Elsa and Anna, princesses and heirs to the throne of Arendelle, are as close as sisters can be. But one night, as they play together with Elsa’s magical snow and ice, Anna is badly injured. Their parents decide that the best course to protect Anna is to keep the sisters separated and hiding Elsa’s powers. As the years pass, the two girls become estranged. Elsa is so afraid that she’ll hurt other people that she embraces the isolation ordered by her parents, but when they are killed in a storm at sea she becomes the queen. Her coronation ceremony marks the first time the castle has been open to others in years and Anna’s excitement can hardly be contained. When she meets Prince Hans of the Southern Isles, it’s love at first sight. Elsa’s lack of enthusiasm for Anna’s new beau sparks a fight between the two sisters, and Elsa’s emotions send her powers out of control. She flees the palace, embracing her powers and her freedom – but in the process she unleashes winter upon the land, covering the entire kingdom in ice and snow. With the help of Kristoff, a peasant familiar with the mountains, Anna sets out to find her sister and end Arendelle’s deep freeze.
The plot has virtually nothing to do with the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, and I find that I don’t care. I loved this movie! I think that it is easily the studio’s best movie in over a decade – were it not for 2002’s Lilo and Stitch, I’d argue this was the best post-Renaissance Disney animated feature.
Where to start?
The animation looks fantastic, and this is high praise indeed, considering my general loathing of computer-animated movies. I love traditional animation, but I have to admit that I don’t think the effects of snow and ice could have been rendered such perfect, exquisite beauty using hand-drawn art. The animators captured the light reflection and fractal qualities of ice perfectly, while the pine weight of the snow on pine needles is so convincing that I almost forget it’s not real. The backgrounds have this wonderful, ethereal quality that sets the mood for a fairy tale.
Character animation is a mixed bag. Well, that’s not fair. Generally, it’s very good, but there are a couple of niggling things that make me hold back from praising it. The two men, Hans and Kristoff, are excellent designs. Hans has the debonair refinement of a true prince, and everything about him is carefully controlled – tightly fitted clothes tailored to perfection, not a hair out of place, a pleasant smile on his pretty-but-not-feminine face. By contrast, Kristoff is clearly of classic peasant stock – ruddier, bulkier, heavier, goofier. His hair is shaggy and flies in all directions, his clothes are loose and layered. He’s got that big, hardy Nordic Viking look. They’re great foils of each other.
Anna is the one that I found disappointing. On the surface, she looks pretty good – but she’s essentially a ginger Rapunzel. Their faces are virtually identical! I thought this a real failure on the part of the animators. I mean, the two princesses do have a lot in common – both Rapunzel and Anna are extremely sheltered and naïve, wholesome girls-next-door with an adventurous streak – but that doesn’t mean they needed to be twins separated at birth! Elsa shares many of the traits of Anna and Rapunzel – big eyes, heart-shaped face, small chin – but her coloring and, more importantly, her gestures and expressions quickly establish her as a personality distinctive from the others.
At least the two sisters succeed in the costuming department. Elsa’s blue dress is stunning. I’m not sure what makes me happiest – the sleek, body-hugging sheath wrapped in a diaphanous cloak of glittering gossamer, or the detail that lets you see individual beads and sequins sparkling on her bodice, or the fact that when Elsa moves, that transparent layer moves like fabric and not like a plastic extension of her body. It’s a sexy design, with bared shoulders and a slit up the side, which is entirely appropriate for a young woman in her early twenties but quite daring for a Disney Princess. But then again, I suppose Elsa’s technically a Disney Queen, and not just a princess. Hmmm. I’ll have more to say about that in a minute.
Anna has two outfits worth talking about. The first is her coronation gown, which has a lovely skirt comprised of light green embroidered panels with a dark green underskirt peeking through. I’m not enamored of the black bodice, but the wealth of pattern on her skirt is something that I’m quite sure would not have been attempted in traditional animation because of the difficulty of constantly drawing those designs in every single frame. Her second outfit is very similar to her coronation gown, but toned down for day wear. Her blue skirt is also heavily embroidered, and her black bodice is nearly identical, save with sturdier shoulders and an undershirt for warmth. This is what she wears for most of the movie.
Huh. Now that I think about it, the main costumes of Elsa and Anna both remind me of Ariel’s dresses in The Little Mermaid. Elsa’s blue dress recalls the sparkly number Ariel wears in that final scene as she emerges from the sea after the defeat of Ursula while Anna’s dress is fairly reminiscent of Ariel’s casual blue dress that she wears during her date with Eric and the iconic “Kiss the Girl” sequence. Random observation over; back to Frozen.
The other character design misfire is Olaf. He looks like a bizarre runt built of marshmallows by an elementary school student rather than a construction of snow. But I have been predisposed to dislike Olaf ever since I first saw him in an early preview for the movie, so my bias is obvious.
In fact, Olaf is as good a talking point as any for transitioning into the story. I came into this movie fully prepared to hate the snowman; he was ugly, his voice was obnoxious, and his entire existence seemed devoted to the slapstick more characteristic of Dreamworks movies. The fact that he dominated the promotional material for this film instead of the human characters made me very, very concerned, almost to the point that I considered skipping the theatrical release of this movie. But Olaf is not, in fact, such an important character, although his existence has surprising meaning and tenderness to it. He works, which is something I never thought I’d admit, and he even works well as comic relief.
