This is Disney’s latest fairy tale retelling and princess movie, “inspired by” Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. If you haven’t read it, you probably won’t gain anything by reading it before you watch the movie. If you’re very familiar with the original story, you will find comfortable echoes here and there. This is a complete list of what the two have in common: winter, a queen of ice/snow, a girl who sets out on an adventure through the ice to save someone she loves, a reindeer and various frozen body parts. But that’s not a negative criticism. This movie became something all its own, even averting expectations we have come to expect of Disney movies in general, all for the better. It was not perfect, by any means, but it most certainly deserves a great deal of commendation.
This review will be a two-parter: non-spoiler aspects in this part, and spoilers in the next one found here.
Adaptation: Hans Christian Andersen and Disney
I was never quite comfortable with the idea of Disney retelling The Snow Queen, which I love for its subtlety, undertones and understating nature. The last Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale that Disney adapted into a full-length feature was The Little Mermaid, which bore enough resemblance to the original fairy tale to be utterly unmistakable, and yet the message (the salvation of the mermaid through her ultimate act of selfless love) was lost in favor of a lesser one (chase your dreams regardless of cost, and it’ll all work out). But anyone could have predicted that: Disney invented True Love’s Kiss, after all, which has become a cornerstone of fairy tales as though it were not less than a century old.
There have been other adaptations of Andersen’s work by Disney, and not all disappointing. Fantasia 2000‘s adaptation of The Steadfast Tin Soldier is the height of disappointing in what I found to be the utter loss of compelling storytelling and poignancy, while The Little Matchgirl remained poignant and touching in Disney’s hands.
The Snow Queen already has a happy ending, but it is also a long tale, wrought with complexity, told in seven parts. The first part is a short explanation about a mirror made by a troll or the Devil, which reflects only evil and never good; this mirror shatters and its fragments fall throughout the world. In the second part, we meet our main characters, Kai and Gerda, who are children living in a city. Fragments of the mirror fall into Kai’s eye and heart, and the kind little boy begins acting cold and cruel. Finally, on happening upon the Snow Queen, who kisses away his ability to feel the cold and his memories, he follows her away. Heartbroken, Gerda sets out on a journey to bring him home. The subsequent four parts detail various people Gerda meets on her journey. In the final part, Gerda’s loving tears melt Kai’s frozen heart, he succeeds in a task that the Snow Queen set as a condition for his freedom, and he and Gerda return home to find the spring, and that they have grown into man and woman.
I used to cringe, thinking how the public consciousness might become as confused about the Snow Queen as it has about tales like Cinderella, Snow White, the Little Mermaid and even Pocahontas. Andersen’s tale is dark, and with good reason. It is a heavily metaphorical tale: every stage of Gerda’s journey serves a purpose in demonstrating her growth from childhood to womanhood while maintaining her sincerity and innocence. But the details of that are for its own review.
According to the creators, they formerly had a version more similar to the original fairy tale; but upon trying to give the Snow Queen a more sympathetic personality, they found all the characters became flat and simplistic. This prompted them to reorganize the setting so that the Snow Queen and the protagonist were siblings. Armed with this setting, Kai’s role becomes incidental; and so he does not exist in Disney’s version. This premise became both the bullet that sink Frozen as an adaptation, and the wings that make it take off as the most original, well-made Disney animation since Beauty and the Beast.
The Story and the Writing
This, above and beyond anything else, is a story about two sisters: Elsa, the elder, who has ice magic, and Anna, the younger. In the span of the first ten minutes, Elsa harms Anna with her magic as a child, instilling fear of herself and her out-of-control magic within her, their parents die, and Elsa and Anna come into adulthood isolated and estranged. After that sprint, the movie strikes a remarkable balance of character and plot development (until the last fifteen minutes or so, when it starts tripping over itself).
There are two principle male characters: Prince Hans and Kristoff the ice seller. Though this is perhaps a more subjective opinion, I find that both characters’ presence in the story is only necessary as the means to or through which Anna and Elsa convey certain traits or emotions.
After reading reviews and comments on several websites, I found that the vast majority of people who did not enjoy this film seem to be men. Some criticize the humor and lack of action; some complain that it’s not what they would expect of a Disney film and therefore disappointing. Most complaints that did not fall into the above category seemed to me to demonstrate a lack of understanding or attention to the story, which led me to the conclusion that the film probably simply bored these people. This is understandable, for this is a largely emotion-centric story.
This is not to say that there isn’t action. There is–but not as much as in Tangled, for instance. When I say emotion-centric, I don’t mean they dedicate too much time to a couple, or even to Elsa and Anna’s relationship. No, the focus of this film is Elsa and Anna’s individual traumas, and learning to live with the cards life has dealt them. Elsa has her terror of herself, of letting anyone close lest she hurt them, even of feeling at all because this causes her to lose what tenuous control of her magic she does have. Anna has her sorrow and confusion at having been shut out by Elsa, loneliness due to years of isolation and a desperate desire to be loved.
