Like The Little Mermaid before it, the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale "The Snow Queen" proved quite a trial for Walt Disney Animation Studios, defeating attempts to adapt it as far back at the 1940s. Unlike The Little Mermaid, a solution to the insoluble problem at the core of the project's development ("how do we make the character of the Snow Queen herself interesting?") defeated not just Walt Disney but also the well-oiled machine that the Disney studio became in the 1990s, when even Victor Hugo's grim novel of society and fate, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, was successfully crammed into the formula of a 90-minute animated Broadway-style musical. And as Disney entered its own symbolic winter of hopelessness in the early years of the 21st Century, a "Snow Queen" film seemed ever less likely, finally puking out its last ounce of energy when legendary animator Glen Keane abandoned the project in 2002.

It wasn't until the new era of self-conscious throwbacks to Disney tradition ushered in by newly-minted Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter that the story came back on the radar, with the announcement in 2008 that Disney was attacking "The Snow Queen" again, as a traditionally-animated musical with songs by Alan Menken, to fit in the 2011 slot of a proposed every-other-year rotating pattern of cel-style and CGI animated features, in the wake of the expected success of 2009's The Princess and the Frog. When this success failed to materialised, coupled with yet more of the same old story problems ("how on Earth can we make a story about two little Danish kids meeting a metaphor for isolation and beating her with Christian faith into something that vaguely resembles a watchable Disney movie?"), "The Snow Queen" was put down yet again, but not completely this time: Chris Buck, returning to Disney after having directed 1999's Tarzan and then splitting to make Surf's Up for Sony, was able to continue developing his 2008 story pitch. And it was at this point that he made the discovery that finally unlocked the riddle of adapting "The Snow Queen": chuck "The Snow Queen" right out the window.

And thus it is that we arrive at Frozen, which makes a proper tradition out of Disney taking a well-loved fairy tale and replacing its title with a disyllabic adjective, coming out just three years later than Tangled, its most overtly obvious forebear. Certainly, Tangled in the Snow is more descriptive of what the thing is than even the hopeful "Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's 'The Snow Queen'" credit; all that's left of the story, and I do mean all that's left, is the notion that an act of love can thaw a heart that has been pierced by magical ice. Buck and co-scenarists Shane Morris and Jennifer Lee (the latter taking the sole screenplay credit and co-directing with Buck, making her the first woman with a directing credit on a Disney animated feature) don't even leave the story in Andersen's sort-of Danish, generally Germanic setting, transplanting it to an obviously Norwegian kingdom with a French name (and if it sounds like I'm splitting hairs between Denmark and Norway, I'm absolutely not: Andersen's version is in urban Scandinavia and facing south, if you follow me, while Disney's is in a wilder part of Scandinavia and facing north).

By the time all was said and done, Buck (Lee came on a year later) only had about two years to get Frozen pushed from "this is pretty much our story" to its red-carpet premiere, which is a fucking daft deadline to get a major animated feature from a gigantic American studio prepped and finished. But not impossible; it was no less time than The Emperor's New Groove had to will itself into existence, and the techniques used to make that film were more time-consuming than Frozen. Still, two years ain't nothing, which I suspect goes to explain why Frozen ends up resembling Tangled in so many respects from the most general (they both share almost exactly the same tone of "sincere, old-school fairy tale story, spiced up with gags from Anachronism City") to the most bizarrely specific (in each film, there is a large hoofed mammal which the male lead rides on who behaves very much like a dog). And I think it was almost certainly the need to get things moving quickly, and not any marketing focus, that led to the single most distracting stylistic element of Frozen, which is that its protagonist, Anna, Princess of Arendelle, looks unpleasantly like Rapunzel from Tangled, with freckles, blue eyes instead of green, and red hair instead of blonde (they are not, however, identical: Anna has fatter cheeks, slightly more angular eyes, and a far weaker jaw).

But it's far too early in the review to get bogged down in character design issues. Anyway, Disney has been cribbing from its own design catalogue since at least the 1940s, and detailing the number of characters with Ariel's exact eyes could be an essay in and of itself.

