It never should have worked.
Looking back at the legacy of Frozen ten years after it premiered, that's what always comes to mind. This never should have become the absolute phenomenon it did. The story was already rough, the movie completely changed tone and direction midway through, the cast wasn't exactly A-listers and there was already a buzz Disney animation had lost its way against Pixar.
But when Frozen opened on November 22nd, 2013, even Disney could never have anticipated how it would take off. It became the highest-grossing film of 2013 and, for a time, the biggest animated hit ever, not to mention the easy winner of the Best Animated Feature Oscar. It's also seen as arguably the last truly classic Disney animated film while spawning an incredible legacy from merchandising to live-action versions.
And to think it all started with the one story that baffled Walt and his classic animators.
The Snow Queen's history
The story of the Snow Queen by Hans Christan Anderson has been adapted several times over the years. It's a fun tale of a young boy whose heart is made cold by a spell and his best friend trying to save him, going on a journey that leads to the title character.
It's no surprise Walt and his animation team would try to bring it to life in the classic period of the 1940s. In fact, Walt even had the idea of mixing animation with live-action, which was a bit ahead of the time of the technology. It was dropped with attempts again in the 1990s during the animation renaissance.
The issue was always the same: The Snow Queen herself was a literally cold figure, imperious, dominating, not quite a villain but not an ally. It was hard to make her relatable to audiences, and various attempts at a straight-on version of the story never worked because of that.
The failed story pitches are fodder for books and websites, as the excellent book DisneyWar explored the idea of the Snow Queen melting emotionally when she meets a regular guy. But despite that, and attempts at a stage show at the parks, nothing could click. Until one suggestion changed it.
The sisterly bond
The funny thing is, no one is actually sure who came up with the idea. John Lasseter was having a meeting with story directors who noted they had the ingredients down: The snowy setting, the Snow Queen named Elsa, the girl Anna and the love interest Kristoff, but just couldn't figure a way to gel it together.
At which point, one person who no doubt wishes they could be credited piped up, "What if Anna and Elsa were sisters?"
Wham. Instantly, the entire story fell into place. Of course, that meant completely jettisoning the older one, where Elsa was a true villain who kidnapped Anna from her wedding with Kristoff trying to save her.
However, Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck worked together on the script and injected more humor while building further on the bond of the siblings orphaned at a young age with Elsa's powers kept secret and distant from her sister. It was working out, but it really wasn't until one famous song that it all came together.
"Let It Go" changed everything
It's become part of Disney legend but still bears repeating. Before the now iconic "Let It Go" song, the producers were still working on the idea of Elsa a villain. But that song and its lyrics made them see her as a scared woman, finally breaking free of her fears and accepting herself.
So yes, it meant completely reworking the entire half-completed movie but everyone agreed this was for the best as it finally made the "Snow Queen" relatable to audiences (not to mention providing an instant hit song.)
That led to further changes like making Anna more carefree and innocent, transforming Olaf from Elsa's twisted henchman into Anna's lovable summer-obsessed sidekick, and discovering the way each character needed to grow to find their way.
The Hans twist
Of course, the other factor that stood out was the Hans twist. True, it's not the first time Disney has used it, and they have arguably gone overboard with it since. However, the revelation that the handsome, dashing Hans was an absolute cad remains a genius move.
I still recall the opening weekend audience watching as Hans moved to give Anna the true love's kiss that will cure her…and then smirking, "if only someone truly loved you." The gasps of shock were amazing, instantly transforming the character into a hissable foe.
That led to the final great touch, which is that it's the love of Elsa, not Kristoff, that saves Anna and the sisterly bond that always made this movie work. It took a lot (supposedly, they were still rewriting the script months before the final animation was done), but it worked so well, it's hard to believe this all came together by accident.
The magical casting
Disney has always relied on not casting by how famous someone is but if they're right for the roles. Which is why, rather than some big music star for Elsa, they went for Tony-winner Idina Menzel. Not only did she nail the vocals but also the emotion needed (no surprise the woman who played the Witch in Wicked could connect to a misunderstood character).
Kristen Bell was between Veronica Mars and The Good Place, but that quirky humor and exuberance matched Anna, not to mention a great singing voice of her own, and she and Menzel just clicked right off. Throw in Josh Grad stealing the show as Olaf, Jonathan Groff charming as Kristoff and Santino Fontana nicely making Hans look the hero before revealing his true colors and it's one of the best cases of a flawless cast coming together.
The legacy of Frozen in the last decade cannot be underestimated. First, of course, is that it remains one of the biggest merchandising cash cows Disney has ever seen. Kids still dress up as the characters for Halloween, there are Frozen-themed parties, and you can't walk a dozen steps in a Disney park without seeing the characters advertised somewhere.
On that, it's no shock there's a park presence from the hours-long wait for Elsa and Anna meet and greets to remaking Epcot's Norway ride into Frozen Ever After (which worked much better than folks expected). Now, there's an entire Frozen land at Hong Kong Disneyland, with the possibility California gets a version down the line.
Then there are the live-action versions, as the Once Upon a Time series managed to make the characters work in the storyline, with Georgina Haig and Elizabeth Lail looking just like Elsa and Anna stepping off the screen. Cue the Broadway show cut short by the pandemic but still touring productions expanding on the storyline.
The inevitable sequel was also a hit with more great songs, and now, there are plans for not just a third film but likely a live-action adaptation. But at the end of the day, the legacy of Frozen is that it was the last feel of the classic Disney animated era, a movie that would have been perfectly at home in the 1990s heyday.
While Moana and Wish were good in their own ways, they never quite matched the magic of Frozen. There's a reason it remains as beloved now as when it debuted a decade ago as the themes from sisterly bonds to being true to yourself to being careful on opening your heart speak to folks of all ages.
Eric Sevareid once described Walt Disney as "a happy accident." Frozen is much the same: a movie overcoming so many problems that should have derailed it but ended up becoming a Disney masterpiece. Ten years after its debut, Frozen deserves its place as a beautiful and vital part of the Disney animated lexicon to shine as wonderfully now as in 2013.
Frozen streaming on Disney+.