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‘Frozen’ Is the Best Disney Film for any age to see

Who needs Pixar? Frozen confirms that the House of Mouse is capable of melting hearts again.

There's a special place in the heart reserved for wisecracking candlesticks, singing crustaceans, and lion cubs growing up to be mighty kings. It's a place where nostalgia is kept, where a warm feeling swells at the thought of things that we used to love, that used to be great.

For the better part of this new century, Disney's animated features resided there.

With a string of brilliant animated musicals in the late '80s and '90s—The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King—the House of Mouse reigned, with hit after hit of family-friendly cartoons that dominated the box office, dazzled critics, and warmed cold hearts with signature Disney magic and catchy tunes. The Magic Kingdom was overthrown in the new millennium, with Pixar delivering its own brand of reliably wholesome and reliably brilliant films—Toy Story 2, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Up, Wall-E—while Disney struggled to adapt its magic to a new tech-savvy age.

Frozen, which hits theaters Wednesday, is the best Disney film since The Lion King, and a powerful reminder of how astonishing the company's magic can really be. This is also, as it happens, the third consecutive year that Disney's big animated release is better than Pixar's. The knee-jerk reaction to such a thing would be to call Disney the new Pixar. But the more accurate coronation is that Disney is the new Disney.

Frozen pulls off its animated abracadabra by conjuring up the elements that made Disney's modern classics just that. It's about two sister princesses—this is Disney, did you really expect anything else?—in the Scandinavian kingdom of Arendelle whose relationship is tested when their parents die in a tragic accident—again, this is Disney, did you really expect anything else? Mostly, though, it's about the transformative powers of true love, of both the sisterly and romantic kind. This is Disney, and we don't want to expect anything else.

Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell as an adult) and Elsa (Idina Menzel as an adult) are inseparable as little girls. They adore spending time with each other, especially when Elsa uses her secret power to make it snow inside the castle. As must be learned, great power comes with great responsibility. Elsa's lesson comes when she nearly kills Anna while casting a chilly spell. Anna is fine—a wise (and adorable) old troll erases her memory of the incident. But in Elsa's eyes, great responsibility means Rapunzel-ing herself in her castle bedroom, where her powers can't hurt anyone else.

But she does hurt Anna, every day, as her heart breaks at the transformation of her fun-loving best friend into a mysterious recluse. The dissolution of their relationship plays out in the achingly poignant duet "Do You Want to Build a Snowman?" sung by the girls from opposite sides of locked doors as the years pass and they grow into lonely adults. (This is where we see their parents die.) The sequence evokes the masterful montage from the beginning of Pixar's Up, but made perhaps even more wrenching by the essentially Disney element of song.

When Elsa comes of age, a ball is held to celebrate her becoming queen, the first time the people of Arendelle are allowed within the castle's walls since the death of her parents. Anna, spunky and cute with a tiara on her head and heart on her sleeve, delights in the company of others, including a prince she believes is her true love, and needles Elsa to allow it to happen more often, unable to understand why she won't. Frustrated at not being able to give Anna the happiness she wants, Elsa loses control of her powers, accidentally turning the entire kingdom into a frozen wasteland and outing herself as a magical freak.