“You can't marry a man you just met!”
Review: Frozen, Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee, 2013, Disney
Disney traditions are as embedded into the collective global cultural psyche as Nike Airs, Coca-Cola, and Michael Jackson. From the earliest days of Snow White (released a phenomenal 77 years ago), right up to 2010’s Tangled, to say that love and romance through the Disney lens is a modern cultural institu- tion is something of an understatement.
Frozen, according to its own promotional material, was hailed as the big- gest Disney event since The Lion King (1992). Considering the emotional and sentimental weight behind Hamlet via Panthera leo, this was a colossal claim to make—The Lion King was and still is a critical and audience darling. One Oscar and $1 billion worldwide later, it seems that Disney was right on the money.
Many factors can be attributed to the degree of Frozen’s success. The musi- cal numbers for one are undeniably catchy and avoid being overly saccharine or contrite. The story is fresh, the effects first-class, and the characters well- rounded and relatable.
Generating the most buzz though is the film’s reinterpretation of the mean- ing of ‘true love’ with unmistakably feminist undertones, ultimately posing the question: “is Frozen a feminist film?”
Disney’s portrayal of the ‘fairytale romance’ is a source of much contention. Everyone from feminist and sociopolitical academics, to artists as varied as Marina & the Diamonds and System of a Down, has had something to say about our expectations of true love through the Hollywood lens. English singer-song- writer Frank Turner puts it at its most frank:
So fuck you Hollywood
For teaching us love was free and easy
For dressing all our daughters as princesses For telling tales where all have happy endings
As a sign of the times, Disney has finally dragged its storytelling department kicking and screaming into the 21st century.
The first indication that something might be different in Frozen comes in the musical number ‘Love is an Open Door’. A spontaneous duet and declara- tion of undying love ends in such a sudden marriage proposal that it borders on self-parody. Elsa’s dismissive reaction to her sister Anna’s announcement—“You can’t marry a man you just met!”—is what any real-life counterpart would say, and as the audience we watch on sternly nodding our heads in agreement.
Of course, as the entire film unfolds, this concept is fully realised. While it doesn’t descend into self-aware parody like Shrek (2001) or Madagascar (2005), there is a sense that Disney is deliberately attempting to right its wrongs, almost with a hint of apology for all those years of engendering unrealistic notions of love and romance in countless little imaginations.
While hailed by many as a feminist triumph, consider how- ever that this is not the first Disney princess to have shown a strength apart from her male counterpart. Mulan (1998) is still an enduring fan favourite and was a successful adapta- tion of a centuries old Chinese legend—one girl’s quest to save a country and her father’s life.
Through the years in fact, Disney’s female characters have shown a progressive trend towards being less of the archetypal damsel in distress and more of the independ- ent woman as proclaimed by Beyoncé and co. Megara from Hercules (1997) dismisses her would-be hero nonchalantly: “I’m a damsel in distress, I can handle this. Have a nice day.” Jessie the cowgirl from Toy Story 2 (1999) is a rambunctious, independent lass. And in Tangled (2010), Rapunzel’s quest is not to find love or to wait passively to be rescued from her high tower, but instead to follow her own dreams and find her estranged family.
Despite all this though, each and every one of these character arcs concludes by finding true love along the way, which ultimately sets Frozen apart.
At the very heart of Frozen is the relationship between sisters Elsa and Anna. The song ‘Do You Want to Build a Snowman?’ reflects their relationship as it starts out joy- fully, but gradually ends on a melancholy note as Anna mourns the growing distance between her and her sister. In contrast, the ‘romantic’ songs are kind of jokey, and while upbeat, lack emotional depth. The sister relationship is undeniably the driving force and emotional core of the film.
And that is why Frozen has been praised by so many. In a rare display of gender reversal, the male characters are relegated to supporting roles and traditional notions of what kind of true love saves ‘frozen hearts’ are discarded. This sort of tale resonates profoundly across all genders and ages, far more than a princess marrying some chis- el-jawed prince charming ever could.
Frozen has been in production hell since 1943, when Walt Disney and Hollywood pioneer Samuel Goldwyn dreamed of producing a Hans Christian Andersen biography that would include animated sequences from his stories—one of which was ‘The Snow Queen’. It took the production team of John Lasseter (Toy Story, A Bug’s Life) and Peter Del Vecho (The Princess and The Frog, Treasure Planet) in 2012 to finally craft something that was fun, light-hearted, and would resonate with modern audiences (granted, it is markedly different from the source material). A key factor in this process was introducing Anna as the younger sibling of Elsa, establishing a family dynamic.
It’s not just the romantic side of the story that is being praised. While some feminist writers have been decrying the film—criticisms range from accusations of cynical “audience pandering” to the fact that Anna and Elsa aren’t strong female characters at all—there is no denying that it is a welcome shift in the portrayal of female charac- ters, not only in animated films but film in general. There is still progress to be made. A recent study by the San Diego State University that found that out of the 100 high- est grossing films of 2013, only 15 of them contained a female protagonist.
In February, actress Olivia Wilde shared a curious anecdote about an experimental live reading of the script of American Pie at the LA County Museum of Art. All male roles were read by women and female roles read by men. As it became obvious that the women were getting “all the good lines ... and all the great moments,” the men got antsy and bored. “They said, ‘It’s boring to play the girl role!’ And I said, ‘Yeah. Yeah. You think? Welcome to our world!’.” Wilde continued:
It’s really hard to get stories made that are about women—not just women being obsessed with men or supporting men. And it’s really hard to get men to be a part of films that are about women in a leading role.
This is indicative of a deeper cultural endemic in Hollywood. Being dismissive of ‘feminist rants’ is inexcusable when faced with such startling statistics and stories. Representation matters, and for that fact alone, Frozen stands out above the rest.
Whether you enjoyed Frozen simply for its songs and anthropomorphic snowman, or its relevance as Thelma & Louise for six year olds (maybe a bit far), you can’t deny its current drawing power. Disney has perfected brand loy- alty—hook them in while they’re young, keep pumping out merchandise and films till eventually you have them and their kids wearing your hats and singing your songs. It sounds cynical, but you know, it ain’t all bad. Disney eschewing its own archetypal notions of true love in place of family bond was not only a clever marketing device, but also a necessary cultural development for a brand in decline. It was by no means a perfectly conceptualised sociopolitical statement, but it’s a step in the right direction.