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Dissecting the Classics – Frozen

May 25, 2018 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard

To answer the obvious question of “Is it too soon?” right away… Yes, under normal circumstances. Don’t misread me, Frozen is at least as ubiquitous and influential as The Avengers, but I wasn’t originally planning to review this movie until I started this Disney Princess theme-month. Since this is about the evolution of the genre, this seemed like the appropriate stopping point.

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics . In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.


Wide Release Date:
Directed By: Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee
Written By: Jennifer Lee
Produced By: Peter Del Vecho
Edited By: Jeff Draheim
Music By: Christophe Beck
Songs By: Robert Lopez & Kristen Anderson-Lopez
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures & Walt Disney Animation Studios
Distributed By: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Idina Menzel as Princess Elsa
Kristen Bell as Princess Anna
Jonathan Groff as Kristoff
Josh Gad as Olaf
Santino Fontana as Prince Hans

What Do We All Know?

2013’s Frozen was Disney Animation’s biggest success since The Lion King. What at first looked like another Tangled (i.e. a poorly-conceived attempt to ape the DreamWorks attitude while keeping the Disney formula), turned out to be a surprising return to the studio’s Renaissance era. The film told a sprawling adventure story with interesting characters, set in a beautiful European winter setting, containing unapologetic and even transformative commentary, and filled with the best all-around soundtrack since Howard Ashman passed away, the film was everything a Disney Animated Classic should be. And it was rewarded by fans by becoming the biggest smash hit of 2013.

Being such a smash hit would be notable all on its own, but it was also a signal that Wreck-It Ralph was no fluke. Big Hero 6, Zootopia and Moana have all been critical and commercial successes, and I imagine they will be critically important to a generation of children raised in them as the 1990s Disney movies were for me. And while all of those films deserve praise on their own merit, Frozen brought back that Disney zeitgeist by being everything a Disney movie was known for… and evolving in the process. Really, there’s no more fitting end for this series than this movie.

What Went Right?

There’s something appropriate about Disney going back to a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale as the unofficial jumping off point of their “New Renaissance”. The Little Mermaid had started them on the road to massive success in 1989, and so Frozen would do the same for this decade. Of course, the final product bears only a small resemblance to “The Snow Queen” in that it involves a snow queen and has a redemptive act of love involving siblings. It’s more accurate to say that everyone working on this was inspired by the original story, but created something wholly new from it.

Frozen is essentially about the story of two sisters, who happen to be princesses. Elsa, the oldest and heir to the throne of Arendelle, is born with incredible ice magic that she has limited control over and struggles to hide from people. Her younger sister Anna had her memory of Elsa’s powers taken from her so that she could be healed from a childhood accident. They grow up mostly isolated from each other, a situation which gets worse when their parents die in a shipwreck. Things go wrong at Elsa’s coronation and her powers are revealed to the kingdom, and she summons an out of nowhere blizzard as she runs off. Anna embarks on a quest to make Elsa thaw out the snow, and thus we have the basic story.

This was always the basic plot, but Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee and the rest were in a quandary about Elsa; was she going to be the villain of the piece, or could Anna save her? Things settled into place when they saw a certain song you may have heard of, and realized that Elsa was too sympathetic to be the next big Disney villain. Instead, Elsa is something new, not quite hero or villain, but just a person who has an aspect about her that could be dangerous if she and the people she is closest to don’t figure out how best to approach it. This aspect is what makes Frozen unique, and why so many people connect strongly with Elsa and her story.

What has always struck me about this movie is how it really understands its characters at a psychological level. Both sisters are forced into isolation by Elsa’s powers; Elsa because she doesn’t want to get close enough to hurt anyone, and Anna because she doesn’t really have anyone else in her life because her parents closed off the castle to protect Elsa. This manifests differently for each of them; Elsa has social anxiety and deliberately suppresses her emotions. Anna, having longed for genuine human contact for years, is naive and highly susceptible to anyone who wants to be her friend… which we’ll talk about in a bit. The film took care to ask how the events going would affect its main characters, and in doing so, justifies the flaws that drive their character arcs.

