Let’s be frank: “Little Shop Of Horrors” is the best thing to ever happen to the Disney company, and they had absolutely nothing to do with it on stage or on film.
Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s stage production was a grimy, crazy, bloody little rock musical that featured the end of the world, a sadistic abusive dentist, murder, and a man-eating plant, and it was a huge off-Broadway hit. During the five years it ran, Disney went through the roughest years for their animation division ever. “The Fox and the Hound” opened the decade with a swing and a miss, and in 1985, “The Black Cauldron” came very close to closing the doors for good.
No matter what small charms they possessed, both “The Great Mouse Detective” and “Oliver & Company” represent a company that is floundering, unsure what to do or how to do it. There were some amazingly talented people working on those films, both holdovers from the actual era of Walt Disney himself and young artists who would later reshape the industry, but they weren’t making movies that really showcased all that talent. They were making films that felt like they were on auto-pilot, playing to a model that no longer worked.
Menken and Ashman’s work ended up in front of someone at Disney, though, because while they were making “Oliver & Company,” they hired Ashman to co-write a song called “Once Upon A Time In New York City.” The studio was starting to explore the idea of making a full-blown musical, and there were several songs in the film performed by the characters. The experience with Ashman was a good one, and he ended up having a conversation with the studio about a project they’d been developing for a while based on a Hans Christian Andersen story, “The Little Mermaid.”
I was a theater manager when “The Little Mermaid” came out, and I’d been working in a theater when “Oliver and Company” opened, and the difference in the way audiences responded to the two films was night and day. The Ashman/Menken songs were written as real Broadway songs, big and character-driven and essential to the film, and I saw the same people coming back to see the film over and over during the run, memorizing it. “Little Shop” led to “Little Mermaid,” and without that progression, there would not have been “Beauty and the Beast.”
In 1991, when “Beauty And The Beast” opened, it had an exclusive run before it went wide at the newly-refurbished El Capitan Theater in Hollywood. Tickets were steeply priced and every single show was sold out. There was a feeling in the room before those screenings that was like being at a live Broadway show, a sort of electric anticipation, and each and every one of those screenings was an event. People applauded after every musical number. The ending of the film got a standing ovation. It was remarkable to witness, and a sign that Disney had reinvented themselves completely, with music serving as an essential part of the equation.
Confidently written and positively spilling over with charm, “Frozen,” co-directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, belongs on a shelf right there next to “Beauty” and “Mermaid” and “The Lion King” as one of the most effective expressions of the Disney ideal as possible. For some reason, though, if you were to look at the marketing for the film, it would be hard to figure out exactly what film it is, something that seems like a strange disconnect based on just how good the movie is. Jennifer Lee’s script, based loosely on the Hans Christian Andersen story “The Snow Queen,” is both a cleanly-told classical fairy tale and a canny bit of gender revisionism, and it positively crushes as a musical. And just as “The Little Mermaid” was pushed over the top from well-done to Disney’s reinvention was the music by Ashman and Menken, fresh off their Broadway success, the secret weapon of “Frozen” is the dynamic song score by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez.
“Frozen” tells the story of Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel), sisters and heirs to a kingdom. Unfortunately, Elsa is born with a power, an ability to create snow and ice, and when the girls are very young, there is an accident that leads their parents to separate the sisters for what they consider their own good. Their fear turns Elsa into a recluse, and it leaves Anna longing for the connection they had as children. Right away, there’s a number called “Do You Want To Build A Snowman?” that sets a tone for the film that is very tricky, but that they pull off with grace. There is a wise-ass sense of humor here, but expressed in subtle ways, and yet this is also carefully calibrated big Broadway writing. It is very moving, very emotional, and they punctuate most of the laughs with twists that make the characters count.
Kristen Bell gives one of the year’s very best performances in a live-action or animated film as Anna, with a level of commitment that is dazzling. She attacks her songs, but what makes Anna live and breathe is the way she plays this big broad part with a very human vulnerability. Anna is hurt by the loss of her sister, and everything she does in the first half of the film is her trying to find some way around that hurt. When she turns her pain into strength in the film’s second half, though, she transcends the Disney princess label to become a new kind of character for the studio. Her arc in the film permanently fractures one of the most basic fairy tale tropes of all, and in doing so, sends a tremendous message for viewers of any gender or age.
Idina Menzel’s big number in the film, “Let It Go,” is an urgent power-ballad that details her struggle to be true to herself while also wrestling with her fears, and she demolishes it. Likewise, Josh Gad has a stand-out number called “In Summer,” which introduces his character, Olaf the lovable snowman. His might be the only entrance that equals Danny McBride’s in “This Is The End” this year, and the song is laugh lout loud funny. Both Menzel and Gad also do excellent character work, and they use Olaf just enough without overplaying things. He’s front and center in all of the trailers, but it’s not his film.
The film’s very canny in the way it handles the dynamics between Anna and Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and Hans (Santino Fontana). She’s been sheltered her whole life, and when she meets Prince Hans, she is swept off her feet. Kristoff, on the other hand, is an ice merchant she meets when she goes after Elsa, determined to help her after the Disney princess version of the prom scene from “Carrie.” There’s a very direct emotional throughline to the film, and one of its strongest qualities is that amazing energy that informs every scene. This was not an easy film for Disney to make. They’ve been trying since the ’40s, and the original fairy tale was not easy to figure out as a film. I remember first hearing about “The Snow Queen” from friends at Disney in ’96 or ’97, and at that point, Glen Keane was attached to direct. They have gone through several filmmaking teams since then, and Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck ended up being an inspired final combination. Buck was a co-director on “Tarzan” and “Surf’s Up,” and even when those films are at their most routine, there’s an approach that feels like it is grounded in real emotion instead of just a cheap laugh. I know that’s what all of these films aim for, but “Frozen” is a case of strong creative alchemy, where everything works together just right, in ways they probably couldn’t have imagined. It is a beautiful film, a well-designed and richly-rendered fairy tale reality, and character design comes together particularly well. I recently saw an animated film from an indie studio — I won’t say which — where the entire enterprise was hindered by poor character design. It was so visually unappealing that I couldn’t see past it. It is a genuine pleasure to watch something as lush as this, and the character work on a visual level is just impeccable.
I rate this film so highly because of what a crossroads it represents and what a tremendous celebration it is of Disney’s storytelling heritage while also pushing their identity forward in some way. When you see “Frozen” theatrically, there is a short film in front of it called “Get A Horse,” and I’ll just say this: it is the perfect companion piece. When it begins, it feels like a recently discovered Mickey Mouse cartoon, and it does feature Walt himself doing the voice. It’s a brand-new short, though, and enormously entertaining. Filmmaker Lauren MacMullen perfectly nails the look and feel of the early days of the Disney studio, and it is the first time I have ever laughed out loud at Mickey Mouse. It’s an inventive and technically precise short, and it also celebrates and deconstructs Disney’s animated history in a very fun way.
Throw in “Saving Mr. Banks,” and it seems certain that the long creative history of the studio is on Disney’s mind these days. With the enormously entertaining “Frozen,” they honor that legacy completely.