Frozen: Why Would Disney Ever Give Up This Princess Racket Again?

You want to know how Disney’s Frozen is.

This isn’t a question or a theory. I’m merely stating a fact.

At this point, the notion that Disney is creating these proto-feminist, semi-revisionist princess musicals just for the under ten set is patently absurd. In talking about animation in the new millennium, we talk a lot about savvy kids educated by massive DVD libraries and Netflix, and of increasingly willing parents who dig studios’ desire to cater about half their jokes to a more knowing, sophisticated audience. But we seldom talk about the Menken/Ashman nostalgist, weaned on the mildly liberating independence of Belle and mildly subversive gender-bending of Mulan, caught somewhere in the gray area between a Disney adolescence and a parenthood catering to the needs of a Disney adolescent. But how gray is it really? Not very. This grey area is brought to by the Walt Disney Company, proud owners of Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar, the Muppets, and a complete monopoly on the animated princess musical.

Watching the opening thirty minutes or so of Frozen, in which an extended prologue (the kind of story set-up that was usually taken care of in a two-minute puppet show or stained glass window montage back in the ‘90s) gives way to a beautifully sung, evocatively devastating Act 1, you wonder why Disney would ever give up this game, and why they ever have in the past. Disney’s fallow periods have corresponded almost precisely with ten year stretches where corsets and ballads gave way to a more boy-baiting aesthetic: more action, no singing (think the wartime propaganda and choppy short packages of the 40s, the fantasy epics and talking animal pictures of the 80s, the science fiction films of the early 2000s). Even now, unwisely, Disney dangles the idea that every princess musical we see might be the last we see for a long while. Well, far be it from me to dictate Disney’s corporate strategy, but once again, the finished product seems to argue that an out and out abandonment of the very form that so defines the success of the Walt Disney Company would be akin to abandoning Mickey Mouse himself. (Oh wait, the company had essentially, up until a recent resurgence highlighted by the brilliant short which plays before Frozen, done precisely that? Well, screw it, let the Mouse House print money however they see fit then!)

Not all of Frozen is an out-and-out-success. I’d argue that, on the whole, the film is not as well-structured as Tangled (which it is obviously tonally similar to), not as funny as Enchanted, and not as cinematically delightful as the Pixar oeuvre of the late-2000s. But what the film promises – the continuation of a narrative of not subtextual feminism but actual honest-to-god feminism in the midst of what appears to be a much quieter Disney Renaissance; call it the Disney Enlightenment if you will – and what it delivers – a delightful screwball road romp, a classic Hollywood genre over which Disney appears to now have sole provenance – still marks this as another tick mark in the win column for a beleaguered animation studio that has desperately needed some wins as it has transitioned as ungracefully as possible from hand-drawn animation to CGI. (Let’s take a moment now to marvel at the fact that in over a decade of Best Animated Feature Oscars, the greatest animation studio of all time has failed to win even one, and really only came close last year when Wreck-It Ralph couldn’t quite take down Brave.)

What has always set the most distinctive Disney product apart most from its competition is its Grade-A, generations-defining songcraft, and this is the strongest aspect of Frozen. The musical numbers (written by Avenue Q/Book of Mormon songwriter Robert Lopez and his wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez), particularly the first two or three in the film, so effectively ape the rousing power and joie de vivre of Disney’s Howard Menken/Ashman heyday (with a few “totally” and “like”s thrown in in a not unappealing manner) that I felt, for a time, transported. Even while the Disney logo was still on the screen, before we met Princess Anna or Princess Elsa, I was already experiencing chills and sense memories, so effective is “Vuelie,” the film’s tribal chant choral opening number, an evocative mix of similar openings to The Lion King and Lilo & Stitch. I was like Anton Ego, remembering a childhood long past and greatly enjoyed, upon the taste of the familiar yet transcendentally new.

