The resurgence of Disney Animation took another symbolic step Sunday when its latest film, "Frozen," topped the weekend box office in its sixth week of wide release.
"Frozen" had already taken top spot once – on its second weekend of wide release in early December. But films that have the staying power to come back and reclaim No. 1 status in nonconsecutive weeks – particularly a month later – are rare.
"Most wide-release films in general can't sustain that kind of momentum a month after first hitting theaters," writes Steven Zeitchik on the Los Angeles Times' "Movies Now" blog. " 'Frozen' is not so much in the ballpark of other animated movies as it is like uncommon, often spectacle-driven films that do: film-biz phenomena such as 'Gravity,' which just hung on at No. 5 in its fifth week, and 'Avatar,' which continued to win the weekend on its sixth and seventh weekends of release."
For example, "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" was released only a week before "Frozen" went into wide release. ("Frozen" debuted in only one theater is its first week.) While the initial surge for "Catching Fire" was much larger, it slipped to No. 9 this weekend with $7.4 million. Even "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug," which was released two weeks after "Frozen," could only muster $16.3 million for third place this weekend.
"Frozen" took in an estimated $20.7 million this weekend, according to Rentrak, outpacing the only new release, "Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones," which opened in second with $18.2 million.
With this weekend's performance, "Frozen" is set to cross the $300 million domestic mark Monday. It is already the No. 4 domestic film of 2013 and could conceivably catch No. 3 – "Despicable Me 2," which took in $367 million. In addition, the film could become the top grosser in the history of Disney Animation this week, outpacing the $312 million "The Lion King" brought in before being re-released in 3-D.
Coming on the heels of "Tangled" and "Wreck-It Ralph," "Frozen" suggests that Disney Animation is in the midst of a renaissance approaching the "golden age" of the early 1990s, when "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast," and "Aladdin" revitalized the studio.
“The movie is probably the best non-Pixar Disney movie since the classics of the 1990s,” Jim Silver, editor of Time to Play Magazine, a toy publication, told Bloomberg News.
So how did "Frozen" do it?
Brilliantly terrible marketing. For "Frozen," Disney took a page out of its own playbook. Three years earlier, Disney turned the Rapunzel fairy tale into the gender-neutral "Tangled" and marketed the main male character as an Indiana Jones-style swashbuckler. The fear was that Disney's previous fairy tale, "The Princess and the Frog," had underperformed because boys didn't want to go to a princess movie.
Fast forward to this fall, and one could be forgiven for thinking that "Frozen" was a movie about a snowman and a reindeer fighting for a carrot. The first trailer mentioned nothing about Anna or Elsa, the two princess-sisters at the core of the story. (The film is loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen.") Even the second trailer was more about wise cracks and wacky hijinks than sisterly love.
"How wonderful is it that audiences got to experience the film’s biggest pleasures, from its heartbreaking prologue to Idina Menzel’s powerhouse ballad 'Let It Go', in a theater rather than in a spoilery trailer or television spot?" Mr. Mendelson writes. "That's the key of the 'false sell' or the 'under sell'. You build word-of-mouth by allowing the audience to 'discover' the film’s quality for themselves."
The false under-sell, he said, only works if it's a "film that absolutely delivers when audiences show up." But "Frozen" won a much-coveted "A-plus" CinemaScore rating from audiences, and the rest is history.
Good timing. The holiday season is made for family fare. Two often snow-filled weeks with the kiddos at home? Let's go to the movies! This season, "Frozen" was virtually the only game in town for family entertainment. The animated "Walking With Dinosaurs" opened Dec. 20 but has garnered little buzz, leaving the field clear for "Frozen."
The classic Disney formula. The creators of "Frozen" have been unabashed. This is a musical. Sure, "Tangled" featured songs, including one nominated for an Oscar. Some of them were lovely. But in "Frozen," the music is the engine of the movie – and it's top-of-the-playlist fantastic.
Marking a return to the formula of "The Little Mermaid" and "Beauty and the Beast," "Frozen" turned to Broadway for its composers and talent. Ms. Menzel, who plays Elsa, won a Tony as the original Elphaba in the musical "Wicked," and the composer husband-wife team of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez wrote the tunes for the Tony award-winning "Book of Mormon."
Billboard ranks the "Frozen" soundtrack as its No. 4 album – the highest rank for a Disney animated film since "Pocahontas" in 1995. On iTunes, however, "Frozen" is the top selling album, outpacing even the new release by Beyoncé.
The film's showstopper, Menzel's "Let It Go," seems a lock for an Oscar.
It's a darn good film. The film, too, seems a shoo-in for the best animated feature Oscar, telling a classic Disney fairy tale earnestly, and yet at the same time seamlessly turning the classic Disney fairy tale on its head.
" 'Frozen' tapped into the cultural zeitgeist by fine-tuning the core elements and went far-and-above what was reasonably expected of a film in its respective 'franchise'," writes Mendelson. "Coupled with its $639.9m worldwide take, this is the kind of situation where I would have felt reckless predicting this level of success, which is why it's so pleasing."