Frozen: Best Disney Movie Ever?

After winning the Oscar for both Best Animated Feature and Best Original Song at the Academy Awards this year, Frozen is being hailed as the greatest film to come out of the Disney studios in the past two decades. According to the memes and comments running around on Pinterest, Tumblr, and Facebook, the common consensus among girls aged 12 - 26 seems to reecho this praise. Frozen has ushered in a new "golden age" of Disney films that embraces both the princess tradition and the Broadway flair, while reestablishing its relevance to the ideals and struggles of young "Millennials". The story of two princesses, sisters who share a close bond but are estranged by older sister Elsa's lack of control over her unexplained icy powers, is one that seems to promote friendship and support between women rather than a reliance on male heroes. Much has been made of the pragmatic wisdom of Elsa's exclamation that younger sister Anna cannot possibly get engaged to someone she just met that day, marking a deviation from the usual course of Disney lovers who meet, fall in love, and marry within the span of a few days. And, of course, the painfully obvious message of the film (verbally affirmed by the living snowman Olaf) that true love means sacrificing yourself for another person provides the warm, fuzzy heart of the entire Frozen story. All in all, it is considered a film with important messages for all ages.

A story with these messages might not give me that much to complain about if the story itself actually supported the morals it claims to. And, in some instances, it does. However, the story of Frozen takes a couple of turns that tend to take away from its central message, sometimes replacing it with others. The beginning of the story sets the stage for character growth and the development of a beautiful relationship between two sisters with the problem of Elsa's uncontrolled icy outbursts that end up putting Anna in mortal danger. However, the opportunity for personal friction between the two is cut short by the arbitrary decision that Grand Pabbie the Troll King's healing powers remove Anna's memories of Elsa's powers. Because Anna doesn't remember that Elsa has powers, the story removes the opportunity for Anna to resent Elsa's powers precisely because she knows they are the reason they cannot play together. This resentment would then be something that Anna has to overcome and love her sister through, thereby providing her with the opportunity to love truly, to sacrifice her own desires for the sake of the one she loves. The problem of friction between the sisters is almost reestablished when Anna declares to Elsa her intent to marry Hans, receiving Elsa's shocked response and the refusal of her blessing. This moment, regardless of Anna's memory, would provide enough tension between the sisters to promote Anna's growth from self-centered and resentful younger sister to understanding, loving, and rehabilitating savior. This opportunity is passed over as well, since Anna's rediscovery of Elsa's powers has zero effect on her (she barely pauses to process the fact before flying to her sister's aid) and her plans to marry Hans, regardless of Elsa's blessing, are in no way hampered. The entire confrontation becomes a moot point from which neither sister gains and serves only to provide contrived plot movement so that Elsa's power can "accidentally" be revealed to the public. Oh, and I guess Disney gets to score some cynical points against first loves and brief courtships.

Maybe we could leave aside the whole engagement thing if the story kept the focus on the relationship between the two sisters. Since, after all, that is the main focus of the story and men are not important, it should be quite easy to send both sisters off into the snow to have a heart-to-heart in which they learn significant lessons about themselves and each other. This could be a perfect opportunity to learn what love truly is from each other. Unfortunately, after Elsa's Broadway-worthy extravaganza in which she creates her own ice palace, she essentially becomes a side character as almost all character development moves to the new arrival Kristoff and his briefly antagonistic but quickly romantic relationship with Anna. Rather than seeing the two sisters come to terms with their own inner demons (resentment and self-centered impetuosity on Anna's part, and self-loathing and a desire to lash out on Elsa's), we get to witness the character development of Kristoff as he quickly melts from self-proclaimed misanthrope to point number three in a completely unnecessary love triangle. By taking the focus off of Elsa and shoving another man into the picture, Frozen's insistence that it isn't about boys starts to fall flat. The other major drawback is that Elsa's strong, intriguing, and sympathetic character is given hardly any treatment, which is probably the worst blow to the entire story.

Speaking of the love triangle, I don't think there's been a more useless waste of male characters since Twilight's Edward and Jacob. The "Team Hans" and "Team Kristoff" factions that are inevitably cropping up on the internet are an assured testament to that. Of course, the problem with "Team Hans" is that Frozen's plot twist has given them no real leg to stand on: Hans is a villain. I have deep-seated issues with this presentation of the two male characters. Hans first appears to us as the golden boy of the film: he is gentlemanly, but carries himself with a boyish awkwardness that is endearing; he is caring and kind, but strong and firm when he needs to be; he is noble, both in staying behind to care for the kingdom and in going after Anna when it seems that she has miscarried; finally, he is depicted doing acts of charity by handing out blankets to the poor of Arendelle who are unprepared for Elsa's eternal winter. Kristoff, on the other hand, first appears as a gruff workaholic who only cares about his reindeer and doesn't like people for no discernible reason. Even though we are given a bit of backstory on Kristoff in the film's opening as the young boy cutting ice with the men and seemingly enjoying himself, the film provides no ostensible reason for the development of Kristoff's misanthropic behavior. He has less reason to hate the world than hipsters. And yet he is presented as this isolated person whose sensitive side must be drawn out by the boisterous and open personality of his female romantic interest. Even beyond the fact that this exact same relationship had just been portrayed in the last Disney film (Tangled 2010 -- Flynn Rider, anyone?), the addition of Kristoff to the mix is entirely superfluous. A story supposedly about two sisters does not need two male characters -- unless both girls will end up with one, I suppose. Since that's not the case in Frozen, only one character -- Hans, in my opinion -- is necessary. There would have been nothing wrong with portraying Hans as a truly honorable, loving, and good man rather than a secret villain whose charity is nothing but a mask to hide his murderous intentions. I'm not against a character being complex, but the idea that virtue is not complex is a false notion. Evil is boring. Hans got boring the very minute he admitted he was the villain. He instantly became another egomaniacal Machiavel bent on world domination -- or, at least, Arendelle domination. If there's one thing that's been done to death almost as much as princes and princesses marrying within three days, it's villains on power trips. Why not show a virtuous man struggling with the fact that there are some things he can't heal, like a frozen heart and a relationship between two sisters? There is complexity and struggle here without sacrificing virtue or resorting to cynicism by showing outward signs of charity as a mask through which evil men gain the people's trust. Besides, when was the last time Disney showed us a truly virtuous man? Prince Phillip in Sleeping Beauty (1959)? I think the time is long overdue for Disney to give boys a hero they can look up to rather than encouraging them to be content with mediocrity until a girl comes along. This is not to say that Kristoff is a bad character; the story probably could have functioned just as well with him instead of Hans. And, of course, he shows his own nobility when he insists on respecting the relationship between Anna and Hans despite his feelings for her, which is one of the story's better moments and serves as Olaf's prime example of true love. The biggest problem with the love triangle is simply that it takes away from the development of the relationship between the two sisters by distracting us with the relationship of the two suitors. All those claiming that this film stands out because it's about sisterhood of necessity need to explain away the entire middle of the story and invent some sort of character development for Elsa and Anna, because it does not exist in the film.

