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Lest you forget amid all the noise made by Marvel Studios and Star Wars rumors, Walt Disney Pictures still does big business in princesses, and they're aiming to prove it with their mammoth new holiday season release Frozen. Very, very loosely adapted from Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale, it's the story of a vaguely Nordic kingdom and the two orphaned sisters, Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell), charged with running it. The spunky heroine and lonely castle hearken back to recent hit Tangled; the sisterly conflict feels like The Little Mermaid; the knowing fairy tales riffs are pure Enchanted. This is rigorous Disney hit-making at its finest, but with enough charm to get away with it.
Even before Elsa's powers of shooting ice and snow from her fingertips run rampant, the animation guided by directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee is stunning-- Elsa and Anna's parents perish in a single shot of a howling storm at sea, and the stony cliffs surrounding the village of Arrendel are dramatic even before coated in ice. Elsa revels in her powers as a little girl, but after a close call with Anna and a poorly aimed bolt of ice, she's convinced to hide her strengths and retreat from their tight sisterly bond. The death of the king and queen means Elsa must take over, but the stress of her coronation (and Anna's dumb-cluck decision to get engaged to a hunky prince she just met) makes her lose control. Elsa storms up into the mountains, leaving ice castles and blizzards in her wake and belting the power ballad "Let It Go." Especially as sung by Menzel it's a shameless riff on Wicked's "Defying Gravity"; that hasn't kept it from sticking in my head for weeks now, and good luck shaking it out of yours.
Anna's heroic journey is, refreshingly, not about a boy or even about herself-- she travels into the mountains to convince Elsa to return, and teams up with rugged ice salesman Kristof (Jonathan Groff) to get there. Kristof and Anna are going to fall for each other eventually, of course, and she'll ditch that princely fiancé Hans (Santino Fontana), but the focus remains firmly on Anna and Elsa, as Lee's screenplay repeatedly subverts fairy tale tropes to make them about sisterly, not romantic, love. The beats of the story and the catchy songs can feel a bit factory-produced-- funny sidekicks in the form of mountain trolls show up at the exact right time for a laugh, and the old man villains are shipped directly from Gaston's mob in Beauty and the Beast. But Frozen has all the right modern touches too, without falling into winky-wink Shrek territory.
It also pulls off a miracle in Olaf, the buck-toothed snowman you've seen in every ad and voiced by Book of Mormon's Josh Gad. The goofy sidekick is usually an exasperating pander to younger kids who might get restless after too much story, and even in the brilliant Mormon Gad tended to overplay his schlubby goofball hand. But Olaf is consistently, actually funny, and even has the film's best song in "In Summer," dreaming of how great a snowman's life will be in warmer times (Anna and Kristof don't have the heart to tell him the truth). Even Olaf's origin story helps highlight the relationship between the sisters-- Frozen's story may sometimes feel machine-made perfect, but there's satisfaction in watching a production this big stay so resolutely on point.
Debuting her serious pipes after making her name on television, Kristen Bell is a righteously spunky and funny heroine, while Menzel ably shoulders the film's heaviest drama (and by far the best princess dresses, to be seen on Halloween racks everywhere next fall). Both girls are heroines on the level of Belle, Jasmine or Ariel, and do them one better by choosing family over more conventional romance-- a nice contrast to, say, Bella of Twilight. Big animated movies are under crazy pressure to teach kids the "right" lessons, but Frozen wears that pressure lightly, putting much more focus on its gorgeous animation, its insanely catchy songs and its well-earned emotional highs. Especially as Disney turns toward revamping older princesses like Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella for live-action dramas, it's a pleasure to see the studio go back to what they've always done well and prove they've still got it.