Frozen Voices of Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff. Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee. Rated PG. Now playing.
Ever since Disney’s Pixar division debuted with Toy Story in 1995, Disney’s in-house animation studio has become increasingly overshadowed. Following the heyday of classics like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, Disney has produced a mix of forgettable and underrated animated features, but nothing that quite stacks up to the most beloved princess movies that form the core of its brand. Frozen may mark the beginning of a new golden age for Disney animation, or it might just be an anomaly, but either way it’s the best movie the studio has produced in many years, combining all the charms of the classic princess formula while tweaking them in clever, forward-thinking ways that still feel completely organic.
Like The Little Mermaid, Frozen is based on a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, although it’s a very loose adaptation of The Snow Queen. Here, there are not one but two princesses, sisters Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell), who live in the Scandinavian-ish kingdom of Arendelle. Born with powers to create ice and snow, Elsa is sequestered from her boisterous sister and opens up to the outside world only when the death of their parents elevates her to the status of queen. Her inability to control her powers leads to disaster, making Elsa in some ways both the villain and the damsel in distress.
Refreshingly, however, neither Elsa nor Anna is really a damsel in distress; Elsa unleashes her powers during a terrific musical number that celebrates her independence and autonomy, accompanied by stunning animation, and Anna boldly sets off into the mountains to confront her sister. Anna has suitors in the form of both a rogue (Jonathan Groff) and a prince (Santino Fontana), but the true love at the heart of the story is sisterly, not romantic. Add in wonderful, Broadway-caliber songs from Robert Lopez (Avenue Q, The Book of Mormon) and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, and Frozen fulfills every requirement of the Disney princess movie in spectacular fashion (even the annoying talking-snowman sidekick voiced by Josh Gad is only marginally annoying). Pixar better watch its back.
Four more recent-era highlights from Disney animation
The Emperor’s New Groove (2000) A manic, joke-filled romp more along the lines of classic Warner Bros. than Disney, this fable about an arrogant emperor turned into a llama is boundlessly creative and flat-out hilarious.
Lilo & Stitch (2002) Trading show tunes for Elvis, the story of a Hawaiian girl who makes a cute, mischievous alien her pet is sweet and endearing (and eventually spawned a franchise with straight-to-video sequels and a TV series).
Tangled (2010) Disney headed back into classic princess territory with this update of the Rapunzel story, featuring appealing (if unremarkable) old-school songs and storytelling, plus a bit of added rebelliousness for its heroine.
Wreck-It Ralph (2012) Matching Pixar by doing for video games what Toy Story did for toys, this tale of a video-game villain out for redemption creates an immersive, detailed world out of vintage arcade games, telling an entertaining story along the way.