Mouse House Movie Club #6: Frozen

Kristoff's Fonzie impression wasn't fooling anybody.
Kristoff’s Fonzie impression wasn’t fooling anybody.

Welcome to The Mouse House Movie Club. Each week (or whenever I get the chance), I dig out a Disney film (either animated or live action) from my shelf, pick a Disney short, and watch both together in one superb evening of Disneyfied goodness. I then write about it in a blog much like (well, exactly like) the one you’re about to read. So, without further ado, here’s this week’s edition of The Mouse House Movie Club.

Short Film: Nothing. Ok, I know I said I was going to watch the Goofy short The Art of Skiing this week, but this is a slightly different edition of Mouse House Movie Club, and it seems a little unfair to write 100 words on The Art of Skiing and then a few thousand on Frozen. So I’ll watch Goofy next week.

Feature Presentation: Arendelle’s in deep, deep, deep, deep snow in Frozen.

Beware the Frozen Heart
Regular readers of Kids Riding Bicycles will know I’m rather fond of Frozen and have written two long blogs (here and here) focusing on it. I’d planned on not covering it for a while on Mouse House Movie Club because, well, when you’ve written two essays on it, what’s the point in writing a third. However, recently I’ve been gripped by a desire to rewatch the film, so figured: well, I may as well watch it as part of this here Disney strand. So here it is.

Problem is, I’ve written about the film as a representation of anxiety and I’ve written about it in the wider context of Disney’s current Golden Age. So what else could I possibly write about? For a long time, I didn’t really know, but then I remembered a piece I read on Medium that criticised the film in some depth. Written by Dani Colman, it’s called The Problem With False Feminism (Or Why Frozen Left Me Cold) and it (as the title suggests) explores the film from a feminist perspective, drawing some very negative conclusions. After re-reading the article, I decided to use it as a structure for this piece

Now, before getting underway, I’d like to caveat this entire piece by stating that the article is an incredible piece of writing. Writing is difficult; writing thousands of words about one film is even more difficult, really time-consuming, and massively frustrating. Her piece is clearly a labour of love for Colman (as this is for me), and she makes some decent points. Frozen passing the Bechdel Test really doesn’t count for much (indeed, the fact that some films don’t pass it doesn’t mean that those films aren’t feminist), and the fact there isn’t a wedding and that one of the protagonists doesn’t end up with even a sniff of romance doesn’t matter either. Cinema is an artform, not a checklist with boxes that need to be ticked in order to be or not be one thing or another.

However, I still fundamentally disagree with this piece. So let’s go through the article’s main points and I’ll put across my perspective.

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Her brain’s a bit betwixt
Let’s start with Anna as she’s the sister who comes in for the most criticism, criticism I feel is deeply unfair. Asking the reader to name things that define Anna, Colman says the following about the character.

“She’s beautiful, in a gives-Barbie-body-dysmorphia kind of way. That’s par for the course with Disney heroines, except for Merida and Mulan. She’s clumsy, which would be endearing except that it seems to be the de facto flaw for heroines who aren’t fully-developed enough to have a real flaw — and yes, this would be the point where I compare Frozen to Twilight. Anna’s clumsiness doesn’t move the plot. It doesn’t affect the outcome of…anything, really. It isn’t something she has to overcome — like Mulan does — thereby displaying strength or determination. It’s just a trait she has so that we will find her more approachable: a cold, hard, marketing decision.

“What else does Anna have going for her? She isn’t intelligent, no matter how many words she can spit out per minute. If she were, she wouldn’t rush into an engagement with Hans, nor — for that matter — leave a man she barely knows in charge of her kingdom while she rides out in the snow without a coat. She’s certainly self-absorbed, using the first opportunity to make Elsa’s coronation all about her; and she’s vain, believing absolutely in her ability to talk some sense into Elsa despite having had no relationship with her sister for what looks like roughly ten years. She has no awareness of her surroundings (riding out in the snow without a coat), no awareness of her own limitations (the cringe-inducing mountain climbing episode), and no awareness of the consequences of her actions (provoking Elsa not once, but twice). She’s outspoken, yes, but she’s also rude; she’s condescending towards Kristoff and belligerent towards her sister; and she has no ambition beyond finding her one true love — more on that below.”

While much of what Colman says here is true (she is clumsy, she is a little rude),  Colman looks at these traits purely from one angle, without entertaining other, more positive, reasons. For example, Anna doesn’t have a coat because she’s more concerned about her sister’s safety than being warm. (1) She doesn’t have an awareness of her own limitations because she doesn’t see herself as having any and, even if she does, is too concerned about her sister to be held up by them. She’s rude, perhaps, but aren’t we all to some degree; she’s vain (damn, my hair looked good today), and yep, also belligerent towards her sister. But then again, if I’d been shunned by my own flesh and blood for ten years, at a critical juncture in my development and directly after my parents had just died at sea, I’d have issues with that person too, especially if she had the gall to tell me who I could and couldn’t marry AND tell me I know nothing of love. It’s the wrong attitude to take, but it’s natural,  understandable and – most importantly because this is one of the film’s core points – forgiveable. (2)

Colman accepts this to a degree, noting that Anna’s flaws are likely caused by her childhood loneliness, but then seeks to undercut this.

A little social awkwardness is probably to be expected for a girl who’s lived in almost total isolation for…three years. Yes, I’m extrapolating a little here: we certainly don’t see Anna interact with anyone aside from her sister and parents until Elsa’s coronation. But think about it logically. After the ice incident as children, Elsa may be isolated — both by her parents and by her own fear — but there’s no reason for the King and Queen to isolate Anna too. They almost certainly still have official functions to attend to: we know from Elsa’s coronation that the monarch is responsible for negotiating trade arrangements and treaties, so it would be extremely irresponsible for the King and Queen to hole themselves away like their daughter. Seeing what enforced isolation does to Elsa, does it seem likely that they would force the same upon their non-powered daughter?

It seems far more likely that Anna is only shut inside the castle long-term after her parents die, and text on the screen tells us explicitly that only three years pass between that and Elsa’s coronation. Three long, lonely, boring years, I’m sure, but three years that seem to send Anna far further off-balance than lifetimes of isolation do to other Disney princesses. Unlike, say, Rapunzel, Jasmine or Aurora, Anna has spent some fifteen years of her life in relative normality, presumably experiencing culture, friendships, and perhaps even her first crush in that time: all the things a normal aristocratic teenager could expect to experience. And even in the three years spent shut in the castle, what about the servants? Given Anna’s natural boisterousness, unless Arendelle is really classist, I find it hard to imagine she didn’t interact with and even make friends among the castle staff, whom we know exist because frankly it’s far more believable than Elsa and Anna doing their own laundry.

I think everything Colman’s saying here is reasonable; in fact, I pretty much agree with it. While there’s no definitive way to prove or disprove the details of the ‘Do You Wanna Build A Snowman’ years, Anna must have had some level of connection with the (reduced, after the incident) staff, likely attended official functions, and probably even saw Elsa, who had to eat, bathe, and do other normal day-to-day things. Anna doesn’t lack for company then, but company alone doesn’t banish loneliness; in fact, it can only exacerbate it.

It’s possible to be surrounded by people every single day of your life and still be isolated. If you don’t connect with the people you’re mingling with, if you don’t feel like you have anything in common with them, that’s isolation. And that’s exactly what Anna is suffering through. Here we see an excitable young girl bounding around the room, so desperate to play that she wakes up the moment dawn breaks, and the only people she has to play with are her parents and adult servants. She can’t connect with them, she can’t have anything in common with them. So she’s lonely. She misses her sister and she has no-one to ‘replace’ her with. She doesn’t have any sense of companionship and that’s a much deeper, much more tragic sense of loneliness than simply not having people around. (3)

Her loneliness is further highlighted by ‘For the First Time in Forever’. Colman accuses Anna of having no aims but finding a husband, but that’s simply not true. Analyse the song, and you’ll find that the first verse doesn’t make any reference to love at all. She’s more excited about seeing the palace’s mass of salad plates than she is of potentially finding a suitor. Anna tells us how excited she is about windows, doors, balls, dancing, hell even her confusion about whether she’s happy or merely a bit gassy before getting to the subject of love, and even then it’s almost as a side thought: “I can’t wait to meet everyone. *gasp* What if I meet the one!”

Did... did... she, like, count them?!
Did… did… she, like, count them?!

