*This blog was originally written in February of 2014. It has been resurrected here for historical purposes (I may periodically write about my favorite films of other years of my life later). And also because Frozen is freakin’ awesome.*
Frozen is my favorite film of 2013. I haven’t been so enamored with an animated film since Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo back in 2009, and I haven’t felt so strongly for an American animated feature since The Incredibles back in 2004. I will even go so far as to say Frozen has become my favorite Disney film. But what is it that makes it so special?
The marketing campaign that Disney created for Frozen may have been the most misleading I have ever seen. The film’s first teaser – which focused on a snowman and a reindeer fighting over a carrot – was fun, but didn’t exactly tell you Disney was aiming to create an animated masterpiece. The later trailers and commercials were even less forgivable. The advertisements contained music that was too sugary, and seemed like they were trying too hard to make the film look “cool” for today’s youngsters. Once again, they featured that snowman so prominently it would be easy for someone to think the movie was about little more than the wisecracks and slapstick of this sidekick. You might not have even noticed the two sisters who would end up being the stars of the show.
Well, this was either the worst marketing I’ve ever seen, or the very best, depending on how you look at things. I went into Frozen with very little expectations. But after my attention was grabbed by the delightful short film Get a Horse (it in itself an absolute delight), I was surprised to realize that, well, I was surprised. From its opening moments to its heartfelt finale, Frozen was one of the most joyous movie experiences I’ve ever had.
Disney films, as much as I love them, are often predictable. It’s something most Disney fans don’t want to admit, but Disney characters are often more archetypal than deep. The songs are often meant to regain our attention after slower moments, and the stories, while undeniably charming, go in the exact directions you would expect.
How delighted I was then, that Frozen’s characters are not dictated by the plot, but the story is instead centered around the emotional depths and relationships of its characters. It’s soundtrack is the very best in the studio’s history, and the non-musical moments are equally entertaining. Oh, and that snowman, who looked so forced on the advertisements, ended up being as endearing as any character that has ever come out of the Disney brand.
In short, no Disney film has surprised and delighted me in the way Frozen has.
At the heart of the story are Anna and Elsa, the two strongest and most likable female leads Disney has ever created. This is a film that is entirely focused on, and driven by, these two sisters. There’s still adventure, action, comedy and romance, just as there is in most Disney films. But at the heart of it all is the relationship between Anna and Elsa, two sisters who love each other, but have forgotten what it means to love.
Elsa possesses magical powers that are as dangerous as they are beautiful. In order to protect the people she loves from herself, she locks herself away in her room, shutting out the rest of the world. Fear effectively takes control of Elsa’s life, and Anna’s life becomes equally as lonely because of it.
The opening moments of the film, which explains this emotional setup through the song “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” has been compared to the opening moments from Pixar’s Up, famous for bringing audiences to tears. But I’ll go ahead and say I think Frozen’s opening is the more effective of the two. Up, great as it is, often lost that tone during the course of the adventure, but Frozen is more consistent. Even with all the humor and charm, the emotion that begins at the start of the film permeates at the core of the story throughout.
In these moments we see the changes that occur within Anna and Elsa. As children they are as close as can be, but as they get older we see how fear, loneliness and loss make them grow distant. Anna knocks on her sister’s door daily, at first asking Elsa if she wants to play and build a snowman. Eventually her enthusiasm disappears, and she simply pleads with her sister to let her in (literally she means for her sister to open her door, thematically she means for Elsa to open her heart to her again).
Despite the melancholy, Frozen is a joyous film. The emotional conflict between the sisters is always present, but Frozen isn’t about breaking hearts. As the leader of a group of trolls makes quite apparent in the latter half of the movie, this is a film all about warming our hearts. It’s as funny and well-written as it is heartfelt.
It’s all too easy to call Frozen a beautiful film. Its settings and visual effects are as eye-popping as any CG animated film yet made. The snowy landscapes and magical happenings are nothing short of stunning. But the film’s most beautiful aspect is the honesty of its story.
In this day and age, there’s a sense of sarcasm, and often cynicism, that accompanies animated movies. The CG animated pictures we see coming from most studios relish on wisecracking characters and smarmy references. Pixar has always stood out, sure, but they’re surrounded and outnumbered by far more obnoxious and insipid pictures.