Let us return, mightn't we, to the story. Herein, we have a pair of sisters, Elsa and Anna, princesses of Arendelle, a kingdom consisting of a castle and a town built on a small island in a lake surrounded by islands (Elsa is voiced as a child by Eva Bella, as an adult by Idina Menzel; Anna is voiced by no fewer than four actresses at various ages and depending on whether she's singing, so let's just make it easy by saying she's played by Kristen Bell). Elsa was born with a strange ability to create snow and ice by touch, and as children, the sisters exploit this magic to play winter games in the great hall of the Arendelle castle all year round. One such game goes a little bit wrong, though, and Anna is smacked in the head with a bolt of magic ice that can only be removed by the ministrations of a local troll shaman (CiarΓ‘n Hinds, who I think I can fairly say, I would have bet money would never be in a position to voice a Disney character). The troll, sparing no precaution, removes the memory of Elsa' magic from Anna's mind, and urges her parents to help the girl control her power by keeping her isolated from the rest of humanity; her father (iconic voice actor Maurice LaMarche, in only his second Disney feature) translates this into simple rules like "conceal, don't feel", making his elder daughter a real basket case who can't deal with even the tiniest emotion without icy wind spurting out of her.

As will happen in Disney films, the kind king and queen are killed at sea, in a gorgeous, painterly storm, leaving the underage Elsa queen of Arendelle. Three years later, as she reaches majority, the ancient seclusion into which her condition has plunged her and her sister is to be relieved for a single day, as the castle is open for diplomatic guests and common citizens alike to partake in the joy of a coronation. Anna, a bit too enthusiastic at the event of her first social activity since childhood, gets engaged to the first handsome prince who walks her way, meeting with confused disapproval from her sister-queen; the tiny sisterly fight that breaks out as a result ends in Elsa's tightly-bound stress breaking free in an explosion of icicles that cause the assembled to recoil from her as an abomination, just like Daddy always feared. Terrified at herself and the world, Elsa flees to the mountains and builds herself an ice castle to live in placid isolation, but the sheer size of her outburst and flight has blanketed Arendelle in a particularly cruel and unyielding blanket of snow, freezing the guests' boats and generally destroying everything. Plucky and forgiving and a little bit guilty, Anna sets off to find her sister, to release the curse and save the kingdom.

That's right about the first third of a movie that ends up at 101 minutes, including the ample credits, and it's enough to point out something that Frozen gets hung up on and never shakes: this movie has an unbelievably imbalanced narrative, so cheerfully, breezily dysfunctional that the dysfunction very nearly takes over as the animating impulse. It takes time to set up the pieces, of course, but that's 35 minutes to get us to the point where the film essentially restarts, and the barely-glimpsed ice harvester Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and his canid reindeer Sven (for whom Kristoff provides speech in a wobbly voice that any pet owner will instantly recognise) finally emerge as something that the narrative has even the remotest use for. Meanwhile, that 35 minutes has ladled out exposition by the pound, most of it in the form of musical numbers - and that brings me to the really appalling stat. The soundtrack identifies nine discreet numbers in Frozen (one of those is being uncommonly generous), and by the 35-minute mark, we've already hit five of them. Leaving two songs, a reprise, and an acoustic noodle that I frankly don't want to dignify with the phrase "musical number" over the remaining hour.

The shift in narrative emphasis is astonishing: the first ten minutes are practically sung-through, there's so little pause in between the music, the story wheeling by so quickly and kinetically that it's almost dizzying, and then BANG we're suddenly in a far more sedate, dialogue- and joke-driven animated adventure that feels much more comfortably laid-back in what's emerging as the new Disney tradition in the Lasseter years. Which is to say, at exactly the point that Frozen stops being psychotically hectic, it becomes a little bit too typical for its own good. Which isn't entirely a problem, anyway - there is such a thing as generic expectation, and Disney animation is a genre, to be sure - and certainly, the issue with Frozen is not that it ends with effective but largely uninspired sedate storytelling, but that it spends full a third of its running time as a completely different sort of movie than it ends up being, and it makes us aware of this in the most exhausting way conceivable.

