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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014

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In Movies & TV Reviews

The cast of "Frozen," now playing.

"Frozen" rejuvenates the magical, musical world of Disney


Like most big Disney or Pixar animated efforts, there's a small short that runs before "Frozen," this one called "Get a Horse!" The short is a clever, funny and gleeful burst of energy. It pays loving tribute to the charmingly plain, sepia-tinged first steps of animation while also showing the marvels of today's animation technology (the short alone is worth the price of 3-D), and how the two can co-exist. It's "Hugo" in short form, showing the wonders of the past, present and future shaking hands.

Most of these shorts serve as a nice, tasty appetizer before the main course, but "Get a Horse!" – Mickey Mouse's first theatrical animated short since 1995's nightmare-inducing, childhood-ruining "Runaway Brain" – seems perfect and almost integral for "Frozen." It delightfully sets the stage for what the feature presentation is about to do: take Disney's old traditions and bring them to fresh, blissful new life.

Based loosely on Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen" (delete evil mirror shards, enter talking comic relief snowman), "Frozen" tells the story of two Nordic royal sisters: Anna and Elsa. Elsa has been blessed with the ability to create snow and ice, but after a childhood accident nearly kills Anna, her parents tell her to hide her gift. They even put the kingdom on lockdown. Over time, Elsa herself goes into hiding, staying locked in her room, her beautiful blessing now a curse.

Eventually, the girls grow up. A cautiously cold Elsa (Idina Menzel) nervously takes over the throne after their parents die (this is a Disney movie after all), worried about the damage her secret could do. Anna (Kristen Bell), on the other hand, is thrilled to experience life and meet the world – and hopefully the right guy – outside the newly opened doors of the kingdom.

Their chilled relationship comes to a head at Elsa's coronation ball. A brief spat about a possible husband for Anna – a kind prince named Hans (Tony-nominated "Cinderella" star Santino Fontana) – and political pressures from the devious duke of Weaseltown, sorry Weselton (Alan Tudyk of "Firefly") cause Elsa to snap and unleash her icy powers. She runs off to the mountains, trapping the kingdom in an unshakable plague of ice and snow.

Leaving Hans in charge of the kingdom, Anna ventures up the mountains to find her sister and talk her into curing the constant winter. Along the way, she meets a handsome ice salesman named Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his reindeer best friend and Olaf (Josh Gad), an affable little talking snowman. He has an attachment to his limbs comparable to the Black Knight from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" and an adorably misguided desire to experience summer. He's not suicidal; he just doesn't know what the sun actually does.

Now, from the horribly vague advertisement campaign, you would think Olaf and the reindeer are the main characters. Disney – and Hollywood in general – are still stuck in the '50s, convinced that the female half of the population doesn't see movies and that women leads can't open films other than romantic comedies. Apparently, in their world, a certain arrow-slinging, revolution-leading female character didn't just have the sixth best opening weekend of all time nary seven days ago with 59% of the audience female. And also the two "Sex and the City" films don't exist. Or "Bridesmaids." Or "The Heat." The list goes on.

Sorry … I lost myself for a moment there. Anyways, "Frozen" actually focuses on the sister relationship between Anna and Elsa, beautifully written by Jennifer Lee, who also serves as the film's co-director with Chris Buck. The opening few minutes, chronicling the sisters' slowly dissipating relationship with the song "Do You Want to Build a Snowman?," is beautiful, moving storytelling. It's sweet and sad in a seemingly wordless way that would've made Pixar proud a few years ago, but now probably makes them jealous.

The relationship also hints at a bold undercurrent about homosexuality, or at least bold for a Disney children's film. It's hard not to see the parallel with Elsa being told to hide a part of herself that she feels shame about, and is misunderstood and shunned by others instead of seen as beautiful and allowed to be herself. Even if that doesn't come through or connect, though, the sister relationship still does in spades, telling a lovingly sweet and touching story.

Bell and Menzel also help bring the two sisters' relationship to life. It's another case of not picking big poster-worthy names, but simply the right voices for the parts. Bell, who also actually sings on four of the movie's musical numbers, is fittingly bright and effervescent as Anna, and her comic timing is youthfully flirty, fun and very funny.

Menzel, no stranger to the role of a misunderstood fantasy sorcerer thanks to "Wicked," is very good as the more tragic of the two sisters, letting her characters beating heart and brokenness come through the brooding. Plus, no one belts out a Broadway number like Menzel, who owns the soaring anthem "Let It Go."

Surrounding these two leading ladies is an impressive and memorable collection of colorful characters. Kristoff and Hans are both a part of the film's more typical, traditional arc, but they're both tweaked in enjoyable and fairly unpredictable ways. Groff especially is a lot of fun as the ice salesman who ends up warming up to his lovely, energetic travel partner. Like I said, it's a bit conventional, but the two characters make the story charm.

His silent reindeer companion manages to snag a number of solid laughs as well, serving as this movie's less manic and less tragic Scrat if we're comparing ice-bound animated films.

However, the real scene-stealer of "Frozen" is Gad as their big-hearted snowman pal. His comic delivery is priceless, blending silliness and sincerity to turn even the smallest lines into something hilarious ("Oh, look at that; I'm impaled" being a personal favorite). Fans of the lovably vulgar Broadway hit "The Book of Mormon" will also recognize his incredibly expressive singing voice, moving from goofy to gorgeous between lines, on his wondrously silly mid-film ode to the summer.

Acute "Mormon" fans – or fans of the equally raunchy, equally wonderful puppet musical "Avenue Q" – might also recognize composer/lyricist Robert Lopez's name in the credits, along with his wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez. If they don't recognize the name, they'll certainly recognize the playful music and witty lyrics.

There's no doubt a live-action "Frozen" Broadway show will be coming down the line and understandably so; the lyrics are funny and sharp, and the music has a sense of energy and, like many favorite Disney animated musicals, a unique and authentic sense of place. For instance, the opening song, the ice carvers chant "Frozen Heart," feels like the perfect introduction to the Nordic world.

The opening also reveals the film's gorgeous animation. Good, scratch that, great animation isn't hard to find nowadays. Even so, "Frozen" looks stupendous. The snow (a crucial element for a movie covered in it) looks like every individual crystal received attention, and Elsa's creation of her icy mountain hideaway is like if "Rise of the Guardians" and the Mars crystal castle sequence from "Watchmen" had the most beautiful, mesmerizing baby in the world. Even the faces appear more expressive. It might just be the great voice actors, but still.

The animation is lush and fluid, almost to the point that the film almost looks and feels hand-drawn. But then again, all of "Frozen" feels like a mix of the best of both worlds. Computer visuals that look created by hand. Snappy comedy – based on cleverness, not references – intertwined with complex emotional drama. And perhaps most of all, it combines old and new, telling a traditional Disney princess story that seems both cozily familiar and yet compellingly, excitingly fresh.

The story may struggle a bit to balance all of its characters, especially the two sisters (I'd love to have spent a bit more time with Elsa), and it feels a bit rushed at moments. I can't deny, however, that while watching "Frozen," I felt like I was watching a classic already in action. It has that special something that helps the animated classics of long ago – "The Lion King," "Aladdin," "Beauty and the Beast" and even further back – still cut through the current crowded animated movie field: some actual Disney magic.



Theaters and showtimes for Frozen
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