Before a single frame of the new Disney Animation Studios (aka not-Pixar) feature FROZEN is shown, you'll probably have an inkling that something special is in store when the Mickey Mouse short GET A HORSE begins. A flawless re-creation of some of the earliest black-and-white Mickey cartoons (complete with "film" blemishes and a warbly soundtrack (including snippets of Walt Disney's own Mickey voice work), the short goes places that no old-school animation ever went and few modern 3-D works would dream of going. The short's purpose is to remind us where it all began and that the imagination that came up with a talking mouse as a corporation mascot is still alive and well. Of course if the feature that follows doesn't hold up, that message could be lost as quickly as it was delievered.
Thankfully, FROZEN works on just about every level--as a lavish spectacle, a catchy musical, and a reminder that being different has its place in the world. The story centers on two young sisters: Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) and the older Elsa (Broadway star Idina Menzel), who discovers at an early age that she has the sometimes uncontrollable ability to make everything around her ice up. At one point it happens so much that Anna is hurt, filling Elsa with such guilt that she secludes herself in her room and the two almost never see each other.
When they get older, it is time for Elsa to have something of a coming-out part as an official princess, and while she thinks her powers are under control, she eventually unleashes them and the entire kingdom of Arendelle ends up under what could be a never-ending ice age. The deep freeze was triggered by the impulsive Anna telling her sister that she wants to marry a strapping young man named Hans (Santino Fontana), who she's just met that same day. Elsa disapproves, and her anger gets the better of her, causing her to panic and leave the kingdom for a self-made palace of ice far up in the mountains. Feeling responsible, Elsa hightails it after her, meets up with now-out-of-work ice salesman Kristoff (Jonathan Groff of "Glee") and his faithful reindeer Sven (who does not talk, thankfully).
All the while, both princesses sing and dance (to new songs by the team of Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez) amid the most stunningly rendered animated snow and ice I've ever seen. The ice palace is a massive crystalline marvel that reflect light so intensely and in such glorious patterns that you sometimes have to remind yourself to pay attention to the story at hand or get lost in the production design. As strange as it may seem, one of FROZEN's riskiest elements is a snowman named Olaf, a creature that the sisters made as children, and who has been brought to life with some magic and voiced amusingly by Josh Gad ("The Book of Mormon"), whose sung testament to the glories of summer is one of the film's highlights.
There is something both utterly unique and so completely Disney about these characters that it's hard to know which aspects of them I love most. Anna is such a strong-willed person, convinced that she can talk her sister into undoing the damage she's done that even those who complain about Disney princesses would have a tough time complaining about her worthiness as a role model. Bell embraces the character with the perfect blend of childish spirit and adult responsibility. While Menzel brings a set of pipes that makes the song "Let It Go" fly right off the screen and into the pantheon of great movie musical numbers.
Directors Chris Buck (SURF'S UP, TARZAN) and Jennifer Lee (a screenwriter of WRECK-IT RALPH) have taken this story loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen" and turned it into a beautiful lesson about leaning on family, friends and self when times seek their most bleak. At some point Elsa realizes that she can't undo what she's done, and that sends her into an emotional tailspin that nearly destroys everyone she cares about. It's a terrifying display (maybe the only one in this film that might make the little ones antsy), but an incredible movie moment, especially when she comes out of it.
To call FROZEN a return to Disney form is too easy. I was a fan of TANGLED when it was released, but that seems lightweight compared to this latest work, which feels like a story with something at stake besides whether the princess ends up with the handsomest fella. I'm not sure yet if FROZEN is the best animated film I've seen all year (it's certainly in contention), but it's the one I was most happy to see turn out so damn well.