At this point, the song becomes something else. Anna starts singing about how she’s going to be “the picture of sophisticated grace”. She says that she’ll be dressed in a beautiful gown and linger coyly against the wall. She’s creating an idealised vision of her perfect night, but she can’t keep it up. She whacks herself in the face with the curtain drape, flings her fantasy man (a bronze bust) into a cake, and by the end is so overwhelmed with the chocolate she’s stuffing into her face that she can barely sing. Not for the last time, Frozen is hinting at its main theme: self-deception. Anna wants to be sophisticated, charming and beautiful, like all those paintings she compares herself to in the gallery, but really, she’s a massive clutz who finishes the song walking into a horse. It’s exactly why she re-enacts all those romantic paintings. She wants to be them, but knows she’s simply not that person, so she forces the fantasy. She forces herself to be the ideal she longs for.

‘Love is an Open Door’ makes that fantasy real, but again Anna forces it. A remarkable piece of songwriting, and an even better bit of storytelling, this is ostensibly a duet, but look carefully, and it’s pretty much Anna soloing. She starts the song, cuts into Hans’ sections (“…sandwiches!”), and when they’re singing together, she’s practically drowning him out. She’s a teenage girl whipping out her hairbrush and acting out scenes from Titanic in the bedroom mirror. Hans, meanwhile, is a two-bit TV medium, waiting for Anna to reveal just enough of herself to be able to offer something meaningful, something she’ll relate to, in order to sell the lie. Finally, Anna has the picture perfect romance she’s been longing for. It’s all a con, but that doesn’t really matter because, as Olaf says, “when life gets rough I like to hold on to my dream.” That’s all Anna’s doing here: clinging to a dream to cheer herself up.

I've been searching my whole life to find my own place, but I haven't found one yet so I'm gonna steal it from you
I’ve been searching my whole life to find my own place, but I haven’t found one yet so I’m gonna steal one from you

Does that really warrant the kind of treatment Colman gives her? Definitely not, and it’s certainly not the treatment another character from Frozen writer and co-director Jennifer Lee gets. Like Anna, Wreck-It Ralph is desperate for validation. He’s a bad guy who wants to be good, and is willing to put his whole game at risk, indeed the whole arcade at risk, to get what he wants. Vain, selfish, self-absorbed. So why does Anna get ripped apart, but Ralph not? Why is Anna held under a microscope, while Ralph’s flaws are seen as part of an heroic, redemptive narrative? I honestly have no idea. Whatever the reason, I’d no more want Ralph’s imperfections to be removed from the story than I would Anna’s. Because that’s what good storytelling and good character writing is all about: flaws, vulnerabilities, and imperfections. Anna has loads of them, and I love her for them.

Put on a show…
Such flawed characters litter Frozen. Even more than Anna, Elsa’s arc is about how flawed she is and the expectation on her to not be flawed. “Be the good girl you always have to be,” she sings in ‘For the First Time In Forever’, before delighting in proclaiming that the “perfect girl is gone” during ‘Let It Go’. She’s utterly obsessed with this idea of perfection, and it’s not for no reason that her development mirrors that of an anxiety or OCD sufferer. She hits Anna with her powers, so stays away. This works, so her anxiety and compulsions tell her to keep doing it because it’s achieving what she wants it to achieve: keeping Anna alive. As with all anxiety and OCD, it grows in scale to the point where gloves and total isolation are a must that could result in catastrophe if denied for even a few seconds. Nothing less than perfection is acceptable. (4)

On Elsa, Colman has the following to say:

Elsa is no better than her younger sister. She may even be worse. We’ll deal with her crippling self-repression later, because that isn’t actually her fault, but this is a woman who steadfastly refuses to accept any help offered to her. Her sister spends the better part of ten years trying to reach out to her (admittedly misguidedly), and Elsa shuts herself away so steadfastly a psychiatrist might call it pathological. She’s an absolute mess of characterological self-blame and avoidance, and she deals with her issues by speed-skating away from them.

Running from her problems once is one thing. Elsa is far from the first Disney character to believe — even correctly — that s/he has done something terrible, and to attempt to outrun the consequences. But Simba, faced with the reality of the harm he has inflicted on the Pride Lands, makes the conscious, independent choice to turn around and set things right, while Quasimodo literally brings the walls of Notre Dame down around him to right his wrongs. Faced with her misdeeds, Elsa sets a golem on her sister and has to be dragged back to Arendelle in chains when she’s knocked unconscious by her own chandelier. This is not a strong woman. This is a frightened, repressed, vulnerable woman who starts running at the beginning of the movie and doesn’t stop until her sister literally turns to ice in front of her.

Aside from the opening two sentences (and the bit about Simba, who has to be literally smacked around the head by a baboon and get a pep talk from Darth Vader to see sense), I can’t say I disagree with Colman here. Elsa is “frightened, repressed, vulnerable”. She runs, doesn’t stop running, and her signature moment, ‘Let It Go’, is a power ballad about her legging it at Usain Bolt speeds.

But as with Anna, that’s the point.

Let’s look at ‘Let It Go’ in more depth, because it’s a fascinating song that’s become a victim of its own success. The songs in Frozen act – as all great musical numbers should – as Shakespearean soliloquies: moments of great emotional turmoil that are so significant they can’t simply be spoken, they have to be given special significance, in this case by being sung. This means that when you take the song out of the context of the film, it becomes problematic. Soliloquies need the context of the rest of the play to convey the intended meaning, and great musical numbers do too. Because they’re not just good songs; they’re good acts of storytelling.

Once ‘Let It Go’ became a hit in its own right, the song became an anthem of self-discovery and self-actualisation. That’s fantastic, and I’m not in any way going to take that away from it. There’s an army of little girls who found incredible strength in listening to, singing, and acting out ‘Let It Go’, and it doesn’t matter one jot if I personally think it’s a misinterpretation of the song’s meaning. They were inspired by it, and that’s all that counts.

However, in the context of the film, when viewed instead of just listened to, and when deconstructed, ‘Let It Go’ is really about self-deception.

I hate when people do that!
I hate when people do that!

The song starts slowly, more like a lament than a power ballad. Because that’s what it is really. Elsa’s worst nightmare has come true – she’s been exposed – and she’s having to face up to the fact that she’s now stuck in “a kingdom of isolation”. “The wind is howling,” she sings, “like this swirling storm inside. Couldn’t keep it in. Heaven knows I tried.” This is a song of failure. Everything Elsa’s worked towards, everything she’s sacrificed her happiness for, has gone hideously and irrevocably wrong.

But as we progress and Elsa begins to accept her new situation, the song picks up and changes tone. There’s more pace, more rhythm. The whole thing becomes more epic, from a musical point of view at least. But the lyrics keep returning to the analogy of the first stanza, in which Elsa compares her emotional turmoil to natural, destructive phenomena. “Let the storm rage on,” she sings. Most interestingly, the bridge has her belt out the following: “My power flurries through the air into the ground/My soul is spiraling in frozen fractals all around/And one thought crystallizes like an icy blast.”

It’s all very stirring stuff, but it doesn’t sound particularly pleasant. Flurrying power, spiralling souls, frozen fractals. Elsa’s describing a fundamental splitting of her identity. (5) This is Frozen by way of David Cronenberg’s The Fly, as Elsa’s entire being is coming to pieces. Fair enough you might think. She’s like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon; putting one thing in the past to move onto a better future. And that’d be quite true, but Elsa isn’t becoming something better. “Here I’ll stand,” she says. “And here I’ll stay.” There’s no future for her. She can’t spread her wings and fly off, she’s doomed herself to a life of self-exile. Her tragedy is that not only can’t she see that, but she actively refuses to let herself see it: “The fears that once controlled me/Can’t get to me at all!” Elsa, if that were true, you’d be down there confronting the people who now think you’re a witch, now building blocks of ice to protect yourself from them.

Does this mean Elsa’s weak? As I did with Anna, I’m going to compare Elsa to male equivalents: Superman and Spider-Man in Superman II and Spider-Man 2. Here we have two characters acting pretty irresponsibly. Both desert their duties in order to live the lives they want, with Peter Parker at one point in Spider-Man 2, even ignoring a mugging after he stops being Spidey. I ask the same question I asked of Ralph: why are these male characters undergoing a significant and heroic life journey, while Elsa is being irresponsible? Why should she be tarnished, but the men not?

Christopher!!!
Christopher!!!

I’m gonna tell him…
Speaking of which… Critics were so wrapped up in the depictions of Anna and Elsa that few paid attention to the men: Kristoff, Olaf, and Hans. It’s important to shine a light on these characters as they continue the themes expressed through Anna and Elsa. Indeed, Kristoff acts as a mirror to both of them. He’s delusional and so separate from society that his only friend is a reindeer that he sings a duet with, filling in its sections himself to solidify his view of the world and his place in it (I’m great, the world’s terrible, and I don’t want to be a part of it so I’m going to act standoffish). It’s signature denial, just as ‘Let It Go’ is, just as ‘Love is an Open Door’ is. (Indeed, if Anna is metaphorically singing a duet with herself in ‘Love…’, Kristoff is literally doing so in ‘Reindeers Are Better Than People’).

