Disney has a long, storied history with animated films. But from 1989 through, I don't know, 1995 or 1997 (if you loved Hercules) or 1999 (if you'll go to the line for Tarzan), Disney's animated films hit a string of quality that earned the distinction of the "Disney renaissance." During this period, they unleashed The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, and with the help of Pixar, Toy Story. This was followed by a rough period in which Pixar's films outshone Disney proper, coupled with the unfortunate news that Disney Animation Studios was shutting down its hand-drawn animation department. But then came The Princess and the Frog and Tangled, which were followed with the successes of Wreck-It Ralph and Frankenweenie, and Pixar's fortunes (creative, not financial) took a turn post-Toy Story 3. All of this is to say that if you were mounting a case that a second Disney renaissance is upon us, Frozen would be an integral piece of evidence.
The film, inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen," tells the story of princesses Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel). Elsa was born with icy powers, and as a result keeps herself locked away from everyone else. When Elsa becomes queen of the kingdom, her powers slip, causing a permanent winter in which she exiles herself. Anna takes it upon herself to find her sister and break the winter, with the help of ice trader Kristoff (Jonathan Groff).
The first thing you notice about Frozen's greatness is the music: with a score by Christophe Beck and music and lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez (who's known on Broadway for his work with Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon), these songs are incredibly catchy and great. The showstopper, of course, is "Let It Go," which is Elsa's big moment of self-confidence. It's the kind of song that's sure to strike a chord with anyone afraid to be themselves. Even the throwaways - like talking snowman Olaf's (Josh Gad) ditty about wanting to know what summer's like - are great fun. But I keep coming back to the first big number, "Do You Want to Build a Snowman?" This is the song that cuts to the heart of the film: two sisters growing apart, with one desperately eager to hang out with the other but met with silence. It's the saddest opening five minutes of a Disney film since Up.
However, as great as the music is, it wouldn't be nearly as effective without the strong, multi-dimensional characters at the film's center. Directors Jennifer Lee (who wrote the screenplay for this and Wreck-It Ralph) and Chris Buck (who gets a story credit along with Lee and Shane Morris and is perhaps best known for directing Tarzan) take the time to make Anna, Elsa, and Kristoff decidedly flawed human beings, but doesn't judge them for it. Anna may be a little ditzy, and Elsa a little self-centered, but that makes them all the more endearing, especially given the fact that several early Disney princesses come off as nothing short of perfection. Those flaws turn out to counter-balance each other, too, which makes it all the more evident that these two need each other. Kristoff, too, comes off as goofy but sincere, a guy who's doing the best he can with what he's been given in life. Even Olaf, who's mostly there for comic relief (and merchandise sales), is used sparingly enough that he never dominates the film.
To that end, credit must be given to the outstanding voice cast. Bell does a fantastic job with Anna's energy and her singing voice is terrific. Menzel, of course, steals the show, which is to be expected. Groff's work with Kristoff is smartly subdued and genuinely sweet, making him completely swoon-worthy. And as Hans, the man who first woos Anna but may have ulterior motives, Broadway vet Santino Fontana is delightfully cocky and really showcases his voice in "Love is an Open Door" (interestingly enough, he was also the Prince in the recent Broadway production of Roger & Hammerstein's Cinderella).
As much as Pixar has been a focal point of conversation about emotionally complex animated films, Disney has been doing a great job lately at crafting stories that not only feature fantastic music, but also find real heart and pathos in their characters, particularly their princesses. Frozen is just the latest example of this. A