Remember when Disney was a powerhouse of animated musicals? In the 1980s and ’90s, movies such as “Beauty and the Beast” and “Pocahontas” didn’t just win the box office, but songs from Disney movies stormed the Billboard charts, too. There was Elton John’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” from “The Lion King” and “A Whole New World,” a No. 1 hit from “Aladdin.” An entire generation of youngsters tormented their parents, playing the taped soundtrack from “The Little Mermaid” on a never-ending loop.
Disney is back in the game with “Frozen.” The movie might not have potential pop hits — the songs sound much more like musical theater show tunes than Miley Cyrus auto-tuned — but the animated comedy-adventure has a sweet and very modern message, plus strong characters. More important, the movie blends the music-minded mentality of yore with the more recent ambition (thank you, Pixar) of truly appealing to all ages.
The story was inspired by “The Snow Queen” by Hans Christian Andersen, although it bears little resemblance to the fairy tale. “Frozen” follows sisters Elsa and Anna, who are princesses in a Nordic region, Arendelle. Elsa has a secret power: She can fill a room with snow and ice with a few shakes of her hand. Only she hasn’t mastered her ability, and one day she accidentally injures the younger Anna with a shot of ice to the head. After that, Elsa mostly hides in her room for fear of hurting people, and the girls become estranged.
But on Elsa’s coronation day, the new queen becomes frightened — one of her triggers for spontaneous ice creation — and she accidentally freezes the fjord around the castle as she sends Arendelle into an eternal winter. Elsa flees amid accusations of witchcraft, and the majority of the movie is spent with Anna, who has always adored her sister, as she sets out to find the queen, bring her home and get her to cancel the permafrost. Along for the ride are the burly Kristoff and his pet reindeer, Sven, plus one of Elsa’s creations, a talking snowman named Olaf.
Anna is much more of a contemporary rom-com heroine than an Ariel-the-mermaid type. She’s clumsy, awkward and a bit of a dork (although she does a mean robot). But, refreshingly, she’s no damsel in distress, not even during the film’s late scenes, when she finds herself in a desperate situation.
Kristen Bell, who shot to fame as the spunky detective in “Veronica Mars,” feels like the perfect pick to voice such a character. And she can sing, too, although not quite as transcendently as Broadway star Idina Menzel, who voices Elsa and has no trouble hitting the high notes in the sometimes cheesy, always soaring soundtrack. Rising star Josh Gad also does memorable voice work as Olaf, the brainless rube of a snowman who’s always wanted to go to the beach.
The movie, while dazzling to look at, may be a little long for some small children. But its surprising and poignant ending, which subverts so many fairy-tale stereotypes, feels as though it cancels out the movie’s small flaws and dragging moments. “Frozen” may be a nod to the pleasures of vintage Disney and old fairy tales, but there’s nothing outdated about it.
★ ★ ★
PG. At area theaters. Contains some action and mild rude humor. 108 minutes.