The last time a Disney movie was adapted from the work of Hans Christian Andersen, it rejuvenated the studio's entire animation brand. And don't the makers of Frozen know it. There's more than a hint of The Little Mermaid to Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee's new animated comedy, which is similarly focused on the plucky, redheaded heir to a fabulous kingdom and her quest to find true love – a timeless fairy-tale scenario tricked out with a few putatively progressive 21st century twists.
To wit: even though Princess Anna (Kristen Bell) begins the movie a little bit boy-crazy, her main concern is connecting with her introverted older sister Elsa (Idina Menzel). Elsa was born with magical powers that allow her to conjure up ice and snow, which she believes makes her a danger to those around her. As a result, she's retreated from everyone, including her sister. There's an obvious metaphor here for the way that insecurities can cause people to (in this case, literally) freeze out their loved ones, and Bell and Menzel evince a believably strained sense of mutual affection in their vocal performances.
It's a promising set-up, but Frozen quickly degenerates from a dual character study into a romp – the sort of typical galumphing adventure narrative that runs through every animated movie. After Elsa accidentally plunges her kingdom into perpetual winter and runs off into the woods, Anna goes after her, which leads to her meeting – please have your checklists ready – a handsome mountain man (Jonathan Groff); his adorably anthropomorphic reindeer sidekick; and another, even more adorable non-human sidekick (a sentient snowman voiced by Broadway star Josh Gad). Meanwhile, back at home, Anna's ostensibly princely love interest (Santino Fontana) keeps saying and doing things that make him seem too good to be true – which should make even the smallest members of the audience very suspicious.
While there's lots of talk about true love and melting hearts, the emotions never quite ignite. It's hard to generate a sense of warmth when the plot points all feel so coldly calculated, and it doesn't help that the musical numbers are so pedestrian. The Little Mermaid may have been embarrassingly retrograde in terms of its gender politics, but try getting Under the Sea out of your head. Broadway veteran Menzel – she starred in Wicked – sells the heck out of the songs.
With its gleaming colour palette of greys and whites, Frozen looks ravishing, and witty sight gags abound (Gad's snowman proves amusingly malleable). The film's craft is undeniable, and yet it's not remotely the sort of family classic it's trying to be; it hits its marks with precision but not an awful lot of passion.