It’s Okay To Like Disney Princesses Again: A Review of ‘Frozen’

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Frozen (2013)
Directed by Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck
Written by Jennifer Lee, Chris Buck, and Shane Morris
102 min.

Spoiler-free.

When I reviewed How To Train Your Dragon, I drew a line in some imaginary sand separating it from the cynically produced schlock that gets dumped on the kid demographic these days. As much as I love that movie though, I have to admit that it only seems so great because everything else is so bad. For a long time, CG movies were too annoying to even endure, Pixar’s output aside. But now Pixar sucks too. Go ahead, admit it. They haven’t made a great movie since Wall-E, and everything since has been worse than what came before it—Monsters University in particular is downright abysmal.

Strangely enough, as Pixar has declined, Disney Animation has experienced a resurgence. Bolt was way better than anyone expected, and, for the most part, Tangled feels about as effortless as any Disney 90’s hit did. Wreck-It Ralph was terrible, and The Princess and the Frog was a bit too paint-by-numbers, but whatever—all upward trends have their occasional dips. Now we have Frozen, which, despite its stupid title, is without a doubt the peak of this new renaissance. I have a feeling this all has something to do with Pixar legend John Lasseter’s appointment as Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios following Disney’s buyout of Pixar in 2006, but I’ll leave that speculation for someone more informed and just get back to Frozen.

First off—fuck this movie’s marketing. Like everyone else who saw that grating promotional teaser—the one with the snowman and reindeer faffing about on a frozen lake—I immediately wrote the movie off, as any sane adult would do. Only after post-release hype started building was my interest piqued. I’m always looking for the next hidden gem amidst the ocean of incorrigible slime that is kids’ movies, so I gave it a fair chance. And daymn. Frozen is doing for kids’ movies this year what HTTYD did for them in 2010—reminding us that they can be good. Damned near transcendent, even.

Frozen checks all the boxes that HTTYD did, or rather, both movies refuse to check off the boxes that basically all other kids’ movies do. There are no Billboard Top 40 shitpop hits breaking the fourth wall; the story doesn’t condescend to its target audience with watered down, obvious themes; there are no useless, intrusive, comic relief characters. How, you might ask, could a movie whose entire pre-release advertising campaign rested on obnoxious, distracting comic relief characters not suffer from the presence of said obnoxious, distracting comic relief characters? Well, shockingly (for a modern kids’ movie) the comic relief in Frozen functions as just that, and doesn’t overstep its bounds nor overstay its welcome.

Near the beginning of Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs, some characters are talking about something I don’t remember, and I don’t remember it because there’s some stupid monkey dancing around the shoulders of the main character, making stupid faces or something. He’s there because the filmmakers were afraid that their dialogue and characters would be too boring for kids to endure, and so they inserted a ‘funny’ distraction into the scene. This is cynical and lazy move that almost all kids’ movies make.

However, in Frozen, the snowman, Olaf, and the reindeer, Sven, aren’t there to distract you. When the movie eventually bares its teeth (and trust me, it has teeth) it bares them distraction-free. Sven and Olaf’s bits do punctuate some of the heavier moments, but they never saturate them. And the characters are actually pretty funny. Their animation is sharp, the writing is sharp, the timing is sharp, and Olaf’s voicing is especially sharp. The laughs they give come at precisely calculated moments, as all comic relief should.

The comic relief works largely due to the story having a much wider emotional range than most kids’ movies. Its dark moments aren’t fill-in-the-blank plot beats, observed hastily, solely to give the impression of story progression, and left behind just as quickly in order to get on with the hijinks. No, Frozen means business—there are real lows and highs, and the lows can be biting and its highs can be soaring. Thanks to the phenomenal direction and immaculate production values, the movie’s tonal dynamism is so graceful and assured that you’ll be grinning one second and gasping the next. If you can’t remember the last time a kids’ movie actually made you feel something, Frozen should thaw you.

I’m hesitant to go into too much detail about its story, and what’s so great about it, because I don’t want to ruin your chance of going into the movie blind. And it’s certainly worth seeing blind, so if that’s what you want to do, don’t read on. I’m not going to give away specific plot points in the paragraphs to come, but I’m going to give a reading of the movie that might affect your own, so you’ve been forewarned.

Slight spoilerishness ahead.

Frozen is one of the few Disney Princess movies to tackle the historically sexually regressive Disney Princess movie formula. Does that mean it’ll please feminists? Possibly. I’m a feminist, and it certainly pleased me. It’s an important movie in several ways—and they are different ways than you might expect, given Disney’s previous attempts at toying with feminist ideas.

