Back when our kids were little, my wife and I were constantly on the lookout for movies like Frozen: kid-friendly movies with some good songs and sorta funny comic bits. We would have seen the movie in theaters the first week it was released, and we would have purchased the VHS tape of it, and the kids would have watched it over and over. At that level, Frozen‘s not bad.
But we’re older, and our kids are moved out, mostly, and though this movie has been out for months, I hadn’t seen it until today, on Netflix. I probably wouldn’t have reviewed it, except that I’d heard from lots of people that I ought to see it. And I found it disappointing.
Let me start here: it does not compare with the best of the Disney animated musicals. Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Aladdin, different as they were in approach and style, were nonetheless movies with as much to offer adults as children. They were movies we loved. The songs were terrific, the animation beautiful, the comedic moments genuinely funny, the characters rich and compelling. It’s at the ‘grown-up appeal’ level that Frozen fails. It has essentially one character we care about, and basically one good song. Most of the songs, in fact, don’t advance the story much at all, but are in the movie as filler. It’s got fifty minutes worth of story, which it pads out to one hundred minutes. Odder still, the protagonist of the story doesn’t get the one good song. She has, I don’t remember, two, three, four songs, all of them forgettable.
In case you just arrived from Mars, it’s about two sisters, Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel). Elsa is cursed with the power to turn things to ice. Anna is happy and carefree and uncursed. After a near-death experience, where Elsa accidentally zaps Anna, the parents decide to keep them apart forever, without ever once explaining why. Despite a childhood of such dreadful deprivation, Anna grows up to be a delightful young woman, open and loving and kind. Elsa grows up fearful. On the occasion of Elsa’s coronation (the parents having died in a shipwreck, because this is Disney where all children are near-orphans), she zaps the entire kingdom, then, horrified, runs off into the mountains. She sings “Let it go,” a terrific song that you’ve probably heard a million times by now. She builds herself an ice palace, and resolves to live there. She’s also not the main character in the story.
The protagonist is Anna. She falls in love with a handsome prince, then turns the kingdom over to him so she can look for and find and entreat her sister, to get her to de-ice-ify the kingdom. That quest takes up most of the rest of the movie.
On the way, Anna meets another dude, Kristoff, playing the role of hypotenuse with her and her handsome-prince fiancee. She meets Kristoff’s pet reindeer. She meets a comic snowman, Olaf, who gets a “Once there was a snowman” hilarious song about how awesome heat would be. She meets various rock people friends of his, who sing a ‘Matchmaker’ type song about her and him. She fights off a snow monster. It’s all padding. Most of the songs in the show are like that; they’re in the movie as filler. Instead of songs that drive the action forward, they’re songs that distract us from it. We’re supposed to be thinking ‘ah, what a cute song by the snowman guy’ instead of ‘why aren’t you busy finding your sister?’
Again, for an audience of children, this probably all works fine. The little snowman is cute. His song is funny. But the best Disney animated musicals work because they’re also good musicals (as any trip to Broadway today will confirm). This show would close in Philadelphia.
I didn’t hate it. I loved the Anna character. She’s brave and she’s loving and she’s charmingly awkward about it all. And if folks insist on a Disney show having a message, this one is all about how ‘true love involves sacrifice,’ which was lovely. Nice to see a Disney film that mocks the ‘true love’s kiss’ tradition invented by, well, Disney. It also, refreshingly, points out that ‘love at first sight’ is silly. And that true love can be between sisters. And while “Let it go” is a lovely song about female empowerment, that idea is promptly undercut by the rest of the plot, and is sung by a character that we otherwise don’t like very much, who isn’t even in most of the movie. I just wish Frozen were a better, more memorable movie, more character-driven, more fun. But, as I say, my kids would have liked it, and probably yours will too.