Having flown under the radar for most of the year, FROZEN has been released amid a flurry of hype that’s seen it described as Disney’s best animated effort since BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. High praise indeed, but by no means hyperbolic. A sweet, charming and visually-stunning film, FROZEN updates the tropes of the Disney fairy tale without mocking or diminishing them. Following recent successes with TANGLED and WRECK-IT RALPH (a revisionist fairy tale dressed up as 8-bit nostalgia), Frozen’s success on the fairy tale front isn’t entirely surprising. What definitely is though is that it’s also the best, most original musical Hollywood has produced since MOULIN ROUGE.
Taking on songwriting duties are husband-and-wife team Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, who previously put together the music for Disney’s lovely 2011 WINNIE THE POOH. Their songs lack the witty wordplay and boundless invention of the Alan Menken/Howard Ashman partnership at its peak, but that doesn’t mean they lack humour. ‘In Summer’, Olaf the Snowman’s delightfully silly ode to sunshine, is a particular highlight, though for sheer toe-tapping brilliance it’s the trolls song, ‘Fixer Upper’, that’s arguably the CD’s most enjoyable track. Give it a listen and try getting it out of your head. If you’re anything like me, you’ll have it wedged up there for weeks.
It’s not all fun and games though. FROZEN is an unusually melancholic Disney fairy tale, with the focus falling on the desperate plight of ‘Snow Queen’ Elsa and the divide created between her and sister Anna. Lopez and Anderson-Lopez touch on this in the film’s two breakout songs – ‘For the First Time in Forever’ and ‘Let It Go’ – which trade smartly on Disney musical history. Listen to ‘For the First Time in Forever’ and its Reprise as an example. These are songs of escape and yearning, comparable to ‘Part of Your World’ from THE LITTLE MERMAID. Traditionally, songs such as this build into a great emotional crescendo in which the hero resolves to follow a path that will lead her to her dreams. Not here though. Instead, ‘For the First Time in Forever’s’ Reprise ends with Idina Menzel delivering a gut-wrenching ‘I can’t!!’ to Anna’s insistence that she can defeat her demons. It’s a profoundly moving moment that hits home not only because of Menzel’s stunning performance, but also because it doesn’t deliver the emotional progression we’ve come to expect. Transformation, that critical element of Disney fairy tales, is in FROZEN portrayed as a near impossibility.
Elsa’s big solo song, ‘Let It Go’, one of Disney’s best power ballads for years and a clear favourite for Best Original Song at the Oscars, is even more fascinating. Her powers exposed, Elsa escapes to the mountains of Arendelle and is finally able to use her gift as she wishes – “no right, no wrong, no rules for me. I’m free,” she sings. But while she is indeed free – free from the persecution, free from the anxiety, free from the pressure – she’s also stripped herself of humanity. It’s one of the most emotionally complex songs (and sequences) Disney has ever produced – a moment of defiance and disclosure, as we often get in songs like this, but also painful denial. “The cold never bothered me anyway,” she concludes with empty impudence, and indeed, by the end of the song, the cold is all Elsa has.
Of course, there’s more to the soundtrack than just the songs, and in keeping with the film’s unique feel, composer Christophe Beck has delivered a surprisingly low-key score. Typically, Disney scores can be overpowering, deliberately overplaying the music to emphasise the comedy and romance. There’s nothing wrong with that, and there’s an element of it in Beck’s music, but in general, he’s going for atmosphere, painting a beautiful sonic picture of the winter wonderland Arendelle becomes. He also proves himself a maser at heartstring-tugging (‘Elsa and Anna’), action (the thrilling ‘Wolves’) and delivering just the right cue at just the right moment. The songs, so often echoed during the score in typical Disney films, here make only the briefest of appearances, and it works beautifully – if you keep your eyes dry during the closing rendition of the utterly heartbreaking ‘Do You Want to Build A Snowman’, well, you’re stronger than I!
Disney have given Frozen the full Deluxe treatment, and if you’re a fan of the film, it’s well worth picking up. Along with demos of some of the score tracks, we also get discarded songs (complete with brief commentary from Lopez and Anderson-Lopez) which give a fascinating glimpse into the film FROZEN could have been. ‘Spring Pageant’ details a fairy tale prophecy that was eventually cut from the film, while ‘Life’s Too Short’, which seems to have originally been in the place of ‘For the First Time in Forever’s’ Reprise, depicts a much more confrontational relationship between Elsa and Anna. All the extra songs are wonderful, but barring the lovely ‘We Know Better’, which is sung by the young Elsa and Anna and helps further their childhood bond, none would have fit neatly into the finished film.
FROZEN has cemented a new Disney Renaissance, and its soundtrack matches the film’s quality every step of the way. Whether Lopez, Anderson-Lopez and Beck work on any of the studio’s future projects, of course, remains to be seen, but if the film is to be their only contribution to the House of Mouse, it’s certainly a welcome one. This is a masterful soundtrack and one that’ll be cherished for years to come.
FROZEN is available now on CD and digital from Walt Disney Records. A triple-LP vinyl edition is due to be released in 2014.
Words: Paul Bullock