The Warmth of ‘Frozen’ (2013) (Review)

Frozen is one of those Disney movies that from the outside looks like just another archetypical Disney adventure cash cow with enough playful humor to sate the kids, but little more for anyone else. And I wouldn’t blame anyone who wrote it off given the boring trailers and terrible marketing. Until now.

Boy was I wrong about this one. You’re getting this review a little late because I missed my shot at an early screening and now I hate myself for it. Frozen is wonderful. It is, without exaggeration, the best family film of 2013, an easy number in my best of the year list, and one of the best Disney movies ever made.

If you haven’t seen it yet, the above probably has you a little skeptical. It’s one thing to stand out as a breath of fresh air, but what in God’s name does this movie do to earn THAT kind of praise?

Unfortunately, I can’t answer that in full if I want to keep this review spoiler-free. Frozen is laden with one interesting twist after another that altogether tear the entire Disney Princess story formula asunder. It’s a perfectly conventional story with all the cutesy charm of a typical old school Disney classic… and then it isn’t.

Our story (loosely adapted from The Snow Queen) takes place in the kingdom of Arendelle and stars the two daughters of the King and Queen. They are Elsa [left] (Idina Menzel) and Anna [right] (Kristen Bell). Only Elsa, the elder one, is blessed/cursed with the magical power to create and manipulate the cold. As little children, the two are very close until Elsa nearly kills Anna by accident with her powers. Anna is healed by trolls in the forest who, by necessity, erase Anna’s memory of the fact that Elsa has said powers. She does not, however, forget the fun. Their parents lock down the castle and keep the now utterly terrified Elsa and her powers concealed from Anna and the rest of Arendelle.

This kind of Finding Nemo event drives a wedge into the two leads right into the beginning, which is compounded by the King and Queen being (almost literally) removed from the movie. Elsa remains a recluse of an older sister and Anna is confused for her entire lonely upbringing, wondering why she’s always facing her sister’s cold shoulder & yearning for a return to the days that they would play together again.

Then comes Coronation Day. A now of age Elsa is to be crowned Queen of Arendelle. That same day, Anna meets Prince-Charming-in-the-flesh Hans (Santino Fortana) and it’s Love at First Song. When Elsa refuses to marry them, things get heated, Elsa’s uncontrollable powers go haywire, and she flees the kingdom, unwittingly casting an immediate and permanent winter on the entire Kingdom. Anna goes after her to set things right, and acquires the help of an ice gatherer/love cynic named Christoph (Jonathan Groff) and his reindeer, Sven.

It sounds like I’ve just spoiled half the movie, but we’re barely getting our feet off the ground. The simplicity of the narrative despite bombarding the audience with so much so fast is never lost.  The film is packed with metaphors about pubescence, maturity, and the idea of knowing thyself, including a musical number for Elsa that is almost sure to win Best Original Song. The movie uses trolls, wolves, and one ginormous shopkeeper to have a little fun with itself, but none of it comes at the expense of the story. And once we meet Olaf the living Snowman, it gets even funnier.

The information overload in the beginning might have been a criticism leveled against the movie if it wasn’t for the fact that there are a couple of stunning twists ahead that turn the movie and the entire Disney Princess fantasy formula upside down.

I’m not going to even hint at what or when they are, but the difference lies entirely in execution. Frozen is never hiding anything from you. It doesn’t leave any critical bits of information out, and it follows the logic of its own story with bald faced sincerity.  It even uses Christoph to make fun of its own childish notions of love and romance while it proceeds.

That’s because Frozen isn’t that kind of love story. Nor is it even using the love stories it has as tools for audience indulgence. It’s about the estrangement and reconciliation of two lovelorn sisters, with a much different idea of what true love is and what it actually means.

The magic of its success is measured in how real the characters become to us and where their actions take their story. Whether you’re watching a scene where the actually quite lovable Hans is trying to keep the castle and the rest of Arendelle warm and sheltered, a monologue from Christoph about why love is for suckers, or a song by trolls that will remind you of that time your parents played matchmaker, everything is there to make you feel like you actually have a sense of where you are, who everyone is, and what’s going on. The movie makes itself real to you…so that it can turn around and teach you one of the realest and most hard-hitting lessons any Disney movie has ever taught. Don’t confuse it with preaching. It’s more of a revelatory awakening.

Frozen is a movie for everyone, whether you’re young and still starved for some Disney fun, a parent taking those kids, someone older than the age of 12 and tired of the business as usual machinations of fantasy love stories, a feminist (don’t read too much into this one), or just a movie lover in general. I had a great time with it and I urge you to set aside any reservations you might have before seeing it. Frozen really is that awesome for everything it does differently. And after writing this review entirely on my phone, I only want to see it again.

