I missed the chance to review this movie when it was fresh on people’s mind and still a cultural sensation, but in a way I’m glad I waited a few years. After all, the immense amount of acclaim it received on its release has by now encouraged the usual batch of contrarians to call it ‘overrated’ and claim it doesn’t live up to the hype. Well, having just seen the movie for the second time, I can say with complete confidence that it deserved every bit of that acclaim, and probably more.
The conventional wisdom is that you need to see this movie more than once to appreciate it, and that observation is completely correct. In fact, it applies even if, like most people who didn’t see it when it was new, you already know the shocking plot twist toward the end of the film (which I’m going to make no attempt to obscure in this review, since it would impede my discussion of the film and, as stated, everyone on the planet knows it by now). Just because you know the general direction of the story going in doesn’t mean you can pick up on all the subtleties contained in the writing with a single viewing…this is an exceptionally intricate and subtle script that greatly rewards close attention, far more so than any other Disney movie I know.
Some have complained about the film’s antagonist, Prince Hans, claiming he represents some kind of death-knell for the ‘Great Disney Villain’, but I would argue that he is one of the greatest villains in the Disney canon, precisely because he doesn’t even display a hint of his villainy until near the end. Most ‘classic’ Disney villains can be identified as the villain by their very appearance: Hans is something new for Disney…a diabolical manipulator who hides his villainy even from the audience until the time comes for him to strike. For most of the film, he comes across as so convincingly noble that even if you know his secret going in, it’s hard to really believe it. This makes him seem far more evil (and far more dangerous) than the usual Disney-canon villains who work primarily through raw power, and tend to come across as rather unconvincing when they do try to manipulate the protagonists.
The visuals have gotten an enormous amount of praise as well, and that praised is well-merited: the snowy backdrops in particular have a gorgeous realism that has probably never been seen in a CGI animated piece prior to this film. The voice cast is superb, with an iconic star turn from the great Idina Menzel and equally indelible performances by Kristen Bell as the idealistic Princess Anna, Jonathan Groff as the film’s lovable curmudgeon of a leading man, and Josh Gad as the scene-stealing comic-relief sidekick. What often gets overlooked in the justified praise for the film’s dramatic power is how effective the comedy elements are: this film is funnier than any of the Disney-Renaissance classics except Aladdin, while having an emotional impact Aladdin didn’t even approach.
The songs, written by Robert Lopez (of Avenue Q and Book of Mormon fame) and his wife and songwriter partner Kristen Anderson-Lopez, might be the best element of all. Certainly, “Let It Go” has become the Disney ballad to end all Disney ballads. One of those songs sung by a thoroughly miserable character to try to forcibly convince themselves they’re happy, it’s been criticized for bearing more than a passing resemblance to Idina Menzel’s previous signature hit, “Defying Gravity” from Wicked. But while this accusation might not be entirely unfounded, it’s also true that, while “Defying Gravity” loses most of its impact when divorced from the musical scene that surrounds it, “Let It Go” works beautifully as a standalone hit single, which has certainly helped the film’s popularity.
Because of the fame this one standout number has achieved, the other songs are often overlooked. But the beautifully touching musical scene “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” and the giddily rhapsodic “The First Time in Forever” fill out the character of Anna, the film’s real protagonist, into an utterly believable portrait of a lonely, idealistic teenage girl who desperately needs to be loved. Meanwhile, Josh Gad’s comic showcase, “In Summer”, just might be the funniest comedy number in a Disney movie since “A Friend Like Me”. Granted, the other songs are more functional…a standard opening chorus in “Frozen Heart”, a brief informal ditty for Jonathan Groff’s character in “Reindeers Are Better Than People”…and as is so often the case in animated musicals, the songs thin out as the plot nears its climax. But overall, this is the strongest collection of songs Disney has released in an animated movie, if not in all its history, then at least since Beauty and the Beast came out.
A stage musical based on the film is currently in the works, and it will be interesting to see what is done with this movie when it is adapted to the stage. Matching the visual magic of the film will be challenging, if not impossible, but since most Disney stage adaptations heavily fill out the plots of their sources with more mature and complex content, and given how serious and mature compared to other Disney movies Frozen is to begin with, we might just end up with another Wicked on our hands. And in any case, more Robert Lopez is never a bad thing…even if this turns out like The Little Mermaid stage version, the new songs are sure to be wonderful and the cast album a treasure.