Their individual stories affect each other a great deal, naturally, but in the end, each is in the midst of her own struggle.
Disney has done sibling drama in their animations before, but the thing is, usually it does it from the point of view of one or the other. The closest it ever came to this was with the sisters in Lilo and Stitch; yet even there it was rather under-done, because—being the center of that movie—Stitch and his involvement was the one to save their family. The sisters’ characters and relationship were central to that film, but not the center. The age difference and overall scenario also lent to that particular film a relationship a little more akin to that of a parent and child than siblings.
Not so with Elsa and Anna. These are merely sisters. Even after their parents’ deaths, Elsa maintained her isolation and by extension, Anna’s.
The consequence of this—apart from boring people who expect more action and excitement—is that it might be hard to stomach for a person who cannot identify with or empathize with Elsa and/or Anna’s plights.
There still is humor, and plenty of it. Anna is practically reminiscent of Giselle from Enchanted in how much comedy her whimsical nature yields, an aspect which becomes amplified when she brandishes whimsy against someone armed with that trusty weapon of common sense (mostly Kristoff). Kristoff himself is quite comedic too. Olaf the snowman and the trolls are the comedic characters, and for the most part, they (surprisingly) did not disappoint me.
“I never knew winter could be so beautiful,” says Anna in the film, and it’s true. If you walk into this film expecting nothing but whites and greys, you will be pleasantly surprised (or unpleasantly so, perhaps) to find that the animators have turned the ice into an experience of colors.
Certainly, there is a lot of white and grey. Particularly in the beginning, a great deal takes place in the dark, and there is an overall muted tone to the visuals (with the exception of a sequence during Anna’s “I want” song For the First Time in Forever). Even then, the snow and ice are beautiful: individual snowflakes seem to be carefully crafted and unique, and the ice is captivating.
But then, thirty minutes into the film, it takes off. Ice is all sorts of pinks and purples and every shade of blue. Gusts of wind in the snow become eye-grabbing. When dusk hits the ice and the colors become more orange, it is all the more stunning to look at. Texture on not only snow and ice, but also other things such as clothing and hair is so well-done that it seems like you could reach out and feel it.
The most obvious effort of the animators is apparent when Elsa and Anna laugh together. Though similarly designed overall—which was, perhaps, a shortcut for the animators, but comes off wonderfully as familial similarity—their expressions are very different. The way their faces express joy, determination and anger shows how different they are. Still, though, there is enough similarity that when they laugh together, the viewer truly feels like he or she is watching a pair of sisters.
Truly, remarkably done.
This movie has a great deal of music. In fact, the backbone of this film lies in its music.
As everyone’s no doubt already heard, Broadway legend Idina Menzel, who played the original Elphaba in Wicked productions in both New York and London, voices Elsa. She delivers a stunning quality to Elsa, demonstrating in both her speech and song vulnerability, fear, elation and strength in equal measure. But Kristin Bell who voices Anna is no slouch, and the gentler quality of her voice beside Menzel’s vocals works out perfectly: never is it more clear than in their duets how innocent and optimistic Anna is beside the terrified, powerful Elsa.
The overall score, orchestral and grand, was composed by Christophe Beck. The songs were written by Robert Lopez and Kristin Anderson-Lopez. The Lopezes created music that is heavily evocative of Broadway musicals, while Beck creates an overall atmosphere that is more in keeping with mainstream films. Even without the differing styles, the disparity between the composers is made very clear at times by the different instrumentation, but this does not necessarily distract from the film. Beck’s score creates a perfect atmosphere throughout the film, dark and dreadful and joyous and light in turn, heightening the viewer’s appreciation for the range of emotions experienced by the characters through the story. At the same time, there are very few throwaway songs. Most of them serve a very distinct purpose: only Kristoff’s short “duet,” Olaf’s comedic song about summer and the troll’s matchmaking song could perhaps be skipped without any great loss to the story overall.
The complaint about the music that most often seems to get voiced (which is more often voiced as a compliment, in fact) is that while the orchestral score is more reminiscent of traditional Disney princess films, the more Broadway-inspired vocal pieces seem somewhat out of place. I did not find this to be the case, and know some individuals as well as read reviews by others who claim to ordinarily dislike singing in film that did not mind it here. A good measure if how you’ll feel about this is Idina Menzel’s musical centerpiece, Let It Go. I recommend searching for it on YouTube if you want to get a feel for how you might feel about the vocal pieces in this film.
The lyrics of each piece are carefully written so that when one goes back and looks at them after seeing the film, one can still discover layers to many of them. Even the three songs previously named as not necessarily important to the overall story contain layers that, upon paying close attention to the words, contain character-establishing phrases, foreshadowing and insight.
I’m recommending this film to absolutely everyone, so here it is again: I highly recommend it. Maybe you won’t like it, but it’s definitely the sort of film that deserves a chance–on the big screen, if possible!