Students of the Disney brand will recall that fascinating point when, after The Little Mermaid had hinted at escape from the doldrums, Jeffrey Katzenberg's new model animators really broke out with Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. It looks as if, 20 years later, history may be about to repeat itself.
Over the past decade, the old firm has seemed slightly cowed by its association with the rampaging Pixar. Think of Bolt, Meet the Robinsons and Chicken Little: a variable selection of films, each of which looked to be aping the younger company's style. In recent years, however, Disney has reinvestigated its ancient groove with two very attractive "princess" movies: The Princess and the Frog and Tangled.
A glance at the publicity material for Frozen suggests a certain lack of confidence in the developing product. The funny snowman and cute reindeer are to the front. The title – like that of Tangled – looks to be concealing the film's focus on a familiar legendary princess.
But make no mistake. Featuring terrific female characters, endlessly funny sidekicks and a genuinely jaw-dropping score, this loose adaptation of The Snow Queen is the best film from Walt Disney Animation in close to a generation. Indeed, Frozen could be plucked from the screen and dumped successfully into a Broadway theatre with only a few tiny alterations.
Let us clear away a few objections first. It is a shame the 2D stylings that energised The Princess and the Frog have been abandoned for digital sheen; it is surely not impossible to sell that romantic Disney wash to younger audiences. More seriously, for a film that so admires its female characters, the decision to paint them as more hugely eyed and unhealthily wasp-wasted than ever is deeply disappointing. Everything else is smashing.
Ignoring all but the ligaments of Hans Christian Anderson's story, Frozen tells the tale of two sisters from an idealised Scandinavian kingdom. The intense, tormented Princess Elsa (voiced by Broadway diva Idina Menzell), heir to the throne, was born with a barely controllable power to freeze her surroundings. Princess Anna (Kristen Bell), the younger sister, is an altogether more light-hearted piece of work.
After a near-fatal accident when the two are children, Elsa shuts herself away in a remote corner of the palace until the time comes for her coronation. Following an argument over Anna’s impulsive choice of fiancé, Elsa unwittingly reveals her powers and – after casting the kingdom into permanent winter – makes for a refuge in the mountains.
Elsa's flight to the glaciers triggers a song that, in its defiant paean to self-reliance, could play comfortably beside camp showtune anthems such as I Am What I Am and Don't Rain on My Parade. The opening and closing choruses of Let It Go end with a sly, spat-out refrain: "The cold never bothered me anyway!" You go, girl. Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez's songs maintain that standard throughout the film.
The makers of Frozen have set themselves a serious challenge. This is one of the very few Disney animations that does not employ a full-on demonic villain. In a tricky twist, Princess Elsa takes on some of those duties herself. It is, after all, she who brings chilly calamity to the beautifully rendered Nordic city. But that complexity adds a new dimension to a genre that more usually thrives on familiarity and convention.
Perhaps Disney is right to worry and the picture will come up short with certain demographics. Though the (I'm saying) gay snowman and the exasperated reindeer are a hoot, Frozen may, for some younger boys, play a little too much like a full-on musical. Everybody else with an ounce of heart should have an icy blast.