I have loved Frozen since I first saw it in early November 2013. A remarkable reinvention of the Disney musical, particularly of the Howard Ashman classic Broadway variety, Frozen has been the movie Disney fans were waiting for. Only four years after Ed Catmull, one of the founders of Pixar and the current President of Walt Disney Animation Studios, lamented that the princess movie genre had “run a course,” Disney’s second princess fairy tale in as many years has been released, and it is a staggering hit.
In the year since Frozen’s box office success, where it became the highest grossing animated film ever, that almost seems as foreign a concept as the idea of parents not being sick of “Let It Go.” But just as that song won an Oscar within 24 hours of the film crossing the $1 billion mark, it appears to have had a serendipitously charmed existence. This has all paved the way for the announcement of Frozen 2 (not to mention this weekend’s ensuing “Frozen Fever”). And believe it or not, this is a great thing for cinema.
When I first watched Frozen, it struck me as a wonderful fairy tale that paid homage to the classic Disney legacy while reimagining it for a younger and (hopefully) savvier audience. As Dan Hajducky pointed out, Frozen was more than a breakaway from the most dated subtexts of older WDAS fare, it was a subversion of it. The characters of Princess Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) and Princess Elsa (Idina Menzel) represented two sides of modern femininity that have been mostly missing from previous Disney and other animated productions.
Elsa is an independently strong woman who never once is defined by a man in her life, nor is given a token love interest, instead finding her own power and strength from within when she lets it go to a power ballad that awakened pure joy in the heart of every child in America from one to ninety-two. Conversely, Anna, with her fair hair, is momentarily typical of the classic Disney princesses, including the more progressive trailblazers of the Disney Renaissance. She seems defiant and precocious, but ultimately falls in love with the first man she meets, willing to throw it all away on a whirlwind elopement.
Of course, as anyone who is reading this already knows, directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck brilliantly knock this Prince Charming cliché down with a blast of ice far more potently adult than most modern romantic comedies, which often depict the foils as relatively kind and as readable as an open-book (see Disney’s own Enchanted, for one of many examples). There has been intriguing criticism about Frozen shattering this lovely fairy tale image for younger audiences. However, this critique ignores the more important power of the sequence that plays out with wonderful clarity when smiling Prince Hans (Santino Fontana) leans in to kiss Anna, but instead mocks her dying pain: beware of the kindness of strangers.
Not only does the film suggest that girls should not run off with Prince Charming after a day, but it reminds viewers of all ages that even someone who is outwardly kind and seemingly generous can have ulterior motives that go beyond breaking hearts. It is a message about being used and exploited by the kindest of people who can do genuinely very good things, as Hans represents when he plays the fair ruler of the kingdom during Elsa’s absence. Separating deed from virtue is a challenge that many adults always struggle with.
But the real importance of these two characters is that they are strong females. Jennifer Lee, Chris Buck, and everyone else who worked on this inevitable classic have an affinity for the Disney fairy tale musical, crafting a companion piece worthy of sitting next to films like Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, and Beauty and the Beast. And for whatever complaints adults can have, even a cursory look at YouTube proves that the movie is as powerful to children of today as the death of Mufasa or Ariel becoming “Part of Your World” was to any millennial growing up. But unlike those movies, Frozen’s two female protagonists are whole enough to pass the Bechdel Test, which simply states that:
1) It has two women in it
2) who talk to each other
3) about something other than a man.
With Frozen, the often scapegoated Disney (accused of distorting the female image in youth pop culture) has created not one, but two strong female characters who, unlike the previously praised heroines in their catalogue from Belle to Jasmine, implicitly define each other. The central relationship is that of Anna and Elsa, something that’s beautifully crystallized in the film’s dramatic showdown when Anna chooses to give up the supposed love of her life in suitor #2, Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), to save Elsa. The sacrifice of stopping Hans from slaughtering Elsa means that Anna will not receive a kiss, which supposedly means the end of her life due to an icy curse on her heart. Instead, it saves them in classic Disney fashion, but it also refocuses the movie back to its central theme: two sisters overcoming the cold-to-the-touch stone door between them, both figuratively and literally. Anna’s haunting refrain of “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” is all the movie needs to pass the Bechdel Test, but the film does it one better by finding its central conflict in that relationship. The final scene is not a kiss between a prince and princess, but two sisters—both of them defined by their eccentricities of either isolation (Elsa) or a quirky tom boyishness that allows her to embark on an independent adventure (Anna)—ice skating with their shared talking snowman. It’s still Disney. The music underscoring the scene is not the reprisal of a love song, but a triumphant instrumental call back to “Do You Want to Build a Snowman.” Indeed, they did, and they have.
