Elsa and Anna, the two princesses in in the glorious new Disney animated feature Frozen, are bonded in love and sisterhood but separated by the chasm between their personalities. Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel) is blessed or cursed with powers of sorcery that have wreaked perennial winter on the Northern land of Arendelle, forcing Anna (Kristen Bell) to become her sister’s captor and her kingdom’s savior.
The Frozen story might be a metaphor for the friendly rivalry between the Walt Disney Studio, pioneer and longtime lord of animated features, and Pixar, the upstart outfit that ended the reign of traditional, hand-drawn “2-D” animation and changed the entire format to computer-generated, “3-D” imagery. Walt himself forged the template with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Dumbo and Bambi, and 50 years later Disney animation boss Jeffrey Katzenberg godfathered another hot streak: The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King.
The year after The Lion King, Pixar released the first CGI-animated feature, Toy Story, launching a string of 11 consecutive box-office smashes and artistic triumphs, including such masterpieces as Finding Nemo, WALL·E, Up and Toy Story 3. Disney floundered for a decade until the company bought Pixar; and Pixar creative guru John Lasseter took creative control of both groups, with the mission of reviving the invaluable brand of Disney Animation.
In a turnaround beyond Lasseter’s expectations or, perhaps, wishes, the Disney animators have outshone their Oscar-laden siblings. Pixar features, made in the San Francisco suburb of Emeryville, have plateaued at the merely-okay level of achievement; Cars 2, Brave and Monsters University boast bolts of inspiration but no sustaining genius. Down in Burbank, the recent Disney “princess” musicals — The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, and now Frozen — have expanded and enriched an honorable tradition, while Wreck-It Ralph filched the familiar Pixar trope of anthropomorphic game figures and snapped it into comedic life. If there were a Hunger Games face-off between the studios’ films of the past few years, Disney vs. Pixar, we’d rule in favor of the venerable Mouse House.
(READ: Can Pixar Still Go Up?)
Pixar has lately wrestled with managing its own artists. Lasseter took over direction of Cars 2; Brenda Chapman, the original helmer of Brave (and the first woman chosen to direct a Pixar feature), was replaced by Mark Andrews; and Good Dinosaur, scheduled as next summer’s release, was pushed back a year after director Bob Peterson was yanked, making 2014 the first year with a new Pixar feature since 2005.
Disney Animation, if it suffers staff ructions, keeps them quiet. Frozen boasts a female writer and co-director, Jennifer Lee (who wrote Wreck-It Ralph and is the first woman director in the 76 years of Disney feature animation), teamed with Chris Buck (whose work at the studio extends back more than three decades). Together, they have modernized Hans Christian Andersen’s 1845 story “The Snow Queen” into a fable of modern of timeless sisterhood.
(READ: Mary Pols’ review of Wreck-It Ralph)
Following the body issues in The Princess and the Frog (a human is transformed into an amphibian) and Tangled (an ancient hag maintains the semblance of youth by imprisoning a pretty girl), Frozen continues the Disney theme of the power and danger attending the changes in adolescent females. In the treacherous DMZ between girlhood and womanhood, the teen Elsa feels surges of strength she cannot control. She lives alone, adhering to the motto “Conceal, don’t feel.”
On Elsa’s 18th birthday, when she is to be crowned queen in the company of visiting royals, the anxieties of this solitary teen explode like Carrie White’s telekinesis. Her touch freezes all of Arendelle into a perennial nuclear winter, making Frozen possibly the first climate-change movie to warn of an impeding Ice Age since The Day After Tomorrow in 2004.
(READ: How Disney Turned Rapunzel into the Terrific Tangled)
As a child, Elsa revels in her ice-making abilities — a cute parlor trick for a prodigy princess — until she creates a magic mountain of snow and ice from which Anna fell. Their parents, fearful of further harm from Elsa’s unmanageable gift, basically send the girl to her room for years. And when the King and Queen die in a convenient shipwreck, leaving the girls orphans, Elsa chooses to remain confined, not responding to Anna’s pleas for simple friendship. At ages five, nine and 15, Anna sings “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” (“It doesn’t have to be a snowman.”) And over the years, on opposite sides of Elsa’s bedroom door, the girls remain close but separated, bound only by the kinship of despair.
An isolate ice maiden in the movie mold of Greta Garbo, Elsa just vants to be alone. When she retreats to a snow palace she built for herself, she sings, “I’m alone, but I’m alone and free” — free from wreaking further climatic catastrophe on her kingdom. Anna’s problems, when not dodging her sister’s bolts of wrath, are those of any vibrant girl deprived of social contact in her formative years.
(READ: Corliss on Disney’s The Princess and the Frog)
Anna can’t wait for Coronation Day: her first man, her first kiss. That comes from the hunky Prince Hans of the Southern Isles (Santino Fontana), to whom Anna instantly and naïvely pledges her eternal affection in “Love Is an Open Door.” Eternity doesn’t last long, since on Anna’s ascent to the Elsa redoubt she meets Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), a hunky ice deliverer who blames Elsa for destroying his business. Thus the movie’s romantic triangle: Hans, Kristoff, Anna — all named in tribute to the “Snow Queen” author.
Kristoff, who like Elsa and Anna hasn’t had much opportunity for human interaction, does hold a running, one-way colloquy with his pet reindeer Sven. But the most adorable chatterbox in Arendelle is the little snowman Olaf (Josh Gad), an irrepressibly enthusiastic creature who dreams of warmth in the South. Blissfully unaware of the effect heat has on frozen water, he sings the movie’s mid-show-stopper “In Summer.”
A soft-shoe number with brilliant choreography of character, voice and visuals (it ends with a swirling tracking shot that quotes the one that accompanied Julie Andrews singing “The Sound of Music”), “In Summer” makes Olaf’s weather delusion sound and look deliciously delirious: “A drink in my hand, / My snow up against the burning sand, / Prob’ly getting gorgeously tanned / In summer. … Just imagine how much cooler I’ll be / In summer. … When I finally do what cold things do / In summer!” Watch the number here and, if you don’t agree it’s a musical-comedy miracle, you are hereby excused from seeing Frozen. Or from ever enjoying life.
As Anna tests her feelings toward both Elsa and her retinue of swains, Menzel, Bell and Groff lend vocal passion to a Broadway-ready score by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez. The movie is almost sure to join the parade of Disney animated features (The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Tarzan) made into stage shows. Several of the stars and creators are young Broadway stalwarts: Lopez (Avenue Q, The Book of Mormon), Menzel (Rent and Wicked), Bell (Becky Thatcher in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer), Groff (Spring Awakening, Hair) and Gad (the lead missionary in The Book of Mormon).
(FIND: The Book of Mormon in TIME’s list of Top 10 Mormons in Popular Culture)
The songs’ lyrics often settle for ordinary rhymes, but the overall mood is vivacious and sometimes poignant, as in the bravura power-pop ballad “Let It Go,” which dramatizes Elsa’s resigned acceptance, then proud declaration, of her witchly fate: “Let the storm rage on. / The cold never bothered me anyway.” Is she the monarch (and sole inhabitant) of this icy “kingdom of isolation”? Then it’s good to be the queen.
And it’s great to see Disney returning to its roots and blooming anew: creating superior musical entertainment that draws on the Walt tradition of animation splendor (this is the first wide-screen feature cartoon since the 1959 Sleeping Beauty) and the verve of Broadway present. The impact of this sisterhood fable on viewers should be as warm and rapturous as Olaf the snowman’s dream of summer. Child, teen or septuagenarian, you’ll warm to Frozen.