People forget just what dire straits Disney was in when it came to feature animation in the late 70s and early 80s. The rough, scratchy — and less expensive — look that had dominated their style since the mid-60s was still hanging on in all its dated glory. For every modest hit like a Rescuers or critical success like a Great Mouse Detective, there was a Black Cauldron or Oliver and Company. Then came the late-80s renaissance, and the Disney juggernaut was born again. But while Jeffrey Katzenberg gets a ton of credit for the turnaround, perhaps the smartest move Disney made was bringing in veteran composes Howard Ashman and Alan Menken. Because hands down some of the most enduring memories of Disney’s earlier classics were the songs, and Ashman and Menken added their own magic to the tradition. It’s something Disney’s more recent films seem to have forgotten, with serviceable but ultimately forgettable tunes becoming more and more prevalent. And it’s something Frozen restores to glory with all the roaring fury of a winter blizzard.
It doesn’t hurt to have veteran Broadway belter Idina Menzel on hand to lend her voice to the undoubted show-stopper of the film, “Let It Go.” Menzel’s no stranger to this; “Let It Go” bears more than a little resemblance to her “Defying Gravity” from Wicked, another song about a magical character taking fierce ownership of her destiny. It’s a soaring number that’s going to haunt high school drama teachers for years, because every girl is going to want to sing it at her audition. But it’s also an example of Frozen’s potent marriage of sight and sound, because while Menzel offers up the vocal fireworks, Disney’s animators throw in some astonishing work as Menzel’s Elsa builds her ice kingdom. The ice seems alive, all glistening angles and reflective surfaces. All of this is in service to a character moment rather than just empty spectacle — Elsa accepting who she is and all that comes with it — which makes the scene even more memorably effective.
The rest of the songs may not reach the same heights, but that’s simply because “Let It Go” sets such a high bar. Elsa’s sister Anna two killer songs of her own: the yearning “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” which spotlights Anna’s increased loneliness at her sister’s isolation, and “For the First Time in Forever,” that recurs at a couple of revelatory moments in the film. What’s surprising about these songs is that it’s Kristen Bell singing them. I had no idea she had the pipes, but she holds her own with Menzel in their numbers together, carrying a bit of a Jodi Benson vibe with her. And while Josh Gad enormously gets under my skin in the flesh, his song by the snowman Olaf yearning for a summer day is a perfect bit of comic relief that owes a large part of its charm to the fantastic design and animation of the character. Again, it’s the marriage of sight and sound that make the film so potent.
Not that Frozen is just some long-form music video. There’s a real emotional core to the film in the form of the love between the two sisters, and it’s nice to see that as the focus rather than Disney’s traditional “a prince solves everything” formula. In fact, that particular trope is nicely turned on its head at several points throughout the film, including its climax. What I feared was on its way to being a rehash of Enchanted instead became something more poignant and thematically fitting. The film even tweaks the age-old “love at first sight” routine in a smart way, and throughout, it’s clear that these two princesses are strong, proactive young women who ultimately aren’t dependent on men for their agency or their happiness.
The audience at my viewing of Frozen was filled with kids happily bouncing up and down, and the film got an enthusiastic round of applause as the credits rolled. It’s a crowd-pleaser in the vein of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, the films that kicked off the Disney renaissance the first time around. Given the quality on-screen and the reaction in front of it, Frozen may very well be kicking off a brand new renaissance. And Disney couldn’t ask for a finer blueprint.