As mentioned before, in my teenage years I thought about being an animator. This dream, unlikely as it was, was largely a byproduct of the so-called Disney renaissance, the string of animated hits from The Little Mermaid to The Lion King that marked the studio’s return to prominence after some lean years. I stuck with it long after the renaissance had faded, finally giving up after seeing Tarzan. That long sabbatical (and the fact that my daughter was far too young for the juggernaut that is Frozen until now) allowed me to approach this with more objectivity. And what struck me the most about Frozen is how much it has in common with its more distinguished predecessors.
Frozen is technically the first “real” musical Disney’s made since The Lion King, at least according to writer/co-director Jennifer Lee. The effort put into the musical aspect of it pays off. Early song “For the First Time in Forever” gets close but doesn’t quite manage to surpass the classic “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid. Although it does have the most inventive and staging of any of the songs, with a character inserting herself into classic paintings that pair nicely with the lyrics. Frozen’s story shows similar effort, and is markedly more nuanced than any of the classic Disney films. That depth plus a surprising third act twist offer a nice alternative to the “princess needs a prince” plot that drives far too many of these films. It provides a nice tweak of the genre without being too tongue in cheek a la Shrek. And it’s also nice to see a female writer/director, especially after the rather public removal of Brave’s Brenda Chapman in 2010. (Too bad that for a movie about two sisters less than half the dialogue is spoken by women, and that Elsa and Anna look exactly the same as every other Disney/Pixar heroine for the past 10 years).
Reflecting more of a Broadway influence, Frozen is packed with more than the traditional five songs common to the Disney renaissance canon. The songs are by the ubiquitous Robert and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (whose ubiquity is apparently soon to be fulfilled by Lin-Manuel Miranda). I’m familiar with their work from other things – Disney’s 2010 Winnie the Pooh and Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s The Book of Mormon, two projects that couldn’t be more different. And once you know their style, it gets a little easy to predict the lyrical jokes they’re going to use. Still, the songs are by and large solid, with the aforementioned “For the First Time in Forever” by far the best of the bunch (despite the popularity of “Let It Go”). However, as someone who used to be really into this as an art form, part of me is disappointed it’s computer animation, especially when you look at its hand-dawn concept art – but I suppose Studio Ghibli is the last of the major studios to animate by hand, and even they use computer assistance.
That said, it’s hard to quibble with something so enjoyable. As a parent, it’s always nice to see a movie for kids that adults can enjoy too that doesn’t pander to either. And unlike the Pixar films, whose plots are still a little grown up for her, Frozen gets its point across in a way that even a three-and-a-half-year-old can understand (despite the nuance I enjoy). But none of this explains why she complains “I don’t like it” halfway through the still-superior Little Mermaid.