In development for almost as long as Walt Disney Animation Studios has existed, Disney’s adaptation of “The Snow Queen” is now the computer-animated “Frozen” with original songs by Kristen Anderson-Lopez (“In Transit”, “The Wonder Pets”) and Robert Lopez (“Avenue Q”, “The Book of Mormon”), and an orchestral score by Christophe Beck. Having previously written the songs for Disney’s “Winnie the Pooh” and “Finding Nemo - The Musical” (yep, it exists) the Lopezes were entrusted with coming up with fresh songs for an animated princess fairytale musical. No small task, but the duo and Beck have successfully delivered several memorable songs, some notably beautiful, but inconsistent, score elements, and a lot of promise for the next flurry of Disney animated soundtracks.
Both the album opener “Frozen Heart” and the character-establishing “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” deeply resemble Disney’s song output under Alan Menken (“Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin,” “The Little Mermaid”) and that helps them feel instantly familiar. While “Snowman” works better in the film (the visuals fill in some of the song’s gaps) the twee-cute vocals and gorgeous melody help its memorability. Conversely, “For the First Time in Forever” suffers from a fairly run-of-the-mill chorus tune, but smartly makes up for it with catchy verses, amusing lyrics (“Don’t know if I’m elated or gassy / But I’m somewhere in that zone!”) and a great performance from Kristen Bell, showing off protagonist Princess Anna’s quirky side while still longing for a ball, a man, and some basic human interaction. That man-interaction comes in the form of Hans (Santino Fontana), and his duet with Anna (“Love Is An Open Door”) is so breezy, so excitedly sang, and so downright fun that you truly believe they’re perfect for each other after only just meeting.
“Reindeer(s) Are Better Than People,” “In Summer,” and “Fixer Upper” aren’t as plot-progressing as the other numbers, but all three have their charms. Josh Gad’s distinctive, totally-committed performance gives “In Summer” a lot of heart and “Reindeer(s) Are Better Than People” is a silly little throw-away that I swear was only added once Jonathan Groff was cast so he’d have an excuse to sing (while a tad misanthropic, I just may adopt it for my own theme song).
The best song, however, is “Let It Go,” Elsa’s big diva number as she leaves her homeland, finally allowing her the simple pleasure to just be herself. Performed with belty gusto by Idina Menzel, it’s got every element needed to be a lasting favorite. While it’s hard not to compare it to “Defying Gravity” at least once (I imagine it’s impossible to write a power-ballad for Idina Menzel now and not have it sound at least a little Oz-like), Menzel should be credited for providing as much power and passion to this performance as she did in her most famous role. Demi Lovato’s rendition of “Let It Go” closes out the song-portion of the album and, while not my cup of tea, is surely hitting its target demographic straight on.
The back half of the album focuses on the orchestral score of the movie and composer Christophe Beck’s career seems to have been tailored to prepare him for the exact elements “Frozen” tossed at him. Heightened-reality hijinks? He scored both “The Muppets” and “Paperman” for Disney. Mixing melodies? He helped arrange songs and score to “Pitch Perfect.” Strong female lead? “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” won him an Emmy. So it was with solid expectations that I approached his contributions to “Frozen” and at least for the first several tracks, Beck really delivers.
Opening with the beautifully dreamy “Vuelie,” Beck evokes the Scandinavian setting with an a cappella performance by Cantus, a Norwegian female choir. Co-composed with Sámi musician Frode Fjellheim, the track immediately announces a distinct sound from any other Disney animated film, while still paying homage to their tradition of strong choral openings. The light and bouncy beginning of “Elsa and Anna” perfectly captures the innocence of the young princesses magic-snow-playtime and helps establish the bond of their childhood until the consequences and danger of Elsa’s powers become known during the track’s driving second half.
“The Trolls,” “Coronation Day,” and “Heimr Àrnadalr” all feature strong thematic writing, showcasing Beck’s ability to jump musical styles as needed, while staying true to the film’s tone and geographic influences. Regional instruments and soloist Christine Hals’ kulning are both used throughout these opening tracks to great effect. The kulning — a high-pitched Scandinavian herding call — later acts as a thematically resonant detail in “Whiteout” as Anna calls out in a search through a blinding blizzard.
Elsa’s journey toward self-acceptance is arguably the emotional center of the film, and Beck uses a series of 5-note motifs throughout the score to hint at her overarching influence: wisping away in the interlude to “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?,” receiving a dark, bombastic treatment as she reveals her powers in “Sorcery,” and eventually front-and-center for the piano opening of “Let It Go.” It’s another instance where the album rewards repeat listens.
Unfortunately, the middle section of Beck’s score becomes extremely traditional, by-the-numbers animation music: plenty of woodwinds and chimes for the magic, the occasional “Mickey-Mousing” overly-punctuating characters’ actions for the comedy, and horn blasts with tense strings for the snowstorm climax. “Onward and Upward” through “Conceal, Don’t Feel” aren’t helped by their short running times: at less than 2 minutes each, they don’t have enough time to establish themselves or reference the previous thematic ideas in any interesting way. Compared to the high standard set by the first few tracks, most of the score’s remainder suffers from underwhelming blandness. Thankfully the album ends better, with “The Great Thaw (Vuelie Reprise)” and “Epilogue,” both featuring spirited variations on “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” and a choir.
Available in both “standard” and “deluxe edition” versions (the deluxe includes a second disc of song demos, outtakes of discarded songs, score demos, trailer music, source music, and karaoke versions of several of the songs, more of which are available on the digital download release—whew!) the “Frozen” soundtrack is a collection of enjoyable songs that only improve with subsequent listens.