Except the world isn’t terrible, it’s just imperfect. Just as he’s imperfect, and just as Anna and Elsa are imperfect. He tries to hide his imperfections (all of which are identified and laid bare by the trolls later on) by keeping the world away from him and acting like the bad guy, but he can’t pull it off. Because for all his rough-around-the-edges flaws, he’s “the honest goods” and that’s because those imperfections have helped mould him into someone empathetic and kind. On the flip side, Hans has crafted an identity that, for all anyone can tell, is perfect: a tall, handsome, kind, selfless prince. Of course, it turns out to be a facade, because in Frozen‘s world, perfection is a sham and the only true perfection is imperfection.

Interestingly, while he can’t see his own problems, Kristoff can see them in others, criticising Anna for wanting to marry Hans so quickly, and uttering one of the film’s most important and yet overlooked lines at the end of ‘In Summer’: “I’m gonna tell him!”. Anna admonishes him (“Don’t you dare!”) and he keeps quiet, but he’s absolutely right and even repeats his belief once she and Olaf have left: “Someone’s gotta tell him”. The song’s inherently funny, of course, but like everything in film, it’s laced with double meaning. Substitute Olaf’s continual fantasies about heat with some act that’s certain to end in death and you begin to see how sad the song is. If someone told you that they’re going to run out into a busy road, jump off a cliff, shoot themselves in the face, or lie down on train tracks, what would you say?

DON’T BE A LUNATIC, YOU’LL DIE.

"Olaf, mate..."
“Olaf, mate…”

Of course you would, and that’s what Kristoff wants to do at the end of ‘In Summer’. “Olaf, mate, your song is very lovely, and the seagulls you’ve got doing that dance, and your little snowball mate in the hot tub… buddy, it’s all cool. But if you go out into the sun, you’ll melt and die, and that would be very sad.” Anna tells him not to because she, like Olaf, like Elsa, like Kristoff when dealing with his own life, is sold on the fantasy. She’s hooked on the drug of dreams that she indulges in “when life gets tough”, because really, who isn’t? Who doesn’t delude themselves with acts of self-preservation? Who doesn’t need to construct comforting lies to keep themselves going? It’s why we binge on terrible TV, why we love superhero films, why we tell ourselves that we can easily work off that last slice of cheesecake in the gym tomorrow. Sometimes, we just need to delude ourselves into feeling happy, even if, as the characters in Frozen find out, we can delude ourselves too much.

And this is where my complicated relationship with Colman’s essay comes to a head, because yes, I agree with her: all the characters in Frozen are flawed and vulnerable and stupid. They have loads of negative attributes (they have loads of good ones too that Colman overlooks, but let’s not get sidetracked). But the film explicitly tells us that those negative attributes exist in every single person in the planet and that we should accept those negative attributes because…

ALL TOGETHER NOW!

Everyone’s a bit of a fixer upper, that’s what it’s all about…
From the moment I saw Frozen, I fell in love with ‘Fixer Upper’. More than ‘Let It Go’, more than ‘For the First Time in Forever’, this is Frozen‘s key song. Because here, the film shouts and screams and literally makes a song and dance about weaknesses, vulnerabilities and mistakes. ‘Fixer Upper’ demands that we and the characters in the film forgive them, each other, and ourselves for all the mistakes made, and sets Anna and Elsa (especially Elsa) up for the redemption that Colman claims neither earn.

To make this point, it’s worth quoting the entire last section of the song.

We’re not sayin’ you can change him,
‘Cause people don’t really change. (Girl Trolls: Ahh Ahhh)
We’re only saying that love’s a force
That’s powerful and strange.
People make bad choices if they’re mad,
Or scared, or stressed.
Throw a little love their way.

Female Trolls: Throw a little love their way.

Bulda and Female Trolls: And you’ll bring out their best.

All Trolls: True love brings out the best!
Everyone’s a bit of a fixer-upper,
That’s what it’s all about!

Cliff: Father!

Female Troll 3: Sister!

Male Troll 6: Brother!

All Trolls: We need each other
To raise us up and round us out.
Everyone’s a bit of a fixer-upper.
But when push comes to shove.

Olaf:
The only fixer-upper fixer
That can fix a fixer-upper is

Trolls:
True! true!
True, true, true!
Love (True love)
Love, love, love, love, love
Love! (True love!)

I’ve previously spoken about how the song’s refusal of change is revolutionary for Disney, so I won’t touch on that again. Instead, I’ll focus on “people make bad choices when they’re mad or scared or stressed”. Almost every character in Frozen finds themselves in a position of extreme stress, anger, or fear at some point, and they almost all make bad choices. Anna and Elsa’s parents (who have received a wonderful defence from the whip-smart Sisters Switch) are faced with a Sophie’s Choice style situation when Elsa hurts Anna: keep the children together and risk one dying, or separate them, and risk them both being a little sad. A difficult decision, and Mr and Mrs Anna and Elsa pick the lesser of two evils. Many others would do the same.

When Elsa flees Arendelle, that’s another moment of extreme stress and fear. She’s spent most of her childhood and her entire adult life being cripplingly scared of this scenario. Now it’s not only come true but been exploded to an agonising degree: now she’s not only putting Anna at risk, but her entire kingdom and her entire family legacy. What can she do in this scenario? She can’t control her power, she admits that in ‘Let It Go’, so she does the only sensible thing she can do: flee. Colman calls this and her celebration of the fact she has “no rights, no wrongs, no rules” irresponsible (6), saying that Elsa is “a woman who steadfastly refuses to accept any help offered to her” and that she “deals with her issues by speed-skating away from them”. But such an approach simply doesn’t work.

Telling Elsa to ‘deal’ with her problems and condemning her for not doing so is as much use as telling someone with depression to cheer up, someone with OCD to stop obsessing, or someone with anxiety to stop worrying. It is – excuse the language – fucking stupid. Not to mention grossly offensive, outrageously insensitive, and staggeringly unhelpful.

Worse things happen at sea
Worse things happen at sea
Oh...
Oh…

Elsa does not deal with her problems well, but she’s not bad or wrong because of that: she’s a flawed person who deserves support and love. You could even argue that she and Anna are incredibly brave in the way they deal with their problems. What I see in Elsa is a woman of immense strength, a woman who makes herself miserable to protect her sister, and then makes herself even more miserable to protect her kingdom by locking herself away from it. She’s a timebomb, and she wants to make sure nobody’s around when she goes off.

What I see in Anna is another incredibly strong woman, someone who refuses to give up on her sister no matter how bad things get. During the reprise of ‘For the First Time in Forever’, it brings tears to my eyes when she – with the most wonderful sincerity – insists “sure you can, I know you can” after Elsa says that she can’t stop the freeze. Imagine going through what Anna goes through and still having the strength to believe during that horrible, terrifying moment where Elsa’s refusing help and everything seems to be going wrong.

And this isn’t just me talking: the film believes it too. ‘Fixer Upper’ reveals that true love is the ultimate force: the only thing that will fix a fixer upper and bring out their best. When we get to the finale, things really, truly could get worse than they are. Everything has gone wrong. Elsa has delivered the fatal blow to Anna, Hans has revealed himself to be a villain, and the storm is getting even worse. Many of us would give up, but because – and this is not only the wonderful thing about Anna and Elsa but all Disney Princesses – our heroes have love in their heart, they don’t.

Elsa could go insane and destroy the whole kingdom. She thinks Anna’s dead, so she’s got nothing to live for. Why not? Why not take revenge on a cruel world that inflicted this on her? Simple: because she’s got too much kindness within her to do that. I know that’s a somewhat strange thing to say: congrats Elsa, you’re a good person because you didn’t freeze everyone to death! But again, by the film’s own definition, that’s heroism. During ‘Frozen Heart’ at the start of the film, we’re told to “beware the frozen heart” and at the end, Anna tells Hans that he’s in possession of one. Despite literally being ice and snow, Elsa avoids becoming a frozen heart, and considering how easy Hans’ fall is, that really is an achievement. (7)

And Anna… Don’t tell me Anna isn’t a hero. Anna saw her parents die, was rejected by her sister, went off to save her sister, got rejected by her sister again, got struck fatally by her sister, got betrayed by the man she thought was the man of her dreams, and is on the verge of death when… she sees Elsa and with her dying act staggers over to her to stop her being killed by Hans. Imagine the strength of personality it takes to not be consumed by cynicism after all that. Could you still believe after all that? Anna does and so saves her sister, her new love interest, his reindeer chum, their curious snowman friend and, oh yeah, the entire kingdom.