See it in 3D too. There’s a short little Disney animated show prior to the movie that features some of the best use of 3D I’ve ever seen.

The Good: The characters, the story, the premise, the music, the animation, the humor, the twist(s), the ending, and the fact that it’s different.
The Bad: Some of the magic isn’t completely explained, which occasionally makes what’s happening with Elsa’s powers seem a little bizarre; and the action scene in the fifth (final) act could have stood to be a little more exciting.
The Ugly: I wish Hans and Christoph’s voices were a little more distinctive.  They don’t have any scenes together, but when chaos is erupting, you often look to the voices to get a sense of direction and it probably could have been done better here.

Overall: 9.3/10

Written By Vivek Subramanyam

Vivek is a handsome, talented, well-spoken political aficionado and part-time film critic who totally never ever writes mini-bios about himself.

Follow him on Twitter @VerverkS or check out his blog V for Verbatim.

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  • Linus Williams

    Excellent review, V.

  • Chris Widdop

    Nice review. I learned after the similarly terrible marketing for Tangled not to trust Disney’s marketing department, as it would appear they’ve gone out of their way to try and sabotage yet another great flick. Glad to see, again, that this movie was actually quite good, and glad to hear you enjoyed it so much. Definitely love how this one is so aware of itself and breaks the mold at every given opportunity. Good stuff. 🙂

  • Vivek Subramanyam

    Hey, I know this guy!!! 🙂

  • Vivek Subramanyam

    Yeah I liked “Tangled” a lot. Obviously it couldn’t hold its own at the Oscars because it was up against “Toy Story 3” but it was still a solid movie…if a little forgettable.

  • Three Rows Back

    I’ll be making sure to check this out. Nicely done sir.

  • Vivek Subramanyam


  • Dan O’Neill

    Good review Vivek. It surprised me with how entertaining it was. And I’m not just saying that because I hate fun and all things that try to make me smile, but because it was appealed to all sides of the coin, not just little girls. Boys, moms, dads, teenagers, heck, anybody can like this and have a good time!

  • Vivek Subramanyam

    You probably wouldn’t have thought this movie would have that kind of appeal prior to seeing it. The marketing really was just that bad.

  • fernandorafael_c2c

    Damn! Now I’m excited for Frozen! Great review, Vivek!

  • Vivek Subramanyam

    *tips hat*

  • Pingback: (Vivek) Top Ten Best Films of 2013 | Listing the Reasons We Love the Movies()

  • rich

    just saw it yesterday, and at first i laughed at those who compared it to “the lion king” and “beauty and the beast,” but clearly the music is driving that engine, and driving it well. not sure if you’ve been to disneyworld and see “finding nemo: the musical,” but the song writing team (a married couple) who wrote those songs also wrote the music and lyrics for “frozen.” oscar worthy for sure.

    also, i’m glad i’m not the only one who saw the metaphors for sexual maturity in the film. was starting to wonder about myself. and don’t forget next week’s perverts anonymous meeting.

  • Vivek Subramanyam

    I’d have it in my top 10. It doesn’t touch Lion King or Mulan or Aladdin or Sleeping Beauty or Fox & Hound. But it’s still fantastic. I kind of see Elsa as like a kid version of Carrie from “Carrie.” Still amazed they went for that.

  • I didn’t love it as much as Tangled, but it was very charming and a lot of fun.
    Olaf didn’t annoy me either, which is surprising consider I usually hate Josh Gad.

    Nice review!

  • Rodney

    Loved this film, Vivek, and thought your review was spot-on. I thought the final-act twist involving Hans was a bit too convoluted for its own good, but otherwise a solid, entertaining Disney flick. Nice work!

  • Vivek Subramanyam

    The snowman was awesome. I adore “Tangled” and find it woefully unappreciated but I think this one is better overall. A bit more memorable.

  • Vivek Subramanyam

    I’m glad you liked this one (film & review). Wrote the whole thing on my phone on a plane ride, haha. I felt that the genius of the twist lied in its overall simplicity. There’s a saying I learned as a martial artist: “Sophistication is simplicity compounded.” I think that sums up “Frozen” relatively well. There are so many plates spun in the air by the narrative but they’re all really simple building blocks. Then suddenly the rug gets pulled out from underneath and the film becomes something completely different. Then again, given that I am a massive “Game of Thrones” fan, it might have made greater sense to me straight from the beginning of the reveal.

  • rich

    it doesn’t touch “the fox and the hound”? unless you’re related to jack albertson, i can’t take that seriously.