Wreck-It Ralph was a revelation: a fairytale for the videogame age about the true meaning of villainy and heroism. Now Ralph's cowriter, Jennifer Lee, has written and co-directed a new film, Frozen, in which one of the all-time great fairytale villains gets a whole new outlook.
Minor spoilers ahead...
Frozen is loosely based on a fable by Hans Christian Andersen, The Snow Queen, in which the eponymous Snow Queen is kind of a nasty piece of work. But in Frozen, the Snow Queen is in a similar position to Wreck-It Ralph — she's a misunderstood figure, whom almost everybody sees as a villain.
Without giving too much away, Frozen is about two Princesses: Elsa (Idina Menzel) and her sister Anna (Kristen Bell). Elsa has ice powers, somewhat akin to Iceman from the X-Men. But she can't really control them, so her parents encourage her to suppress them, and keep her locked away. But that backfires (back-ices?) when Elsa grows up and becomes queen herself, and winds up plunging the land into an eternal winter when she loses control.
The thing that's great about Frozen is that it refuses ever to turn the question of Elsa's out-of-control powers into a simple metaphor for female empowerment, or growing up, or believing in yourself. Elsa and Anna both remain emotionally complex and flawed characters, who behave foolishly and selfishly at times, but their bond as sisters is always at the heart of the movie. The movie lets us see how Elsa's confinement has damaged both sisters, without ever offering us a capital-M Metaphor.
A lot of animated kids' films fall into the trap of using ridiculous plot contrivances just to shore up a simplistic message — but Frozen has the courage to be a bit more messy, so that by the time you get to an ending that does bring everything together, it feels less like a final plot hammer descending and more like a real resolution.
Like Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen's Snow Queen becomes a villain because that's what pretty much everybody expects of her. She's isolated and has a power that only seems to be capable of ruining everything. Unlike Ralph, though, she can't even imagine a version of the world where she's the hero instead of the villain — she's just trapped in her role as exiled monster, and can either embrace it or accept it.
The fact that Frozen turns a fairytale villainness into a sympathetic and complicated character — who gets the best songs — results in an escapist cartoon that's feminist in a subtler way than your standard "girl power" story. And the way this film puts the relationship between two sisters front and center, while still offering up a strong male characters in Hans (Santino Fontana) and Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), is also very nicely done.
At the same time, Frozen is nowhere near as good as Wreck-It Ralph — which is to say, it falls short of perfection. The world-building is a little scattershot, as compared to Ralph's richly imagined video-game multiverse. Some of the story beats are a little murky, and some of the twists seem to come out of nowhere. Some of the set pieces overstay their welcomes. Frozen doesn't have quite as much sheer cleverness or inventiveness, minute by minute, as Ralph dazzled us with.
But the heart of Frozen is really strong, and the major characters feel fully realized. This film has the same genius for juxtaposing the archetypes that are placed on people with the messy reality of being a person in the world. And there are some real, solid, moments in the film that will grab you by the heart.
Frozen is aggressively musical — it's not just one of those animated films where a few key moments have characters singing. Pretty much any time anybody wants to say anything in Frozen, there's a musical number. Musical numbers end, only to segue into other musical numbers. The good news is, the songs are the work of Avenue Q/Book of Mormon co-creator Robert Lopez and his wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez, and they are as catchy as hell. And they massively amp up the emotional intensity of the story, when they're not adding a bit more comedy to the procedings.
And that's the other thing — this film is goofy as heck. It's not over-the-top silly, so much as just gently wacky. From Olaf the dim-witted snowman (read our interview with actor Josh Gad here) to the nutty Duke of Weselton (Alan Tudyk, fully bringing it) Frozen is just a little bit addled, in a mostly good way. And there is some truly bodacious slapstick in this film, much of it having to do with ice-related mishaps.
The other thing that's worth mentioning about Frozen: it's beautifully animated. For a film in which ice and snow drive a lot of the story, Frozen devotes a lot of attention to getting their texture and consistency just right. There are countless scenes where the powderiness of snow or the slickness of ice is conveyed not just by how they affect the characters who interact with them, but also how light plays across them. A small army of computer professionals probably spent months cooped up somewhere trying to get those textures right, and they did good.
All in all, it's tempting to say Frozen does for fairytales what Ralph did for video games — but it's more like both movies take our current obsession with heroes and villains and open it up a little bit, by showing how those roles are just roles.
And with fairytales holding so much sway over our collective imagination just now, it's great to see films like this Frozen (and Brave) that replace the usual opaque wickedness with something more personal, that opens a magic window onto the real experience of growing up and finding yourself as a person.