This too
This too

‘Frozen Heart’ tells us that love and fear are the two forces that can “cut through the heart, cold and clear”, and Anna and Elsa succeed because no matter how bad things get, they ultimately hold the former over the latter.

So when Colman talks about these characters not being strong, I don’t buy it. When she talks about them not having motivation, I don’t buy it. When she talks about Elsa not earning her redemption, I don’t buy it. More than that, I don’t think the film objectively supports it. By Frozen‘s own definition, they are strong, they do have motivation, and she does earn it, because throughout the whole film, they cling to the one thing the film values above everything else: true love and an unfrozen, fearless heart. Their reward for that – their justly deserved reward – is to realise the film’s other major point: that we’re all flawed, that we’re all vulnerable, and that we’re all fixer uppers.

Because that, as we know, is what it’s all about.

FOOTNOTES

(1) We seem to be fixated on women wearing appropriate attire in adventure films at the moment. Jurassic World‘s Claire was admonished for wearing heels, Anna here is criticised for not having a winter coat. I understand why (we need cool, kick-ass, prepared heroines), but Claire went into work that day expecting to entertain potential sponsors, not be chased by dinasaws. So she dressed for business, not adventure. Anna woke up that day expecting a lovely coronation at the height of summer. So she dressed for a party, not a snowy hike. Frodo, on the other hand, was told he was taking the Ring of Power to Mount Doom and asked to prepare himself. He decided barefeet were appropriate. Stupid Hobbit…

(2) a) A couple more points about Colman’s Anna criticism. A) Anna is way too trusting of people, even going so far as to fling herself off the side of the mountain and into Kristoff’s arms in what she describes as being like “a crazy trust exercise”. Anna’s entire life is a crazy trust exercise, and sometimes that works out (her relationship with Kristoff, her faith in Elsa) and sometimes it doesn’t (Hans). However, this is a girl who’s led a sheltered life and is desperate for love. She has no real reason to distrust people and she actively doesn’t want to distrust them as that’s another barrier to finding love that she simply doesn’t need.

(2) b) (Yep, it’s a footnote in a footnote!) Anna isn’t just clumsy, she fundamentally can’t function in society because she hasn’t been able to interact with it normally, or at least not on her terms. Her clumsiness is a physical manifestation of her mental immaturity.

(3) Colman also overlooks what the Princesses she unfavourably compares Anna to have that Anna doesn’t: a true friend. Rapunzel has Pascal, Cinderella has the mice, Ariel has Flounder and so on. I’d contend that when it comes to averting loneliness, one good friend is better than 100 acquaintances. Anna doesn’t have one good friend, she doesn’t even have acquaintances. She just has an army of servants, maids, and royal hanger-onners.

(4) Also noteworthy is the Frozen Fever short, which shows that Elsa hasn’t really shed herself of this quest for perfection. She may have accepted herself and her powers, but she’s still striving to achieve 100%, in this case giving Anna a perfect birthday that will help her atone for all the ones she missed despite suffering from a cold. People really don’t change…

(5) This is a literal truth. During ‘Let It Go’, when she’s trying to persuade herself she’s happy, Elsa gives life to Olaf, the happy side of her personality. Later, when she’s trying to get Anna to leave the ice palace, she creates Marshmallow, all the angry and frustrated parts of her personality. Olaf is the person Elsa wants to be, Marshmallow is the person she fears she has no choice but to be, and it’s interesting to follow Olaf through the film and view him through that lens. ‘In Summer’ isn’t just a jaunty ode to heat, it’s Elsa yearning for the warmth of humanity. And the scene between Anna and Olaf by the fire isn’t just Olaf being cute, it’s Elsa saying all the things about love she never could say before. Frozen returns time and time again to this idea of people being something they’re not, sometimes for bad, sometimes for good.

(6) Out of context, Elsa’s dismissal of responsibility could be problematic, but in context it’s her only way to survive. Elsa isn’t a normal case; she’s not neglecting that boring spreadsheet at work or taking a left without indicating. She has the ability to kill people and no way of controlling that; hell, she can’t even hold a sceptre without freezing it! The responsibility, especially at her young age, is immense. She didn’t ask for that responsibility and has done nothing to deserve to be doomed to it. Her joy at being rid of it is understandable. Wouldn’t you want rid of such a terrible burden?

(7) Just like Kristoff, Hans shadows Anna and Elsa, reflecting their isolation but highlighting their inherent strength by falling to his frustration, while Anna and Elsa stood up to it and beat it.

Next time on Mouse House Movie Club, live action and animation hybrid hijinks with Amy Adams, that guy from that medical show, and Susan Sarandon morphing into a dragon. It’s the soon-to-get-a-sequel, Enchanted. Oh, Goofy too. Ah-hyuck!

Scene and Heard #2: Anna’s Frozen Jig

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In Kids Riding Bicycles’ regular series, Scene and Heard, I take a look at great moments in movie music. This feature isn’t just about the particular scene or the music underscoring it, but how the two come together to form a complete whole. In this edition, I run through one of the truly great moments in modern Disney history: Frozen and one of its signature songs.

If you’ve read this blog before, you’ll know I like musicals. That’s because musicals are great and if you’re uncool enough to think they’re not cool, I don’t care. As a hopeless romantic, I totally and shamelessly buy into their vision of love as something so wondrous you’ve simply got to break into song and do a little jig about it. Because honestly, why would you not want to do that if you’ve finally found the joy of romance?

The moment I want to focus on here is a very specific moment of Frozen‘s masterful song ‘For the First Time in Forever’. As I’ve explained before (erm, twice in fact), Frozen is a beautifully unique film that makes some important points about the nature of true love, refusing to dismiss the possibility that true love can exist, but at the same time warning against giving your heart away too easily because true love comes in different forms.

‘For the First Time in Forever’ is at the centre of that. Here we have two characters sharing a duet and communicating the same idea: that they’re both on the brink of experiencing human interaction for the first time in a long time. But the dramatic tension of the song comes from the fact that they have different readings of that experience: Elsa is utterly terrified, while Anna is utterly delighted. In many ways, if ‘Let It Go’ is Elsa’s song, ‘For the First Time in Forever’ is Anna’s.

We hear Anna’s jubilation first of all as she sings about how she could find her true love and how that will make her life perfect. Then we hear from Elsa, who sings of her terror at letting her guard down, being found out, and hurting people. It’s an incredible piece of music for the way it blends those two competing emotions, allowing the audience to understand the characters emotions while also showing how utterly wrong-headed they are in their approach to them.

Part of that is due to the direction. When the sequence is focusing on Anna, there’s a balletic quality to the camera movement. Like with all the truly great musical numbers, we aren’t just watching Anna dance; we’re dancing with her, swinging and sashaying our way through Arendelle like gravity’s something only other people need to worry about. By comparison, Elsa’s scenes are shot with a slow, deliberate pace and steady camera movements, our viewpoint remaining rooted and still, just as Elsa is.

The style creates a sense of desire within the audience. We want these characters to feel happy: we want Anna to find her true love and we want Elsa to be as free as her sister is. And towards the end of the sequence we get a taste of that, as Anna bounds out of the castle, jumping on walls and swinging around poles, before finally, the moment that always delights me happens: Anna dances a jig.

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It’s a small moment, no more than a few seconds long, but it’s important because it captures Anna’s character perfectly. We’re so used to musical numbers being carefully choreographed with little to no room for improvisation, certainly no room for someone to do a little, daft jig. But that’s exactly what Anna does here. She’s walking along, hikes up her skirt a little, and starts jigging along.

It’s the moment in the film where I knew two things: that I was going to love Anna and that I was going to love the film. Because here, we have someone so utterly in love with the idea of being in love, so utterly transcedentally happy at the opportunities she now has in front of her, that she simply can’t contain it. She’s dancing. And when I say that, I don’t mean Dancing Dancing. I mean actually, really dancing. Big, embarrassing, I can’t contain it dancing.

I think about this scene when I feel down. I think about how it made me smile when I first saw Frozen while struggling with anxiety in 2013. I think about how it still makes me smile, even when I linger on the fact that I’m 32 and still, thanks to shyness, haven’t ever had a girlfriend. I think about it because I, to some degree, am Anna: searching for that one wonderful thing that will make me dance a jig. Maybe we all are. And maybe that’s why this moment is so beautifully powerful.

 

No Magic: The Wonder of Modern Disney

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“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” said Arthur C Clarke in a famous quote that captures the world-shifting potential of science and discovery. Without wishing to trivilise the quote, it also comes to my mind when I think about Disney’s current era of film. (Yes, I’m being serious.) From 2011’s Tangled to this year’s Zootopia, Disney has earned critical and commercial plaudits for a series of films that have pushed the boundaries in both animation technology and thematic complexity. They’ve adapted their core offering, evolving the magic and wonder we’ve come to expect from them into something both new and old, something distinctly familiar yet undeniably fresh. And it revolves about Clarke’s binary between magic and technology.

