By Michael Aushenker
The latest in a tradition that began in 1938 with the groundbreaking long-form color cartoon “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” Disney’s 53rd animated feature film, “Frozen,” returns to the stuff that the classic Walt Disney films were made of: beautiful princesses in distress, an evil curse, sorcerer queens, young handsome princes coming to the rescue.
Albeit a serviceable film with likely appeal for young children and Disneyholics, “Frozen” attempts to contemporize the formula but wallows in hoary Disney studio clichés and falls short of being classic or memorable.
The film focuses on the bond between a pair of sisters, queen-in-waiting Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell), and how that bond is tested as they enter adulthood thanks to a mysterious attribute with which Elsa is cursed. Because of Elsa’s lack of control over her ability to unleash ice, a wedge (literally and metaphorically) forms, beginning in childhood, between the sisters as their parents coerce Elsa to conceal strange powers similar to the ones that got Bobby “Iceman” Drake admitted into The X-Men’s School for Gifted Youngsters.
Cut to adulthood, and Elsa is crowned queen while Anna becomes a princess. At Elsa’s coronation, Anna falls for Hans (Santino Fontana) and they instantly become engaged shortly before Elsa’s dormant powers are accidentally revealed to the public. After a self-exiled Elsa, who has unintentionally cast an eternal winter over their kingdom, disappears into the mountains, Hans (in a contrived plot point) must remain at home as Anna enlists a strapping young stranger — mountain man Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) — to accompany her on a search for Elsa. The rest of the movie focuses on Anna’s race against time to find Elsa to break not only the winter spell on her village but another hex that threatens her life.
Anchored by grandiose power ballads seemingly meant to evoke latter-day Disney classics such as “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast,” there are many places where this 3-D musical tries too hard and suffers from a case of the cutes, especially in establishing the sisters during childhood with sidekick snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) — a clumsy comic relief character who sort of functions as the film’s R2D2, coming in handy when things fall apart.
Aside from a major twist that most won’t see coming, there’s nothing in this animated feature we haven’t seen before: chipper, singing town folk; a chase through the snow-banked forest; and “good guys” gone bad. However, there’s also nothing all that clever about the twist, which is too convenient.
On the visual end, the animation team traveled from the Ice Hotel in Quebec to the fjords of Norway to get ideas on how to light and design the film’s arctic environs, but the images are still undermined by a layer of CG-itis.
If “Frozen” will connect with any quadrant, it will be the young girls it panders to with themes of ever-lasting romance and self-empowerment. From a marketing standpoint, “Frozen” might be a brilliant move if audiences actually warm up to it because not one but two new Disney princesses are embedded in this movie (hello, merchandise!).
Despite the satirical, subversive pedigree of Robert and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (“The Book of Mormon,” “Avenue Q”), the songbook is not self-conscious or humorous enough. In other words, any hint of self-recognition or self-parody has been Disneyfied — rendered sanitized and inoffensive enough so that parents won’t have to explain anything questionable to their tots.
In a screening in Hollywood last week, “Frozen” co-directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck (Disney’s “Tarzan”) revealed how Disney had bumped up the production schedule for “Frozen” by a year while Lee was simultaneously working on 2012’s “Wreck It Ralph.” Perhaps, in the future, cooler heads at the studio should prevail. In its rush to get “Frozen” to the screen, Disney has, instead of cooking up a classic, delivered something that feels half-baked.
“Frozen” opens in theaters Friday.