I took a specially-enhanced brownie to this and was essentially blown away. Disney has put John Lasseter, director of Toy Story and bringing his Pixar touch of quality, in charge of their animation division, and it's paying off in creating films that, while not as good as the classic Pixar ones, are much better than what Disney was putting out on its own. And let us discuss the myriad reasons why this one is a winner.
This is from Hans Christian Anderson's The Snow Queen, although if you read the story, you'll find very little resemblance. The story takes place in Germany and concerns two sisters, both princesses. There's a long prologue showing how they both were inseparable best friends, until Elsa nearly killed Anna with a misplaced freeze-beam. You see, Elsa can freeze things with a touch, and her powers go out of control whenever she is nervous or excited. She is separated from her sister Anna until they grow to womanhood, which is portrayed as extremely painful and lonely for both. Both parents die, and when Elsa is brought out for coronation day, she is re-introduced to her sister, who is set to marry a guy she just met that day. Getting angry, Elsa freezes the whole town and region, then, horrified at what she's done, retreats into the mountains. The rest of the movie is Anna's journey into the mountains to try to get her to return. Anna doesn't know of her sister's powers, and when told her sister could hurt her, says "Of course she won't, she's my sister."
So I often complain that children's movies recently have lost the edge of melancholy that made the best ones so powerful, but it's back here. The separation of the two sisters, with much attention given to their loneliness and bewilderment at being abandoned, the loss of their parents, but most of all Elsa having something within herself that she is horrified by, and drives her into solitude. In fact, the big showcase song is when she retreats into the mountains, where she can at last let her powers flow free, and be herself--but only if she remains absolutely alone. There are also unexpected detours like Anna's falling in love and agreeing to marry someone after one day. Some of these touches make it seem refreshingly wacky and unstructured, but are tied back into the narrative and prove to be integral parts of the whole.
The movie is also extremely contemporary, but in a way that works, and is not obnoxious. The characters are modern teens, and speak in contemporary teen rhythms and using modern idioms. The male hero is every bit a shaggy hipster hunk. The songs are contemporary empowerment ballads. But, as opposed to something like Shrek 9 or whatever, where modern touches like reality TV are shoehorned in and come off as crass, this film embraces the contemporary in a way that seems welcoming and savvily inclusive of today's kids, without portraying them as obnoxious, and without being obnoxious about it.
Part of its modernity is that it is pointedly feminist, with two extremely capable women as its leads, and the men along not at all degraded or powerless, but simply not central to the story. This is most apparent at the end (SPOILER!) when the "true love's kiss" that can break the spell is not from a man to a woman, but between the two sisters. It is also made quite apparent that these women do not need a man to save them, but save themselves. And it works without being presented as a very special progressive message that you should listen to if you know what's good for you.
One area in which it is not modern, or feminist, is that the women have tiny, unrealistically-thin bodies. Sure, they're stylized, but they could have been stylized to have more realistically human bodies, you know?
But the overwhelming thing about the film is that it is immensely visually beautiful, with lovely crystal snowflakes, gorgeous snow-covered forests, transparent ice castles in which we see sights and figures through layers of clear ice--it is just a visual delight from start to finish. These effects are best appreciated in 3D, where snowfalls have a beautiful dimension, and multiple layers of ice are presented in retina-pleasing depth and clarity, making it one of the best eye-ticklers in some time. Seriously, the "light show" aspect of this film is nearly off the charts.
Don't let me oversell it--the story, while it has a welcome depth and resonance, is only so deep and so resonant. The whole thing has numerous good scenes [and is hilarious--I guffawed out loud], but they add up to something only quite good without crossing into great. Still, the strength of its numerous elements--humor, depth, visual beauty, modernity--make it something that will send you off with a smile on your face and remains very much worth seeing.
Yes, especially in 3D.