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To understand what Disney has become, it’s important to first look back at what it was. Throughout Walt Disney’s life and well beyond his death, Disney films were all about magic, and more often than not, it was magic that delivered the characters what they want, or saved them from some terrible fate. Magical kisses saved Snow White and Princess Aurora from endless sleeps, a fairy godmother saved Cinderella from a life of loneliness and servitude, and the Blue Fairy swept down from the sky to make Pinocchio a real boy. Classic Disney characters exist in an enchanted realm where magic is never far away. It’s as prevalent as air and water is to us, and it’s the thing they all strive for.

That’s not to say that these characters have it easy though; far from it in fact. Snow White and Aurora may be saved by magic, but they’re put in their tragic positions because of it as well, and the Dwarfs and Prince Phillip have to confront the source of that (evil) magic to bring out the good magic. Likewise, Cinderella has to suffer through horrendous and terrifying abuse to get her magic wish to come true, while Pinocchio travels vast lengths, almost drowns, and (shudder) is partly turned into a donkey on the way to his magic intervention. Our Golden Age heroes never had it easy; there wouldn’t be a compelling enough story for audiences if they did.

And yet, magic undeniably exists, and the over-riding message of those classic Disney films is that it is attainable if you have faith that it’s attainable. Just look a the songs. Classic Disney tracks repeatedly tell us to wish upon stars, to believe in what we saw once upon a dream, to have faith that someday our prince will come and that a dream is a wish our hearts make. They’re charming, sweet songs and you’re certainly not going to get any criticism of them from me. As a pathetically naive romantic, I really do believe in all that fantastical stuff and wish the world was as sweet and wonderful as Walt envisioned it in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. But…

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Have faith in your dreams…
Sadly, things aren’t that simple. Dreams are fine, but at some point the dreamer has to wake up. The images fade into distant memory and the real world takes over. How much we, as a society, accept that reality and how much we shy away from it through entertainment depends on how harsh the reality is. Some of the greatest escapism ever committed to celluloid has been created at times of extreme turmoil; but then so has some of the darkest cinema ever made. Sometimes, such as during the 70s, we get a bit of both: incredible dark dramas like Apocalypse Now and Taxi Driver, and wondrous fantasies like Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

I’m not looking to turn this article into a treatise on modern society, but it’s safe to say that the modern world is scarier than its been for a while. Murder, corruption, war, and injustice are rife, and thanks to the internet, they seem closer than ever. Whereas before we could ignore tragedies in foreign countries by simply not turning on the news, now those horrible events are just a click or a tap away no matter where they’re happening on the planet. We just log-in to Twitter or scroll through Facebook and – hey presto – there they are. Famines, killings, and terrorist atrocities ready to terrify us as we cradle our coffee on the way into work.

As our culture’s most recognisable producer of magic and dreams (this is, after all, a company that uses When You Wish Upon A Star in their logo), Disney could be forgiven for rallying against this darkness and going back to their Golden Age ethos of realising dreams through faith, trust, and a little bit of pixie dust. Admirably though, they’ve done something different; they’ve gone to great lengths to remove, or at least drastically underplay, the role of enchantment in their films. Now, our Disney heroes don’t achieve their goal through magical intervention, but through hard work and dedication in a cruel world where magical spells are curses and the witches and warlocks are the very people we’re supposed to trust.

Keep Moving Forwards
Before embarking in earnest on an analysis of modern Disney it’s important to establish what exactly modern Disney is, because it’s not that easy to identify. You could convincingly make a case for a number of films marking the start of the modern Disney era. Some would argue it’s The Princess and the Frog because it returned the studio to its fairy tale roots for the first time since the 90s. Others would say it’s Tangled, because it did the same thing but to much greater critical and commercial success. Bolt can make a good claim as well, being the first film to be produced entirely under the guidance of John Lasseter, one of the most significant driving forces behind modern Disney.

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I, however, would place the start of modern Disney in 2007 with Meet the Robinsons, a sweet and charming film that – significantly – was made during Disney’s acquisition of Pixar and Lasseter’s switch from the latter to the former. Under Lasseter’s guidance, huge chunks of Meet the Robinsons were redone, which isn’t something done lightly with animation and proves Lasseter’s desire to shake things up immediately. Tellingly, the film closes with a quote from Walt Disney:

“Around here, however, we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things, because we’re curious… and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”

It’s a wonderful way to close a film about a young inventor and a family of misfits who are always willing to try new things in the name of discovery, but it also acted as a mission statement for Lasseter’s Disney. Picking up where he left off at Pixar, Lasseter would reinstate Disney’s position as a cinematic innovator, a studio always willing to push the boundaries of storytelling and technology and keep moving forwards. He would do this by looking back for only the briefest of moments, enough time to understand and respect what had gone before and use that as a compass to guide the studio’s way through new doors, new ideas, and new paths.

And magic would be the first thing to tread this new path.

Fairytales can come true/You gotta make ’em happen
Bolt and The Princess and the Frog were the first films produced under Lasseter’s guidance, and while they’re very different (one a fairy tale, the other a semi-superhero story with cuddly animals) they’re bonded by their common focus on fantasy. In Bolt, our hero (a dog who’s unaware he’s not actually the super powered pup he plays in a TV show that bears his name) has to experience the real world in order to embrace it and ditch his cosy, but closeted, life as an unwitting TV star. In The Princess and the Frog, our hero is hardworking waitress Tiana who dreams of setting up her own restaurant, only to be magically turned into a frog.

In both cases, the problem is the fantasy. Bolt’s TV show may not be magic, but it’s a construct that prevents him from living the life, and enjoying all the pleasures, that a normal dog would. Tiana’s struggle is most certainly one against magic, of course, and it comes about through a neat twist on the old fairy tale: when she kisses a prince who’s been turned into a frog, not only does he not revert back to his human state, but she becomes a frog too. Magic is cruel and unpredictable, not a thing to be trifled with, and in modern Disney (Pixar too considering Merida learns a similar lesson in Brave) it’s often the cause of, rather than solution to, our troubles.

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Yet, this is still Disney and as Tiana’s father told her, fairy tales can come true – but you’ve got to make them happen. Which is exactly what she and other modern Disney heroes do. In Tangled, Rapunzel finds herself locked in a tower by Mother Gothel. She’s essentially a modern Cinderella: subjugated, bullied, and forced to live a miserable life. However, while magic saves Cinderella (1), it enslaves Rapunzel; the only reason Gothel kidnapped her was because of her hair’s magical properties. Yet even in her tower, Rapunzel works, creating grand paintings and elaborate crafts. She may not be able to be physically active, but her mind remains very active indeed, and it’s that that allows her to identify the lanterns that draw her to her true heritage as more than just stars (as Gothel tries to tell her) and this instigates her life-changing journey.

Fittingly as it sits at the epicentre of modern Disney, Frozen captures this move away from magic and reconfiguration of the fairy tale better than any other film I’ll mention here. Magic is at the very heart of Frozen, but it’s a magic laced with tragedy. Elsa’s ice powers are the source of her pain throughout and not only does the film suggest there’s no magical way to put an end to this enchantment (the trolls can neither take her remove it nor save Anna if Elsa accidentally strikes her again), it asks why you’d want to.

The film’s key song (indeed, perhaps the most important song of any in modern Disney) is ‘Fixer-Upper’, in which the trolls essentially deliver the film’s thesis and utterly dismiss the concept of magical interventions. During the song, the trolls analyse the characters of Kristoff and Anna. Kristoff, we’re told, is “clumpy” and “grumpy”, a bit of a misanthrope whose “socially impaired”. And yet, he’s also a “sensitive and sweet” person who just needs a bit of love. Likewise, Anna’s “brain’s a bit betwixt”, but she too is a fixer upper who can be set on the right track in the right conditions.

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So the song’s about change, yet also, brilliantly, it rejects the possibility of change. “We’re not saying you can change him, because people don’t really change,” one of the trolls sings in a line so significant that I’ll repeat it and italicise it:

“We’re not saying you can change him, because people don’t really change.”

So much populist entertainment is based around the concept of change. It’s what makes good drama. Our heroes start off in one place and experience events during the two hour course of a film that makes them see themselves, those around them, and the world as a whole in a different (often more positive) way. They change. Because, Hollywood tells us, people can and do change.

