to the palace where Elsa is immediately outfitted with a pair of gloves (a safety measure which makes no sense since she can turn a parquet floor in an ice rink simply by tapping it with her heel while still wearing shoes) and confined to quarters. Anna is kept ignorant of why she is refused further interaction with Elsa, and passes her childhood pining for the companionship they used to share. With the sisters still shy of adulthood, the king and queen are lost in a sailing accident. ‘Frozen’ then stumbles forward three years as Elsa (now voiced by Idina Menzel) prepares to emerge for her coronation while Anna (Kristen Bell) wants to use the occasion as a means of asserting her own independence. During the celebrations, Anna meets the courtly Hans (Santino Fontana) and after a whirlwind romance/musical number, they decide to get married. This meets with frosty (pardon the pun) disapproval from Elsa and an argument ensues. Again unable to control her powers, Elsa unleashes a snowstorm which leaves Arendelle in the grip of an eternal winter. Denounced as a witch by the scheming Duke of Weselton (Alan Tudyk), Elsa flees her home and takes to the wintry hinterlands and an ice palace of her own creation.
Still with me? Good, because here’s where the main narrative actually starts, and what it boils down to is this: Anna appoints Hans to safeguard Arendelle and takes off in search of Elsa, en route meeting ice-trader Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) who we previously met as the young boy with the step-family of trolls; meanwhile Hans, worried at the time Anna’s been gone, mounts his own search and rescue mission, unaware that the two men volunteered by Weselton have been instructed to assassinate Elsa. These parallel odysseys occupy the mid-section and the film commits the cardinal sin, here, of backgrounding its most interesting character, Elsa. The flaw is compounded by abandoning immediately after the single best song in the whole production. ‘Let it Go’ is a genuine show-stopper and a pivotal scene for Elsa; there’s a wonderful, devil-may-care moment where the filmmakers seem to be pointing Elsa towards villainess duties (and what a delicious and, may I say this of a Disney movie, sexy villainess she’d have made), but then … nothing. Directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee proceed to do bog all with Elsa till the denouement, where Weselton’s villainy is revealed as a feint and the Anna-Hans-Kristoff triangle resolved by the unmasking of the actual antagonist.
En route, we have a sidetrack to the trolls’ village where – predictably – a big musical number ensues as they try a little matchmaking between Anna and Kristoff, and some comic relief courtesy of an anthropomorphic and loquacious snowman (Josh Gad) who literally wanders into the film out of nowhere (granted, there’s a provenance to his existence, but he’s not so much introduced as shoehorned in and for a good ten minutes following his entrance anyone in the audience over the age of, say, six is likely to be gawping slack-jawed at the screen and thinking WTF, am I seeing things or did a talking snowman just wander into this movie?
That the snowman talks – and, yes, delivers a big musical number – while Kristoff’s trusty reindeer, Sven, doesn’t is a rug-pull that Buck and Lee underline by having Kristoff talk for Sven (most hilariously when Kristoff needs Sven to be the voice of his moral conscience). The schism is particularly evident given Disney traditionalism: in the normal run of things, Sven would be a dead cert for a celebrity voice and a stockpile of knowing one-liners.
‘Frozen’ also monkeys with audience anticipation in its romantic subplot(s), although not – heaven forfend! – to the degree of ditching the happily-ever-after wrap-up altogether. Taking a cue from ‘The Princess and the Frog’, ‘Frozen’ cheerfully upends the handsome prince business. Moreover, when the final narrative stretch relies upon the fairytale trope “only love can melt a frozen heart” for its dramatic dynamic, ‘Frozen’ broadens the concept to filial love rather than the expect heterosexual goggle-eyed romanticism that usually defines the term in such fare.
While it’s playing games with fairytale traditions and throwing out unexpected bits of comedy (notably in the first half; the latter stages are notably lacking in humour), ‘Frozen’ is a blast; however, the structural imbalance is there, lurking under every scene like some kind of celluloid subsidence. Similarly, a quality schism in the music is apparent: ‘Let it Go’ is superb, while ‘In Summer’ wins points for sheer absurdity. Elsewhere, though, blandness prevails. Still, ‘Frozen’ is, overall, a lot of fun and the proliferation of character actors in the vocal cast rather than marquee-friendly big star names says something about the filmmakers’ commitment to their characters. A bit more commitment to the script and it could have been a stone cold classic.
Tim Brayton conducted a retrospective of the Disney animated features at his blog Antogony & Ecstasy: a series of detailed, insightful and highly intelligent essays that, in my opinion, are pretty much the last word on the Disney canon. The retrospective concluded with a review of ‘Frozen’ which is the best piece of writing you’ll encounter on the film. Tim’s frame-by-frame analysis of Elsa’s almost-transformation in the ‘Let it Go’ sequence is beautifully explicated.