Frozen may be carried on the strength of the Princesses, but there’s plenty more to love. Arendelle has a unique feeling and aesthetic with a gorgeous color palette, and the winter scenes are stunning and magical. Kristoff and Anna have good comedic chemistry, and Olaf is also genuinely funny. But they aren’t just comedic relief; Kristoff is a messy, odd but likable character that is probably the best Disney “Prince” in terms of writing. Olaf actually has a narrative function; he is an unsubtle link between Elsa and Anna, a walking reminder of the love they have for each other and its connection to Elsa’s magic. Would that every sidekick could be so thoughtfully constructed.

Having addressed the many positives of the film, let’s get to the big one; the music and the songs in this movie are nothing less than stellar. The Lopezes are clearly influenced by the late Howard Ashman, but aren’t trying and failing to replicate his style like say, the songs in Tangled. These two are superb talents, and their songs are the highlights of the movie because Frozen is a proper musical. It tells its story through its songs, and there is an unprecedented amount of lyrical cohesion between them. Obviously this soundtrack, and one song in particular was played to exhaustion in the winter of 2013-14, but frankly, it deserved to. I will never forget how I felt sitting in the theater, listening to “Do You Want To Build a Snowman?”, “For the First Time in Forever” and “Love is an Open Door” in succession and realizing this movie was having Beauty and the Beast levels of consistency. Nor will I forget the genuine goosebumps when I got to see and hear “Let It Go” for the first time. This was genuine Disney magic, the kind of scene-stealer that I know is going to stick with me… forever, really.

What Went Wrong?

On balance, I think Frozen is one of the least flawed Disney movies, but that doesn’t mean it gets away scot free. The single biggest problem is that Anna and Elsa, for as evolved as they are as characters, have generic doll-like designs that hold 100% true to the Disney Princess aesthetic. That’s not a deal breaker in my book, but for the people who make a solid point about the harmful side effects of Disney Princess culture… yeah, these two aren’t going to refute the image. Analysts were already bringing this up as an issue in 2013 and I suspect it will only be more poorly received over time.

As for the film itself, I do think it loses a bit of steam after Elsa sends a snow creature after Anna and company. The trolls have never really worked for me as characters, despite their fun song and their neat design. It’s weird that they adopted Kristoff and that they are trying to force Anna and Kristoff into a marriage. The climactic sequence before Anna freezes is aesthetically boring; I get what they were going for, but it just looks unpleasant. The movie turns around again once Elsa saves Anna and we get the resolution, but this stretch of time never quite lives up to the strength of the first half of the movie.

How Does This Affect the Disney Princess Trope?

It would be easy to feel cynical about Disney finding a way to successfully double-down on the Princesses for this movie, especially if you were a parent that Christmas and had to budget accordingly. But Frozen earned this; Anna and Elsa are great characters in their own right and their story is one of the most emotionally powerful Disney has ever presented. This may be the first time that Disney Animation Studios was truly introspective about their legacy. The Princess and the Frog and Tangled were both attempts to bring the Disney Princess brand back to prominence, and while those two films are good, they don’t really bring anything new to the table, aside from Princess and the Frog’s admirable but clumsily executed diversity boost. Tiana and Rapunzel are both better written characters than Ariel or Belle, but they are far less iconic or important because the films don’t really do anything new or meaningful with the concept of a Disney Princess.

Frozen actively plays with the tropes of a Disney Princess movie and goes in genuinely new directions. Elsa is a subversion of Disney villain tropes and a conscious rebuttal to the ancient storytelling trend of powerful women always bringing doom and destruction (Eve, Pandora, it goes on). She could have been a monster and society was quick to label her as one, but thanks to the undying love of her sister, she learns to control her powers and use them for the benefit of herself and others. I’m not the first person to notice the similarity between Elsa’s story and Marvel’s X-Men comics, but I feel it does deserve to be brought up; Elsa is feared because she was born differently and her parents and her kingdom doesn’t know how to deal with it. In many ways, Elsa is queer-coded, something which Jennifer Lee has coyly acknowledged without saying it outright. She’s also been embraced by parents of children with autism, who face many of the same problems that Elsa had while growing up, and that’s great too. Elsa is a flexible character that can mean many things to different people, and she is proof that the Princess model can be taken in new directions and new things can be done with it.

