Move over, Frosty. A quixotic snowman who longs to experience summer handily steals the show in “Frozen,” Disney’s 53rd in-house animated feature and one of its most classical, with a Hans Christian Andersen pedigree, a full-fledged showtune score and little of the ironic humor that has become the lingua franca of most contemporary toons. But this always enjoyable tale of mysterious magic, imperiled princesses and square-jawed men of action proves longer on striking visuals than on truly engaging or memorable characters. With the family crowd pretty much to itself this holiday season, “Frozen” should generate considerable box-office heat, if not quite the same level of critical and audience affection that attended the superior “Tangled” and “Wreck-It Ralph.”
The result of a decade-long effort by the studio to fashion an animated feature from Andersen’s classic “The Snow Queen,” “Frozen” ultimately bears only the most superficial resemblance to its source, the haunting story of a young girl’s efforts to free her true love from the mind-altering effects of a cursed mirror and the icy lair of the eponymous snow spirit. Instead, writer-directors Chris Buck (a veteran Disney animator with credits dating back to “The Fox and the Hound”) and Jennifer Lee (who co-scripted “Wreck-It Ralph”) give us a more conventional tale of two sisters, younger Anna (Kristen Bell) and elder Elsa (Idina Menzel), heirs to the enchanted Scandinavian kingdom of Arendelle (also a return of sorts to Disney tradition after the dutiful PC dues-paying of “Pocahontas,” “Mulan” and “The Princess and the Frog”).
As seen in the movie’s opening moments, the girls are the closest of childhood friends, their playtime enhanced by Elsa’s unexplained ability to conjure a wonderland of ice and snow at the literal waving of her fingertips. But like Midas’ golden touch, Elsa’s powers soon seem more curse than blessing. When an errant icicle nearly proves fatal to Anna, the King and Queen seal the castle gates, while Elsa further cuts herself off from that circumscribed world, coming of age in solitude even after a shipwreck leaves her and Anna orphans.
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Only as Elsa’s coronation day draws near does she emerge from her seclusion, still uncertain as to whether or not she can control her “gift” (which, like the telekinetic rage of Stephen King’s Carrie, seems to be triggered by intense surges of emotion). Meanwhile, Anna has had all memory of her childhood trauma wiped, “Men in Black”-style, by some friendly neighborhood trolls, leaving her all the more miffed by big sis’ literal and figurative cold shoulder.
These early passages play out pleasantly enough, enhanced by nice detail work showing the bustle of daily Arendelle life and an amusing turn by Alan Tudyk (last seen as “Ralph’s” megalomaniacal Turbo) as the nosy, diminutive Duke of neighboring Weselton (which, to his great consternation, everyone mispronounces as Weaseltown). But the narrative of “Frozen” only really kicks into gear with the palace ball following the coronation, where everything seems to be going hunky-dory until Anna makes the mistake of asking her sister’s permission to marry the dashing Prince Hans of the Southern Isles (Santino Fontana) — whom, admittedly, she only met earlier that same day. To say that Elsa’s reaction puts a chill in the air would be an arctic understatement. (Think Carrie’s prom crossed with the Ice Capades.)
With her secret laid bare for all to see, a devastated Elsa flees into the surrounding mountains, enveloping all of summertime Arendelle in a thick permafrost as she does. Anna gives chase, but proves ill equipped for the rugged and frigid terrain, eventually stumbling upon a small trading post (run by a hulking Swede named Oaken, voiced by “Bolt” co-director Chris Williams) that has wasted no time in jacking up prices on its minimal supply of off-season winter provisions. It’s there that she crosses paths with Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), a flaxen-haired ice seller somewhat lacking in social graces (his best, and possibly only, friend is his trusty, sleigh-pulling reindeer, Sven). But with his own bottom line taking a sizable hit from the sudden climate change, he agrees to help Anna search for Elsa in the hope of once again bringing sunshine to the land.
Which is around the time Olaf enters the picture. An anthropomorphic snowman brought to life by Elsa’s magic, with a row of buck teeth and a few twigs of would-be hair atop his head, this irrepressible optimist (marvelously voiced by “Book of Mormon” alum Josh Gad) likes “warm hugs” and possesses a most unhealthy fascination with the summer — a season he’s never experienced, and whose dangers to his person he seems blithely unaware of. This leads to “Frozen’s” most inspired musical number, “In Summer,” as Olaf imagines himself bounding through blooming meadows, soaking up the sun and engaging in other flights of seasonal fancy, all wryly visualized by Buck and Lee and expressed in playful lyrics by the husband-and-wife songwriting team of Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez (the latter a Tony winner for his work on “Avenue Q” and “Book of Mormon”).
The tactile, snow-capped Arendelle landscape, including Elsa’s ice-castle retreat (imagine Superman’s Fortress of Solitude with a more feminine touch), is “Frozen’s” other true marvel, enhanced by 3D and the decision to shoot in widescreen — a nod to the CinemaScope richness of “Sleeping Beauty” and “Lady and the Tramp.” That’s almost but not quite enough to make up for the somewhat slack plotting and the generic nature of the main characters. Neither princess here is a patch on “Tangled’s” babe-in-the-woods Rapunzel, while both Hans and Kristoff are cut from pretty standard-issue hero cloth until a reasonably surprising third-act twist somewhat ups the ante. Only Olaf is unimpeachable: Get this snowman a spinoff feature to call his own.
“Frozen” goes out accompanied by “Get a Horse!”, director Lauren MacMullan’s utterly dazzling five-minute short starring Mickey Mouse, Minnie, Peg-Leg Pete and other vintage Disney characters in a “Sherlock Jr.”-style adventure that finds their hand-drawn 1930s avatars bursting through a movie screen and into the 3D/CG era. Though the animation is all new (including impeccable re-creations of the black-and-white Disney/Ub Iwerks style), the sound is predominately archival, including Uncle Walt himself as the voice of his iconic alter ego.