….But reviewing the wonderful message of actual female empowerment in this picture is not only to celebrate its Oscar wins or billion-dollar success. Well, it’s that too, but it is also crucial because Frozen is the most successful movie of 2013 at the global and, likely soon, domestic box office. At the U.S. market in particular, it will probably tap out just behind The Hunger: Games Catching Fire, which grossed $423 million. This means that the two most successful movies of 2013 in the United States both starred strong women who pass the Bechedel Test, and beyond that, appeal to all audiences.
Speaking of the inherently positive female image endorsed by Frozen’s plot is one thing, but its success is another, because in Hollywood (like everywhere) cash is king and queen. No movie crosses $1 billion without having complete four-quadrant appeal. Boy or girl, young or old, chances are if you’re a moviegoer, you saw Frozen. Probably more than once, hence the importance of this movie for more than just the House of Mouse. At Disney, Frozen hopefully signifies a second renaissance that embraces the Howard Ashman/Alan Menken animated Great White Way style, but outside of Disney, things are not nearly as progressive as some Disney detractors would suggest.
For whatever critiques about the dated virtues of the Bechdel Test itself for not being an exact science, it still represents a simple and widely recognized way to gauge the modernity of films. And according to The Mary Sue and Voactiv, 21 of 2013’s 50 highest grossing films miserably failed at least one clause of the Bechdel Test. These include some the year’s highest earners like Star Trek Into Darkness, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, and even Pixar’s very own Monsters University. However, the limitation of the Bechdel Test is that it can give a pass to peripheral characters. Quick name one other woman Lois Lane talked to in Man of Steel, or if any of her scenes were not focused on her relation to Clark Kent? Would you know that Gal Gadot was in Fast & Furious 6 if she was not cast as Wonder Woman? Without looking it up, can you name the other female actors in that film?
Yet, Frozen and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire are about to be the two most successful movies of the year in the U.S., beating out the superhero-costumed Robert Downey Jr. as he battled Guy Pearce alongside Gwyneth Paltrow in a sports bra. And in a global box office, where Superman only soaring to $600 million likely serves as the true international grievance that will force him to team with the Batman in 2016, a movie about two princesses who are wonderfully developed on their own can now cross $1 billion–better than every other teenage boy-geared summer blockbuster that did not feature the aforementioned Downey.
Yes, Frozen crossing $1 billion is a big deal because it, along with the brown jacket beguiled Jennifer Lawrence, represents a fact that Hollywood wisdom continues to shut out: guys will go to a movie starring a woman, and that said woman does not need to appear once in a bikini for it to happen. Hell, they can even be animated characters singing about stuffing chocolate in their face or not caring about what people think of their independence!
On a related note, Cate Blanchett won a much-deserved Oscar for her tour de force in Blue Jasmine in 2013 as well. Another, more adult-oriented film about two sisters, the titular Jasmine (Blanchett) is a modern day Blanche DuBois—a fallen socialite who is forced to move in with her working class sister (Sally Hawkins), ruining both their lives as Jasmine’s gilded cage continues to trap her mind in an endless loop of misery. It’s an agonizing wonder of acting and writing to behold, and is far too downbeat to ever land on any market’s Top 50 list with nary a CGI creation in sight. Still, it managed to make $94 million at the global box office, more than five times its meager $18 million budget.
During her Oscar speech, Blanchett reflected on this by saying, “And to the audiences who went to see it, and perhaps those of us in the industry who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films with women at the center are niche experiences, they are not. Audiences want to see them, and in fact, they earn money. The world is round, people!”
Yes, it is, and yes they do. Even the animated ones. Whether in the speciality market or at the global 3D blockbuster arena, there are now one billion reasons (nearly two billion if you count The Hunger Games), for Hollywood to realize exactly that.
A version of this article was first published on March 4, 2014.