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You can practically see the Broadway musical Frozen is destined to become while watching Disney’s 3D animated princess tale. Shrewdly calculated down the the smallest detail in terms of its appeal factor, this smartly dressed package injects a traditional fairy tale, Hans Christian Andersen‘s The Snow Queen, with enough contemporary attitudes and female empowerment touches to please both little girls and their moms. Energetic, humorous and not too cloying, as well as the first Hollywood film in many years to warn of global cooling rather than warming, this tuneful toon upgrades what has been a lackluster year for big studio animated fare and, beginning with its Thanksgiving opening, should live up to box-office expectations as one of the studio’s hoped-for holiday-spanning blockbusters.
As an added bonus, Frozen is fronted by one of the wittiest and most inventive animated shorts in a long time, Lauren MacMullan‘s Get A Horse! debuted to rave responses at the Telluride Film Festival over Labor Day weekend preceding the screenings of Gravity, Horse begins as an early black-and-white Mickey Mouse cartoon but then bursts its boundaries into color and 3D in marvelously antic ways that call to mind the stepping-off-the-screen techniques of Buster Keaton‘s Sherlock Jr. and Woody Allen‘s The Purple Rose of Cairo. It’s a total winner.
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Frozen, which will use the Andersen tale’s original title in many foreign territories, was in development with numerous different writers, directors and songsmiths for more than a decade, as Disney hoped to strike gold with another Andersen story after the great success of The Little Mermaid. As even reasonably successful recent girl-aimed films, such as Pixar’s Brave and Disney’s own Tangled, have shown, it’s not all that easy to recycle the well-worn princess format without being hopelessly retrograde on the one hand or knee-jerk revisionist on the other. But one can feel that extra effort was expended to try to get the formula right this time. Directors Chris Buck (co-director of Tarzan and Surf’s Up) and Jennifer Lee (co-screenwriter of Wreck-It-Ralph, who also wrote this script and here becomes the first female director on an in-house Disney animated feature) do a pretty decent job of hitting the required cues for youngsters’ dream-come-true expectations while also introducing darker tones by way of a mentally tortured youthful queen and a two-faced royal suitor.
No question about it, this is also a full-fledged musical, with eight original songs (augmented by some reprises), which make it ready-made for the stage when the time comes. Frozen may not have the inexhaustible potential of Beauty and the Beast, but the reasonably agreeable score and, especially, the possibility of spectacular visual effects for the ever-changing ice world setting, indicate strong theatrical prospects.
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As drastically refashioned from the Andersen yarn, this is the tale of two sisters, the older and brooding blond Elsa and younger and dizzier redhead Anna. Raised in the splendid isolation of an enormous castle, they lose their parents to a shipwreck, forcing Elsa to take the throne in her late teens. Long aware that she possesses the sort of “dark powers” ever-popular in this sort of thing, Elsa has always heeded the warning not to let them show. But when, during her coronation, she removes the gloves that keep them in check, her capacity for sorcery becomes evident to all.
It’s not evil, in the fashion of a wicked witch, that she unleashes, merely calamity that dooms her small Nordic kingdom of Arendelle to a bleak fate of eternal winter. Wherever she goes, she can’t help but turn everything into snow and ice. Instead of just putting her gloves back on, Queen Elsa embraces her status–”No rules for me!”–and runs off to splendid isolation on North Mountain singing her self-liberating “Let It Go,” while her subjects shiver back home.
Eager teen Anna has had her head turned by handsome young Prince Hans but soon departs in pursuit of her older sister. Not exactly cut out for the rigors of a laborious solo trek, she soon gains the services of big blond mountain guy Kristoff, his trusty reindeer Sven and, before long, buck-toothed snowman Olaf, whereupon this not-so-coincidentally Oz-like contingent makes its way through perilous forest and snow towards the the craggy regal sanctuary.
The duplicitous Hans and a greedy foreign duke organize their own expedition to turn things in their own mercantile favor via insidious means that trigger a nasty plot twist that’s as unexpected as it is welcome in this context. The wrap-up delivers large-scale action, some humor and a feel of some haste, as some rather convoluted means are employed to pull everything together before the running time pushes any further past 100 minutes.
The most consistently annoying aspect of Frozen is the screenwriter’s insistence upon putting banal and commonplace teen Americanisms in the mouth of Anna in a clear sop to that major component of the film’s intended audience. Anna’s dialogue is full of “you know” and “freaked out” and many other phrases her parents and sister never use; where did she pick them up? More than do the other characters, the two sisters have a plastic, big-cheeked, tiny-upturned-nose cherub appearance that looks fake and inexpressive and requires getting accustomed to.
Compensating are the vigorous vocal performances from Kristen Bell as Anna and Idina Menzel as Elsa, who share the big number “For the First Time in Forever” that’s the centerpiece of the original songs written by the married team of Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, the latter the musical co-creator of the Broadway smashes Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon. Good character work on the male side comes from Jonathan Groff as the supportive Kristoff, Josh Gad as goofball Olaf, Santino Fontana as the smoothly conniving Hans and Alan Tudyk as the scheming diplomat.
Visually, Frozen is a pleasure, makes good, unforced use of 3D and is the first widescreen Disney fairy tale since Sleeping Beauty.
Opens: November 27 (Disney)
Production: Walt Disney Animation Studio
Voice cast: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Santino Fontana, Alan Tudyk, Ciaran Hinds, Chris Williams
Directors: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee
Screenwriter: Jennifer Lee, story by Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee, Shane Morris, inspired by The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen
Producers: Peter Del Vicho
Executive producer: John Lasseter
Art director: Michae Giaino
Production designer: David Womersley
Editor: Jeff Draheim
Original songs: Kristen Anderson Lopez, Robert Lopez
Music: Christophe Beck
Visual effects supervisor: Steve Goldberg
PG rating, 101 minutes
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