And I rode that wave through the film’s first few numbers, “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” and “For the First Time in Forever,” which devastatingly build up and tear down the sororal bond between young Anna and Elsa. Maybe I was still hypnotized by the entrancing spell of “Vuelie” but, by the opening of the gates to Arendelle, I was ready to anoint Frozen a classic on the merits of “For the First Time in Forever,” the best “I want” ballad Disney has made since Hunchback‘s “Out There,” alone. While Menken’s work on Tangled grew on me over time, the musical work done on Frozen immediately burrowed a hole deep into my consciousness, remaining entrenched and refusing to vacate the premises anytime soon.

But while the numbers themselves remain brilliant, their meaning to the story grows muddled as Anna prepares to hit the road and chase her sister, the Snow Queen, into the icy wilderness. The overwhelming popiness of “Love is an Open Door” feels suddenly out-of-place and forced, which does tie into the film’s overall perspective on the kind day-of-meeting engagements the song scores, but is jarring all the same. “Let It Go,” sung by Idina Menzel, will undoubtedly become a staple, but feels like the hit off an Idina Menzel album and not so much like a song that belongs in Frozen. The film’s final act is sorely missing a song, period.

In breaking the film into acts, I’m doing something Frozen hardly seems to want to do on its own. At every turn, Frozen, because of the movie’s peculiar and refreshing ambivalence to the Disney narrative of finding one’s true love, subverts just about all our expectations about what a Disney movie should be paced like. In this it is similar to Brave, a Pixar princess movie that widely frustrated audiences. Frozen, similarly, can vacillate wildly between unexpected choices that prove to be both confounding and refreshing: the movie’s advertised villain is more a secondary protagonist, its actual villain is a late-in-the-game surprise, a romantic interest is more of a sidekick (which is so so nice, because from Charming to Phillip to Eric, Disney princes have always had a disturbing tendency of disappearing from the story for long stretches after the heroine decides these boring lads are the one, really and truly, sigh; only recently have these Disney men like Flynn and Naveen been fleshed out as they’ve been dragged unwillingly along on the adventure), and the actual sidekick shows up about halfway through the film.

The film has to change up the typical beats of the princess musical because it’s barely playing in the same league – for instance the film needs a prologue ten minutes longer than we’re accustomed to because it can not simply establish a girl and her dream; it must establish the pre-crisis status quo and post-crisis status quo of two girls, two dreams, and the relationship between them all. If ever given a chance to feature a beat that will reinforce the relationship between Anna and a suitor or a beat that will reinforce the relationship between Anna and her sister, the film will always choose the latter, making this a film that is most effective when it mythologizes, with remarkable accuracy, the shifting, ever-changing relationship between siblings.

Elsa is a first sibling, upon whom all her family’s pride and all its potential shame rests. Elsa’s actions, over which she has little control (she was born with her affliction, we are told), turn her into a recluse, particularly in regards to her doting sister, who wonders aloud through locked doors and tiny keyholes why Elsa has grown away from her as she grew up. Elsa, who has recited “conceal, don’t feel” to herself ad nauseum since childhood, is repressed but ready to explode into rebellion at the first opportunity she is given. When she does, it is frightening and liberating in equal measure.

Anna, through no fault of her own, is punished for her sister’s transgressions, whatever you choose to read them as — her ice powers could be oncoming puberty, flowering sexuality, or the shame of a family after a private coming out (there is a queer reading of this film, and it is fascinating). This rift drives the sisters apart, building resentment in the former, sheltering the latter, turning her into a clutzy shut-in willing to fall for the first man who smiles at her. (This naivete could be irritating, but, as with Mandy Moore’s Rapunzel before her, Anna, as voiced by Kristen Bell, is such a lovable dweeb, fraternizing with paintings and talking to herself as she does, that she is an instantly sympathetic delight, a manic pixie dream girl without a depressive guy to define her quirkiness.) Fall Anna does, forcing her older sister, in sheer frustration, to out her true icy nature to the horrified masses (once again, the notion of slut-shaming or of queer-bashing in the Duke pf Weselton’s frequent cries of “monster” adds interesting layers), casting a perpetual winter of discontent over Arendelle that can only be lifted when the sisters remove the wedge their parents, acting out of both fear and love, placed between them. In all of this, the idea that these young women might make a fine bride is merely a distraction from this tale of two once-close, now-distant siblings; this ambivalence toward the defining narrative of marriage, that a Disney princess is complete only when she is wed, is the film’s most subversive move of all.

