By Peter Hartlaub
It's a surprise the first time characters break into song in "Frozen," the throwback animated Disney film.
Has it been that long since a plot in a family film has been put on hold for a jaunty musical interlude? Has it been that long since we've seen a big-eyed, well-dressed princess, yearning to be swept off her feet? Has it been that long since happily ever after?
''Frozen" is a charming return to the genre, successful in its attempt to merge new technologies and musical styles into Disney's 76-year-old animated-princess-musical template. There's no "Whistle While You Work" in the soundtrack, but the music consistently entertains. The writing in particularly is smart, with nuanced characters and a premium on clever wordplay over cheap laughs and deprecating humor.
The story borrows elements from Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen," but feels about 600 rewrites away from the source material. Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel) is destined to be queen, then becomes an outcast when her sorceress-like winter powers freeze the Nordic countryside. Younger sister Anna (Kristen Bell) goes on a journey to find her and save their homeland.
Writer/directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee dial down the witchcraft and other dark elements, and introduce more modern merchandising-friendly characters. But it's hard to be cynical, when Olaf the talking snowman's song "In Summer" -- about his clueless yearning to live in tropical climes -- is so catchy and clever. Mountain man Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) has a nice thing going with Anna, arguably trumped by his chemistry with faithful reindeer sidekick Sven.
Unlike anything in "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," some of these songs would work on "Dance Dance Revolution." The centerpiece tune, "For the First Time in Forever," has a borderline "American Idol" vibe. But there are musical gems buried in the snow. "Reindeer are Better than People," ''In Summer" and "Love is an Open Door" all hit their mark, with the solid lyricism blending particularly well with the kinetic animation. Even as composers Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez successfully write more modern radio-friendly tracks, "Frozen" still feels like a first cousin to the Alan Menken/"Beauty and the Beast" years.
The 3D computer animation is technically very sharp, but seems dialed back at times, and is shot in wide-frame CinemaScope -- a subtle nod to some of the greater Disney classics. The queen's ice castle, built high on a mountain, is one of several set pieces that retains a hand-drawn richness.
The last time Disney did something like this, with the hand-animated "The Princess and the Frog" in 2009, the attempt to break the princess template was almost overly earnest. The studio wisely makes almost no concessions here. Anna is clumsy and intelligent and taken for granted -- she could join a misunderstood daughter support group with Merida from "Brave." But she is unapologetic in her desire to attend big parties in the castle and meet Mr. Right. In other words, there's enough material in here to keep feminist bloggers writing at least until the next ice age.
Whether they're right can be debated in thousands of future freshman comp term papers. For now, Disney has the ultimate defense: The studio made a great film.