The other big story problem - no, I can't call it a "problem". It is, let us say, the thing that most visibly prevents Frozen from being a truly fantastic picture, and leaves it securely mired in "boy, Disney's sure making enjoyable films again!" territory. Simply put, Elsa is interesting and Anna really isn't but Anna is the protagonist. The film is not-so-dimly aware that this state of affairs holds, with married songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez (generally improving on the drowsy, anonymous songs of their Winnie the Pooh soundtrack) punctuating that opening 35 minutes with a gigantic showstopping belter for Elsa, "Let It Go", that is so astronomically better than every other piece of music in the film that it's kind of embarrassing to listen to the rest of the songs afterward (though one of them includes an out-of-nowhere Arrested Development reference that I have to appreciate). It is, transparently, an excuse to give Menzel number as close to possible as "Defying Gravity" from her career-defining turn in the stage musical Wicked, for it occupies the exact same narrative role: the misunderstood, magical anomaly decides that she's tired of keeping herself bottled in by the rules that everyone else has written for her, so fuck all y'all, 'cuz it's Elsa's turn to shine now (cynically, it's also, like "Defying Gravity", the clear standout in a dodgy score, though Frozen's songs are better than Wicked's, and "Let It Go" the better song).

Superficially, it's by far the film's best moment, in every register: the music rampages, the camera is at its most freewheeling and giddy, the 3-D effects as Elsa builds her ice palace are among the best in the film, and the character animation of Elsa in this one scene is probably the very best in all of Disney's CGI output, taking a rather unexceptionally-designed human female face and playing out a remarkably fluid series of expressions using it, while expressing tiny details of body language that are titanically revealing in their accumulation. Can we be geeks? You wouldn't be this far into the review if that wasn't okay, I suspect. So let's be geeks. Here's a series of four frames, all separated by literally less than two seconds of movie.

We've got arms up, snugly and protectively against the chest, a yearning look on her face-

-hands up to her neck, pregnant with tension, and a look of almost excited anticipation, like a kid who knows she's going to open her eyes in just a second to see what Santa brought-

-arms free, hand in motion, her features calm and relaxed (note the eyebrows!), which is something we have not yet seen in the entire movie-

-and what can only be described as a sassy expression, hand turned back in a perfect gesture of "whatever, to hell with each and every one of you"-

Indeed, this is the exact moment (symbolised by tossing aside her warm cape as she snarkily observes that, unlike everyone else, "the cold never bothered me anyway") where terrified, self-loathing, self-denying Elsa becomes the Elsa in charge of her life, the one beholden to nothing but her own whims, and thus kicking in the rest of the plot of the movie.

Except, and here's the reason I said this exceptional marriage of sound, movement, and design is only "superficially" the best part of Frozen, that's not what ends up happening at all. "Let It Go" sets up a character arc that never pays off, for we never see sassy selfish Elsa again, nor see even nervous, kindly Elsa for a huge length of time while Anna takes over, forcing Kristoff to help her up the northern mountains for the bulk of the second act (the third act, in characteristic fashion, introduces an entirely new conflict). Nothing imbalances this tremendously whacked-out movie more than giving its best moment to a supporting character in the act of setting-up a non-existent plot arc.

Anyway, Anna isn't necessarily bad, as protagonists go; she's transparently based on Rapunzel, not just visually, but tonally as well, and Rapunzel was perfectly fun. Though I do not think that Rapunzel had quite as many distinctly 21st Century moments as Anna gets: the most galling is a line from "For the First Time in Forever", one of the better songs among those which are mostly forgettable, in which the princess communicates her glee at the impending coronation by declaring "Don't know if I'm elated or gassy / But I'm somewhere in that zone!", which might actually be the worst lyric in the 53-film, 76-year history of the Disney animated feature. There are so many other moments in this register, keeping things pointedly trivial and fun in direct contradiction to the ways in which Frozen is the most archetypal fairy tale that Disney has created since Sleeping Beauty, at least: the specifically unexplained nature of Elsa's power, the grandly wild Mitteleuropean setting, the way that the whole plot reveals itself as an explication of a epigrammatic moral ("only love can thaw a frozen heart"), the trolls - who, while they suffer for being stuck with the film's last and by far worst song, are gorgeously designed in a far more traditional way than I would have dared to anticipate.

This could be so much worse, except that jarring contemporary attitude and all, Anna is likable, and so is Kristoff, and so is Sven (despite the distinctly gimmicky nature of its characterisation). Hell, so is the idiot living snowman Olaf (Josh Gad), a character so clearly conceived from a marketing standpoint that it sets your teeth on edge, and whose design doesn't fit with anything else in the whole movie. By all rights, he should be a loathsome, film-breaking intrusion, and yet he actually works in the whole piece elegantly and amusingly, in part because Lee, in writing him, wasn't afraid to make it clear that no, he's not cutely naΓ―ve, he's freaking dumb, and Gad plays him in much the same way. And best of all, the film has done the important work of foreshadowing him as the living embodiment of Anna and Elsa's childhood affection, before fear and doubt split them.

