Walt Disney Pictures essentially won the lottery with Frozen, a film whose success and overwhelming response from audiences was largely unexpected. Frozen is currently the 19th highest-grossing film of all-time worldwide and 19th highest domestically, with a $1 billion global total within sight. And oh yes, it is the frontrunner at this weekend’s Academy Awards in two categories where it will likely take home the Oscar: Best Animated Film and Best Original Song.
If you’ve been living in total isolation from people and/or technology, Frozen is about an awkward lovelorn princess named Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) missing her older sister Elsa (Idina Menzel), who has been kept in isolation for years due to dangerous abilities that she was born with and is unable to tame. Frozen has resonated so well with audiences that nearly three months after its theatrical release that it’s still playing in nearly 2,500 theaters nationwide. During the weekend of January 31 to February 2, it made nearly $9 million dollars at the U.S. box office alone, thanks in part to a special one-week-only subtitled sing-along version. To date, it has grossed nearly one billion dollars worldwide, a number that’s rising every day.
You get the picture: people like Frozen and its place in Disney Animation, one of the most classic, time-honored traditions in film history with very few duds on the resume. However, if you look closer, you’ll notice something even more startling.
Frozen is nothing like any Disney movie you’ve ever seen before.
When we think of the classic Disney Princesses, we think Aurora of Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Cinderella. Yet all three princesses were rescued by a prince in the end, and were all saved by “true love’s kiss.” In Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the character’s name was even just “The Prince.”
Not only that, but these characters fell hard for their “true love”…and fast. Right-away fast. If you’re a girl who’s pure of heart, and simply has been dealt a rough hand, don’t worry because a strapping young man—rich in spirit and in pockets—will come rescue you. That’s Disney for you.
Well, old Disney, not new Disney. But we’ll get to that soon.
The individualistic, headstrong, self-sufficient princess was conjured with Mulan. However, one subplot of Mulan was that at the beginning of the film, she was “unfit for marriage” and is “fit” come the end of the movie. The same goes for Pocahontas, who—despite her importance as a middle ground between the settlers and Native Americans—was still reduced to longing for a happily-ever-after with John Smith by the film’s conclusion.
This message, the idea of a woman being “saved” by a man, is outdated and ludicrous. Not that the message wasn’t stale long ago, but as Disney is one of the most guilty parties in terms of poor female role models, it’s nice to see that they’re changing.
Given the success, culturally and monetarily, of the next two films I’m about to address, it would be interesting to see what would happen if Pocahontas and Mulan had been made in 2014.
In the last few years, notably with 2009’s Princess and the Frog and with Pixar’s Brave in 2012, Walt Disney Pictures has tried to break away from their own princess conventions. Tiana in Princess and the Frog became the first African-American princess, seventy-two years after the first Disney movie was released. Admittedly, Tiana does get married to a prince in the end, but the film was still progressive. In Pixar’s Brave, tomboy princess/archer Merida learns, thanks to a witch’s spell, that nothing is more important than family. However, the most shocking part of Bravewas when her father tries to organize a competition where the winning suitor would marry Merida; Merida reacts by dressing in disguise and winning her own hand, claiming that she wants to change her own fate.
It seems fitting that Disney did just that: change with Brave.
Merida has since become featured as a Disney Princess, despite Brave being a Pixar film, which makes her the first Disney Princess not created by Walt Disney Animation Studios. More importantly, she is the first Disney Princess to not have a love interest in her film. Audiences loved the revolutionary Merida and one can only speculate that the success of Brave contributed to the making of Frozen. It’s also possible that Brave could have yielded the outlandish success of Frozen. Disney might have gauged society’s readiness for a progressive Disney Princess on the embracing—or rejection—of Brave and Merida.
Frozen happens to be the first full-length animated motion picture produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios co-directed by a woman, Jennifer Lee.
Undoubtedly, Lee, fellow director Chris Buck, and the rest of their team wanted to make a new type of Disney movie. Their feelings on old Disney, and what 2014 Disney Princesses should be, are apparent all throughout Frozen.
When Frozen’s adorable sisters, Anna and Elsa, get out of bed to play one night, we see that Elsa has magical abilities, able to conjure up frost, snow, and ice at her choosing.
During their playing, Elsa accidentally injures Anna, and the king and queen rush in to save her. Anna survives, but she has no memory of Elsa’s magic. What follows is extremely intriguing to me: the king and queen lock Elsa away, closing the castle’s doors to visitors, and even fire staff members to accommodate the secret. They condition Elsa to not feel anything, so as to not lose control of her powers.