But perhaps I should talk more about the story in which Olaf exists. I don’t want to give away too much (yet – there will be a section further down marked off for spoilers) but as I mentioned earlier, there’s very little of “The Snow Queen” in this film. These are the things that the movie has in common with the fairy tale:
- Trolls exist in the world of the story. (Oh my gosh , I’m over 1000 words into this and I haven’t even mentioned the trolls!)
- There is a queen with snow magic.
- There is a reindeer.
- There is also a princess.
That’s it. While we all know that the film was inspired by Andersen’s story it’s best to ignore the fact since Frozen is so very divergent from the source material. It’s been transformed into yet another Disney Princess musical, and that’s fine. While romance plays its role in the story – what would a Disney Princess movie be without true love? – the real focus is the bond of sisterhood, and the love of family that binds Anna and Elsa together.
**SPOILERS WARNING SPOILERS WARNING**
It’s also a rather progressive movie that explores “true love” in greater depth than any of the previous Disney movies. For the first time, the romance that blossomed at first sight doesn’t work out. When you think about it, that’s a pretty epic change for Disney. Ariel’s transformation into a human is almost completely motivated by a love of Eric, a man she has never spoken with and that she knows nothing about! Snow White and her prince share nothing but a song before their love is strong enough to break the spell of the poisoned apple; Cinderella and her prince have nothing but a dance at a ball. Philip and Aurora know each other for all of a day before he’s willing to cancel his arranged marriage to marry her. Princesses like Belle and Tiana fell in love with their princes slowly after defeating their initial dislike, but the formula is still very much one-princess-one-true-love. The idea of true love’s kiss was lampooned in Enchanted when Giselle ultimately doesn’t end up with Edward, but it’s also validated because Nancy does marry the prince knowing about as much about him as Giselle did. (Plus, in spite of the opening sequence this mostly live action film is technically outside the canon of the Disney animated features.)
Frozen is the first movie to show a princess with multiple love interests and a rejection of the “true love at first sight” ideal. This was actually quite surprising to me. I had expected that the equation of two princesses + two love interests = two romances. I thought Anna would follow through on her marriage with Prince Hans, her true love forever, and goofy Kristoff would end up in an “opposites attract” relationship with Elsa, because that’s how the Disney formula works. But no – instead, we have one princess in love with the second guy she develops a relationship with and a queen who rules alone.
Perhaps it’s not too surprising. I keep forgetting that Elsa is a queen and not a mere princess. Princesses fall in love and get their man; queens do not. Queens are almost always evil; I think that Elsa is the first protagonist who rules in her own right. In an interview a while back, Lauren Faust (creator of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic said that the reason the ruler of the ponies is Princess Celestia instead of Queen Celestia is that Hasbro, the maker of My Little Pony toys, said that a queen wouldn’t sell as well as a princess. I’m almost certain this is why the story focuses more on Anna instead of Elsa, even though of the two girls Elsa shows infinitely more personality and has a much more interesting story. I think that this will be interesting to see in future months: will Elsa’s queenly status be downplayed so that she can join the princesses and sell stacks of merchandise, or will she slip further into the background so that Anna can become the face of the Frozen princess?
** SPOILERS END SPOILERS END **
\As befits a Disney Princess movie, Frozen is a musical. The iconic song that everyone will remember, of course, is “Let It Go”, the greatest f*ck you song in the Disney canon. Written for and sung by Idina Menzel, a Broadway legend best known for originating the role of Elphaba in Wicked, the song is a powerful anthem celebrating Elsa’s break with the restrictions of her life in the palace. In tone and theme, it invites comparisons to “Defying Gravity”, which packs the same emotional punch at the end of the first act in Wicked.
The thing that prevents this musical’s soundtrack from achieving quite the same level of The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast is that none of the other songs are close to the power of “Let It Go”. Like, The Little Mermaid has “Part of Your World” but it also has “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl”, songs that quite different in mood and tone, but equally good. Frozen has “For the First Time in Forever”, which is cute and moves the story forward but suffers from some strange lyrical choices like:
Don't know if I'm elated or gassy
But I'm somewhere in that zone!
The musical is also cut off rather abruptly; after the trolls (I still haven’t talked about the trolls!) sing “Fixer Upper” to Anna there isn’t another major song. I think there might have been some reprises, but there was no big, flashy, Broadway-style song to end the show on a high note. But I dare say this is just my inner musical nerd kvetching; the absence won’t be noticed by most.
It’s a good movie; it’s maybe even a borderline great movie. But Anna is such a retread of Rapunzel that she lacks charm; Elsa was fascinating and mysterious, why couldn’t we have a whole movie with her as the lead instead of her sister? (Seanie maintains that we had to have minimal Elsa to maintain her mystique, and that’s what makes her so interesting; I think that good writers could have had more Elsa without diminishing her appeal.) But the movie was so much better than I expected, based on the Olaf-centered marketing, so I won’t complain any more.
I never did talk about the trolls! Quickly: Great character design, cute but nonessential chorus songs, good for a laugh or two.