There are times in the first half-hour or so of Disney’s “Frozen” that you wonder why the company didn’t bypass the screen altogether and just take the thing directly to Broadway. It plays like a Great White Way hit musical—or at least what passes for one nowadays, with its generic, vaguely rock numbers that seem designed to elicit a burst of applause at the end, its perky characters and its innocuous, family-friendly jokes. But as the movie goes along, it becomes apparent that it has that old Broadway malady—second act problems. The music dries up, replaced by chaotic action, and the finale is a drag. It would appear that this incarnation of “Frozen” should be seen as a sort of out-of-town tryout, so that substantial doctoring can be undertaken before it reaches its ultimate destination on some New York stage where it will play for as long as “The Lion King” roars.
It would have been nice, though, if the creators had fixed some of the flaws before they made the movie. The script, by Jennifer Lee (who also co-directed with Chris Buck), is said to have been inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” but has very little in common with the 1845 fairy tale. Instead it’s been transformed into a story of sisterly love that overcomes all obstacles, one in fact in which all the male characters are either villains or dunces or both. That follows the pattern of much recent Disney product, which seems calculated to cater to little girls and their moms while leaving boys and their fathers to depart as quickly as possible for the latest Marvel superhero movie or await the coming of the Disney “Star Wars” franchise.
In this telling, Elsa (voiced by Edina Menzel) is heiress to the kingdom of Arendelle, and Anna (Kirsten Bell) her younger, more mischievous sibling. Elsa, unfortunately, is blessed—or cursed—with a sort of Midas touch that allows her to conjure up ice and snow at will, and during one of their childhood playtimes Anna is injured by it, restored to health only by the intervention of some comical trolls. So her parents close up the castle and keep Elsa under wraps—and away from ever-doting Anna.
After the king and queen perish while on vacation, however, it becomes necessary for Elsa to be crowned, and during the big celebration—during which the exuberant Anna meets and agrees to marry the handsome Prince Hans (Santino Fontana)—her powers run amok, and she’s compelled to flee the realm and take up isolated residence in the mountains. Unfortunately, her actions have left Arendelle in perpetual winter, so Anna goes into the wilderness to bring her sister back, leaving Hans behind as regent. Fortunately along the way she meets slightly dim but stalwart ice-seller Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), who—along with his comic reindeer Sven—becomes her companion. Unfortunately, their encounter with Elsa leads to Anna’s being infected with coldness of the heart, which threatens to carry her off unless an act of true love intervenes. Where it comes from is for you to find out by watching the movie.
It’s no help to “Frozen” that none of the main characters—neither Anna (who’s given the persona of a typical American teen, complete with all the turns of phrase that implies) nor Elsa nor Hans nor Kristoff—is especially charismatic, though the animators and Bell certainly try to make Anna so. Peripheral figures like the calculating Duke of Weselton (Alan Tudyk) don’t bring much to the party either, however effortful their attempt to be funny. In fact, the only individual who really stands out is Olaf, a dopey but darling snowman brought to life by Elsa’s magic, who assumes the duty of helping Anna and Kristoff. As voiced by Josh Gad, he’s easily the most engaging “person” around, even if he feels as though he’s wandered in from a different, better movie, and he’s assigned most of the best lines and gags. He also has the one show-stopping number in the movie, a hilariously goofy paean to summer that stands in stark visual contrast to the icy climes that dominate most of the running-time and, while striking, grow as numbingly tiresome as a winter that lingers on too long. One can predict that it won’t be too long until we see Olaf in spin-offs of his own—Christmas specials on the Disney Channel, perhaps.
So while “Frozen” is technically impressive, with beautiful widescreen images and 3D effects that are mostly subtly employed, as a narrative it leaves a good deal to be desired. Among Disney’s recent non-Pixar animated efforts, it falls between “Tangled” and “Wreck-It Ralph” on the one hand and “Planes” on the other. Happily, it’s closer to the former than the latter, especially in visual terms, but it’s still middle-grade at best. A lyric in one of Anna’s early songs goes, “I don’t know whether I’m elated or gassy.” It’s probable that most viewers won’t find themselves in the former category.
Preceding the film in most engagements is a Mickey Mouse short, “Get a Horse!,” which turns from a small-screen black-and white copy of a thirties cartoon into full widescreen, color glory as Mickey literally bursts through the screen while trying to rescue Minnie from the clutches of Peg-Leg Pete. A throwback that turns into a wacky exhibition of what modern technology can do, it also features the archival voice of Walt himself as Mickey. Sadly, it shows more imagination in a few minutes than one finds in the whole movie that follows it.