On that note, let's talk about the problem with Anna and the idea of "true love". When Anna admits that she doesn't know what true love is because the man she loved didn't love her back, Olaf responds with the moral of the film: true love sacrifices itself for others. The example presented is Kristoff's act of bringing Anna back to Arendelle to kiss Hans even though he loved her himself. Although this is not much of an act of heroism, since it is demanded of everyone that we respect the relationships of others, love does not need to be heroic to be true, and Kristoff's act of self-denial is a loving one. However, Anna immediately resolves her true love problem by instantaneously transferring her feelings for Hans to Kristoff and bounding off to kiss him instead. This is highly problematic and flies in the face of anyone who says this film teaches people not to fall in love too quickly. Anna falls in love with Kristoff just as quickly and just as blindly as she fell in love with Hans. It just so happens that Kristoff doesn't turn out to be a villain. It also reinforces the idea that true love only exists if the person loves you back; as long as someone offers you the feeling of being loved, it is perfectly acceptable to transfer your affection to another object. The person of Kristoff becomes less important than the fact that he is willing to kiss her. Even if Anna had reached Kristoff in time, that kiss would not have worked. Thank goodness Disney was able to contrive a different ending so that an act of true love could actually be committed by Anna herself or else the story would have had a pretty dismal ending.

The climax of the story is the silver lining in amongst all the clouds. The beautiful moment of self-sacrifice in which Anna saves Elsa from Hans hits all the right notes. Although the dialogue between the two sisters is tediously pedantic, the heart is in the right place: Anna saves Elsa for no other reason than that she loves her. And this recognition of being loved despite her frightening powers melts the heart of the Snow Queen, and then melts the enchanted winter blanketing Arendelle. What would make this scene even more conclusive is if there was any evidence of Elsa or Anna having developed as sisters or as characters. Anna has not changed at all, but maybe we can let that slide because the plot failed to give her any impulse to change in the first place. She changed boyfriends. And that's about it. Elsa, who had much more possibility for personal growth, changes from fearful to despairing to angry to grief-stricken to placidly sweet like a mood ring. Her change in character is not caused by serious self-reflection or self-revelation, but simply by the word "love". Love is what allows her to have complete mastery over her powers, but we are not sure how exactly "love" is meant to be understood. Does Elsa now just "love" everybody, so she can undo the winter? Is she feeling "love" at that moment and, as long as she "feels the love", everything will be all right? Despite the clear-cut moral given by Olaf, Elsa's evolution from fear to love is anything but clear. If the plot had actually focused on the sisters rather than on Anna's love affairs, maybe we would have received a clearer vision of the intensely captivating character created in Elsa. It is a real shame that Frozen misses the boat on this one: the Disney archives are full of Annas; there is only one Elsa, and she was sacrificed on the altar of cynicism about romantic love.

All of this to say that Frozen is not a bad film. It is one of the most visually stunning animated films to reach theaters, full of life and color and music. Its attention to detail is remarkable and the Scandinavian cultural history is vibrant. It provides the same brightness and energy, as well as quirky comedic banter, that, along with its forerunner Tangled, serve to mark the beginning of a new era in Disney films. However, Frozen lacks in a very real way the strength of story that would have made this film what people say it is: a story about strength in sisterhood, about women rescuing each other from frigidity and isolation, about prudence and wisdom and true love.


The point of this blog is not to tell anyone what they should or should not consider entertaining, nor what films, books, lyrics, or television shows are morally or artistically good or bad. The point is to engage with the stories that are creating our culture on an intellectual level, to meet the morals with our minds before they go to our hearts. Once you know what's in the entertainment you imbibe and you're aware of how it may be shaping your perceptions of the world around you, well then, imbibe away!

1 comment:

  1. Oh! I love this. I saw Frozen a few weeks ago and after allll of the hype I was seriously underwhelmed. You put into words how I feel about it.

    The Beast from Beauty and the Beast is my favourite Disney prince. He has the best character development, in my opinion.