Disney animators showed that they’d found the secret to giving princess tales a demographics-defying appeal with the Rapunzel update “Tangled” a few years ago. They prove it wasn’t a fluke with the 3-D animated “Frozen,” their similarly conceived loose riff on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Snow Queen.” Remember the movie’s wordless, “Ice Age”-y early teaser of a snowman and a reindeer dueling over a carrot? You might well be surprised to find that it’s so tangential to the girl-powered main action, it’s not even part of it. And you’ll be amazed at how little it matters, blissfully entertained as you’ll be by what the film is actually selling.
Kristen Bell injects a whole lot of peppy personality into the story (and her singing) as Anna, a princess in a Scandinavian-ish kingdom gripped by one doozy of a cold snap. An opening prologue shows us how tiny Anna used to delight in the magical frost powers of her older sister, Elsa (Idina Menzel, the Broadway powerhouse also known for appearances on “Glee”), until a near-fatal playtime mishap. The episode left Anna with no memory of her sister’s secret, and left Elsa sorrowfully determined to keep it that way by shutting her out, along with the rest of the world.
Then the world comes knocking because it’s time for Elsa to be coronated as queen. Revelry leads to love-at-first-sight romance for Anna and dashing Prince Hans (Santino Fontana), who ask for Elsa’s blessing of their insta-marriage. Cue sisterly quarreling about impulsiveness and emotional unavailability, including a spat that pushes Elsa to unleash her abilities with fear-inspiring fury straight out of an “X-Men” comic. The entire kingdom is plunged into eternal winter, Elsa flees to an ice castle she creates high in the mountains, and Anna bravely sets off to find her and work it all out.
It’s at this point that writer-directors Chris Buck (“Surf’s Up”) and Jennifer Lee (“Wreck-It Ralph”) finally deliver something a bit closer to that initial promo, as Anna teams up with Kristoff (Jonathan Groff, “Glee”), a rough-but-hunky outdoorsman who’s got his own meet-cute dynamic with her. (The reindeer, Sven, is Kristoff’s; he’s the howling Chewie to Kristoff’s Han.) They also get some help from that snowman, Olaf (Josh Gad, TV’s “1600 Penn”), an irrepressibly cheery innocent who hilariously dreams of how wonderful warm weather must be. Frosty looks like Savvy by comparison.
The humor and imagery make it tough to gauge whether the film’s songwriting, by Kristen Anderson-Lopez (2011’s “Winnie the Pooh”) and Tony-winner husband Robert Lopez (“The Book of Mormon”), will produce anything as memorable as “Tangled” did with “I’ve Got a Dream.” Gad’s ditty “In Summer” is all about the gags we’re seeing. Menzel has a soaring number, “Let It Go,” set to shots of her unfettered character conjuring her mountain retreat – a spectacular 3-D swirl of ice shards and intricate snowflakes that partly trumps the music. (This is also one of the carefully doled-out moments when the movie’s icy aesthetic sparkles; more often, the palette is an enveloping wintry gray.)
“Frozen” could also leave its mark as the next step in the Disney Princess feminist revisionism championed by last year’s “Brave.” Where that film staunchly pushed a men-don’t-define-me theme throughout, here it’s the requisite fairy tale ending that gets tweaked.
Closing note: Theatergoers should allow enough time to get the kids settled before the rewarding opening short. It’s an old-time Mickey Mouse romp in black and white – and one that reasserts the relevance of vintage animated comedy in surprising ways.