Disney has a girl problem. Take a look at TV commercials for the new animated feature Frozen, and you'd likely suspect that it's about a funny talking snowman and maybe also a funny non-talking reindeer. You certainly wouldn't know it had anything to do with a complicated relationship between sisters. Because people, especially boys, might think that was — yuck! — too girly.
In a lot of ways, it's a problem no different than that found in studio movie-making everywhere, emphasized by the surging pop-culture awareness of the Bechdel test, which looks at how few movies feature more than one female character who actually talk to each other and about something besides a man. And it's a problem complicated by the Mouse House's wildly successful marketing of its princesses. Yet from Tangled (the title changed from Rapunzel for fear it would alienate boys) to the Disney/Pixar release Brave (which heavily marketed the rough-and-tumble comic-relief triplets rather than the contentious mother-daughter dynamic) up to Frozen, Disney keeps showing that it's scared to death of boldly proclaiming that one of their animated movies has a female protagonist. The marketing for Frozen might as well have announced the title as It's Not About Girls, We Promise.
That institutional anxiety about over-estrogenizing their stories drips from large chunks of Frozen — and it's heartbreaking to watch because the opening 10-15 minutes suggest the potential for a flat-out masterpiece. The prologue introduces Scandinavian princesses Elsa and Anna, close playmates as children until Elsa's magical powers — manipulating ice and snow — injure Anna. In an emotionally wrenching montage powered by "Do You Want to Build a Snowman?," one of the many terrific new songs by Robert Lopez (Avenue Q, The Book of Mormon) and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, we see Anna isolated from her beloved sister, for her own good, but for reasons she doesn't remember and can't understand.
It's a magnificent set-up for a story by screenwriter/co-director Jennifer Lee (Wreck-It Ralph) about the complicated dynamics that can estrange family members from one another — right up to the point where the newly crowned Queen Elsa (Idina Menzel) inadvertently unleashes an unseasonal winter on her coastal kingdom and flees into the mountains. Anna (Kristen Bell) heads off in pursuit, eventually finding assistance from solitary ice merchant Kristoff (Glee's Jonathan Groff) and his puppy-friendly reindeer Sven. They also encounter Olaf (Josh Gad), a genial enchanted snowman created by Elsa. And nearly the entire middle hour of Frozen is spent focused on their quest and misadventures, to the point where you might at some point stop and wonder, "Wait, wasn't there another sister in this movie at some point?"
There's nothing inherently wrong with a little comic relief, of course. Olaf is a sweet-natured character, and his song about imagining what it would be like to enjoy warm weather ("In Summer") is plenty amusing. It's also completely unnecessary, just like the elaborate production number involving Kristoff's adopted family of trolls, sucking crucial screen time away from Elsa. Menzel, not surprisingly, blows away her one powerhouse number, "Let It Go," which feels like a nod to "Defying Gravity" coming from Wicked's original Elphaba. But Frozen is practically over before it becomes obvious that the story should have been just as much about Elsa's character arc as about Anna, Kristoff, and company trudging through the snow. How hard would it have been to have Olaf stay with Elsa, turning him into an ideal sounding board for a character terrified of harming living things with her power?
And so Frozen drifts through a generally pleasant, well-performed final 80 minutes full of solid songs, effective action beats, and decent laughs — a safely entertaining piece of work by committee. By the time it reaches its big emotional payoff, which could have provided a fascinatingly daring twist to the echoes of Disney's Beauty and the Beast sprinkled throughout the film, it simply falls a little flat, never quite managing the punch that could have been realized in a story that was willing to commit fully to being about the relationship between two sisters who don't know how to be sisters. That's a risk Disney just wasn't willing to take, not when the big dollars are to be found in guiding boys deftly around having to engage with a story about girls.