Congenial "Frozen" Slips Up With Unfocused Story

The cover of Broadway hangs heavily over “Frozen,” a slick, charming, but overly deliberate attempt to restore Disney Animation to its glory days. “The Lion King” this is not, although the film’s opening vocal strains certainly recall that bona fide classic – and its massively successful Broadway adaptation. Which is clearly part of Disney’s aim here. They’ve loosely spun Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen” into a feature length female empowerment yarn. Add to that some catchy songs and the Mouse House is likely thinking instant franchise – film sequels, endless merchandising opportunities, and an inevitable stage show.

It’s a shrewd (some might say cynical) approach that’s felt in the pic’s whiplash-inducing story. That the film owes more to the smash-hit musical “Wicked” than it does to its supposed source material is telling. Like “Wicked,” it features two female co-leads, one childlike and bubbly and the other a troubled outcast. And like “Wicked,” the latter is played by Idina Menzel – Elphaba in “Wicked” and Elsa here in “Frozen.” Coincidence?

Giving Disney the benefit of the doubt, the narrative is still a patchwork of indistinct, underdeveloped characters traipsing through a familiar gauntlet of obstacles. Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Menzel) are sisters (and princesses), Elsa being the first in line to the throne of Arendelle. When Elsa accidentally injures her younger sister with her magical powers, their parents are left with no choice but to keep Elsa isolated from her sister and the world at-large for years on end.

Eventually, it’s Elsa’s turn to be Queen, but her Coronation Day is interrupted by Anna’s romantic indiscretions. In the span of a few hours, Anna meets, falls in love with, and agrees to marry a suave Prince named Hans. In a rage, Elsa unleashes her magic, bringing a wintery pall to her kingdom – a storm with no end in sight. She escapes to a nearby mountain and constructs an ice palace for herself, as to spare her subjects from further pain and suffering.

But Anna is in hot pursuit, accompanied by the newest man in her life – the laid back working stiff, Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and his pet reindeer, Sven. The trio ultimately joins forces with a lovably goofy snowman, Olaf (Josh Gad), and continues their pursuit of the wayward Queen. The screenplay by co-directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee and writer Shane Morris is crammed with zigs and zags, but little of it harbors any consequence. No character emerges as fully fledged lead – Anna comes the closest – while the vast array of ancillary players (including Alan Tudyk as the cranky, old Duke of Weselton) overwhelms at times. The low point comes in the form of a musical number performed by a troupe of trolls. It’s a sequence that only serves to pad the brief running time, albeit one that feels longer than it is.

Buck and Lee don’t seem to be on the same page as directors, the project emanating a “too many cooks in the kitchen” vibe that it never shakes. But such is life at The Walt Disney Company and there’s enough of that classic Disney charm to make the film salvageable. The message at the core of the narrative – once it comes into focus – is a welcome one, one that Disney hasn’t quite broached before. The film’s target audience, young girls, will likely adore the characters, the visuals, and the music, but more importantly, they’ll be bequeathed with a message worthy of their hearts and minds.

Josh Gad, the breakout star of Broadway’s “The Book Of Mormon,” breaks out here, too, providing the film with the comic touch it lacks in its first half. Olaf is as funny as he is adorable, which is no small feat, and his headlining musical number is one of the pic’s highlights. Bell (a surprisingly good singer) and Menzel get predictably sugary musical moments, but they make the most of them, belting out the soaring melodies with aplomb.

For all its shortcomings, “Frozen” should age well. Despite a few technological references that won’t, the film’s message is timeless but fresh. Let’s not induct it into the ranks of “Beauty And The Beast” and “The Lion King” – it doesn’t comes close to reaching those heights – but it’s a reasonably fun time at the movies for all ages. For those who’ve missed the kinds of Disney musicals they grew up with (read: everyone over the age of 15), “Frozen” should evoke a few sweet pangs of nostalgia. And for those too young to remember when “The Lion King” ruled the world, they won’t know what they’re missing.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: November 27, 2013
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
Director: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee
Screenwriter: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee, Shane Morris
Starring: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Santino Fontana, Alan Tudyk
MPAA Rating: PG (for some action and mild rude humor)