Before I saw “Frozen,” Disney’s altogether splendid new animated feature, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d emerged from such a movie actually humming the soundtrack. Forced to guess, I’d say it was 15 years ago with “Mulan,” a modest charmer whose catchy central number, “I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” has earned a permanent spot on my workout playlist. “Frozen” is an achievement of a different magnitude — a welcome throwback to the Mouse House musical tradition in which every tune and lyric is delivered with full-throated gusto and a glorious absence of irony. When the youthful queen Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel) sings “Let It Go,” free at last to unleash the icy enchantments that have kept her locked up since childhood, the result is as thrilling an anthem of liberation as “Defying Gravity,” Menzel’s signature number from the stage tuner “Wicked.”
As many have pointed out, “Frozen” is essentially a warm-up act for its own inevitable Broadway show, so fully formed are its musical elements and so skillfully have they been integrated into the story’s narrative engine. The film may not quite reach the heights of Disney’s classic heyday or the Howard Ashman-Alan Menken era, but the creative sparks that gave rise to “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” “Sleeping Beauty” and “The Little Mermaid” nonetheless course through its lifeblood. And for sheer princess-centric, femme-focused appeal, “Frozen” arguably outdoes them all, placing not one but two royal heroines, Anna and Elsa, at the center of a story very loosely inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s classic “The Snow Queen.”
Of course, you wouldn’t know any of this based solely on the film’s shrewdly deceptive marketing campaign, which has gone out of its way to avoid even the slightest suggestion that “Frozen” is (a) a musical and (b) about princesses and queens, snowy or otherwise. The billboards show the four human principals covered in a thick frost while giving pride of place to Olaf the snowman, weirdly implying that this comic-relief figure is in fact the protagonist. Faced with that misleading image, a literal whitewash of the film’s actual content, you couldn’t begin to guess what the story’s about, or even that it takes place once upon a time.
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The trailer and TV spots go even further, playing up Olaf’s genteel hijinks (and even those of Sven the reindeer) while essentially banishing Elsa, by far the story’s most complex and compelling character, to the margins. Anna fares mildly better, though of the four major personalities singled out, she comes in fourth, ranking behind her two handsome suitors and Olaf. (Why treat your co-lead like she’s Scarlett Johansson in “The Avengers”?) And while previews for the studio’s past films have been awash in source music, no one here sings so much as a note, never mind that they have at their disposal one of the more impressive Disney song scores in recent memory (courtesy of composer Christophe Beck and songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez).
And then, of course, there is that pesky gender-neutral title, which does for “The Snow Queen” what “Tangled” did for “Rapunzel,” reflecting an overall impulse to suppress anything remotely girly or princessy about this thoroughly girly, princessy movie. The thinking (if that’s the word) behind these decisions is clear enough, and it’s been a matter of fairly public knowledge since the disappointing B.O. performance of a 2009 film that Disney had the grave misfortune to title “The Princess and the Frog.” After all, why call attention to princesses — a niche commodity at best these days — when you can more successfully market your product to all four quadrants? Why run the risk of alienating viewers with singing, dancing and other archaic showbiz practices when you can seduce them instead with catchy one-liners and breezy slapstick?
For that matter, why even bother to make a movie with any of these things at all if they’re such narrow, feminine attributes, so abhorrent to the cootie-phobic fanboys being targeted by Disney’s recently acquired Marvel franchise? The answer to that question gets at the strange commingling of integrity and hypocrisy that has always lurked at the heart of the Disney brand. This is a company that retains a strong, deeply entrenched sense of tradition, and happily boasts enough superb storytellers (in this case, filmmakers Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee) to carry that tradition proudly forward. Yet the studio is also, on some level, beholden to a curious industry paradox: That there is a deep-seated, gender-blind public need for fairy tales — for timeless, well-crafted stories about witches and wizards, frogs and princesses — is as obvious and undeniable as the reflexive sexism that seeks to frustrate almost every attempt to satisfy that demand.
It is of course a critic’s job to review movies, not advertising strategies, and far be it from me to advise against business practices that are apparently paying off. “Tangled” grossed nearly $600 million worldwide, and “Frozen” looks on track to do even better, having already set a Thanksgiving weekend opening record and grossed a terrific $93 million domestically. It would be ridiculous to begrudge a movie as fine as “Frozen” its hit status. But it’s not unreasonable — especially since truthfulness and transparency are among the movie’s key themes — to wish that it were being presented with less self-loathing and more honesty, as well as more confidence in its considerable artistic virtues.
In its bid to update classical Disney storytelling with respectable gender politics and wised-up humor, “Frozen” is a far more seamless effort than either “Tangled” or “The Princess and the Frog.” There are, to be sure, broadly humorous touches and a few winkingly anachronistic lines of dialogue, but these are for the most part pleasing and unobtrusive. There are indispensable life lessons about the perils of rushing into romance, which parents of young girls will particularly appreciate. And there is, at the story’s core, a subtle feminist intelligence as clear and calm as the icy surfaces that abound in this beautiful winter wonderland.
As in Disney/Pixar’s “Brave,” which focused on a thorny, moving and utterly convincing bond between mother and daughter, that feminism expresses itself in a family dynamic rarely explored in contemporary animation. In “Frozen,” it’s the difficult but deeply loving relationship between two sisters — two smart, resilient, carefully individuated women whose emotional connection is strong enough to endanger an entire kingdom, and also to bring about its salvation. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this a movie that quietly declares, in scene after scene, that a powerful woman is not someone to be loathed, feared or hidden from view. Would it have killed Disney to make sure the marketing proved worthy of the message?