It’s taken a few films and some experimentation but finally the John Lasseter touch has brought Walt Disney Animation back from the dead. Hollywood’s once leading and historic animation studio, which seemingly ran out of imaginative story ideas years ago, is officially back in business with “Frozen.”
As if fully aware of this resurrection, this 3D, wide-screen fairy tale comes with a fabulous animated short that virtually encapsulates the history of Disney animation.
Lauren MacMullan’s “Get a Horse!” begins as if it were an early black-and-white Mickey Mouse cartoon. Then it bursts from that ancient format into a colorful 3D chase that seemingly roars out into the audience much as Buster Keaton’s “Sherlock Jr.” and Woody Allen’s “The Purple Rose of Cairo” overstepped screen/proscenium boundaries.
With this as a foretaste, “Frozen” reverts to the Disney formula of old: a musical princess story with a fake European background and solid voice actors instead of celebrities.
But — a-hah, here’s the point — the film does so in an up-to-date fashion that features clever characters, female empowerment and terrific CG imagery. So it’s tried-and-true Disney but with a smart attitude and clever graphics.
Plus, the songs by the married team of Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez stand up to Disney’s musical best from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” and “Sleeping Beauty” to “Aladdin” and “The Lion King.”
The story draws inspiration from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.” Directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee (the latter wrote the script from a story by her, Buck and Shane Morris) situate the tale in the isolated Nordic kingdom of Arendelle many centuries ago.
The focus is on two sisters, an older, reclusive blonde Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel) and her dazzling, boisterous redheaded sister Anna (Kristen Bell). Unbeknownst to Anna, her elder sister has “dark” powers, which caused her years before to retreat from society, even withdrawing from the sisterly camaraderie they enjoyed as children.
When orphaned by the loss of their parents, Elsa is forced to take the throne in her late teens. Despite Elsa’s every precaution, this coronation forces her to remove a glove, which serves to unleash her sorcery.
Elsa possesses the magic to freeze everything, thus turning the kingdom into eternal winter. Not good for business … or the citizens or even the visiting dignitaries now trapped by their ice-locked sailing ships.
Before this happens though, Anna has met a handsome young prince named Hans (Santino Fontana), fallen in love within the space of a single song and determined to marry him. When Queen Elsa flees her kingdom to North Mountain, Anna puts Hans in charge and goes after her.
En route, she acquires lively traveling companions in a blond “ice-delivery” guy Kristoff (Jonathan Groff)), his trusty reindeer Sven and, most wonderful of all, a snowman named Olaf (the comically inventive Josh Gad) that tends to fall apart on any and all occasions.
The latter merely turns up, with no real introduction or explanation other than he is the snowman Elsa and Anna created as kids. (Where’s he been hanging out all this time?) But he makes a great companion and swiftly starts stealing scene after scene.
The trek up North Mountain and race back to frozen Arendelle involve heavy plotting, more dark magic including the creation of an ice monster and enough treachery and double-crosses for a spy movie. Throw in a clan of trolls that would not be out of place in “Snow White.”
The story seems to get better and better as it goes along while revealing more insights into each character. You do wonder why the princess is spending so much time with Kristoff when Hans has stolen her heart. But that’s all part of the many surprises the animators have in store.
The drawings and backgrounds are excellent although a few backdrops in the early scenes are rather static. The musical numbers unroll in the best traditions of Broadway by way of Tin Pan Alley. You can certainly detect the outline of the stage show “Frozen” is certainly designed to become for the Disney corporation.
The singing by the voice cast is quite good and the musical numbers come off with a panache unseen in Disney cartoons in eons. Add a potential best-selling soundtrack LP to the certain hit status “Frozen” will achieve.
Lasseter, who takes exec producer credit, has successfully steered Disney Animation Studios back to home port with “Frozen.” The next step is to sprinkle some Pixar fairy dust so as to further unleash the creativity of the Disney staff.
In a year that has frankly seen American animation fall into the doldrums, “Frozen” brings the sad slump to a promising end, both as a solid holiday entertainment for families and a cheerful reminder that Disney animation is on the comeback trail!
Opens: November 22, 2013 (Walt Disney Studios)
Production company: Walt Disney Animation Studio Voice cast: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Santino Fontana, Alan Tudyk, Ciaran Hinds, Chris Williams
Directors: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee
Screenwriter: Jennifer Lee
Story by Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee, Shane Morris
Inspired by The Snow Queen by: Hans Christian Andersen
Producers: Peter Del Vicho
Executive producer: John Lasseter
Art director: Michae Giaino
Production designer: David Womersley
Original songs: Kristen Anderson Lopez, Robert Lopez
Music: Christophe Beck
Visual effects supervisor: Steve Goldberg
Editor: Jeff Draheim
PG rating, 101 minutes