Disney has long been maligned as merely making “kids movies,” characterized by their fairytale logic as well as presenting an unrealistic picture of the world meant to provide children with entertainment rather then making them think. This attitude is rather unfair when examined, since most of the themes of past Disney films are just as present in live action films, and it’s only the absence of talking snowman and spontaneous musical interludes that differentiate them. Disney works in allegory, and any lover of literature will readily defend this approach to material.
Frozen is one of the Disney films for the new era of children who have already seen these aforementioned tropes enough times for the nostalgia to wear thin, and who are looking for a message more insightful then just “true love can transform a beast into a man.” It is also the first Disney film to feature two female leads who are sisters, making it one of the more feminist films the company has produced.
It is a subtle film, so subtle in fact that the lack of grandiose set pieces and clear villain marks it as almost the polar opposite of previous works like The Lion King or The Little Mermaid. It is instead part of their new every oeuvre, just updated from the Hans Christian Anderson story “The Ice Queen” from which it takes inspiration from.
The setting is the slightly Norwegian looking kingdom of Arendelle, surrounded by snowy mountains but nondescript enough to pass for any fairytale setting. A snow dragon could just as easily fly into town and demand the hand of the princess as a wicked stepmother could plot to usurp the kind through a magical flute or some other mcguffin.
What happens in Frozen however is far simpler, the oldest daughter of the king and queen named Elsa (Idina Menzal), is gifted (or cursed) with the power of Glaciokinesis (Control over ice) which provides initial fun for her and her sister Anna (Kristen Bell) in the form of conjuring snowmen, but turns tragic when she loses control and accidentally inflicts a near mortal wound on her sister.
Though her sister survives through intervention on their parent’s part, her memory is wiped and from then on Elsa isolates herself for fear of losing control and hurting her sister, while Anna cannot understand why she has suddenly drawn away from her. After the traditionally Disney deaths of the meddlesome parents (Seriously, these films sure like to break families up considering how much they contain messages about the importance of said family) the two sisters grow apart for ten years until Elsa’s christening as the Queen forces them both into the world.
While Anna is ecstatic at the thought of going into the outside world, as well as meeting her “one true love,” Elsa struggles with the fear of losing control of her icy powers. When the fait accompli event happens and Ana meets the neighboring kingdom’s prince Hans, she thinks it’s love at first sight, and they ask for her sister’s blessing. Unable to take the stress of repressing her emotions as well as her sister’s painful frustration with her, Elsa finally reveals her powers, scaring the citizens of the city, and retreating to a palace of her own icy making; inadvertently plunging Arendelle into an early winter.
From then on Ana makes it her goal to bring back her sister and thaw the kingdom, though she remains naïve about the exact way to accomplish this. She is joined by Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), a wry but good hearted ice merchant, as well as his reindeer Sven, and later, an oddball talking snowman named Olaf (Josh Gad) who harbors dreams of sun on his face and wants to “Do what snow does in the sun.” A paradoxical dream to be sure.
The conflict of Frozen is thus not about defeating a villain, saving the princess, or recovering some magical tableau, but about whether Anna will be able to reach her sister, and whether Elsa will find a way to control her powers and stop pushing her away. As an allegory for family relationships this is a powerfully realized one, particularly with the double language concerning a “frozen” heart and the way Elsa’s attitude appears so cold on the surface, while the audience senses her desire to be warm.
The film is equally adapt at deconstructing fairytale conventions while remaining true to the light hearted tone of the movie, such as the idea of love at first sight, any problem being able to be overcome by working together, and the need for romance to be the primary motivator behind the female characters. Passing the Bechdel test is just one of the things the film does by the nature of it’s narrative alone, it also refrains from judging Ana for her belief in “love at first sight,” and goes to great lengths to show Elsa as not an evil snow queen, but a girl blessed with tremendous power who is struggling to understand it.
Indeed, although it’s clear that Elsa’s powers are a danger to those around her, her most powerful character moment occurs after she has fled the castle and feels the warmth of freedom for the first time in her life. In a sequence that is just as important emotionally as it is visually, Elsa transforms herself from a repressed girl with hair pinned back and drab attire, to a fully fledged Snow Queen whose voice rises to a fever pitch as she sings “Let it go/let it go/can’t hold it back in anymore/turn away and slam the door” It is the first time we truly understand how much she has been hiding herself from the world. It is glorious and uplifting in a way that we haven’t seen Disney do in some time, and will certainly be up for an Oscar as this years best original song.
Of the supporting players, Kristoff is likeable and kind without stretching into pushover territory, and early on serves as a kind of audience surrogate for the questions that Anna seems to be ignoring. One of his more amusing quirks comes when he stages conversations with his reindeer, almost certainly a parody of the traditionally “talking animal” schtick of past films. It’s both hilarious and meta, and actually works with his character being a bit of a mountain man, albeit one who has adjusted well enough so he’s not viewed as an outsider.
Meanwhile, Josh Gad as Olaf the snowman is a hidden gem of the film, as he provides just the right amount of enthusiasm to lift the characters up, instead of simply being cute and cracking jokes. Providing some of the best physical comedy, he nonetheless identifies with Anna’s desire to connect with her sister, as well as her feelings towards Hans. He’s a hopeless romantic made endearing by his lack of sense about basic natural laws concerning thermodynamics.
Visually the film is superb, with snow and ice used to wonderful effect, and Elsa’s prism-like ice castle a standout. From the opening shots of twirling snowflakes (A special program was created to make them all unique) and the introduction to the kingdom via ice harvesting, the film has the mark of classic Disney. While the songs from Robert Lopez (Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon) may feel like icing on the cake rather then generation-defining melodies, they also nicely express the characters feelings.
In truth, if Frozen has one weak point it is in its haste to deconstruct some of the fairy tale tropes from previous animated films it sometimes forgets that its central character dynamic is the most compelling aspect of the film. Though every plot point has meaning to the characters, by making Anna and Elsa’s conflict very much felt rather then experienced it avoids pitting the two girls directly against each other the way traditional conflicts take place. In doing so it avoids demonizing either for their actions, but also ends up robbing the films 3rd act of stakes and while we are happy at the genre-defying resolution, it feels—if not too easy—like it would mean even more if the audience had better experienced the conflict between the two sisters instead of just the internal one.
But that resolution really is in some ways more important, because it represents a more meaningful take on fairy tales without having to completely reinvent the genre. Disney has been a significant part in shaping the ideas of children concerning what makes a hero, what makes a villain, and what exactly constitutes “true love,” and while we enjoy these tales, we also recognize that they come from a different time and mind. It is only when a movie like Frozen makes the relationship between two sisters the driving force of the movie that we see how this aspect of relationships has gone unnoticed, and after witnessing the Anna and Elsas’ emotional bond, it’s hard not to wonder why we dismiss princesses when Frozen reminds how they are always more then just pink gowns and tiaras. There’s also a woman—or a little girl—under it all.