Disney’s Frozen was always expected to be big, but it’s been surpassing expectations in the best way possible. In its sixth week in wide release, it climbed back to the No. 1 spot at the box office, and its staying power has indeed been remarkable: Like, Titanic remarkable. When it opened to a record $93.6 million over Thanksgiving, most box-office watchers predicted that it would wind up with somewhere between $250 and $300 million. But it just passed $300 million domestically (with another $342 million from the rest of the world) and is showing little signs of slowing down.
People just plain love this movie, which warms the cockles of this Frozen fan’s heart. Yes, it was helped by being the rare film to take the kids to over the holidays amid all the dark adult Oscar bait hogging the multiplexes, but that doesn’t account for the fact that people seem to be seeing it multiple times, and the soundtrack just bounced Beyoncé from the top of the Billboard charts. (Also: Families in need of getting the kids out of the house rejected Walking With Dinosaurs, so they’re not so desperate that they’ll see anything.) Why is Frozen so incredibly successful? Here are my thoughts on eight factors.
1. It’s a Throwback
As I said in my original review, Frozen is one of the few recent animated films to capture the classic Disney spirit. And by that I don’t even mean the classic Disney spirit of the nineties and films like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King (though it certainly shares much in common with those films), but of the really classic Disney spirit of films like Cinderella or Snow White. This might be because the idea originated back in the days of Uncle Walt, though admittedly it’s undergone a number of major changes since then: The current version bears very little resemblance to “The Snow Queen,” the Hans Christian Andersen story on which it’s loosely based, and the female characters speak more like modern teenagers than Medieval Scandinavian royalty. But, especially at a time when many other animation studios have become overly reliant on sequels and ultrahip, wiseass-y humor, Frozen stands out for its old-fashioned story — with its regal setting, its lonely princess in a castle, its kingdom under a spell — and for its visual splendor.
2. The Wisecracking Sidekick
Let’s face facts. Wisecracking, irreverent sidekicks with a propensity for mild toilet humor (“Watch out for my butt!”) are basically a requirement of modern animated kids’ movies. The Shrek films, of course, took this concept to absurd extremes. And Frozen, for all its above-mentioned throwback-y qualities, has got one, too, in the form of chatty snowman Olaf, voiced by The Book of Mormon’s Josh Gad. Luckily, his actions aren’t embarrassing, lowest-common-denominator high jinks. Olaf is adorable, and his dim antics are genuinely funny: “In Summer,” his song fantasizing about all the fun he’d have in warm weather, oblivious to the reality that he would melt, is wonderfully witty. (“The hot and the cold are both so intense / put ‘em together, it just makes sense!”) And Gad brings just the right amount of wide-eyed enthusiasm to the voice of a character who doesn’t know anything about the world, but is eager to discover it, to a fault.
3. The Songs
In general, the songs in Frozen are pretty good. (The album is No. 1 on the Billboard charts.) They’re witty, catchy … and utterly predictable: You can sense each musical number building from a mile away. In my review, I dinged the music in the film, co-written by Book of Mormon’s Robert Lopez, as being a bit too Broadway-ready. (And now that Frozen has become a huge hit, you can be sure that a stage musical is in the works.) For example, “Love Is an Open Door” feels like a parody of a modern Broadway song — like something you might have heard in The Simpsons’ “Streetcar!” But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as far as audiences are concerned. Frozen is an honest-to-God musical, a genre that, when done well, has an eager (and underserved) audience.
4. The “Villain”
Frozen doesn’t have a typical villain — or rather, the typical villains it has are relatively unmemorable and uninteresting. Structurally, though, the person who should be the film’s villain is not a villain at all, but a heroine: Queen Elsa’s ability to freeze everything around her becomes a monstrous force, and she’s the one who, intentionally or not, creates most of the challenges the film’s more typical heroes — Princess Anna, especially — have to contend with, from a giant snowman called Marshmallow to a scary and deadly ice castle. That’s because the character in Andersen’s original fairy tale is, in fact, an evil witch. In this way, Frozen partly acts like one of those revisionist fairy tales that have become so fashionable in recent years, stories that serve either as prequels or as tales told from the villain’s point of view, like Wicked or Oz the Great and Powerful or the upcoming Maleficent. But it adds a further twist to that, because, unlike the aforementioned origin stories, Elsa herself is not a villain, just a girl who’s having trouble coming to terms with her … well, with a lot of things. Which brings us to …
5. A Resonant Tale With Real-life Overtones
Frozen’s tale of an older sister who grows up and shuns her younger sister is a familiar dynamic to any child who’s had a sibling, or even in some cases a very close, older friend: Someone grows up and doesn’t want to play with you anymore, and you can’t quite tell why. But by making its story specifically about magic powers, Frozen takes the idea further. The snow and the ice are effective as CGI elements, but they’re also emotionally resonant, because it all relates back to Elsa’s inner despair. And her powers — her shame and fear of them — could be read symbolically, too. Symbolic of what? Well, what have you got? It’s all vague enough that the allegory could really be for anything. (As with many iconic fairy tales, you could even read — gasp — a narrative of sexual awakening to it. Note how, when Elsa fully embraces her role as the Snow Queen, with her show-stopping “Let It Go” number, she shakes out her hair and her outfit goes from being staid and regal to a flowing, sparkly, revealing party dress with heels.) However you cut it, this is a tale about growing up, becoming your own person, and learning not to be ashamed of yourself. And yes, fine, these are elements shared by many movies aimed at kids. But dammit, Frozen does it just so, so well.
6. Girl Power!
One of the most reported stories at the box office in 2013 was the strength of female audiences, who helped make films like The Heat and Catching Fire (and even, believe it or not, Fast & Furious 6) such successes. And Frozen is yet another example of a movie that has strong female characters. But it also adds a twist to the usual romantic subplot: The Prince Charming of the tale — Prince Hans — turns out, at the very end, to be a gold-digging villain, and the true-love’s-kiss that Anna needs in order to be saved turns out to come from her own sister, Elsa. If that’s not a rebuke to the usual Disney true love narrative, I don’t know what is. That said …
7. Two Disney Princesses
The Disney Princess is of course a huge marketing and franchising initiative, and the studio has been reaping its financial benefits for years. And it’s certainly nothing new; Brave’s Merida is also a Disney Princess. At the same time, though, in an effort to attract boys, Disney has been downplaying the Princess angle in its marketing: It did so with Tangled (note the title change from Rapunzel), and again with Frozen. The film’s poster, for example, highlighted Olaf the snowman, and then showed the two female heroes as well as two male counterparts, all partially covered in snow. It was a dumb poster, but it probably did the trick. That said, girls do like the Disney Princesses, and Frozen’s got not one but two of them, and that’s kind of a big deal. (Or, at least, it’s likely to have two — I don’t think they’ve been officially crowned under the franchise banner yet.) And they’re both different in temperament. Anna’s the bright-eyed, romantic extrovert and Elsa’s the brooding, complicated loner. That broadens the movie’s already wide appeal considerably.
8. That Amazing Preshow Short
I only have anecdotal evidence to support this, but I wouldn’t be shocked to discover that some of the folks going to see Frozen were at least partly curious about “Get a Horse!” the eye-popping animated 3-D short that plays before it. The short utilizes 3-D in such a way as to make it new again — toying with the proscenium and the edges of the frame to create the illusion that Mickey Mouse has leapt off the movie screen. Let me put it this way: I have a critics’ screener of Frozen, but I’m tempted to return to the movie theater myself to see the short again.