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Review: Disney’s “Frozen”

[Originally published on Coming to the Edge.]


I rang in the New Year by going to see Frozen with my big sister the glaciologist, who is obviously the optimal person to bring along to a movie that’s about a) ice and b) sisters. Really, though, if you’re going to see Frozen, I highly recommend bringing a glaciologist if you have one handy. I’m assured that the snow and ice was really well done.

(Sidebar: I have bragged to some of my friends before that Gina is, or at least has been called, the unofficial poet laureate of the International Glaciological Society on account of how her poems and songs have been requested by the president of said IGS and won awards. Click those links and marvel at her ability to rhyme words like “callipygian” and “cryosphere” without even blinking.)

Okay, moving on to the movie.

Elsa in Let It Go
I don’t care if this sounds like a bad pun — I get chills every time.

First things first: I liked Frozen quite a bit. I don’t think it was Disney’s best movie ever, and I’ll delve into that a little more deeply, but I thought it was an enjoyable movie with AMAZING music, beautiful production design, and a core of something very important: a story about women who save each other and save themselves.

Second things second: I went into Frozen prepared to dislike it for a number of reasons. I wasn’t crazy about the fact that Disney had turned Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen into a completely different story; I was in a stage version of The Snow Queen when I was about twelve, playing the Robber Girl, and that’s still one of my favorite roles and productions ever, and I’d love to see what Disney could do with the story of Gerda and Kai. I was disappointed that Disney populated the cast entirely with white people again when they could have done so much more. And I was downright derisive of the fact that the animators had apparently just copy/pasted Rapunzel’s character model and made some minor tweaks, while shaking their heads over how “animating female characters are really, really difficult.”

Also, what the hell is this thing:

Olaf from Frozen

But I figured it wasn’t fair to judge the movie on what it could have been — a faithful adaptation of The Snow Queen with an Inuit cast and visually distinctive female characters and no abominationable snowmen — and I should focus my energies on judging the movie on what it is, and what it’s trying to be and say.

My sense, ultimately, was that Disney really wanted to make a movie that followed the same winning formula as its Golden Age princess movies, like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast and Mulan. There was a focus on having musical numbers throughout — something I missed in Brave and found strangely lacking in Enchanted and Tangled, even though Frozen only has a couple more numbers than Tangled. And overall the movie was a straightforward adventure story with some nice setpiece chase scenes, magic galore, and a goofy talking sidekick tailor-made to become a stuffed toy.

But they tweaked the formula. Frozen‘s central relationship isn’t about a princess finding her prince. In fact, the movie makes fun of the whole trope of love at first sight in a delightful scene where Kristoff asks Anna incredulously, “You got engaged to someone you met that day?” Instead, the driving force of the movie is Anna’s desire to reconnect with her older sister. There’s some romance, too, skillfully included as side plots — Anna’s instant infatuation with Hans reads like classic Disney on the surface, but is undermined throughout the story, and the development of her relationship with Kristoff is organic and charming. (Even though I was kind of rooting for a while for Kristoff to get together with Elsa. Ice is his life, guys!)

The problem is that aside from the major central change, shifting the focus from a princess-prince relationship to a sister-sister relationship, Frozen was still basically formulaic. And yet it . . . wasn’t? And therein lies the rub: there were too many points in the movie where I felt like I could see what they were aiming at, but they just hadn’t pushed quite far enough. They painted in the numbers and stayed within the lines: here’s why Elsa conceals her powers, here’s some dead parents, here’s a love song, here’s a chase scene, here’s a sidekick, here’s a funny musical number with trolls, here’s a desperate chase scene on the way to the climactic battle, here’s the climactic battle. The resulting picture was well-done, just not breathtaking.

And yet there are moments in Frozen that do take my breath away. The last verse of “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” leaves me choked up every time. I actually gasped at the plot twist in the last act because I didn’t see it coming at all and yet it made perfect sense, the way a good plot twist should. And the musical transition from first verse to chorus in “Let It Go” hits me right where I live, every time. Don’t let them know — well now they know! Let it go, let it go!

So if you want just a straight-up review of the movie, a “should I go see this y/n”: Yes, you should. It’s a decent movie, the music alone is worth the cost of the ticket, and I want Hollywood to get the message that female-led movies like this are successful. I give it a 7.5/10.

You can stop reading here if you want. If you want a little more dramaturgy and discussion of story-telling (and also some specific spoilers), keep reading.

So it was a decent movie, but not as satisfying as I wanted it to be. What was lacking? What would have given this story the emotional oomph I felt it needed?

Young Elsa in FrozenThe biggest plothole (archole, maybe?) was in how the movie handled Elsa’s powers, and the way she was forced to hide them. The trope of keeping tight control over one’s actions and emotions out of fear is one I consistently find compelling: Bruce Banner is my favorite Avenger, Firestarter is in my top ten Stephen King books, I loved Black Swan, etc etc. And I had no trouble with the basic idea that the trolls and Elsa’s parents thought that the best way to keep her from hurting anyone was to bottle up her powers entirely. I mean, yes, it’s a patently stupid idea bound to end in disaster, but it’s also the kind of strategy people frequently use when faced with a child — or an adult — dealing with emotions we can’t understand and can’t help. Just stop — be normal — be cheerful — because I don’t know how to deal with what you’re going through and you’re making it harder for life to go on as normal. Again: bad idea, but not unrealistic.

And what do you know: it does end in disaster, but also liberation. Libby Anne at Love, Joy, and Feminism wrote two years ago about how Tangled spoke to her journey away from a repressive evangelical Christian culture, and more recently about how “Let It Go” moved her to tears. I think the story of a woman rejecting the idea of “the good girl you always have to be” and embracing her own personal power, celebrating rather than hiding her emotions, is one that a lot of young women can connect with on a deep level. Frozen gets that story right — mostly.

But not one character explicitly calls out the fact that the trolls and Elsa’s parents, while well-meaning, caused more damage than they prevented by teaching Elsa that her emotions and powers were evil, destructive, and dangerous. Nobody pointed out how unfair it was that Elsa was forced to repress herself for years. Elsa was one big walking neurosis and nobody told her “Hey — it’s not your fault.”

Kristoff and Sven from Frozen
Speaking truth to power. And also reindeer.

I think it could have been easily solved, too. The movie set up two great characters who were blunt, honest, and clear-sighted: Olaf and Kristoff. Kristoff was in a particularly good position to call out Grand Pabbie’s bad advice, as he was the only person besides Elsa who could recall the scene where the trolls erase Anna’s memory and tell Elsa to hide her powers, plus he was raised by the trolls and knows that their understanding of how human emotions work is . . . sketchy at best. A few lines could have cleared this up:

ANNA: Why didn’t she ever tell me?
KRISTOFF: Well . . . she couldn’t.
ANNA: What?
KRISTOFF: I mean, obviously she was scared, right? All she ever heard was that her powers were dangerous, so she kept them all inside for years and then — boom. You’d think they would’ve seen that coming.
ANNA: Who would’ve seen it coming?
KRISTOFF: Uhh . . .

Or how about creepy-yet-inexplicably-endearing Olaf? A line or two of good-hearted befuddlement about why Elsa would hide her powers “when they made me! So they have to be good!” would have gone a long way towards making me feel better about the movie as a whole, and would have strengthened the central theme that love is stronger than fear.

I welcome discussion in the comments! What could have fixed the movie? Did it need fixing? Is “Let It Go” going to win an Oscar because DAMN IT HAD BETTER GET NOMINATED AT LEAST I will be really angry if it doesn’t.