In all of this subversion, Frozen, while just as similar to the things you’ve heard it compared to (particularly Wicked) as you might expect, is actually most like two other Disney films: Enchanted, philosophically; and Up, structurally.

Frozen apes many of the road picture instincts that made Up such an uneven (while still virtuosic) film after that perfect, heartbreaking prologue. As Josh Gad’s loyal-to-a-fault snowman Olaf shows up so far into the picture you think he’ll hardly have time to make an impression (he does, and it’s a great one, in spite of what trailers might have led us to believe), you might be reminded of the similarly loyal Dug, who only needed half of Up (and the weaker half at that) to become one of the most beloved Pixar characters of all time (which, considering Pixar’s stable of characters, is no small accomplishment). On first viewing, this unevenness of Frozen is startling and even a little off-putting, highlighting the movie’s flaws (for instance, why give Alan Tudyk’s Duke of Weselton so much to do at the outset considering how unimportant he becomes: misdirection?) more than subsequent viewings, shaded by viewers already knowing the story going in, might; but it would be imprudent to argue that Disney changing its formula in any way is unwise. In future, one hopes these alterations might be incorporated into the princess musical framework a bit more smoothly is all.

More interestingly, like Enchanted, Frozen intentionally has one-too-many nice guy suitors hanging around: one is a sweet and noble romantic who seems a perfect match for the sheltered Anna, the other is a gruff skeptic who sings “Reindeer(s) Are Better Than People” to his only friend, a faithful reindeer. What the film chooses to do to solve this overabundance ends up being much more creative than Enchanted’s solution, which necessitated a third act that ended an otherwise brilliant film with a giant raspberry. Enchanted ended up arguing true romantic love might take a bit longer than one day to figure out, but it was still out there, and no mean dragon-queen-lady could stop it no matter how many fairy tale puns she spouted. It’s not like Frozen couldn’t believe the same about romantic true love, but if it does, it is merely an afterthought; the film’s priorities when it comes to true love are so altogether refreshing that, no matter how rushed the plotting is, and no matter how sorely a song might be needed at the denouement, when the curse’s resolution is revealed and resolved, all is forgiven. How could it not be considering the startling nature of where the save-the-day agency lies and what sort of love that agency is used to protect?

It has been a while since we have been immersed in a Disney epoch that will so clearly affect generations of home video watchers to come. Chicken Little and Treasure Planet, whatever charms they may have, will seldom be discussed with the same bated breath reserved for those Disney princess movies which have instilled in the hearts and minds of well over half a century’s worth of young children a system of values and morals that rivals anything parents or preschool teachers could provide. With Frozen building upon the successes of Enchanted, The Princess and the Frog, and Tangled (and with Wreck-It Ralph being one of the most delightful changes of pace the company has ever produced), it is clear that we are in the midst of something special, an era of Disney films that film critics twenty or thirty years down the line will breathlessly reference in the opening paragraphs of their animated film reviews. Frozen is a noble, perhaps brilliant addition to the now stabilized Disney canon, but that is not the limit of its appeal. Considering the film’s overall ambivalence to romance and its strong emphasis on other types of love, Frozen would pair just as well with Frances Ha and The Heat as it would with Cinderella and The Little Mermaid. Frozen is a heartening and versatile film, a success as much outside of the Disney canon, in a world sorely lacking movies that can pass the Bechdel Test, as it is within the canon’s tuneful, deeply beloved confines.

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