The problem with princesses, you see, is that they don’t exist. Not anymore.
Not even in the land or world, or eventual universe – though even that sounds small – of Disney, where the mold for a perfectly practical, practically perfect princess was cast. Hans Christian Andersen contributed many of those prototypes, including the heroine sisters in “Frozen,” Disney’s latest foray into Andersenland. Thankfully, that royal mythology begins to melt just a little. Hipster parents and ever-smarter little feminists rejoice!
It’s not about the man anymore, in that it’s not about romance. Men are present, two in fact, and love still saves the day, though in a most charming, actually surprising way. When it comes, it makes perfect sense, too. Here, we have a fairy tale whose ending, though not spoon-bending, is warm and magical in its own perfect way.
In the little mountain village of Arendelle, Norway, where locals look ugly, royalty looks appalled, and everyone’s baking bread, two sisters rule the castle. Their parents have passed, and the elder Elsa, who has long suppressed her secret gift after a childhood accident involving her younger sister Anna, is now in charge. How will her kingdom accept their queen, and her questionable talents?
The film’s real action starts with Elsa’s coronation, a reluctant ascension for the reclusive daughter. When her powers are accidentally revealed to her new constituents, feelings fly rampant – some find it fascinating, and some find it terrifying; she is uncomfortable either way. Anna’s self-imposed task is to protect her sister and maybe, perhaps, live happily ever after. That their parallel quests compete for our attention is a problem with the screenplay, but they entwine eventually.
It’s a lighthearted affair, and not nearly dangerous enough. Still, a tween-friendly musical fairy tale based on the particularly dark “The Snow Queen” is not an easy sell. In its simplification, some of the source material’s subversions are left untidy. It’s one of those just-go-with-it movies.
Take, for instance, young queen Elsa’s unexplained ability to turn things into snow and ice, including her young sister’s heart. Her powers are not malicious, yet are mistaken for something deadly by unsuspecting villagers and an appropriately gross bad man. Others are quick to warm to her uniqueness. “The head is easy to warm,” implies a boulder-turned-troll-king (go with it), “but the heart is another matter.”
This is the core of this story, told over and over and over again: We cannot extinguish love with ice, neither within nor between us. A decidedly more soulful conquest than that of a prince, who in these stories is rarely seen as worthy, anyway. A young woman’s love for her own potential kingdom, whether on the throne or not (usually not), is the target here, and this hits that millennial narrative in the head.
The film loses some of that traction, though, by treating it as a more modern ideal than we ought to see it as. Could the pursuit of one’s own self-value, and the ability to let others into your evil-branded identity be that new? Feminism and women’s lib aside, isn’t the humanistic goal of validation and purpose the most important of them all? The Golden Rule wasn’t born on Facebook; so why skin this language and temperament with a modernized tone, when it could be presented as something more classical, more universal, more undeniably truthful. This is a 168-year-old story.
Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez’s songs are a huge letdown. Lopez, of “Avenue Q” and “Book of Mormon” fame, fails to live up to his credentials. Lyrics are perfectly inane, which granted, is a product of the story’s shallow, repeated single metaphor, but that’s no excuse for these lines. Adults nearby me at a preview screening, who laughed appropriately at the wittier dialogue throughout, were heard laughing wrongly at lyrics; I was right there with them.
In the same vein, Anna (Kristen Bell) appears too common when paired with two potential suitors. It makes you long for a princess-like young woman – poised, polite, educated, gracious – who just so happens to be breaking free from her constraints. She is like any other teenager, instead, which ironically works against her character’s possibilities.
Idina Menzel’s performance as Elsa is more engaging, by comparison. Perhaps it’s that Elsa’s story is almost identical to that of “Wicked’s” Elphaba, the similarly subverted Wicked Witch of the West role Menzel originated on Broadway. That role also offered a brave young woman blessed (cursed?) into uniqueness, and misunderstood into a corner. Her self-worth sets her free.
These are the women of valor to which our girls should be warm.
3 stars (Out of four)
With the voices of: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Josh Gad, Jonathan Groff
Directors: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee
Running time: 108 minutes
Rating: PG for some action and mild rude humor.
The Lowdown: Animated tale about a fearless optimist who goes on an epic journey to find her sister, whose icy powers have trapped her kingdom in eternal winter.