We begin on Coronation Day, when many other fairy tales have ended. In the isolated kingdom of Arendelle everyone has their role to play. Crowds gather to celebrate their new queen (whose parents died at sea in the extended prologue) while servants bustle around the castle opening the windows and doors for the first time in years. Younger Princess Anna falls for a foreign prince who proposes marriage within hours. And the new Queen Elsa, a beautiful but aloof and conspicuously gloved blonde, accepts her new responsibilities with a pronounced reserve. And no wonder: once shocked by her sister's impending engagement, Elsa loses control (and glove) and shoots ice from her fingertips before fleeing her horrified subjects and escaping to the mountains; a long-concealed secret has been revealed and the kingdom turned upside down. Winter hits in the middle of summer, the good queen forswears her monarchical prerogative, the sidekick princess emphatically steps in as our heroine, and now we know all bets are off - Frozen will be stuffed with welcome surprises.
With this film, Disney takes its first great leap into the twenty-first century. Tangled was the first step, but while the story and characters were charming, the animation seemed somewhat flat and generic, as if the studio that had mastered and popularized cel animation hadn't quite figured out how to transmit its sharpness and attention to detail into the CGI era. I'm not sure Frozen steps up to the level of, say, a Pixar film (or for that matter, the classic Disney films of the early 90s renaissance or the early 40s breakthrough) but it nonetheless represents an improvement. Partly this is due to its gorgeous winter wonderland setting; unlike Tangled, which fell back a bit too easily on the conventional woodland backdrop, Frozen has dense flurries, towering ice palaces, and sun-dappled peaks and valleys to keep it visually interesting (I didn't see the film in 3D, but it still looked dazzling).
That said, the film hasn't become Disney's biggest hit since The Lion King simply because it's pretty to look at. Audiences have connected with the movie, particularly with its two princess protagonists - Elsa, the snow queen of Hans Christian Andersen lore (although she's more of a misunderstood loner than an icy villainess in this telling) and Anna, her spunky redheaded sister who turns out (to my surprise) to be the true heroine of the piece. There are other memorable characters as well, most notably Olaf, the lovably goofy snowman whom Elsa enlivens and Anna accompanies across the tundra, and Kristoff, a much-mocked ice salesman whom most contemporary viewers will prefer to the conventionally dashing Prince Hans. But it's Elsa and Anna - and particularly Anna (although Elsa gets the showstopping number) - who capture the audience's hearts.
When I first saw a preview of the movie (or a clip, I can't remember), it didn't look particularly enticing. I think it was on a critics' show, and the scene involved slangy jokes and slapstick - my basic impression was that Disney was attempting to ape the popular Ice Age franchise and I decided to give it a pass. A few months later, to my surprise, I heard that Frozen had earned a billion dollars and, more importantly, a devoted cult audience - I even read an article about fans who created their own costumes. While many of my own favorite films have flown in under the radar, to put it modestly, I'm always fascinated by the phenomenon of mass appeal, particularly when there appears to be genuine affection involved. At this time, when cinema as a popular medium seems to be fading it's always it's always refreshing to find a movie that connects with many people on a fundamental level. So I finally decided to check Frozen out, at my local $2 second-run matinee even as it debuted on DVD.
The theater was still packed, mostly with kids who sang along and occasionally ran around the theater restlessly (one perk of watching it at home would have been not having to lift my legs onto the seat every couple minutes so an energetic 3-year-old could run past me numerous times). There was an air of eager anticipation - clearly these viewers had seen the film before and were relishing a return visit. For myself, I was charmed and entertained. I think Frozen's appeal lies in its combination of familiarity (orphaned royalty, cute comic relief, a climactic - and climatic - clash of good and evil) with striking originality, not just in terms of inventive people and places (stones that roll over and turn into trolls, an abominable snowman - who reminded me of the Rancor from Return of the Jedi - created by our heroine in self-defense) but also in plot twists (without offering too many spoilers, they hinge around the concept of love at first sight and true love's redemptive value).
Most of all, the film felt delightfully unpredictable. While Tangled was an enjoyable return to Disney's fairy tale roots, Frozen seemed more like a journey into uncharted territories. I genuinely didn't know where it was going to go next, who it would encounter or - most importantly - how its characters would evolve. Many have pointed out that the most celebrated number in the film, "Let It Go," a ballad of female empowerment, is also the moment where Elsa subtly becomes a villain. And yet she doesn't, really - her independence seems earned, and while she'll eventually return to her kingdom and attempt to resolve the crisis she caused there is never any Lion King-esque moral about noblesse oblige or aristocratic responsibility. Most interesting to me was Anna's assumption of leadership and heroism; for whatever reason, I didn't see it coming and expected Elsa to be the story's central figure. Instead, Anna is the studio's most charming princess since the similarly redheaded Ariel - like her, she's an energetic dreamer, but twenty-five years down the line she's allowed to tie her dreams to something other than a prince sweeping her off her feet/fins (if not initially).
Perhaps the best compliment I can pay Frozen - even though I'm a fan of many Disney classics - is that it reminded me less of classic and conventional princess tales than of the eccentric fantasy films of the 80s like The Last Unicorn or The Dark Crystal. It's far friendlier and less brooding than those movies, admittedly, but it has the same narrative adventurousness in which anything can happen and characters' arcs aren't predetermined by their roots. The yin-yang of Elsa and Anna make for a good team because Elsa allows us to explore the always-fascinating outcast/recluse fantasy figure (the connection to Unicorn's bewitched princess keeps returning to me) while Anna gives us a more approachable and lovably human figure to identify with. Since Disney's renaissance peaked two decades ago, other studios and filmmakers have challenged the undeniable appeal of its straightforward storytelling and mythological values. With Frozen, Disney meets their challenge, reinventing itself while retaining the basic appeal of its classics. We begin once upon a time, and we end up happily ever after but the path we trace between those two points is as creatively fashioned and delightful to tread as Elsa's twisting, fragile ice staircase.