Frozen: that Disney Magic Works With Sisters
PG, 108 mins
First thing I need to do is get the snark off my chest. Frozen is not “Disney’s first animated film about sisters”! That was Lilo & Stitch, thank you very much!
That said, this movie had a lot of negativity from the blogosphere due to concerns about how faithful to the source material it was: Eurocentrism (read: lack of diversity–all white is all right), and remarks made by the animators about how women are tricky, hard to animate, difficult to portray with different emotions while still keeping them pretty, stuff like that. And oh, yeah: the goofy animated snowman.
It doesn’t seem to have harmed the movie in the long run, though, as the opening weekend has already apparently become Disney’s greatest. With good reason. Frozen is good stuff, even with all the valid concerns.
Disney has had a long track record of not following the source material to the letter. It’s always been very beautiful, very expensive fan fiction of fairy tales and stories. The Eurocentrism and non princess naming convention are business decisions based in old school Hollywood thinking–though, since Frozen, Catching Fire, and Gravity are female-led properties that are all succeeding, maybe somebody will pay attention. Tricky or not, the animators succeeded in animating Elsa and Anna beautifully and individually. I am happy to say that Olaf, the snowman, was marketed in the previews but is placed in an understated support role.
The story is just enough to wrap typical Disney formula around. Two spirited, playful sisters live happily with their parents. Elsa (Idina Menzel), the elder, has magical ice powers that she uses to play with her little sister Anna (Kristen Bell). But an accident happens as they do when kids play, and Anna takes an ice bolt to the head. The king and queen rush little Anna to the wise trolls of the wood who can help her, but only by removing her memory of the magic. They warn that it’s a lucky thing the ice didn’t strike her heart. The parents take this as a message that Elsa’s magic is too dangerous. They see that it comes out with her emotions, and exhort her to “conceal, don’t feel.” They close the castle doors and shut out the entire world. As a result, the two sisters who were once close as two peas in a pod, end up isolated from each other, and Anna doesn’t know why Elsa has suddenly become so … cold.
Flash forward: the parents face the typical Disney parent fate and die in a brief, dramatic scene (come on, it’s a Disney movie, parents bowing out early is no spoiler), leaving Elsa having to step up as queen when she comes of age.
The coronation day comes, and Elsa meets it with solemn trepidation over her magic which has only become tougher to control in the intervening years. Anna, on the other hand, is enthusiastically looking forward to the fun and partying, and to meeting people, finally! In fact, she gets a meet cute with the handsome Prince Hans of the Southern Isles. Is it love at first sight? Looks like!
Naturally, something goes wrong. Elsa and Anna argue, leading to Elsa’s glove getting yanked off and revealing her frosty magic to Anna and all of Arrendel. Elsa flees in fear of hurting her sister and subjects, leaving an ever worsening frozen storm in her wake.
This leads to the showpiece of the film: the song “Let it Go,” Oscar-bait from Idina Menzel, beautifully animated by Disney’s snowflake and fractal engine. Unfortunately, it also leads to one of the few problematic moments of the movie. As Elsa sings of how relieved and grateful she is to be free and not have to hide her powers, her somber gown turns from deep blue and violet to shimmering, translucent, icy white. It goes from one piece to a dramatic slit up one leg. And her body language goes from anguished and hunched to hip-swayingly sexy. Her expressions go from pained and fearful to the one usually called “Dreamworks Face.” I understand this was necessary for the angle they wanted to use to tell the story, but it was uncool to see a woman embracing her sexuality portrayed as an indication of evil. It was also jarring from a story standpoint to see Elsa go from sheltered and repressed to wicked vixen with no catalyst but her own elation.
Anna, convinced it’s all some big misunderstanding, races off to find her sister so she can restore summer before the kingdom and guests freeze to death.
While the body types vary for the background characters, the same tendency of skinny=pretty and fat=comedic appears to be upheld. The boys get variation, though. Hans (Santino Fontana) is slim and athletic, but Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), having lived a rugged life in the woods, is buff and brawny. Oaken the trader is even bigger, but that’s meant as a sight gag. The Duke of Weselton (Alan Tudyk) is skinny comic relief.
With the help of slightly misanthropic mountain man Kristoff, Anna confronts Elsa and pleads with her to stop her winter. Elsa protests she can’t, and, insisting Anna leave for her own safety, accidentally flings a shard of ice into her sister’s heart.
The rest of the film is a race against time. Fortunately, Anna has Kristoff and his faithful reindeer Sven, not to mention Olaf the snowman. There’s a really surprising lesson that subverts Disney’s usual princess formula of falling in love with a guy in the few minutes it takes to sing a song, implying that it’s not necessarily a great idea to marry a man you just met. Impressive, given the studio’s track record of pushing that trope.
So yes, despite its minor problems, and its peculiar pacing (“Fixer Upper” is an adorable song and my personal favorite, but it does sort of knock the movie off stride, given where it falls in the story), Frozen falls solidly into feminist territory. Both sisters are portrayed with strong, individual personalities, and with reasons for the decisions they make. They have strengths and weaknesses and are not carbon copies of each other. The men are not the reason the girls do everything, and even where the men do cause problems, Anna and Elsa handle them on their own terms.
Even Olaf the snowman is not as you might expect from the commercials and posters. He’s a charming addition.
There’s even a consent issue handled properly, wherein a guy asks a woman for a kiss and gets one enthusiastically given. There’s no assumption that she’s not her own person who may not want a kiss at that particular moment from that person.
Last but not least, the film even passes the Bechdel test.
Expect a lot of surprises. Disney marketed this as a comedy, but it’s no regular Disney Princess musical. You’ll leave Frozen heartwarmed.