Frozen: After a spectacular and well-documented run of fairy-tale successes in the late 80s and early 90s, Disney Animation stepped away from princess movies, probably owing in part to the massive success of the male-animal-centric royalty fable Lion King, and in part because it had set a course for ambitious (if still often formulaic) cartoons chronicling history, myth, and legend (Pocahontas, Hercules, Mulan, Tarzan) well before The Lion King had even hit.
But princesses have become, if anything, even bigger business during those intervening years, and naturally, Disney has revisited the trend in recent years as it attempts to right the Disney Feature Animation ship. There are countless opportunities for cynical pandering in this market; some kids are more or less born with an ingrained desire to goggle at Cinderella, Ariel, and all the rest. Yet so far these newer cartoons have proceeded with the same quality control that usually dominates Disney the animation studio (Chicken Little notwithstanding), even as Disney the megacorporation swallows so much in its path. The formulas feel less strict, and the princess archetypes more filled-in and riffed upon: The Princess and the Frog centered on an African-American character; Tangled added a dizzier sense of slapstick comedy without giving it the full Shrek-smug spoof treatment; and now Frozen completes a very unofficial trilogy of princess movies with a story so focused on its central princess characters that it barely has room for that other Disney standby: the cackling villain.
There are bad guys, of sorts, in Frozen, and some peril, though a good portion of it comes from a soft if peeved abominable snow creature. But the story is really about sisters: older Elsa (Idina Menzel) can generate snow and ice from her hands, and to conceal her superpower she is more or less separated from younger Anna (Kristen Bell) even as they continue to live in an enormous castle. The years pass, set to a musical number called “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” which, by its title, I know, might sound like Disney treacle. But the Broadway-ish interplay between Anna and her sister’s closed door, courtesy of Bell (and the voice actors who play the younger versions of her character) and songwriting duo Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (Avenue Q; The Book of Mormon), is both energetic and melancholy, setting up the best Disney musical in years. Tangled had some decent songs but more laughs; Frozen, while funny in spots, is unashamedly old-fashioned in its aims while it modernizes the fairy-tale template.
The movie is loosely adapted from The Snow Queen, and it’s Elsa who takes on that role—isolating herself and freezing her kingdom, which sends Anna, along with ice salesman Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and living snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) on a quest to thaw both her sister and the land. So yes, there are love interests and wacky sidekicks (Kristoff’s moose looks a bit like the horse from Tangled), but the movie isn’t overflowing with them, exhibiting far more population control than the likes of Pocahontas, who palled around with a raccoon and and hummingbird and a talking tree and, for all I remember, a singing bear cub and a wisecracking arrowhead. Frozen is gorgeous to look at it but in part because of the sparseness of its winter landscape. Also: Josh Gad’s wildly optimistic snowman, while faintly incongruous with the human dimensions of the story, is often hilarious, never more so than in his literally showstopping but delightfully perverse musical number about snowmen in the summertime.
The core of the movie, though, is the relationship between Anna and Elsa; what a relief to see a Disney cartoon with a lady-lady relationship where the second lady isn’t some withered form of evil. The semi-estranged sisters have to relearn how to be close, and how to assert themselves as adults—and if that sounds a little touchy-feely, well, there is that talking snowman and the aforementioned abominable snow creature thing. Frozen isn’t as funny or exciting as Wreck-It Ralph or Tangled, but it is a consistent pleasure to listen to and gorgeous to look at. The movie’s 3D looks fine—animated ice spires and snowfall are as good an effect as any, and the movie’s snow whites and winter blues don’t look too muted by the glasses—but the real reason to consider a 3D showing is “Get a Horse!,” a Mickey Mouse cartoon featuring the voice of Walt Disney that plays, delightfully and inventively, before the feature. Like the film, it’s both retro and shiny—a declaration that Disney Animation need not be overshadowed by its Pixar division.