In Mulan and Brave, the heroines subvert patriarchy by explicitly attacking traditional gender roles. By placing the stories in near-ancient settings, and making the female protagonists anachronistically willful, Disney played the female empowerment card in the easiest and laziest ways possible. (None of Disney’s market is really going to be alienated by the attacking of the idea of arranged marriages.) That is to say, neither movies are properly activist in their ambitions—they do not address sexism here and now. I wouldn’t call Mulan and Brave total cop-outs, though. I think both are positive steps for Disney, but neither come close to being radical. Frozen does, in some small but important ways.

Frozen goes out of its way to consistently subvert your expectations of what ought to happen in a Disney Princess movie. My favorite example of this is the absence of a clear moral dichotomy. When shit hits the fan, it’s not because some generic evil sorceress does what generic evil sorceresses tend to do in movies like this—it’s because of mysterious forces outside the characters’ understanding and control. The Snow Queen Elsa’s ice magic has been with her since birth, she can barely contain it, it just about freezes the world, and nobody knows why any of this is the case. The magic in Frozen’s world is deep and dangerous and curious—just the way I like magic. It drives the plot in such a way that bland “good vs. evil” machinations aren’t necessary, and it’s just plain good fantasy world-building—something Disney’s never really bothered with before (unlike, say, Disney’s Japanese counterpart, Ghibli).

There are far more important subversions going on too, though. At first glance, the heroines—particularly Anna the redhead—look almost too much like classic Disney Princesses. But that is the point. Anna is the quintessential Disney Princess. She’s wide-eyed (literally), spunky, vivacious, desperate for love, and above all, hopelessly naïve in that desperation. Unlike classic Disney though, Frozen calls Anna’s naiveté for what it is. It nucleates the movie’s thematic core, and plot beats large and small are woven around it, and make a game of it—eventually, eviscerating it whole.

For the first act, this isn’t apparent. We take the well-worn conventions at face value. Anna is trapped in her parent’s castle, locked away from the world because of her sister’s dark secret. When her sister inherits the crown, the castle is opened for the first time in years, and Anna’s first thought is of the prospect of finding true love. Yawn. She bumps into a storybook-handsome prince charming, Hans of the Southern Isles, and immediately falls for him. Here we go again. Shortly thereafter, they’re singing a duet that had me literally shifting in my seat. It was just too much. Too saccharine, too old-fashioned.

But then the movie pulled the rug out from beneath me (and them) and basically laughed in their faces. And did this again, and again, each time cutting deeper than the last. There’s even a plot twist, one that might seem cheap at first glance, but in light of Anna’s character arc, it not only makes sense, it’s brilliant, and serves as a well-earned knife in the gut of the Disney-perfected, true-love-at-first-sight trope. And man do I fucking hate that trope. It’s misogynistic bollocks, and cheap storytelling to boot. Frozen agrees, and teaches you that love isn’t something that falls in your lap, given out of the blue. True love is something you build cooperatively, over time, with another human.

It might sound like I’m giving the movie too much credit, but Frozen wasn’t made in a vacuum. It has the entire Disney Princess legacy behind it, a legacy chock full of clueless female leads falling in deep love at the drop of a hat for no good reason, simply because, in the Disney-verse, that’s just what happens when a young woman sees a handsome man. And by potently and unequivocally burying this cliché, Disney is basically nullifying a decades-old storytelling device they themselves popularized. By revealing this version of love as a childish illusion, Disney appears to be making fun of their own previous characters, from The Lady and the Tramp’s Lady to The Princess and the Frog’s Tiana. I can’t help but see this move as a conscious act of atonement for past crimes. (Okay, maybe that’s giving too much credit, but props where props are due.)

Props also must be given to a much subtler subtext which Disney seems to have snuck into the movie. The Snow Queen Elsa’s own arc appears to have queer-positive undertones, which I didn’t catch on my first watch but now seem totally obvious in retrospect. Her first big musical number is basically a metaphor for queer-sexual self-realization. If that seems like a stretch, just read the lyrics. A lot of feminist and LGBT bloggers want to go as far as to call her a lesbian, but I don’t think that’s necessary. The beauty of the scene, and her character, lies in the ambiguity—her ‘coming out’ could function as a coming out for any kind of secret that might require coming out from.

So yes, Frozen is a must-see, and quite a bit more complex than your average kid flick. There’s irony and subtle thematic weaving around every corner, and repeat viewings will reveal new layers of interplay between the subtexts and the plot. I’m about to see it for a third time, and I expect it to be my richest viewing yet. It accomplishes a lot in its runtime, and that it attempts to accomplish anything at all sets it far above the sludge that passes for kids’ movies. And it does this while still also packing in witty humor, badass ice magic action, real dramatic tension, and great musical numbers. See the damned thing to remind yourself why you actually like this genre at one point, and also, to see what new ground can be broken within it.

4 1/2 out of 5 thawed hearts.

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One Response to It’s Okay To Like Disney Princesses Again: A Review of ‘Frozen’

  1. charles lee says:

    That was a well written review of the entire history of cinema.

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