In true Disney fashion, the parents are soon dead. In un-Disney fashion—the interesting part—the emotionally and psychologically abusive parents aren’t really missed. In our current society, where bullying is finally being realized as not just a physical influence, the king and queen of Frozen make an interesting study. They never lay a hand on Elsa, never scream at her or verbally demean her, nor ever intentionally harm her in any way. In their desperate attempt to protect her, they cripple her, holding her back from progressing into adulthood. While it was subtle, I found Frozen’s addressing of this sort of accidental abuse to be endlessly intriguing.
I flashed back to some tragic Disney parent deaths of my youth: Mufasa being trampled, Bambi’s mom being shot, the mother fox being gunned down (essentially sacrificing herself) in The Fox and the Hound. These were traumatic, gut-wrenching deaths. Yet in Frozen, Elsa and Anna only blossom once the shackling parents are no more.
Elsa is soon to be coroneted as queen. If you’re keeping track, I didn’t mention who Elsa’s king is.
That’s because there isn’t one, yet another revelation for Disney. Elsa is a queen without a king, and the people of her kingdom don’t seem to mind at all.
When the gates of the castle are finally reopened to guests, we see another revelation. The citizens of the kingdom (Arendelle) are excited to see the princesses and how beautiful they are. However, as soon as the word “beautiful” is spoken, the scene cuts to a disheveled and drooling Anna, snoring in bed, her hair a rat’s nest. Not only that, but this Disney Princess has noticeable freckles riddling her shoulders. When she rises, she launches into song (an extremely impressive performance by Kristen Bell throughout) and sings the wrenching “For The First Time in Forever.”
Did I mention a Broadway musical adaptation is in the works?
While singing “For The First Time in Forever,” and running about, Anna admits that she’s either “elated or gassy” while suppressing a burp, wants to (and does) shove some chocolate in her face at the thought of meeting “The One,” destroys a cake with a bust of a dashing gentleman, and is launched into a rowboat by a prince passing by on a horse with seaweed stuck to her forehead and all—and she subsequently displays her awkwardness by calling him gorgeous and zoning out while ogling him seconds later.
This is not the Disney Princess we know.
This brings us to the leading men of Frozen: Hans of the Southern Isles and Kristoff, a nomadic ice salesman.
Anna falls for Hans in Disney fashion: within a few hours of meeting him. He proposes that night, she says yes, and they frolic around the castle singing “Love Is an Open Door.” I thought to myself: Here we go again. Just when I was getting excited. Up until then, I thought that the old Disney had been buried. Don’t get me wrong, I love Disney as much as the next person, but I started to groan (out loud I think), sad that Anna had gone the way of so many promising princesses before her.
Yet this is where Lee and her creative team fool us. They satirically play on that old Disney mentality, of the man saving the day. Hans has the look of a Disney prince: the flowing hair, the chiseled jaw line, the perfect posture. Anna even tells Kristoff later on that the color of Hans’ eyes is “dreamy.” However, come the end of the movie, Hans is a conniving, malicious, pathological liar hell bent on claiming Arendelle’s throne. From the get-go, we know Elsa isn’t the villain—just a lovely girl dealt a cruel hand—and that someone has to be evil, yet Hans’ revelation is still a shock when it comes.
When Anna tells Elsa (seeing her for the first time in years it seems) that she and Hans plan to marry, Elsa loses it, as she should. Elsa laughs at the notion of it being “true love.”
Marrying someone you just met?! That’s crazy! Disney, who would do a silly thing like that?
When Elsa’s powers are exposed, she runs off into the wilderness, her fright casting a blizzard over Arendelle’s summer. Fortunately for the audience, this leads to Idina Menzel’s shivers-down-your-spine “Let It Go,” which should win the Oscar for Best Original Song this weekend.
“Let it Go” is one of Frozen’s finest moments and it is a timeless homage to self-empowerment. It’s not a romantic aria, pledging endless devotion to he-of-perfectly-coiffed-hair, but a tear-jerking masterpiece about Elsa’s acceptance of self. Elsa is happy, without a love interest of any kind—the iron cuffs her parents jailed her with thrown off—free to feel, free to be the person she was born to be.
An instant classic Disney song, fated to be sung and covered for years to come, and it’s not about love or a “happy ever after.”
This is why Frozenis so good.
Anna, despite her status as princess, decides to chase after her sister. Yes…a Disney Princess starting a rescue team with the help of now down-on-his-luck ice salesman, Kristoff, and his trusty reindeer, Sven.
A little after Anna tells a flabbergasted Kristoff about her engagement, she saves Kristoff’s life, pulling him off a cliff edge—one of the many times in Frozen that a woman saves the day.
Elsa accidentally freezes Anna’s heart and it becomes clear that “only an act of true love can thaw a frozen heart.” Anna needs her act of true love to happen before she freezes solid.
Anna, Kristoff, and Sven rush back to Arendelle, hoping that Hans can cure her. Again, cue the groans: a man, the prince after all, has to save the day.
As mentioned, Hans has other plans.
