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Frozen, a Disney animated film for the upcoming holiday season (in theaters Nov. 27), will go in the file of Disney animated classics alongside other recent successes like Tangled. But even as it plays the classic, it changes some of the fundamental Disney story ingredients.
Instead of the same old princess-looking-for-her-prince love story, this is a story about love between siblings, with a wonderful twist on the classic fairy-tale ending. I think this is the story Pixar was trying to tell in Brave, about the incredible value of family love. Frozen tells that story better.
The film might initially trick you with its cheesy princess set-up. Two sisters, princesses Elsa and Anna, live shut up in a castle but finally open the gates for the elder Elsa’s coronation as queen. The younger, Princess Anna, bursts into song at the possibilities of whom she might meet at the coronation after so many years alone. As the celebration begins, Anna, of course, trips into the arms of a young visiting prince, Hans. They spend the evening singing a duet together about all they have in common, about finding true love, and decide to announce their marriage plans to the new Queen Elsa. This is the point where the formulaic Disney fairy tale takes a turn. The plot has excellent red herrings and surprises. You see the evidence of the “story trust” John Lasseter started at Disney, the in-house police of character arcs and themes. The three rules of the story trust: “Compelling stories, believable worlds, and engaging characters.”
The story is “inspired by” Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.” Elsa, in the role of the Snow Queen, has a secret power to freeze. The directors and writers Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee initially wrote the story closer to the original, with Elsa as a villain. But over the 2½ years they worked on the film—animation is still the most painstaking movie form—they told me they changed Elsa’s character to be more complex, and to make the sibling relationship central.
Elsa, fearful of how her freezing powers might hurt her sister, runs away from the castle, and once she’s atop a faraway mountain, she sings a song about how she is finally free to be herself, to quit hiding her ice powers. “No right, no wrong, no rules for me,” she sings. This “be true to yourself” song is classic Disney, along the lines of Aladdin’s “A Whole New World.” But Frozen flips the paradigm—we find that while Elsa was “just being herself,” she unknowingly wreaked destruction back home. In a later song, she realizes, “[There’s] no escape from the storm inside of me.” The comedic snowman Olaf explains at one point that love is not being true to yourself, but rather “putting someone else’s needs before yours.” (Olaf is one of the many great side characters in the movie, including the reindeer Sven and a Norwegian sauna owner.)
“[A Disney film] has such a wide audience, it really informs morals and the mindset of a kid growing up,” said Jonathan Groff, the voice of Kristoff, the ice salesman who helps Anna look for Elsa. “I feel more excited about that than being the voice of a Disney character.”
Children will love the animation in this film; the animators turn the frozen kingdom into a playground, all swooping and sliding. Elsa’s ice creations, even when they’re dangerous, are gorgeous. The snow, the result of a new software Disney developed in-house, clumps and dumps on characters like the real thing.
A reporter asked Idina Menzel, the voice of Elsa, about the movie’s “female empowerment.” “It’s more than female empowerment,” said Menzel. “It’s about family, it’s about sisters. … It’s larger than any story Disney has told in the past.”
A small tip: Stay through to the end of the credits.