(Happy new year! I had to get around to writing this eventually. I had planned to open 2015 with this film right away, but since I wound up being busy, I decided to dedicate this review to a friend who loved the movie and to post my own thoughts as close to his anniversary as possible. Enjoy!)
Frozen is foremost a love story, but not so much of the romantic sort; the truer and more skillfully written centerpiece is the sisterly relationship that lead characters Elsa and Anna share. While the former primarily sets the plot’s events into motion, the movie largely emphasizes the latter’s selfless attempts to provide physical and emotional support for her sibling, regardless of what happens to be in the way (which sometimes includes Anna’s own behavior). Regardless of Frozen’s few issues with structure and focus, it is a compelling and fun story from start to finish that is well worth checking out no matter the season.
Do you want to build a friendship?
What could have been a standard Disney opening is given a new life with a beautiful song in traditional Scandinavian styling. A snowflake arrives and is joined by many, and the title literally freezes over. A scene of harvesters gathering ice establishes a young boy, Kristoff, and his reindeer Sven. Meanwhile in the kingdom of Arendelle, young princesses Anna and Elsa are fast asleep, and one of them is much more easily woken than the other. But Elsa knows how to get her sister up in the middle of the night–they’ll build a snowman! Anna has the ability to create artificial snow and ice, and she uses this to great effect in a scene that makes their castle’s ceiling look like the magical one in Hogwarts. It’s adorable watching the sisters play together, snowman included, until Elsa accidentally knocks Anna unconscious, causing the girls’ royal parents to rush in.
The king and queen seek help from trolls, who propose a bittersweet remedy: Anna will be stripped of all her memories of Elsa’s abilities, but Elsa herself will only grow in “strength,” even as her powers become increasingly difficult to control (causing her to reject even her own parents’ touch). She is forbidden from contact with the outside world and vice versa, leaving her devoted sister without her best friend. If that weren’t enough, a tragedy soon comes along that thrusts the girls into responsibility and adulthood. It’s treated with decorum, even if it’s not quite as character-defining as a similar event from Disney’s more recent Big Hero 6.
Anna is still determined to reach out to Elsa in her need, but the soon-to-be queen of Arendelle has turned her punishing isolation into her own choice. She is presumably suffering alone, though her sister’s demeanor has decreased as well. The kingdom seems nicely defrosted at this point, however, and more importantly, today is Elsa’s coronation. Some of the castle’s statues and symbols make me think of Christian Scandinavia. Kristoff, the boy from the opening ice harvest, is now of age, and he still has Sven. Elsa gets dressed remarkably quickly for her crowning, and seeing as this is probably the first time in years that many of the kingdom’s people have seen their now-queen, they’ve come out in droves to see her–and Anna has romance on her mind!
The movie’s mood begins to lighten greatly and to settle into the comedic tone it carries for most of its progression, and Anna and Elsa make an excellent musical duet, especially with the massive tonal differences between Anna’s happiness and Elsa’s misery. While one sister is clumsily developing a relationship with a boy (Hans) whom she’s only just met, the other is debating whether to take her gloves off in order to grab her regalia, which will freeze if she does so. The girls’ jokes about cup and later “foot” size give a knowing wink to the adult audience, and more notably than I often say about this kind of humor, it makes a surprising amount of sense in context, since Elsa and the especially desirous Anna are both of newly marriageable age.
There’s a nicely done dance scene, establishing one villain who’s about as subtle as a bag of rocks, while Anna and Hans develop a mutual obsession. It’s a goofy sequence, never mind all the chocolate references, that becomes especially interesting in hindsight. Hans proposes, Anna accepts, and Elsa refuses to bless this shallow relationship, making the movie much more intelligent than it had seemingly set itself up to be. It’s worth questioning whether Elsa’s response is based more in wisdom–remember, she’s been shut away in a castle for much of her life–or in a cynicism the movie shares to an extent, since she has a hard time trusting herself because of her powers, never mind anyone else. Regardless, an emotional rift opens between the two sisters, and Elsa in her anger accidentally shoots ice onto the floor.
She runs off, leaving Anna shocked while creating a thematic similarity to (of all things) X-Men’s themes of power acceptance and rejection. Indeed, the film’s premise begins to feel just a bit similar, except with Elsa having no one in her life to help her understand and harness her useful but sometimes excessively powerful abilities. The girl winds up turning a fjord to ice, trapping numerous ships in place before again forcing herself into isolation; Anna, entrusting another individual with maintaining Arendelle, goes off to help her sister.
The cold divide
Elsa launches into a now famous ear-worm (that shall not be named), somewhat repetitively written but impeccably well sung, as she devotes herself to a sort of chaotic embrace of her own nature and strength. The song does come across a bit selfish–even if the cold she’s unleashed doesn’t bother her, what about the people whose lives, property, and livelihoods she’s put in danger?–and her own, rather libertine message of self-acceptance doesn’t really “take,” as the movie finds her still struggling with this ideal in later scenes. On the bright side, her music video contains some really well done ice-spewing animation.