And yet, here’s Frozen saying that people don’t really change. Frozen: a film by the Walt Disney Studio. The same Walt Disney Studio that for decades has thrived on the concept of change, of people literally being changed: Snow White into a princess, Pinocchio into a real boy, Cinderella into the belle of the ball. So if Frozen is rejecting that potential for change, isn’t this all a bit anti-Disney? Isn’t it all a bit, well, depressing?

The only fixer upper that can fix a fixer upper…
No, not really. ‘Fixer-Upper’ makes it clear that although people can’t change, that’s perfectly ok. It’s a song not of transformation, but acceptance. “People make bad choices if they’re mad or scared or stressed,” we’re told. “But throw a little love their way, and you’ll bring out their best. True love brings out the best.”

It’s a single verse in a single song in a single film, but it’s Disney’s new mantra in a nutshell. True love still exists and all the wonderful things associated with magic, transformation and change still exist too, but there’ll be no spells. Instead, simple compassion is the way forward, because accepting someone for who they are is so much more powerful than seeking to transform them into something else. It’s why Elsa and Anna make such compelling heroes in Frozen, the former making utterly terrible decisions out of fear but never straying from our affections (2), the latter never wavering in her acceptance of her sister (3). Both communicate what all current Disney characters do: that magic isn’t an external force that exists at the end of a wand: it’s within us, and delivered through humanity, acceptance and hard work.

This moral is also seen in their three non-fairy tale films: Wreck-It Ralph, Big Hero 6, and Zootopia (Zootropolis if you’re outside of the US and Disney bafflingly want to ruin a perfectly good pun). All three films feature some kind of fantasy or transformation. Ralph wants to transform himself from a bad guy into a good guy, Hiro wants to transform he and his friends from regular citizens into superheroes, and Judy Hopps wants to visit the perfect world of Zootopia so she can achieve her dream of being the city’s first bunny cop. Of our three heroes, two achieve their dream, so let’s tackle the one who doesn’t first of all: Ralph.

Wreck-It Ralph was co-written by Frozen writer/co-director Jennifer Lee and directed by Zootopia co-director Rich Moore, so it’s little surprise that it shares many common bonds with other modern Disney films. Like so many other characters, Ralph “has a dream” and firmly believes there’s a quick and magical way to transform himself from bad guy to good guy: win a medal and that’s it. Poof! Ralph’s the good guy. He gets the medal, but realises that things aren’t quite as simple as he believed and that in trying to do the right thing, he often ends up causing hurt.

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He’s joined in his quest by another broken soul looking for something that always seems just out of reach: Vanellope. The former queen of racing game Sugar Rush, she finds herself cast out by the villainous King Candy and infected with a glitch that means she can’t ever leave the game – quite a problem when the game gets overtaken with bugs intent on destroying everything in their path. The only way to remedy this problem is for her to win a race, which becomes her key goal during the film. If she does this, she’ll rid herself of her glitch and transform into who she’s always meant to be.

So we have two characters seeking transformation, but both are approaching their lives in the wrong way. Neither needs to change. Ralph shouldn’t see himself in good/bad binaries; he can be a good guy while playing the bad guy role because his outer image doesn’t define him. Vanellope, meanwhile, comes to see that her glitch is more a superpower than a problem. She learns to control it, uses it to win the all-important race, and by the end of the film has firmly embraced it, making it a fundamental part of her being. Moreover, by winning the race, the whole game is reset, and she’s revealed to be Sugar Rush’s Queen to its previously amnesia-ridden inhabitants. She’s surrounded in Cinderella-like sparkles and her hoody and jeans combo is transformed into a gown – which she promptly rejects. Once again, magical transformations are out, acceptance of who and what you are is in.

Change starts with you
Of the two most current Disney films, Zootopia and Big Hero 6, let’s start with Zootopia first as even by modern Disney’s high standards it’s one of the studio’s most ambitious and socially relevant recent offerings. Taking on racism and social injustice, the film seeks to explode the idea of perfect, utopian places, and by extension perfect people. Our hero, budding cop Judy Hopps, travels to Zootopia hoping to find the perfect world she’s heard of, but instead uncovers a place filled with corruption, prejudice, and injustice. In other words, a world sadly much like our own, where prejudice exists in cute little ice cream parlours and plots to subjugate entire sections of society are perpetrated by those in government.

Most remarkably, the film undermines the sweet and lovable Hopps by making her a part of all that injustice. Inadvertently revealing her underlying prejudice against carnivores (who come to represent ethnic minorities in Zootopia’s racism metaphor), she hurts her new friend Nick Wilde and sets off panic across the city. Neither she, nor Zootopia, are perfect because, as Frozen and Wreck-It Ralph showed, perfection is a romantic ideal that simply doesn’t exist, and there are no magic wands to make it happen. Unlike Frozen and Ralph, however, Zootopia does acknowledge that change and transformation can happen, it’s just that you have to work for it rather than have it magically bestowed upon you.

Big Hero 6 espouses the same view. A significant change of pace for Disney, the film was the studio’s first superhero offering and also its first Marvel adaptation since its acquisition of the comic book company. Fittingly for a new occurrence, it approached the genre with a unique slant. Big Hero 6 is a superhero film without superpowers. Neither Hiro nor any members of the team he and his friends create can fly, cling to walls, or use super strength. If we take superpowers as the superhero equivalent of magic, magic is entirely absent from the world of Big Hero 6.

Instead, the team’s powers come from themselves and their intellect. Scientific geniuses, they create their super suits and use their specific scientific fields to devise superpowers they can use to defeat the bad guys. It’s like a literal interpretation of Zootopia‘s message that change begins with you. Sure, you can transform (again, unlike Frozen and Ralph, change is possible in the world of Big Hero 6), but it’s something you must action. It’s not something you’ll simply be given.

Indeed, Big Hero 6 makes the connection to the Arthur C. Clarke quote I opened this piece with explicit. Technology may seem magical – we may be able to push a few buttons and be connected with someone on the other side of the world in a way that would have seemed impossible just a few decades ago – but it’s the byproduct of many millions of hours of hard work – it doesn’t simply emerge out of a wand. Whether it’s a piece of new technology or a change in a way a person is seen or sees themselves, transformation is a long and tough process, but one that can have genuinely magical results.

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Dreamers Wanted
And so we end with one of Disney’s most fascinating modern films. It may not be animated, but Tomorrowland captures so much of what the studio is achieving at the moment. A story of scientific endeavour, corruption, and a perfect world gone awry, it explicitly (too explicitly for some critics who – unfairly in my opinion – suggested the film lacked subtlety) says that dreaming is necessary and useful, but only if those dreams are accompanied by a will to actually do something to make them happen.

It ends with the sight of the young hero Casey seeking out anyone and everyone with an idea and the courage to pursue. The final shot finds these people transported to a vast corn field, looking towards a city with a tremendous tower at its centre. It’s Tomorrowland, but it could just as easily be the Magic Kingdom, and that tower could very well be the spire of the castle in the Disney logo. It’s an appropriate comparison because Tomorrowland asks its audience to do what Disney as a whole has been asking its audience to do since Lasseter took over.

Look forward and dream, but remember that the only true magic is created by hard work, passion, and dedication. You are your own fairy godmother. Go out and make your magic happen.

FOOTNOTES

(1) It’s interesting to note the small shift in Kenneth Branagh’s otherwise very respectful live action adaptation of Cinderella. While the animated Cinderella has faith that her dreams will come true if she just believes in them, the live action Cinderella has to have faith in something much more difficult: the fundamental goodness of people. “Have courage and be kind,” her dying mother tells her at the start of the movie, and she complies, despite the monstrous people she has to live with. She’s rewarded with magical intervention in the shape of the Fairy Godmother, but the Godmother tests her, meeting Ella at her lowest ebb and posing as a decrepit old woman who needs water. Ella gives the Godmother what she needs and the Godmother returns the favour. But this reward comes not through faith in magic, but proof of her faith in goodness and humanity.

(2) ‘Let It Go’ is a fascinating song for how it’s been received. Audiences took to the song because they saw it as a statement on emancipation and self-actualisation. Elsa flees the world, lets go of her fear, and finds freedom. But, in the context of the film, the precise opposite happens. Far from being a happy song, ‘Let It Go’ is an utterly depressing story of a character refusing to deal with her problems and accept who she is. What she’s letting go of isn’t really her worries about hurting her sister, but her connection to the world and the people she loves. Her insistence that the cold doesn’t bother her isn’t just an affirmation that she’ll be fine on her own, but also a acknowledgement that, well, she’s on her own. She may not believe that it’ll bother her, but it will. It would bother anyone.

(3) It’s telling that ‘Life’s Too Short’, a song in which Anna tries to get Elsa to come back to Arendelle, was cut. That’s not Anna’s story here. She’s a fixer upper (as everyone in the film is), but also one who fixes, the embodiment of the true, accepting love the film treasures.

