I think by now most people are familiar with the standard-issue Disney animated schtick, which involves a hunky hero, a blushing princess, a comedy sidekick, a whole bunch of sappiness, and some songs. In that respect, I don’t think Frozen is going to particularly surprise anyone. What makes a nice change is that the heroine is the star of the film, she doesn’t really need the bloke, and her story is not resolved by his kiss. That aside, both female leads can belt out a pretty big vocal (despite being stick thin), there’s a whole bunch of sappiness, and there’s a chirpily naive comedy sidekick. So, a success all told. Oh, and it’s very very white.
It’s based — pretty loosely — on a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, hence it’s set in a sort of faux Scandinavian northern land where the people are called Olaf and Hans, and where you’d think they’d be a bit more used to bitterly cold winters. However, when Princess (and later Queen) Elsa’s magical powers to make things very very cold go awry and she flees like Superman to a solitary ice castle, the people must face up to a perpetual Winter. Unless! Unless her frozen heart can be thawed by love! (Or something like that.) Heading up this quest to get through to Elsa is her sister Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell), whom Elsa has shunned since childhood (because dangerous magical superpowers). Anna is sent on this quest by Prince Hans, with whom she is in love and who has abrogated to himself power over the kingdom in the sisters’ absence (hmmm). And on the way, Elsa somehow brings to life a jolly and impish little snowman called Olaf (Josh Gad) and together they meet a kindly ice farmer (you heard) called Kristoff (Jonathan Groff). So that’s the setup.
Clearly, a sense of slavish accuracy to historical detail — or maybe because of a strongly-articulated aesthetic focused on snow — means that this world is almost entirely populated by white people. The film is a lot stronger when it comes to female agency, given that the two leads are women, and it’s their story which is the most important one. There is still, of course, a tangled romantic sub-plot, but it never becomes the film’s focus, especially given that the presence of Olaf pretty much steals any scenes in which Anna and Kristoff are together. Olaf certainly follows in a strong tradition of comedy musical sidekicks, but thankfully has been written as entirely double-entendre free, with a lack of self-awareness and a charming naïveté which is actually quite refreshing in the context.
There’s still plenty of sappiness on show though, and the soundtrack as sung by the voice cast has the required balance of moving ballads and big belting power solos (on which territory, Princess Elsa voiced by Idina Menzel, dominates). One of the strongest, because most interesting, numbers is the one that opens the film, as we see Kristoff and his tribe (I guess) doing their ice farming — which is to say, cutting up frozen lakes into chunks and transporting it — all while singing their ‘traditional’ work song.
Obviously, as you may already have intuited, I am not the target audience for any Disney animated musical, but I feel like I’ve seen a fair few over the course of my life. Disney pretty much created this genre with The Little Mermaid (1989) and thus more or less owned it during the 1990s (with the occasional challenge), but the form has been in something of a decline since then. That makes Frozen something of a retro throwback, but without the tiresome self-consciousness that marks most ‘retro’ enterprises. Therefore, I think the highest praise I can give it is that it would have fit seamlessly into the height of Disney’s mid-1990s animated film roster, and if that’s what you’re looking for, then Frozen might be for you.
Directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee; Writer Lee (based on the fairy tale Snedronningen by Hans Christian Andersen); Starring Kristen Bell, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue [3D], London, Thursday 12 December 2013.