Almost more than its princesses and its Prince Charmings and its infectious musical numbers, Disney's sterling reputation has been built over the decades on characters like Olaf, the magical snowman in Frozen who "likes warm hugs." He is not central to the plot. The story could be told without him and probably still win the weekend at the box office. But Disney is Disney because it makes Olaf, who is voiced by Josh Gad, as rich a character as Anna and Elsa, the two princesses who are an absolute necessity to the tale. Olaf is part Gus Gus from Cinderella, part Dug from Up. He is naive enough to dream of summer, not realizing what the temperature increase that comes with it portends for a being made out of snow. And he is clumsy enough that his head, midsection, rear end, arms made out of twigs and carrot nose keep getting jostled and jumbled to great comedic effect. There's a scientific precision to just how funny Olaf is, as if the animators and screenwriters spent months thinking of how a magical snowman could be amusing and managed to come up with exactly enough things to make him ridiculously delightful rather than borderline grating.
Characters like Olaf are rare in non-Disney family films. Were this a Dreamworks animated feature -- you know, the ones which tend to fixate on VOLUME and cheap bathroom humor and celebrity voice actors -- he would probably steal the show. But this is a Disney film, and so Olaf is just a very memorable character in a very complete package.
I've spent 250-some words talking about Olaf, but I could have just as easily raved about the surprisingly fresh story that IS central to Frozen. Adapted from the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale The Snow Queen, sister princesses Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel) must figure out how to save their kingdom, Arendelle, after Elsa loses control of her wintry magical powers on her coronation day and plunges the realm into a paralyzing and unending deep freeze in the middle of the summer.
I could have also praised the pristine computer animation. Part of me laments the dearth of new hand-drawn animation every time I head in to a movie like this, but that's a sentiment that's quickly shelved when you have an opening scene as breathtaking as the one in Frozen, which features bellowing, chanting ice-cutters loading blocks of ice on to a sleigh. It's so realistic, you'd be forgiven for reaching for a blanket.
Or I could have talked about the musical numbers. Frozen lacks that one unforgettable tune, but you still can't help but hum along as Anna and Elsa sing their way toward a solution that will save their kingdom.
By my count, this is Walt Disney Animation Studios' sixth computer-animated feature film. It is their best to date, surpassing Wreck-It Ralph and Tangled. Disney seems to have found its sweet spot with Frozen, a welcome development since they are so much better in this space than the noisy impostors churned out by rival studios.