Remember Maximus, that funny horse from Disney’s Tangled? The one whose animation DNA was mostly equine, regal gallops and whatnot, but with just a touch of big friendly dog? Your child surely remembers. And so does Disney, because its new animated juggernaut, Frozen, features Sven, a reindeer in the Maximus mold: loyal, adventuresome, and very, very doglike. Just watch the movie’s teaser trailer, which premiered this summer, and was a kind of promise to little kids: If you loved Tangled, we’ve got more of the same here.
And indeed, Frozen is an amped-up Tangled: snowier, wackier, with just a little bit more of everything. A doggier reindeer. Two BESM princesses, not one, released upon the world after a long confinement. Two handsome rogues. An “I Want” song, of course, but it’s a “We Want” duet. The primary difference is that while Tangled explored, often with surprising tartness, the complicated mother-daughter bond, Frozen’s emotional wattage comes from sisters and the way they can cling to each other or push each other away.
In the Nordic kingdom of Arendelle, Princess Elsa (voiced as an adult by Idina Menzel) has the gift, or curse, of magic—she can make snow or ice appear out of thin air, basically like Ice-Man. But she can’t control her power, and after an accident, she’s told to “conceal it, don’t feel it, don’t let it show”— to cover her hands with gloves, and to cover her emotions with icy reserve. Her little sister Anna (Kristen Bell) doesn’t understand why her once-warm sibling now won’t play with her, and the two grow distant as they grow up.
The movie zips forward to coronation day, when Elsa, the elder, is meant to take the crown. But everything goes wrong, Anna and Elsa fight, and Elsa’s powers are revealed. She flees Arendelle in a striking scene, running across a fjord that freezes with every step, her cloak billowing behind her. Anna sets off in search of her lost sister, to make up with her and to rescue the kingdom from eternal winter.
There’s plenty more—the reindeer, the talking snowman, a herd of lovable trolls, the hunky prince Anna falls for, the other hunky guy who helps Anna through the snow. It’s all meant to be filigree around a strong central relationship, but unlike in Tangled, where the screenplay found a lot to chew on in Mother Gothel and Rapunzel’s screwed-up filial bond, the sisterly connection between Anna and Elsa feels wan and uncompelling. Perhaps that’s because their childhood backstory is rushed through at lightning speed. Perhaps it’s because their first dramatic confrontation, on coronation day, is undercut by the presence of one of those hunky guys, with whom Anna has fallen in love (at first sight), and so what should be a moment of true sisterly drama doesn’t even pass the Bechdel test.
Or maybe it’s just that their songs—where character is revealed and emotions are explored—just aren’t that great. Elsa gets a soaring diva number as she flees into the mountains (on which Menzel, needless to say, slays), but most of the songs, by husband-and-wife songwriters Robert Lopez (The Book of Mormon) and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, feel musically thin and far less witty than those written by, say, Alan Menken and Howard Ashman in past Disney extravaganzas. As lyrics go, “Don’t know if I’m elated or gassy, but I’m somewhere in that zone” is no “When the sardine begin the beguine it’s music to me.”
So the fun of the movie is in Sven and the trolls and, especially, in snowman Olaf, whimsically animated as a physics-defying set of independently mobile snowballs and voiced by Josh Gad as an enthusiastic dunce. (His showcase song is about how much he can’t wait for summer.) He’s so enjoyable that it’s easy to overlook that he bears almost no importance to the plot whatsoever—is indeed a sidekick who seems, to the adult viewer, to have been added when someone worried there weren’t enough jokes. Disney films often have trouble managing tone when their slapstick characters get caught in moments of high drama, but during the dire climactic moments of Frozen the disconnect is sharper than usual – in part because of the promises that the film (and its ad campaign) made up to that point. What did my weeping 6-year-old say to me, as both sisters faced a horrible fate? “I thought this movie was about a snowman and a reindeer fighting for a carrrroooottttttttt!”
On the other hand, by movie’s happy end, she was satisfied with Frozen’s message about the importance of sisterly love. Days later, my kids remember that general theme, but little else about the film’s central story—why the sisters were fighting, how the sisters were different, or even why we cared about them, other than that they were pretty girls in trouble. The same goes for me. The stuff surrounding the central characters in Frozen is technologically accomplished, aesthetically lovely, and often very endearing, reflecting the growth in Disney Animation since Pixar honcho John Lasseter took over in 2006. But the movie is like an ice cube that’s started melting from the inside: sharp and bracing around the edges, but hollow at the center.