But with Frozen, Disney has created a story, a fairy tale, as honest and sincere as any they’ve made. It’s modernized in the right ways (again, you won’t find female leads as strong and independent as Frozen’s in the older Disney films), but it never feels contrived to grab today’s audiences. It feels timeless, as all the best animated features do.
Disney has been getting back into their A-game for a few years now, with the likes of The Princess and the Frog, Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph being among the best animated films released in their respective years. But while all these films were great in their own right, they could, at times, feel a little forced, or not quite fulfill their concepts. But Frozen feels complete. Everything comes together fluidly and seamlessly. And in a rarity for Disney, Frozen takes many unexpected turns. When things start looking like they’ll fall right where we expect them to, Frozen finds ways to turn things on their heads.
As previously stated, the characters here are deeper and more complex than what we usually see from Disney. Not just Elsa and Anna, but the supporting cast as well. Kristoff isn’t exactly a prince charming, and like Anna, is a lonely individual who’s resorted to providing the voice of his own pet reindeer just to have someone to talk to. Frozen’s equivalent of prince charming, Prince Hans, also reveals to be a more layered character than his demeanor at first suggest. Even Olaf, that snowman we were introduced to before all the other characters, could have easily become an overbearing source for comic relief. Instead he’s a genuinely charming character who, in a rarity for Disney sidekicks, feels necessary to the story, as he serves an emotional connection between the main characters.
Perhaps the moment that best showcases what makes Frozen so thematically different from other Disney works is the musical number “Let it Go.” An obvious choice, sure. It’s only the film’s signature song, but it’s earned it’s reputation for a reason. For all intents and purposes, Elsa is Frozen’s primary antagonist. She’s certainly no villain, but her conflicts become everyone else’s conflicts. Her dilemmas create the obstacles for Anna to overcome. So while she may not wear villainy on her sleeve, she is, as far as narrative goes, the primary antagonist.
If this were any other Disney film, the character filling Elsa’s role would no doubt be a lot more sinister, and their defining musical number might include an expository ballad explaining their evil intentions. In its place, Frozen instead features a triumphant musical number. Let it Go is as celebratory as it is liberating, as it expresses Elsa freeing herself from the fear that has ruled her life. It’s thoughtful and empowering, and far more effective than simply having a villain sing of their evil deeds.
It’s true, some characters with sinister intentions do show up in the film, but their presence is secondary (and still serves thematic purposes) and more notably, they are never the driving force in the story. While most Disney movies feel completely reliant on their villains, Frozen is built entirely around its two heroines. Frozen isn’t about Anna and Elsa putting a stop to a villainous plot, it’s about the two sisters reconnecting.
This perhaps reflects Frozen’s greatest strengths. It’s a film that feels structured like the very best Disney movies, but narratively, it takes risks, and changes things up in ways most Disney films wouldn’t think to attempt. The marketing of the film alone showed Disney’s uncertainty to how audiences would take to the movie’s core relationship being between two sisters, but all the greater still is that the film constantly delights and surprises. It’s a testament to the skills of the filmmakers involved that Frozen’s surprises feel genuine. It doesn’t feel like it’s trying to avoid stereotypes and cliches, rather, it feels like a film that’s studied its predecessors, took the assets that worked, and used them as a backdrop to tell its own story.
Just about every Disney trope is either rewritten, reinvented, or written-off entirely. But unlike the aforementioned sarcastic animated films of today, Frozen never feels like a parody of its lineage. It celebrates the things we love about Disney movies while admitting to their faults. In turn it tells a story that’s more than deserving of being in the Disney canon, but it tells a story that’s all its own.
Frozen is a pure joy from start to finish. Its opening outdoes Pixar in the emotional department. And its final scene – which doesn’t focus on a kiss between one of the heroines and their love interest (though there is that too), but instead is the simple image of two sisters ice skating – is possibly the sweetest image in any Disney film. And everything in between is delightful, entertaining and magical.
On the surface, Frozen represents Disney doing what they do best, at their best. In its depth, Frozen is unlike anything Disney has ever done before.
Runner-up: The Wind Rises