It’s not just Elsa though, even if she can’t really help taking the spotlight. Anna fits much more in the traditional Disney Princess mold and the film uses that to its advantage in how it approaches her romance with Prince Hans. Anna meets Hans at the ball, and he seems to be an all-around stand-up guy who even steps up to take care of the kingdom when Anna has to chase Elsa down. Disney invokes the tired trope of the “love at first sight” story explicitly, and Elsa calls Anna’s judgment into question when she wants to marry Hans after one fun evening. It’s the thing that creates a rift between the two leading to Elsa revealing her powers and fleeing. Kristoff also comments on the insanity of this on their sleigh ride. At first this just seems to be gags for the adults, especially once Anna gets struck by Elsa’s powers and needs an act of true love to save her and everyone just assumes that Hans kissing Anna will solve that problem. But then the movie gets genuinely subversive when Hans reveals that he doesn’t love Anna and was just using her to get to Arendelle’s throne. It’s a great twist, with enough foreshadowing that it feels earned but still a genuine shock. This is also awesome and important because it was Disney looking at its own worst trends and acknowledging that they are problems.

It would have been easy for Frozen to do this at the expense of Anna, but fortunately, it does not. The movie clearly frames Anna’s need for human contact being the impetus for her quickly falling in love with the first guy who gives her attention, which is a thing that happens to kids a lot, especially when they have family who either absent or uninvolved. More importantly, the film gives Anna the ability to save both herself and her sister; the act of true love that cures her of the curse is her sacrifice for Elsa. The message is clear. Being a Princess doesn’t mean relying on a Prince for your happy ending, but on the strength of your own character. Frozen may not exactly be revolutionary, but it certainly evolutionary and I’m excited to see where Disney goes next with this genre.

And In Summary…

I’m an unapologetic fan of Frozen. In spite of its massive success, I feel that it might be underappreciated by people who understandably got sick of hearing “Let It Go” thousands of times in the year following its arrival. Everyone involved managed to evoked the feel of classic Disney movies, but also took the story in interesting new directions that broadened what a Princess movie from the Disney studio could truly be. It’s beautiful to look at, has a great story with excellent characters voiced by a tremendous cast, one of the best collections of songs in the history of the company, subversive and evolutionary plot elements, and just holds up really well to repeat viewings. The impact of the movie is also hard to deny; no matter how good Big Hero 6, Zootopia or Moana are, I don’t know if they would have been monster hits if Frozen hadn’t announced so loudly that Disney Animation was back.

To steal a phrase from the song everyone knows, “It’s funny how some distance makes everything seem small.” Frozen was a mega-hit that achieved instant pop culture ubiquity, reminding people my age why we loved Disney movies growing up but more importantly, leaving an impression on a generation of children. Frozen is going to be the first “favorite movie” for a lot of kids, and I really look forward to the 2030’s when I get to see that generation talk about the impact it had on them. But for me, it’s one of the best movies of the decade and a genuine classic. I suspect that we’ll be talking about for many more decades to come.

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Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Batman (1966), The Maltese Falcon, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, 12 Angry Men, Aladdin, The Wizard of Oz, Dial M For Murder, Godzilla (1954), The Hurt Locker, The Breakfast Club, Iron Man, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, Blade Runner, Rosemary’s Baby, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Princess Bride, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Toy Story, Star Wars – Part 1, Star Wars – Part 2, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Die Hard, Spirited Away, Airplane!, Dirty Dancing, RoboCop, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Captain America: The First Avenger, In the Heat of the Night, West Side Story, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Rocky, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Sixth Sense, The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Clerks, Goodfellas, The Avengers, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid

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