What do you think of Disney’s current films and what they have to say about magic? Let me know in the comments!

Fixer Uppers: Frozen and the Price of Isolation

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Having re-established their reputation as one of Hollywood’s dominant animation studios thanks to recent hits such as Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph, Disney have created something of a masterpiece in their latest release, Frozen. A loose adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Snow Queen, the film follows Anna (Kristen Bell) as she attempts to rescue the town of Arendelle following its freezing by her sister Elsa (Idina Menzel). The film is sweet, charming and visually stunning, but then, so were Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph. What makes Frozen such a masterpiece? Well, Frozen is not just a good film; it’s an important one. Featuring a sensitive depiction of emotional trauma, a revolutionary approach to the fairy tale genre and a genuinely progressive portrayal of its female characters, it picks up the baton left by its predecessors and takes it into some brave new directions that fly in the face of the widely accepted perception of Disney as peddlers of safe, repetitive and regressive entertainment. Frozen is anything but.

The film begins as it means to go on: with a song that’s much more than it seems. ‘Frozen Heart’ is a surprisingly violent song to begin a Disney Princess film with. It’s sung by a group of ice harvesters as they strip a frozen lake for its bounty. The sound of them plunging their saws into the ice provides the song with its beat, which grows faster and more intense as the song progresses. The lyrics are no less intense as the men sing “Split the ice apart / And break the frozen heart” in the second verse. “Cut through the heart cold and clear,” they add in the final verse. “Strike for love and strike for fear.” The song concludes with the line “Beware the frozen heart” but it’s intriguingly ambiguous on just who should beware: those who know the person with a frozen heart, or the person suffering from a frozen heart themselves? If the latter, just how does one go about avoiding a frozen heart? (1)

Frozen will eventually provide a resounding answer to that question, but only at the conclusion of a story that’s one of Disney’s most emotionally complex in years (if not ever). Depicting a group of characters who are fundamentally at war with themselves, Frozen suggests that such contradictions are an inevitable fact of human nature that aren’t easily reconciled (if indeed they can be reconciled at all), and even dares to explore the nature of depression, anxiety (2) and other emotional trauma. Unlike Tangled, the title of which was controversially changed from Rapunzel for marketing reasons, the switch from The Snow Queen to Frozen is entirely justified. This is a film about cold, distant emotions and characters who struggle to feel anything for each other.

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It’s worth, therefore, looking at the core cast in more detail. The list of characters reads as follows:

Elsa: The elder royal sister of Arendelle who is cursed with the uncontrollable power to form ice and snow from her fingers. She’s a brave, noble and graceful woman, but having spent most of her life hidden away from the world, she has grown fearful and considers herself dangerous.

Anna: Elsa’s younger sister, who has also spent years locked away from the world. Their parents dead, Anna has seen her adventurous spirit suffocated by isolation, and she’s become desperate for any kind attention, particularly of the romantic variety.

Hans: A handsome prince who woos Anna and proposes marriage after knowing her for only one day. However, his charming exterior masks darker motivations. He has designs on Arendelle, and seeks to exploit Anna’s naivety to take over the kingdom.

Kristoff: A gruff, lonely ice trader who helps Anna on her journey to save her sister. Kristoff’s only friend is his reindeer Sven and he rejects the human race in favour of his pet (“every one of them’s bad,” he sings in ‘Reindeer Are Better Than People’). Like Hans though, Kristoff’s exterior is just a mask – he’s really a pussy cat, and as the song Fixer Upper explains, “his isolation is confirmation of his desperation for human hugs.”

The Trolls: Small, grey creatures who adopt the orphaned Kristoff at an early age. They are rock-like beings who can disguise themselves as small boulders to remain out of sight. However, their cold outer shell conceals an inner warmth. They sing Fixer Upper, a song that sums up the film’s central themes and which pleads for calm, understanding and humanity.

Olaf: The film’s comic relief is nonetheless key to its themes as well. Olaf is a snowman who dreams of experiencing the summer unaware of the fatal effect it would have on him. “Winter’s a good time to stay in and cuddle,” he sings obliviously in ‘In Summer’, “but put me in summer and I’ll be a… happy snowman!”

Such inner conflicts are by no means unusual to Disney, animation or indeed cinema as a whole; indeed they’re the very basis of good drama. Frozen emphasises this device more than most though by trading smartly on fairy tale and Disney history, and the idea of change. Again, songs play a significant role in highlighting this point, and towards the end of ‘Fixer Upper’ one of the lead trolls tells Anna:

“We’re not saying you can change him
Because people don’t really change.
All we know is love’s a force that’s powerful and strange.
People make bad choices when they’re mad or scared or stressed.
But throw a little love their way and you’ll bring out their best.”

‘Fixer Upper’ is such a fun and comedic song that it’s easy to overlook its relevance, but this verse really does sum the film up. People don’t change, it says, they can’t. Problems are problems because they’ve been built up over a number of years, and even with the best of intentions, those problems can’t be easy conquered or dismissed. Things take time, people are stubborn, human nature is difficult. Change – real, lasting, change – is a mountain that’s not easily scaled.

Now think about the context and history of Frozen. This is a Disney film. It’s a fairy tale. Change and transformation are utterly vital to both. Disney is the studio that transformed pumpkins into beautiful carriages, humble servants into princesses, mermaids into human beings. As a genre, the very foundations of fairy tales are built on the idea of change and transformation – indeed, their primary purpose for hundreds of years has been to educate youngsters about morality, thus providing them with lessons that will change their view of the world. Frozendoesn’t just dismiss such magical transformation, it portrays it as unhelpful, showing both Anna (who seeks true love as a simple solution to her loneliness) and Elsa (who repeats her father’s manta “Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let it show” like it’s a magical spell) as hamstrung by their faith.”

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Frozen‘s subversion of these tropes is more than mere satire; indeed like Tangled, Frozen is entirely reverential to its past and doesn’t actively seek to satirise or mock. Instead, its subversion works on an emotional level. By playing into the audience’s expectations of what a Disney fairy tale should be (pretty princesses, handsome princes, comic sidekicks, and luxurious castles), and then pulling the rug and not delivering on the idea of magical change and transformation we’ve come to expect from such stories, the film finds a new way to provide resonance. This is fairy tale fantasy with a sobering injection of reality.

Perhaps the most significant injection of reality is that for the most part, Frozen lacks a clear-cut villain. A conniving Duke adds a certain level of moustache-twirling evil, and of course there’s the final act reveal around Hans, but these are minor details in the grander scheme of a film that bravely refuses to portray its ostensible villain (Elsa) as a villain. Instead, it focuses on fleshing her out into a rounded, complex and deeply flawed heroine, whose biggest problem isn’t her powers, but her confusion. This is is beautifully illustrated in Frozen‘s breakout hit, ‘Let It Go’, a typically stirring Disney power ballad that’s easy to misunderstand. The song appears about a quarter of the way through the film. Elsa’s powers have been exposed, and she’s fled to Arendelle’s mountains to avoid persecution. Vowing to put the painful past behind her, Elsa sings about identity and self-actualisation while removing the trappings of her former life (her regal gown and crown) and builds a new palace made of snow and ice. “It’s funny how some distance makes everything seem small,” she sings. “And the fears that once controlled me can’t get to me at all.”

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This is pretty standard Disney songwriting, reminiscent of Beauty and the Beast‘s ‘Belle’ or The Little Mermaid‘s ‘Part of Your World’, both songs in which the heroines express their hopes and dreams, and the hunger which will drive them to make them real. The music and the sweep Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee’s visuals provide Elsa with further her power, but in reality, Elsa is at her weakest her. Sure she’s “free”, in so much as she no longer has to hide her power, but her emancipation has come at a cost, one she acknowledges, but doesn’t seem to fully understand. “A kingdom of isolation / And it looks like I’m the Queen,” goes one of the songs lines, with another adding emphatically, ”The wing is howling / Like this swirling storm inside / Couldn’t keep it in / Heaven knows I tried…” This isn’t a song of defiance, as it’s so easy to misconstrue it as, but one of denial, a point confirmed by the closing lines: “Turn away and slam the door / I don’t care what they’re going to say / Let the storm rage on / The cold never bothered me anyway.”

