The classic Disney animated films – the really classic ones, like the films made when Walt Disney was still alive – all possessed an uncanny ability to capture childhood emotions that were not-so-secretly also shared by adults. Think of Pinocchio and Dumbo and the feeling of being a constant outcast, too odd to get by; Sleeping Beauty and Snow White and the sense of a cruel universe lying in wait for you. The later Pixar films brilliantly and lucratively stood this idea on its head by reversing the emotional transference – often, they made movies about ostensible adults (even if they were animals, or insects, or robots) and found emotions that kids could then connect with. But it’s hard to match the knowing, earnest sadness of those older Disney movies. I keep thinking back to Peter Pan and Wendy Darling mournfully singing “Your Mother and Mine” to the Lost Boys. It’s a beautifully sad moment, tempered by a gag — even the pirates secretly lying in wait for them outside Hangman’s Tree start to cry. But the gag itself is funny ‘cause it’s true, to quote a more contemporary, non-Disney animated character we all know and love.
Frozen is one of the few recent films to capture that classic Disney spirit. Extremely, extremely loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Snow Queen,” it’s the tale of two princesses raised in the same kingdom under different circumstances. Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel), the oldest, possesses the rare power to turn everything she touches into ice; unable to control it, she’s grown up in seclusion, a prisoner in her own castle. Anna (Kristen Bell) itches to discover the world, to find adventure and friendship and love. On the day of Elsa’s coronation, one sister trembles at the idea of confronting the populace, while the other is raring to go. Things spin out of control (as they must) and before you know it, Elsa has sent the entire kingdom into an eternal ice age and fled into the mountains, where she builds herself an elaborate, Fortress of Solitude-like ice castle. Anna sets out to find her, with the help of a dashing mountain hunk named Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and a goofy talking snowman named Olaf (Josh Gad).
From the loneliness of children, and the fright and anticipation it breeds, to the fear of not being able to control your own fears and emotions, Frozen packs a lot of emotional resonance into its story. This is a film about some surprisingly sad characters — Elsa with her unconquerable solitude, Anna with her anxieties about never doing right by the sister she loves. Even Olaf’s best jokes have a veiled edge of hurt to them. Not knowing anything but winter and ice, he’s looking forward to the day the sun finally comes back out; he has a hilarious, slightly creepy song about finally doing “what frozen things do in summer.”
Is it perfect? No. The villains and the romantic elements feel a bit tacked-on, and the songs, which by themselves are quite good, are predictably deployed; the movie feels like it’s already preparing for its inevitable Broadway debut. (I’m assuming Disney’s Frozen on Ice is already in the works.). But maybe some of that predictability simply goes with the territory. Frozen is a fairly old-fashioned movie, even with a couple of the welcome twists it adds to the usual true-love-will-save-you storyline. Watching it, you’d never guess the last couple of Pixar decades ever happened. (Oddly enough, directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee were both responsible for two of the more innovative non-Pixar animated films of recent years – he directed Surf’s Up and she wrote Wreck-It Ralph.) Even the 3D animation in Frozen has a certain handmade elegance; it feels more like something out of Sleeping Beauty than the hi-tech, aerodynamic cartoons we tend to get nowadays. (That said, the photo-realistic snow is a wonder.) Maybe it’s not fast-paced or jokey enough for everybody. But something tells me Uncle Walt would totally dig this one. Go see it, especially if you have daughters.
Oh, and get there on time. “Get a Horse,” the 3D short that plays before Frozen, is absolutely eye-popping. It blends the aesthetics of the original Mickey Mouse and savvy use of the proscenium to create what must be the most startling 3D experience I’ve ever had. No joke, it nearly turned me into Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show; I kept taking my glasses off to make sure that Mickey fucking Mouse wasn’t standing right there in front of me.