There's a special place in the heart reserved for wisecracking candlesticks, singing crustaceans, and lion cubs growing up to be mighty kings. It's a place where nostalgia is kept, where a warm feeling swells at the thought of things that we used to love, that used to be great.
For the better part of this new century, Disney's animated features resided there.
With a string of brilliant animated musicals in the late '80s and '90s—The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King—the House of Mouse reigned, with hit after hit of family-friendly cartoons that dominated the box office, dazzled critics, and warmed cold hearts with signature Disney magic and catchy tunes. The Magic Kingdom was overthrown in the new millennium, with Pixar delivering its own brand of reliably wholesome and reliably brilliant films—Toy Story 2, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Up, Wall-E—while Disney struggled to adapt its magic to a new tech-savvy age.
Frozen, which hits theaters Wednesday, is the best Disney film since The Lion King, and a powerful reminder of how astonishing the company's magic can really be. This is also, as it happens, the third consecutive year that Disney's big animated release is better than Pixar's. The knee-jerk reaction to such a thing would be to call Disney the new Pixar. But the more accurate coronation is that Disney is the new Disney.
Frozen pulls off its animated abracadabra by conjuring up the elements that made Disney's modern classics just that. It's about two sister princesses—this is Disney, did you really expect anything else?—in the Scandinavian kingdom of Arendelle whose relationship is tested when their parents die in a tragic accident—again, this is Disney, did you really expect anything else? Mostly, though, it's about the transformative powers of true love, of both the sisterly and romantic kind. This is Disney, and we don't want to expect anything else.
Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell as an adult) and Elsa (Idina Menzel as an adult) are inseparable as little girls. They adore spending time with each other, especially when Elsa uses her secret power to make it snow inside the castle. As must be learned, great power comes with great responsibility. Elsa's lesson comes when she nearly kills Anna while casting a chilly spell. Anna is fine—a wise (and adorable) old troll erases her memory of the incident. But in Elsa's eyes, great responsibility means Rapunzel-ing herself in her castle bedroom, where her powers can't hurt anyone else.
But she does hurt Anna, every day, as her heart breaks at the transformation of her fun-loving best friend into a mysterious recluse. The dissolution of their relationship plays out in the achingly poignant duet "Do You Want to Build a Snowman?" sung by the girls from opposite sides of locked doors as the years pass and they grow into lonely adults. (This is where we see their parents die.) The sequence evokes the masterful montage from the beginning of Pixar's Up, but made perhaps even more wrenching by the essentially Disney element of song.
When Elsa comes of age, a ball is held to celebrate her becoming queen, the first time the people of Arendelle are allowed within the castle's walls since the death of her parents. Anna, spunky and cute with a tiara on her head and heart on her sleeve, delights in the company of others, including a prince she believes is her true love, and needles Elsa to allow it to happen more often, unable to understand why she won't. Frustrated at not being able to give Anna the happiness she wants, Elsa loses control of her powers, accidentally turning the entire kingdom into a frozen wasteland and outing herself as a magical freak.
She exiles herself to the mountains, and Anna chases after her, desperate to have her sister—and a warm kingdom—back.
From the fall of the first snowflake, Frozen is gorgeously animated, turning a dramatic Nordic landscape into a wintry animated wonderland. It's icing on the, well, ice that the film's story is as emotionally cascading as the setting.
With Anna, you have a female protagonist who is exceptionally female-positive. She's a princess, but she's a clumsy tomboy. She's beautiful, but she's headstrong. She's obsessed with falling in love—her meet-cute with Prince Hans (Santino Fontana) is as precious as their silly-and-lovely duet "Love Is an Open Door"—but learns that love isn't something that can be whipped out of thin air, like Elsa's snowflake, and that stories don’t always end with Happily Ever After, even if you are a princess. She's a multi-faceted, rich lead character, owed both to writer Jennifer Lee's scripting and Kristen Bell's perfectly precocious, zippy voice performance.
With Elsa, you get an adversary with much more nuance than anyone would expect. Though she's the one who buried her kingdom in snow and the one responsible for Anna's life-long loneliness, she's never the antagonist. It's fitting that Menzel voices the character, as the "how she got this way" insight given to Elsa is as empathetic and heartbreaking as the backstory in Wicked—Menzel starred as the Wicked Witch of the West, another not-quite-a-villain, in the Broadway production. Frozen's most rousing song, "Let It Go," is actually Elsa's, not Anna's, an empowerment ballad about Elsa deciding she's no longer going to be afraid of her powers. Menzel belts it out like an vocal blizzard.
Most animated films have you rooting for the guy and the girl to get together. By adding unexpected dimension to Elsa, this one has you more invested in the reunion of these sisters.
There's a flurry of other things to cherish about Frozen. Josh Gad turns talking snowman Olaf into a comedic sidekick that ranks alongside the Genie and Lumiere in Disney’s rich history of scene-stealers. Jonathan Groff turns a hapless mountaineer who talks to his pet reindeer into a swashbuckling Prince Charming. And while the ending might be written on the wall from the get go—again, this is a Disney movie!—the journey there careens in unexpected and satisfying ways. The original music is from husband-and-wife team Robert and Kristin Anderson-Lopez. Robert is the Tony-winning genius behind the music of The Book of Mormon, which explains the sly wit (Olaf's denial fantasy "In Summer" is particularly inspired) and appealing Broadway bombast of the songs.
All of this works together to make Frozen the most Disney-feeling film in over a decade, the crescendo of what's been an exciting build over the past few years. The Princess and the Frog was a welcome return to classic animation from the studio, but stayed perhaps too closely to its mission of reviving classic animation. While magical, it never felt special. Tangled confirmed that Disney Animation could compete with Pixar, but the plot was a bit knotty and the songs completely unmemorable. Last year's Wreck-It Ralph was a brilliantly conceived take on blurred lines between "good guys" and "bad guys" and executed with ample intelligence and sass, but it didn't feel Disney the way that Frozen does.
Disney getting its mojo back would be something to celebrate at any point; mojo by its definition is a great thing, and Disney's was particularly groovy. But it's especially welcome at a point when Pixar seems to be losing its own. For years, Pixar was this quirky little oasis of family film, where heart and humor were equally important and stories that should never work on film were turned into the best films. But following the stunning Toy Story 3 in 2010, the studio's been on an off streak, with the lazy Cars 2, the imperfect Brave, and the uninspired Monsters University.
It's as if the studios have reversed roles, with Pixar mired in sequelitis and write-by-number scripts while Disney gambles on out-of-the box story ideas (Wreck-It Ralph) and nostalgia (Frozen). There's no vindication in this, of course. The sooner Pixar gets back to making great movies again, the better. But if Pixar's going to slump, it's comforting that Disney is back to its old tricks.
The wise words in Frozen are that "Only an act of true love can thaw a frozen heart." Frozen proves that Disney we loved is, indeed, back…and back to melting hearts.