Let me not be dickish about it: Frozen is fun. I might go so far as to say that there's not a single moment where it isn't fun, even when the plot is at its most inscrutably messy in the opening third; Lee and Buck maintain a very strong directorial hand that keeps the tone of the thing elevated enough that we secretly know all along that it's not very serious and meaty. The disappointing part is that it so clearly could be a bit deeper, if it wanted to be - if there was more "Let It Go" in the movie and less "In Summer", if you will (that being the name of Olaf's jaunty fantasy song about being a snowman happily enjoying the sun and heat).

Which isn't to say that the film lacks depth. In fact, as Disney has taken great pains to make exasperatingly clear, this is a Progressive, Feminist movie in their ubiquitous and socially horrifying Disney Princess brand. Obviously - immensely obviously - there's the way that Anna's whirlwind love affair with the studly Prince Hans (Santino Fontana), in the grand tradition of Ariel and Cinderella and others like them, is pointedly mocked by everyone else, up to and including a baby troll. Culminating in Hans's reveal that it was all a big sham that even he seems a little amazed worked out so easily. This subversion might be a little bit more satisfying if the film didn't flag it so heavily, or if it wasn't already played with to better effect in The Princess and the Frog.

Still, points for owning up to its shady representational legacy, and offering a useful corrective to generations of awful romantic advice. Even more points for basing so much of the film's drama and emotion in a relationship between two women: the conflict here is not centered around romance, nor on besting a villain (of whom there essentially isn't one, Hans's late reveal notwithstanding), but on patching up the broken relationship between two sisters. It's not an accident that my absolute favorite non-"Let It Go" moment in a song comes during the montage "Do You Want to Build a Snowman?", in which the child Anna (Katie Lopez) heaves a sweet, bittersweet "Okay, bye" to end a verse, marking the instant that our protagonist realises that her close relationship with Elsa is gone; and as has been pointed out by others before me but deserves pointing out again, the end of the drama not just emotionally but even in terms of action comes because the sisters are riding to each other's rescue, no boys needed. Again, Disney's not about to let us miss this fact, and that's tedious of them; but it's still like nothing else in contemporary family cinema, which barely can imagine a female protagonist to begin with, let alone bonds between females as a driving narrative force (offhand the only comparable title I can identify in 21st Century animation is Pixar's Brave, a vastly more compromised film).

So there is some good stuff in among the fluff and dross; you need to hunt for it a bit harder than seems right, is all.

Even without that, this much is ecstatically true: Frozen is a gorgeous movie. It doesn't have the same feeling of technical expansiveness that Tangled did: there's not such a clear-cut unifying aesthetic as that film's feints towards hand-painted textures and backdrops. But that's not to say that it doesn't possess some kind of style. In fact, there's a very clear unity to the images in Frozen, and that unity is very unexpectedly "muted colors and hazy lighting".

Even in places where the colors theoretically should pop, they're kept tamped down.

This is too specific and consistent to be an accident, and the purpose of it seems to be to set off the scenes that take place in the wilderness and the snow. In fact, ever scene where the colors are fully saturated is one that takes place outside in the woods or mountains, frequently augmented by some over-the-top pretty images of sunsets refracting off of snow and ice.

 

If there's a more specific point than evoking the raw beauty of pristine wilderness compared to bland urban settings, I don't know what it might be, and I don't really think it's necessary, anyway. Frozen is, in great measure, a film about being true to one's nature and refusing to let other people dictate what is an "authentic" self, and this is metaphorically represented by snow and ice; since personal authenticity is the most beautiful thing, it stands to reason that snow and ice must, themselves, be beautiful.

The whole thing ends up being simple and straightforward and not especially artful - it's pretty and it uses 3-D in more interesting ways than any other CGI animated film I've ever seen, but it feels mostly like a good version of something we've all seen before, rather than anything new or groundbreaking - but unlike most animated films that want to be all things to all people, Frozen very much knows that it belongs to a tradition of fantasies for children and childish adults. I will not lie, that's awfully refreshing. It's not a game-changing high water mark for Disney's mini-renaissance of the early 2010s, but it's a pretty damn satisfying version of the thing it sets out to be, and it's as charming and effortlessly likable as any fairy tale of the modern age is ever likely to be. Simple pleasures abound here, but they are vivid and exciting in their simplicity.