Indeed, the cold is all Elsa has now. Alienated from her only remaining family, she is truly alone, with no chance of truly mastering her magic or experiencing happiness. Hers, in effect, is a story of depression and how others react to those suffering from depression. Her natural and unchangeable state of being has separated her from the surrounding world, which doesn’t comprehend her problems or understand how to help her escape from them. Instead, she flees, refusing any kind of human contact (“I don’t care what they’re going to say”) and accepting her life of inner turmoil as inescapable (“Let the storm rage on!”). That the song is crafted as a typical Disney song of defiance and goal-setting only further emphasises the emotions at play here. Whereas Belle and Ariel sang of their dreams, Elsa’s been stripped of such luxuries, and as savvy audience members, we make the connection from this film to its predecessors. As the scene closes with Elsa slamming the door of her new palace shut (doors are used as symbols of emotional connect and disconnect throughout), the audience is left as split as she is: enthralled by the music, but saddened by the lyrics. (3)

If ‘Let It Go’ is Elsa’s song, Frozen‘s other key tune is undeniably Anna’s (although Elsa participates in it as well). ‘For the First Time in Forever’ takes place on the day of Elsa’s coronation, and after spending years alone in their palace afraid of her uncontrollable powers, she and her sister are having to accept visitors. This is terrible news for Elsa, who fears her powers will be exposed and she’ll be treated like a monster, but a welcome change for Anna, who has been starved of love by the years of solitude. ‘For the First Time in Forever’ is a bright, optimistic burst of joy and it too conjures memories Ariel’s ‘Part of Your World’, with songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristin Anderson-Lopez again banking on our shared knowledge of Disney history. “There’ll be actual real-life people,” Anna sings, as elated as Ariel was, “it’ll be totally strange. But wow! Am I so ready for this change!”

The change Anna’s seeking is love, but she’s looking for it in all the wrong places – a character trait all-too rare in Disney films (where the heroines so often find Mr. Right right away) that leads the story into some slyly satirical places. After so long alone, Anna’s built up a fantasy world that’s distinctly Disney-ish in nature. “I suddenly see him standing there. A beautiful stranger, tall and fair,” she sings, imagining an ideal scenario that could be ripped straight fromSnow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella. “We laugh and talk all evening. Which is totally bizarre. Nothing like the life I’ve led so far.” And indeed, she does meet a beautiful strange right at the end of ‘For the First Time in Forever’, but of course, he’s not all he seems. ‘For the First Time in Forever’ (along with ‘Love is an Open Door’, Anna’s duet with Hans) emphasises the severity of Anna’s loneliness and just how easy a target she is for manipulation.

There’s something even more important and daring that Lopez and Anderson-Lopez highlight with ‘For the First Time in Forever’ though: identity. As I’ve mentioned, every major character inFrozen is at war with themselves, and while Anna doesn’t face the same struggle Elsa does, she’s no less torn. Visually and lyrically, ‘For the First Time in Forever’ establishes Anna’s aspiration to be a doe-eyed princess who exists solely to be loved. “Tonight, imagine me gown and all,” she sings. “Fetchingly draped against the wall. The picture of sophisticated grace.” Shortly after, she attempts to literally become the “picture of sophisticated grace” as she heads into the palace’s gallery and positions herself against some of the paintings – each one depicting a passive woman being doted on by an adoring man. These women are window dressing, pretty pictures for the man to idolise, and so cut off from the rest of humanity has Anna become that these are the only visions of womanhood she has. How can she expect to become anything more when she has nobody else to look up to. (4)

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Though she may aspire to be these women, the film and the song constantly work to show that Anna’s nothing like them. While singing of her desire to be “the picture of sophisticated grace”, Anna hits herself in the face with a curtain string before picking up a bust of a handsome prince, swinging it around in a mock dance and accidentally hurling it into a cake. Anna is not graceful, she’s clumsy and goofy, waking up drooling on the day of the Coronation and confessing to wanting to “stuff some chocolate in my face” during ‘For the First Time in Forever’. Nor indeed is she a passive princess – she’s a dreamer, an adventurer, a determined young woman who wastes no time in going out into the snowy wilderness alone when Elsa flees following the exposure of her secret. Anna begs to be saved, but her every action proves that she doesn’t need to be.

‘For the First Time in Forever’ is reprised later in the film when Anna has finally tracked Elsa down to her new ice palace. The sisters remain at odds, but at least there’s communication – the song is effectively a musical dialogue between the two of them as Anna tries to persuade Elsa out of hiding. (5) The elder sister refuses though and the song ends, heartbreakingly, with Elsa delivering an emphatic “I can’t!” to Anna’s suggestion that she can thaw the frozen Arendelle. It’s a brilliant moment not only because of the ferocity with which Menzel delivers the line, but like the sight of Anna standing against those painting, because of how it trades on history. This should be the grand emotional highlight, the point at which Anna and Elsa make up and set out to achieve their goals like Ariel’s famous moment on the rock at the end of the reprise of ‘Part of Your World’ in The Little Mermaid. But it isn’t. Elsa’s emphatic denial is accompanied with a fatal icy blast to Anna’s heart that sets up a race against time in the film’s final act. Rather than setting out towards a better life, Elsa’s potentially ended both hers and her sister’s.

Naturally, they all live happily ever after and there’s a neat twist on the meaning of true love that – in the film’s only real storytelling problem – becomes obvious much earlier than it should. What abides in this ending though isn’t just a play on a fairy tale concept, but the film’s insistence on communication as being the only thing that can draw people through dark times. As mentioned earlier, Anna’s love for Hans is based purely on infatuation – she falls for him because he’s the first desirable man she’s seen in years. Later in the film, Kristoff mocks Anna for this, and for accepting Hans’s speedy marriage proposal. When she hears of the forthcoming nuptials, Elsa is similarly dismissive, insisting quickly that there will be no wedding and that Anna has no concept of love. Of course, both Kristoff and Elsa are right, but so cut-off are they that there’s no discussion, no real attempt to help Anna. Indeed, so desperate do things become after Elsa freezes Anna’s heart, putting her life under a threat that only true love can solve, that Kristoff comes to blindly believe Anna and Hans are experiencing ‘true love’ and that only the duplicitous prince can save her – a false move that almost proves fatal.

The end of the film forces the characters into communication and change, but as the Trolls sang, insists that those things do not come easily, and can only arrive with the help of others. Kristoff, for example, has to accept that he doesn’t really want to spend his life in isolation and admit his feelings for Anna; Anna has to accept that her notions of love are false and develop new, healthier goals; and Elsa has to let her sister in and accept that no matter how dangerous her powers can be, there are ways of controlling them, and even expressing them in positive ways. The gates of Arendelle’s royal castle are finally opened, and life begins to flourish as our heroes skate in the courtyard along with the citizens of Arendelle on ice created by Elsa, who looks set to be an open, honest and beloved Queen. “We’re never closing them again,” she tells Anna.

Anna, in her own way, had it partly right all along – love really is an open door, and having accepted both that, and the communication it represents, she and her sister can finally “say goodbye to the pain of the past” for good and truly let it go. Far from being a dark warning of the fear of something monstrous, the frozen heart the ice harvesters sang about at the start was really a warning to ourselves. Only through human warmth can we really thaw the ice and make the fairy tale transformation so many Disney heroines have in the past. In doing so,Frozen not only helps re-establish Disney’s position at the vanguard of modern day animation, but also provides a blueprint for how it can stay there for years to come.

FOOTNOTES

  1. The ‘Frozen Heart’ sequence plays like a fairy tale prophecy – a small story that brings ill tidings – and it’s interesting to note that early drafts of the screenplay included a more explicit prophecy, hints of which can be heard in the song ‘Spring Pageant’ on the Deluxe Edition of the soundtrack album. The decision to drop this prophecy in favour of something less direct is one of a number of smart moves made by screenwriter and co-director Jennifer Lee.
  2. Lee confirmed this subtext on Twitter, writing: “@GStacyLA definitely was intentional to show anxiety and depression. Not necessarily for HCA, more for the story, but yes. Warm hugs to you.”
  3. Elsa’s split personality is further emphasised by the two characters she creates after becoming the Snow Queen: a snow monster called Marshamallow and Olaf the Snowman. The two character represent the person Elsa is (the cold, monstrous beast she feels she is and the fun joker who “likes warm hugs” that she wants to be). Elsa first created Olaf as a playpal for her and Anna when they were children, and perhaps her almost unwitting recreation of him during the ‘Let It Go’ sequence suggests that subconsciously, she wanted to leave one small channel of communication between herself and her sister open.
  4. The film makes a powerful but subtle comment on women’s representation by having Anna look up to a painting of Joan of Arc as a child during the song ‘Do You Want to Build a Snowman?.’ As a young girl, Anna identified with the strong woman, the film seems to be saying, but as time wore on, she became so overwhelmed with passive images of femininity that she came to accept that as the only way to be a woman.
  5. Maintaining the more sympathetic approach to Elsa the film-makers wanted to take, it’s worth noting here that a different, much more confrontational, song called ‘Life’s Too Short’ was originally written for this sequence. It can be heard on the Deluxe Edition of the soundtrack album.