A snowman and a reindeer steal what is mostly a visual feast of unmemorable characters.
Disney has never had a problem putting song and story together. From Snow White to Beauty and the Beast, we've come to revere these as classics, nearly impervious from scrutiny. But what happens when modern competitors try to win over hearts in the age of the 24-hour news cycle? The studio's 53rd in-house animated flick Frozen wraps enough tunes in its first two acts to resemble opera, but is eventually overshadowed by an effeminate snowman and a lovable reindeer.
Daughters of royalty Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) and Ilsa (voiced by Idina Menzel) are close as children, enjoying Ilsa's hidden power to make winter wherever they go. Unfortunately, an accident leaves Anna near death, and the family must depend on trolls to save her. Fearful of repeating this tragedy, the parents separate the girls and lock the palace doors to visitors. Years pass, the parents are killed in an accident at sea, and Ilsa will soon be made Queen of Arendelle. Again, the hidden secret reveals itself during the ceremony, and Ilsa takes for the hills leaving Anna to find her. Along the way, she meets the dashing Prince Hans (voiced by Santino Fontana), the blonde iceman Kristoff (voiced by Jonathan Groff), and an oddly-inspired snowman (voiced by Josh Gad). Faced with challenges at home by shadowy competitors for the kingdom, Anna must find her sister and thaw Arrendelle before the cold snap ends Ilsa's short reign.
The original teaser trailer for Frozen featured Olaf and Kristoff's reindeer Sven frolicking on a frozen-over lake, vying for a carrot that is Olaf's nose. The result was almost better than any moment from the full-length release, which is as icy and lacking a soul as any animated we've seen this year. It's not that Frozen is terrible, but few characters here are memorable, with an effeminate snowman and a Chewbacca-like reindeer outdoing our leads at every turn. We were also surprised to see this set up as a Broadway musical, which was never hinted at in the early trailers. We like musicals, so long as they're done well, so perhaps it's why our opinion of the film is so...chilly. Bell has a nice singing voice, but her portrayal of the optimist Anna is flat, as are so many of the other voice actors. There's an odd feel to the film that we sometimes see when voice actors are left locked in a room to perform their lines without the presence of other actors, or even an idea of what their character is actually doing on the screen. Dialogue feels very manufactured, almost to the point of representing an assembly line in its delivery.
Directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee (she also wrote the screenplay) paint pretty landscapes of ice and snow, with our humans looking more like caricatures than real people; but its inherent problems start and end with what feels like two disparate films crammed together. From the odd African tribal rhythms of its theme song (the film is set in a Nordic kingdom), to a lack of explanation of how Elsa got her powers and the intervening years while the girls grow up, Frozen is a hodge-podge that never seems to figure out what it really is. The lovable trolls only exist to sing another song, a strategy which is nearly abandoned by the third act. In fact, it's a disaster until Olaf shows up and begins to blissfully stylize about summers. Yes, a snowman sings about warm weather - believe me, it's one of the only funny scenes in the movie. Again, it's that early trailer which set one tone, but which the film itself did not deliver. When a reindeer who grunts and snorts his way through a scene expresses as much emotion as the humans, you know something is wrong.
There is one theme I did like: women in Disney pictures no longer need 'saving' by men, and that the love between sisters can warm the coldest heart. Male-centric storylines have dominated Disney films, and luckily Frozen doesn't let history interfere with these sisters who are doin' for themselves. Sadly, it's established under such an implausible love story that the female-power tale gets lost in a blizzard of blase music, mumbled dialogue, and pretty images that carry no emotional weight.
With so few offerings for families this season (OK, zero offerings), Frozen should do very well. But its scattershot story and lack of memorable characters make all those songs sound like a top 10 show from Radio Disney, performed by well-meaning but ultimately flat characters. If that's to be the mark of a modern Disney movie, not even the warmest heart can breathe life into this empty ice queen effort. Frozen is rated PG for some action and mild rude humor, and has a runtime of 108 minutes.
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