Frozen is a movie that came out against a hefty river of backlash, partially because it was saddled with a breath-takingly awful and misleading marketing campaign seemingly designed to make it look as much as possible like the sort shallow, pop-culture obsessed filler Dreamworks would put out on a bad day but also because the thematic content of Disney’s films (and particularly its more girl-oriented “princess” films, of which this is one) have been frequently called out for consistently hewing to fairly regressive gender roles.
I’ve seen some audiences and critics hail the house of mouse’s latest effort, a story very loosely inspired by Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen, as a complete and total revolution for the company, a full repudiation of the old days and even as a new feminist beacon in children’s entertainment. All of that is overstating things hugely- there is ultimately nothing in a surface level reading of Frozen that isn’t going to sit right at home with Disney’s traditional normative family audience- but it does represent a welcome shift in focus and directly takes pot-shots at one of the stalest and most old fashioned of the Disney aesops while presenting some subtext that’s a bit unexpected for the company (and if you’re willing to look even further and engage in a little speculation, some subtext that’s way unexpected for the company) while also being for the most part a wonderfully entertaining little fairytale musical.
The slightly convoluted set-up is that in the vaguely Norwegian kingdom of Arendell there live two princesses, Anna and her older sister and heir to the throne Elsa. Elsa was born with the ability to magically create ice and snow, a fact that’s unknown to all but her sister and their parents. As children Elsa and Anna were inseparable, but one day while playing Elsa struck Anna with her powers and caused a potentially-fatal magical affliction that was only reversed by wiping Anna’s memories of the entire event and the existence of Elsa’s abilities. After this Elsa withdrew completely from Anna and the world at large under the direction of her parents in a well-meaning but ultimately misguided attempt to keep her rapidly growing powers a secret, which left Anna bewildered at why her sister suddenly stopped loving her one day. Then mom and dad die in a shipwreck (yep, this is a Disney film), leaving Elsa to face growing up with her secret alone.
Cut to the story’s present, where the rift between the sisters has only grown deeper due to Anna being forced to share Elsa’s seemingly self-imposed isolation, leaving her desperate for human contact. Meanwhile Elsa’s powers have grown to the point that she can barely keep a lid on them at the best of times, to say nothing of a stressful public coronation. All of this comes to a head during the lavish coronation party, where Anna’s almost child-like need for love and affection cause her to make a rash decision that tips Elsa’s fragile control right over the edge. With her secret out and everyone around her reacting just as badly as she always thought they would she flees to the mountains in a burst of magical power that accidentally freezes the entire kingdom in eternal winter. Anna teams up with a loner mountain man named Kristoff and Olaf the comic relief snowman to convince Elsa to call off the impromptu ice age before the hostile diplomats at the castle try a more lethal solution, unaware that Elsa doesn’t know what she’s done and has no idea how to stop it.
Let’s get this out of the way up-front: if Disney’s treatment of of its princesses has bothered you before it’s probably going to bother you here as well. Just like the otherwise quite enjoyable Tangled the main character is allowed to be capable and heroic only as long as she’s portrayed as a naive wide-eyed child assisted on her quest by a somewhat bland designated love interest who never quite manages to stop feeling extraneous despite his supposed importance to the plot. Kristoff was very obviously crow-barred into the plot to make the movie seem more appealing to boys, and it’s patently obvious that Anna’s occasional disempowerment in his presence only manifests to give him an excuse to be there (there is another, much more subtle and interesting reason for Kristoff to be in the story, but I can’t go into it without revealing too much and it’s not enough to justify the character on its own anyway).
At the same time it’s easy to see why Frozen has gotten people disillusioned with Disney to sit up and take notice. Fairly early in the movie the hackneyed old idea of Only True Love Can Save The Whatever is wheeled out, but Frozen does something a little more interesting with it than usual, namely pointing out that love at first sight is kind of a bullshit idea and there are more important relationships in your life than the ones that result in babies and white picket fences. Despite the presence of not one but two square-jawed hunks the lynchpin holding the entire movie together is a love story between two sisters, not between the heroine and her prince charming. And I use the phrase “love story” deliberately, as the post-isolation relationship between Anna and Elsa is amusingly set up to mirror the “awkward first meeting-misunderstanding-climactic revelation of feelings” progression of most Disney romances. Except it’s actually interesting this time.
The idea of a movie largely aimed at girls that focuses on interactions between two women instead of encouraging its young audience to view being swept off their feet by a man as the defining point of their existence really isn’t something Disney deserves medals for, and I’m aware that they’re at least several decades behind on this one. But at the same time it’s undeniably refreshing to see ol’ Walt’s studio come out with something that gets within spitting distance of feeling thematically as 21-century as its animation. They’re not all the way there yet- we still get Anna the naive, sheltered princess being led by What’s His Face the rugged mountaineer- but they’re getting closer. Maybe next time we can just ditch the designated romantic lead completely and let the heroine be the main character of her own adventure without any qualifiers.
It becomes apparent fairly early on that Elsa’s ice powers are intended to be a metaphor for something in much the same way that super heroes often serve as allegories for various subjects, and that leads to some potentially interesting rabbit holes to explore. I’ve already seen a wide variety of suggestions, including that Elsa is supposed to be a kind of embodiment of social anxiety (her ice is involuntarily triggered by stress and starts out facing outward, creating a deadly ring of isolation, before at one point during a moment of despair turning inward) and I think there’s a lot to be said for the theory that it represents her sexuality in some way- ie she’s constantly told to keep it hidden and repressed to stay a “good girl” (this phrase is repeated multiple times), a dramatic display of it causes an entirely-male retinue of diplomats to freak out, she decides to fuck off to a mountain by herself and becomes an “ice queen” and yeah you get what I’m saying. There’s meat on the bones, and I always like to see that in family entertainment since the necessary constraints of what you can and can’t talk about often force film-makers to employ subtlety they might not have otherwise. Disney isn’t known for taking this approach to their material, so I didn’t expect to see it show up here.