Only when Olaf the snowman (awesomely played by Josh Gad) explains to Anna what love really is, does Anna realize that she’s had those feelings for Kristoff all along.
So Kristoff is going to kiss her and save the day, right? The audience is rooting for it, but when Kristoff nears Anna, already having begun to die, Anna sees that Hans is about to kill Elsa and she throws herself in front of the blade.
Anna diving in front of the blade—defending her sister as she turns to ice—is the act of true love that reverses the spell.
No “true love’s kiss” here to be found. Only the unparalleled love between two siblings, kept apart by circumstance. It turns out that what Elsa needed all along to manage her gift was love, not the isolation that her parents bound her with.
Let’s take a second to realize just how much of a divergence this is—choosing a sister over a man—from the Disney of yore. Of the Disney Princesses, Snow White, Cinderella, Princess Aurora, Ariel, Jasmine, and Tiana are all saved by the love interest at the end of their respective movies. In Beauty and the Beast, Belle saves the Beast so they can live happily ever after. In Tangled, Flynn Rider saves Rapunzel, who in turn saves him so they too can live happily ever after. And in Pocahontas, Pocahontas—despite her headstrong, individualistic mentality—falls in gooey love, allowing her to save John Smith from certain death. While Pocahontas was undoubtedly ahead of its time with the strong female lead ending up on her own while the credits rolled, she is still ultimately pining for a man as his ship vanishes into the horizon. Conversely, Anna ending up with Kristoff is such a minor detail of the film (them only truly being in one scene together as an out-and-out couple) that it almost feels like its for aesthetic’s sake, because it wouldn’t be right to leave such a good guy all alone. Both Elsa and Anna have been confirmed as the newest Disney Princesses. So bearing in mind that two of the three most recent Disney Princesses have no love interest when one includes Merida, and that they choose the closeness of family over romance…could this new Disney be the answer to the long awaited call for feminist fairy tales? After all, it’s refreshingly honest that even easily infatuated Anna chooses the love of a sister over the potential romance of a handsome man in her life, proving that true love is not just at the touch of a fantasy kiss.
In the end, when Hans is roused from an unconscious state, Kristoff steps forward to deal a punch. Anna stops him, and Kristoff relents, letting Anna throw the punch herself. Kristoff is not only okay with notsaving the day, but he lets the woman he loves fight her own battles—something that Anna not only wants, but relishes, throughout Frozen. Only after all of that, after the dust has settled, do Kristoff and Anna have their first kiss…and only after Kristoff has admitted that he wants to kiss her, and asks to.
He asks! I love it. Kristoff, a dirt-poor ice salesman and not a prince of anything turns out to be the love interest, while the original “true love” turns out to be the movie’s villain.
It is in this final sequence, from when Anna fights her own battle to the end of the movie, that the fire-breathing dragon of old Disney is vanquished by the chivalrous knight that is new Disney.
Famed critic Roger Ebert, in November of 1989, said the following of The Little Mermaid: “Ariel is a fully realized female character who thinks and acts independently, even rebelliously, instead of hanging around passively while the fates decide her destiny […] she’s smart and thinks for herself, [and] we have sympathy for her.” Ebert praised The Little Mermaid as progressive.
Bearing in mind the plots of The Little Mermaid and Frozen, both individually praised as progressive for their times, I can only wonder what Ebert would have said about Frozen. And like Mermaid, has Frozen revealed a new glimmering path forward as the Disney standard for a renaissance of creativity to come?
Usually, with Disney Princesses, the audience has the ability to see both how they act when they’re alone, how they act when there are people around, and how they act when someone they’re romantically intrigued by is in the room. Generally, at least in my mind, with the older Disney Princesses, their behavior is different in all three situations. This is why Anna and Elsa are so refreshing; the audience is seeing their true self at all times, even (as in Elsa’s case) when they’re hiding that same true self. We feel an ethereal closeness to these characters because we not only see all sides of them, but they are very consistently their same self with everyone. Aside from how that makes us feel, it’s a wonderful message to get across to young viewers of all genders and ages: be yourself at all times, and if romance happens, it happens, but make sure you’re falling in love with someone’s equally accessible true self. To have such magnificent characters not be defined by the romance (or lack thereof) in their lives is a message I wish happened more often.
And yet, what I find compelling about Frozen’s conclusion is Kristoff. Kristoff is just a run-of-the-mill guy with a sensitive heart who gives every bit of effort to make Anna happy. He doesn’t feel emasculated when surrounded by strong women like Elsa and Anna. He’s nothing but honest at all times. His wanting to help Anna and Elsa comes from true empathy, and he does not have an overwhelming compulsion to “save” the day. And after everything is said and done—after numerous life-threatening situations, with a traveled distance seemingly spanning the country—he still has enough respect for Anna that he only kisses her when she says it’s okay.
That’s certainly a Disney movie message I can get behind.