Walt Disney Pictures has its animation mojo back. Finally.
With a cool, contemporary spin on a fairy-tale classic, a dramatic Nordic landscape animated in splendid storybook style and Broadway vets belting out power ballads, “Frozen” is an icy blast of fun from the very first flake. A certain scene-stealing snowman named Olaf chief among them.
Directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee create a magical 3-D winter wonderland in “Frozen.” A sisterhood saga loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” it is filled with heart and heart-stopping action.
It is a much needed thaw after a very long winter for Disney’s legendary cartoon brand.
Last year’s “Wreck-It Ralph” was a hoot – the video-arcade battle between good and evil very current in story and style. But “Ralph” never felt like it belonged to the same family as Disney’s modern-day classics such as “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin” and “The Lion King.”
The in-between years have been marked by a lot of nice, but not especially noteworthy movies. Meanwhile Pixar stepped in and stole the company’s animated show with “Up,” “Cars,” “Toy Story” and “Wall-E,” to name a few.
But “Frozen” is fabulous. Its thrills and chills are brought to life by an excellent ensemble of voices led by Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel. As Anna and Elsa, respectively, they are sisters and the princesses of the mythical Scandinavian kingdom of Arendelle where the story is set.
The film represents a fusion of old and new both on-screen and behind it. Lee, who co-wrote “Wreck-It Ralph” (with Phil Johnston) and has sole credit for “Frozen,” is also the first female to sit in a Disney animation directing chair. She’s done a bang-up job wearing both hats. For Buck, who’s been in Disney’s animation trenches since 1981’s “The Fox and the Hound,” “Frozen” is his third feature – and his best – as a director. Despite the blizzard conditions, there is nary a slip or stumble from start to finish.
As with the best of Disney musicals, “Frozen’s” songs soar. The original pieces come from Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, who has a couple of Tonys on his shelf for co-writing “The Book of Mormon” with those “South Park” renegades, Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Which makes you wonder whether “Frozen” might be Broadway bound. You’d expect Menzel, who earned a Tony for making Elphaba so deliciously “Wicked,” to crush all those soaring notes. But Bell is the stunner.
“Frozen” begins when the princesses are young and wishing for the season’s first snowfall. Elsa makes it happen, conjuring up a blizzard – indoors – with magical powers she’s just discovering. But the fun soon ends when a slip and a fall puts Anna’s life in jeopardy.
Though Anna recovers, Elsa doesn’t. Fear of hurting her little sister with her powers sends the princess behind closed doors, separating the girls the entire time they are growing up and presenting the perfect opportunity for one of the film’s show-stoppers. A very catchy number called “Love Is an Open Door,” it is among the most memorable, in part for the delightful door-slamming antics that accompany it.
The action really gets underway when Elsa comes of age and comes out of seclusion for her coronation. Love is in the air. Anna’s already swooning over Prince Hans (Santino Fontana), and a number of suitors are vying for Elsa’s hand – glove-covered always to keep her secret secret. Her powers make for some of the film’s most stunning animation as snow and ice fly and form into incredible shapes, from lethal shards to towering ice castles.
At the heart of the film is the battle between love and fear. Resolution becomes a long journey when Elsa flees Arendelle, leaving the kingdom locked in winter’s fierce grip and Anna searching for her. This is also where the film develops its very playful sense of humor.
Anna’s something of a tomboy, forever getting into scrapes, which Bell’s comic timing makes absolutely charming. But the entire film is populated by characters who spend a great deal of time teasing and pranking. There is the handsome, reclusive mountain man Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and his reindeer buddy Sven. By turns captivated and incensed by the headstrong Anna, he’s soon enlisted in the search. There are rock trolls rolled out to help decipher questions of magic led by Pabbie (Ciaran Hinds). One of the main villains is the scheming Duke of Weselton (Alan Tudyk), a name that always gets a laugh.
And then there is Olaf.
The snowman is an animation marvel, designed to keep coming apart and bouncing back together. His broad smile, buck teeth and wide eyes are the very embodiment of innocence and adoration. Josh Gad, who voices Olaf, is so endearing you really do want to just hug him – knowing Disney, I’m sure there’s a plush toy in the works.
Gad’s been building an impressive career for a while with a Tony nomination in 2011 for his star-turn in “The Book of Mormon.” And he was the only reason to watch NBC’s short-lived 2013 White House comedy “1600 Penn.”
Fortunately, he is far from the only reason to go see “Frozen.” In fact, there are so many good ones, I can’t begin to count them all – kind of like snowflakes, a flurry of them.