What I really didn’t expect was to find myself, halfway through the movie, wondering if the whole conceit of the plot was a way to sneak a sympathetic depiction of a gay character into a family film.
If this sounds ludicrous, I’m not the only person who came to that conclusion (here’s a randomly chosen article(spoilers) from among many arguing the same thing) and it’s a bit hard to listen to a character stated to be “born different” belting out lines like “don’t let them see, be the good girl you always had to be, conceal don’t feel, don’t let them know” and not at least entertain the possibility. This interpretation of Elsa’s character fits perfectly with the film as it stands, requiring only the merest of thematic spelunking, and I frankly find it hard to believe that the plot and especially some of the song lyrics could have been set up the way they are without at least someone at Disney noticing the obvious applicability.
Now obviously the ideal would be that a company like Disney with millions of dollars worth of cash-money protecting them from blowback and a hugely visible presence in popular culture would just straight up make all-ages films with gay characters in them instead of (possibly) vaguely alluding to the subject with allegories that will likely go completely over kid’s heads, but at the same time the themes of self-acceptance and ensuring that people with “ice powers” know they’re loved even if it means a certain amount of sacrifice on the part of the more privileged party are strong enough that they’ll probably rub off on young viewers regardless. And it has to be remembered that Disney are operating out of a country with a sizable population of people who go through kid’s entertainment with a fine toothed comb looking for anything even remotely subversive or beyond the pale to get up in arms about and are quite content to make up offending material out of whole cloth if they don’t find it (I am certain some parents are already complaining about this very interpretation of the film somewhere on the internet). Again, Disney should not get any medals for progressiveness just because I can easily interpret their movie as LGBT friendly, but it’s kind of interesting to see anyway.
Ignoring all of that stuff, Frozen is just really god damn fun to watch. This is a fairy-tale musical in the most literal sense of the word, a story where if people aren’t getting into fast-paced adventures they’re bursting into a selection of utterly joyous musical numbers. Several of the real show-stoppers in the film’s first half made me wish I was watching a stage version just so I could get up and applaud without pissing anyone off. They’re that good. The unfortunate trade-off to this is that the songs in the second half are a bit sparse and there’s one admittedly catchy comedy number toward the last third that feels kind of out of place given what happens immediately before and after it.
I tend to associate genuinely funny animated movies with Pixar, but Disney prove here that they’re fully capable of bringing the laughs without descending into stupidity (ignore the painfully unfunny trailers). Olaf the snowman had the potential to be the film’s major Achilles heel, but instead he’s one of the best things about it, consistently entertaining with an off-beat, slightly out of touch with reality world view that never gets overbearing. His presence in the story is even kind of touching once you get the context during the film’s aggressively adorable opening of why Elsa made him and what he represents to her. More could have been done to actually integrate him into the plot, however. The running joke with Olaf is that he’s obsessed with summer and the idea of warmth and sunshine but has no comprehension of what that would actually do to him, an idea that gets an entire musical number to itself only to be clumsily brushed aside in the epilogue. This leads into a larger problem with Frozen, namely that it’s trying to do too much in too short a time frame.
The two paragraphs of plot synopsis at the start of this review probably tipped you off to the fact that there’s quite a lot going on in this movie. This is a good thing in that the first half of the film manages to integrate a lot of moving parts elegantly to create something a bit more weighty and substantial than your average animated movie, but it leads to a second half that can feel disjointed and unfocused at times. In particular Elsa- easily the most interesting character- spends a lot of time in the middle of the movie off-screen not really doing a whole lot, and the big climax feels abrupt and loses a lot of the emotional punch it should have had just because once the action kicks off the two leads never really get any time to properly stop and process what’s going on. Major changes in their relationship and how they feel about each other, including the ultimate resolution of their struggle to rediscover their love for each other, get tossed into the mix without much fanfare before it’s on to the next thing. I very rarely say this about big mainstream releases, but Frozen really could have done with a longer running time. And if my anti-Kristoff sentiments haven’t been made clear enough already, axing him entirely would have left a lot more room for the actual important elements to shine.
These flaws are visible cracks in the movie’s facade, but they ultimately don’t break it entirely (I was going to make some metaphor involving ice here but I can’t think of a good one). Its story may be a bit messy but thematically it’s wound as tightly as a spring, with the main ideas of the plot foreshadowed in subtle and interesting ways early on that are just begging for a rewatch. Which I will probably do before it leaves cinemas, something I almost never bother with. I guess if you need a recommendation that’s as much of one as I can give.
Frozen’s not perfect in terms of its plot or how it handles its subject matter. If you’re looking for either a glorious return to whatever you consider to be the golden age of American animation or a revolution that’s going to sweep away the musty old guard and make it “okay” to uncritically like Disney than this isn’t that. What it is, however, is the sort of easy to swallow feel-good not-idiotic crowd pleaser that we so infrequently seem to get from animated movies. If you’re not down with the idea of watching and enjoying children’s movies involving singing animals then this obviously isn’t going to do anything for you, but if you’ve found yourself having a good time with any of the CG animated films from the last ten years or so you should be right at home here.