Disney animation had a rough go of it in the 2000s. After spending decades as practically the only game in town when it came to animated features, the landscape began to change quickly and drastically in the last 10 or 12 years. The rise of Pixar -- whose films Disney was at least distributing, and therefore could share in their success -- revolutionized not just how animated features were made (on a computer instead of by hand), but also just how successful they could be at the box office. Soon, every major studio had its own animation division as the profits for feature-length cartoons skyrocketed, often going on to be many of the highest-grossing movies of a given year. And rather than adapting to this sea change, Disney was floundering creatively. They continued to make boatloads of money thanks to merchandising, their relationship with Pixar and a steady output of direct-to-DVD sequels that cannibalized their previous classics, but that hardly made them relevant. If anything, it diluted the brand.
They continued to make animated features, sure, but it was clear that their second Golden Age (the one that kicked off with The Little Mermaid in 1989) had come to an end. Movies like Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet were costly failures, and even The Princess and the Frog -- the studios attempt to bring back traditional cel animation at a time when computer animation had become the standard -- failed to become the new classic everyone was hoping for. The company name was basically being held up by Pixar.
But between last year's excellent Wreck-it Ralph and now Frozen, Disney animation has returned to form. Whereas Wreck-it Ralph felt funny and current, Frozen is timeless -- it's the studio's first film in a long time that deserves to stand alongside many of their classics, and it's for reasons beyond the fact that it's based on traditional source material (Hans Christian Anderson's The Snow Queen) and yet again centers on a princess. If anything, I'm quick to use the "princess" thing as a strike against the movie, but the screenplay (by Jennifer Lee, who co-directed with Chris Buck) is very smart about the way it subverts many of the outdated traditions of Disney movies.
Fast forward several years. Elsa is being crowned the new queen of Arendelle, while Anna is announcing her engagement to a man she's only just met. When Elsa doesn't approve and the sisters fight, her powers reveal themselves in a big, bad way and all of Arendelle is turned to ice. Elsa banishes herself to a frozen palace and Anna sets out to find her with the help of an ice trader named Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his sidekick reindeer and a magical snowman named Olaf (Josh Gad).
It's hard to talk about some of my favorite things about Frozen without getting into spoilers, but suffice it to say that the movie finds Disney catching up with 2013 and realizing that not everyone is defined by his or her romantic relationships. On paper, there's so much of the movie that feels like typical children's movie pandering. There's the funny magical snowman and a talking reindeer sidekick and an ice monster that appears just to provide some excitement for a single scene. In practice, though, the movie is much, much better than that. Lee finds a way around the "talking animal" trope used in every Disney movie that actually makes one of the human characters more charming. Olaf the talking snowman should be an annoying and cynical attempt to sell toys and, truth be told, he kind of is. But he's also sweet and positive and really fun to have around.
Because Frozen isn't really about talking animals or snowman sidekicks or ice monsters. It's about the relationship between two sisters, presenting two well-realized women who aren't quite alike but who love one another anyway. What feels fresh about Anna (fresh as far as Disney movies, that is) is that she has agency and a sense of adventure without just trying to be one of the boys. She wants to find love, but it does not define her. She's one of the best Disney princesses in a long time. She's such a good character, in fact, that much of the supporting cast suffers in comparison. Even Elsa gets something of the short shrift, mostly because she's relegated to moping in an isolation of her own making for most of the film -- and, as voiced by Menzel, a bit on the overly theatrical side for my liking.
Ignore the marketing for Frozen, which is selling a movie about a snowman and a reindeer who both want a carrot. Instead, trust the newly-restored Disney brand and the incredibly positive word-of-mouth the movie is getting. Imagine that: a $150 million animated feature from Disney that's going to be a big hit because people are actually liking it. I know I did.