Afterward, the movie’s setting takes on some nicely unexpected depth as it centers on a trading post (and sauna) desperately trying to clear out its now-useless summer stock. Seasonal supply and demand actually matter in Arendelle, and the store owner Oaken has very little winter equipment, which Anna will need for her journey. Kristoff returns to the story, and he can’t very well sell ice in the spring or summer with the countryside covered in a blizzard. He at this point is smarter about relationships and intimacy than is Anna, but she steadily grows in maturity as she helps him gain his own needed supplies.
A pack of wolves comes after the pair, leading to some impressive action including wolves being set on fire (though not in detail), culminating in a damsel-in-distress situation that has its traditional roles reversed. Anna has now destroyed Kristoff’s sled and its cargo, which she admirably takes full responsibility for. Nevertheless, Kristoff realizes that it’s in his and Sven’s best interests to cooperate with Anna and push forward to the mountain Elsa has made into her new home.
They then meet Olaf, a living snowman similar to the one Anna and Elsa made as young girls who serves as this story’s quirky comic relief. Such a character could quickly have grown obnoxious and intolerable, but Olaf and his brand of silliness remain impressively likable and welcome throughout the movie. Its humor grows more juvenile at this point as well–it’s not long before a “yellow snow” joke appears, and seeing Anna panic and kick the snowman’s head off, then accidentally sticking his carrot nose through his head, is hilarious. The heroes’ new icy friend has the perfect dream for his kind, launching into a completely enjoyable and ridiculous bit of music … about what he most wants to do during summer.
There’s a darkly laughable impaled-snowman gag that would hardly have been possible with a normal human in a children’s film, and while Anna has little mountain-climbing experience, she does not lack for fervor. She finally reaches Elsa’s beautiful frozen palace, whose owner is happy to see her but is determined to be alone so she can be who she is without hurting anyone. Elsa doesn’t know how to undo the severe damage she’s done, and she intentionally summons a giant creature to eject Anna, Kristoff, and Olaf from her sanctuary.
Olaf gets thrown off the mountainside, breaking into pieces (“do me a favor–grab my butt!”). He gives his all to keep the film from darkening too deeply, but Anna’s running low on ideas for helping both her sister and her exploring partner. Elsa feels like she’s given too little screen time and character development in a story that exists almost entirely because of her, but after seeing her repeatedly shut everyone and everything out of her life, she seems as at odds with herself as with anyone else. So much for her earlier resolution.
Whatever snow does in summer
The gang seeks help from previously established but still eccentric sources, who make the movie’s humor even stranger, complete with rather inappropriate jokes about Kristoff’s interaction with his reindeer, as well as his bathroom habits. These “sources” quickly and abruptly try to set Anna and Kristoff up as a couple, but she has grown and developed out of her instant-romance habit, especially since the “love” advice she’s getting has an added familial value.
Frozen develops into a more straightforward and serious story as Elsa meets new and formidable enemies, making for solidly constructed but still fairly child-acceptable action. Kristoff and Anna are now essentially in two races against time, complete with villainous intrigue and deception that blatantly includes an intent against Elsa’s life that the story makes no attempt to hide from younger viewers. One of the character-related plot twists feels itself like a minor cliche after a decade of “subverted fantasy” going back to at least Shrek. Olaf has a remarkably brave moment, Elsa is at least trying to make things right, and it occurs to me that Disney’s art style is now as capable of rendering convincing human emotions as well as Pixar ever did.
The conclusion feels a bit standard for the genre, complete with one character-related resolution I figured a film like this would be too self-aware to embrace, but it’s fairly well done. Overall I thoroughly enjoyed the movie’s speedy pacing and felt that the characters and their interactions were more interesting than, at times, the plot that surrounded them. Of particular note, anecdotally I’ve seen a fair bit of conversation about whether Elsa’s inner dilemmas are an analogue for self-acceptance for gays and lesbians (this is nothing new–going back to the light X-Men comparisons, I remember seeing the same conversations being held for those movies a decade ago), which I think is a rather poor connection.
While Elsa being called a “monster” early in the story is a particularly cruel moment she should never have endured, her powers will cause disaster if left unchecked, which some of the villains are desperate enough to kill in order to prevent if they feel they must. Hence, in an era where messages of individuality seem in my mind to be so commonplace in movies as to become hard to distinguish–Cars 2’s was particularly bungled–this movie perhaps accidentally creates a better message by showing that even the best gifts, such as Elsa’s powers, can have drastic negative consequences if not used responsibly.
While Frozen has a few stumbles with regard to its story’s themes, it is still a strongly built family film with plenty of character-driven and heroic but fairly restrained appeal for both boys and girls, and it’s well worth seeing throughout the year.
The film doesn’t really go for so much of a ‘girl-power’ theme (I doubt it would have gotten any farther than Anna would have gotten without Kristoff or vice versa, to be frank, and Elsa’s actual powers end up causing or accentuating a lot of her difficulties), which I feel gives it a flavor perhaps more gender-neutral than Pixar’s Brave had. Anna and Elsa have a beautiful if somewhat one-sided relationship, but one of the movie’s best gifts is showing–as did 2014’s How to Train Your Dragon 2–that sometimes the best and purest love doesn’t come from a hypothetical ‘perfect mate’ but from the family you already have beside you.