Disney is onto something pretty cool with its latest princess picture, “Frozen.” It’s evolving a solid story template that will give its girl movies an identity distinct from the studio’s boy films.
The new movie, verrrrry roughly based on Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Snow Queen,” unfolds in a Disney-fied version of 19th-century Norway called Arendelle. There live two princesses and their doting parents — who are not long onscreen; Disney toons typically wipe out parents like Batman origin yarns. There’s rambunctious young Anna (who has Livvy Stubenrauch’s infectious voice as a tot and Kristen Bell’s flawless delivery as an adult). Older sister Elsa (Eva Bella, then Idina Menzel) has the secret, magical ability to chill whatever she touches. Hey, it’s a fairy tale.
During some horseplay, Elsa accidentally zaps Anna with a subzero blast. The Troll King (Ciaran Hinds) lifts her near-fatal brain freeze, and her memory of the incident along with it.
Traumatized by the near-miss and fearful that her power will cause more harm, Elsa turns her back on the outside world, and her confused, disheartened little sis. When Elsa’s coronation day approaches, a squabble between the sisters sets off a freak cold snap throughout the land. Elsa flees to the wintry woods, leaving it to Anna to thaw the kingdom, and the sisters’ troubled relationship.
While the story’s outer trappings are traditional, there’s a lot that’s new under the hood. Like “Brave” (from Disney’s corporate cousin Pixar, which for the first time fronted a significant female character) the new Mouse House entry gives a young woman the heroic role. Adorable, lively Anna has a couple of love interests, but she’s not just a girl in a princess gown/wedding dress awaiting some guy’s courtship.
The script by Jennifer Lee (Disney’s first female director, working here in partnership with Chris Buck) bases its central conflict on misunderstanding rather than villainous aggression. There’s a kingdom in peril, but its fate is secondary to the threatened loss of a precious relationship. And the third act, for all its exhilarating rough-housing, is about reaffirming emotional bonds, not beating back an evildoer.
This shift of emphasis gives “Frozen” an innovative charge that compensates for its average joke quota and undercooked musical score.
Compelling interpretations of classic stories is what built Disney’s brand. It’s good to see that they’re still on the job.