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Disney’s latest animated musical fairy tale breaks new ground, but squanders its early promise.
BY Steven D. Greydanus
Hollywood family fare, like mainstream Hollywood fare generally, remains thoroughly boy-centric — dishearteningly so, for this father of three daughters. For every Merida or Rapunzel, there are 10 male heroes or more.
Guys get buddies, too. Mike and Sully, Woody and Buzz, Shrek and Donkey, Lightning and Mater, Manny and Sid and Diego. Girls don’t get buddies. A heroine might be opposed by a villainess or adversary, and Pixar’s Brave broke new ground with its mother-daughter story. Overwhelmingly, though, a major positive female character in a cartoon is the only one. A cartoon like Frozen with two young heroines is practically unheard of.
There’s nothing I’d like more than to tell you, at the end of this year of relentlessly disappointing family fare, that Frozen — very loosely inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen — is a musical fairy-tale triumph: a throwback to the days of Beauty and the Beast, like many critics are saying.
Actually, Frozen is most obviously a soul sister to Disney’s other computer-animated musical fairy tale, the similarly named Tangled. It’s like Tangled with double vision: Instead of one princess growing up imprisoned behind closed doors, isolated, separated from her parents, we have two: Anna (Kristen Bell, Big Miracle) and her elder sister Elsa (singer-actress Idina Menzel), heir to the throne of Arendelle. In a way, Anna and Elsa are like two halves of Rapunzel: Elsa has a magical gift — cold-bringing powers she can’t control — that has occasioned their imprisonment, while Anna yearns to experience the world outside.
Also, where Tangled had one hunky, action-hero love interest (Flynn Rider) and one domesticated anthropomorphic ungulate (Maximus the horse), now there are two: gallant Prince Hans (Santino Fortana), with his horse Sitron, and scruffy mountain man Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) with his reindeer Sven. Sitron and Sven are like two halves of Maximus, too: Sitron is the dutiful Maximus, while Sven is the playful, doggy Maximus. The joke that everything is a dog is funny, but it’s getting old: The doggy cheeseburger-spider in Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 was the tipping point for me.
Frozen may be the most tragic fairy tale in the Disney canon, which is saying something. Sure, Rapunzel was stolen from her parents and raised in a tower by a witch, but at least she had her books, her art, her astronomy and her pet chameleon Pascal. Her life was painfully limited, but within those constraints, she achieved some measure of accomplishment, fulfillment and even happiness.
Now consider poor Anna, who grows up literally outside Elsa’s closed door, plaintively singing “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” And Elsa never, ever opens the door to her sister: literally at first, and later emotionally, for pretty much the entire movie.
Throughout the film, Anna talks as if she knows Elsa: “Elsa would never hurt me,” she keeps saying, but all she really has of her sister are childhood memories — and even those aren’t reliable, because they’ve been magically tampered with. You see, Elsa did hurt Anna once, though it was an accident.
More tragic than the accident was the parents’ misguided response, which was to keep the girls locked up and separated, covering up both Elsa’s ice-inducing fingertips and her emotions: “Conceal / Don’t feel / Be the good girl you always had to be” is a recurring lyric.
So Elsa blames herself for her sister’s brush with death, fears to be around her or anyone else and trembles under the weight of her parents’ expectations. She is another victim of Squelched Girl Syndrome: another casualty of a world that won’t let girls be girls, like the heroines of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and DreamWorks’ Monsters vs. Aliens. I love strong heroines like Merida, but this kind of Reviving Ophelia feminism is so not what I want for my daughters.
Meanwhile, Anna doesn’t understand Elsa’s aloofness because of her memory problems. Have I mentioned that the parents die early in the story?
At last Elsa’s anxieties crystalize, so to speak, and she heads for the hills, exiling herself to an icy fortress of solitude of her own making. This sequence gives Broadway veteran Menzel a chance to belt out a triumphant power ballad, “Let It Go,” celebrating her empowerment and emotional release — though the celebratory tone of the song is jarringly out of step with the larger dramatic context.
Not only has Elsa abandoned Arendelle on her coronation day, she’s inadvertently left the kingdom bound in snow and ice, possibly in perpetual winter. She’s also abandoned her sister. Having grown up in crushing isolation, Elsa’s bid for freedom comes by way of even greater isolation. She might as well be singing about a winter's day in a deep and dark December, building walls of a fortress deep and mighty that none may penetrate. (I’ll leave it to others to ponder the possible homosexual subtext of Elsa being born different, told to conceal her nature, and finally coming out; my concerns are along other lines.)
Fortunately for Anna, who’s left to try to clean up the mess, she has allies. There’s Hans, with whom she had a Meet Cute and a whirlwind romance, and who seems like a totally stand-up guy: chivalrous, humorous, dependable in a pinch, heroically courageous, able to rise to almost any occasion.
Hans is almost too good to be true, though there’s no indication that he isn’t true. Hans and Anna’s whirlwind romance seems no more hasty than the love at first sight of Sleeping Beauty or Snow White, though Frozen jerks us back to reality when a shocked Elsa tells her sister that she can’t marry someone she’s only just met — and Kristoff tells her the same thing. (Hans and Anna’s falling-in-love song, “Love Is an Open Door,” is one of many forgettable numbers, and, like “Let It Go” is emotionally out of step with the larger drama, though that will be most evident on multiple viewings.)
Kristoff is no slouch himself: decent, self-reliant, hardworking and content with his lot in life. With Kristoff’s help, Anna sets out to find Elsa and thaw their relationship, not to mention the kingdom.
For a while, it looks like Frozen might turn out to be a breakthrough for male heroes as well as females. Yes, female protagonists are rare in contemporary Hollywood animation, but so are strong, heroic male leads (more on this in a moment). To have two viable romantic leads, either of whom might make a worthy love interest, is as unheard of as having two female protagonists.
And here’s where we get to Frozen’s biggest problem. Which of Anna’s three key relationships — with Elsa, Hans or Kristoff — is the movie ultimately about? Is it a traditional fairy-tale romance? Or is it a story about sister love? Either would be fine, if only the filmmakers could pull it off.
Fatally, by the time Frozen decisively answers this question, it’s too late. The movie is over, and there’s no time for the characters to actually have the relationship the movie is ostensibly about. It’s a movie more about the idea of a relationship than about an actual relationship between characters. Rapunzel had two important, complex relationships, with Mother Gothel and Flynn Rider. Anna has none. For that matter, no one in this movie does.
Meanwhile, in one of the most depressing twists of any recent animated film — I’ll try to be vague here, but I can’t avoid spoilers entirely — the filmmakers borrow a trick from Disney’s last flick, Wreck-It Ralph: There’s a Secret Villain. Then, in another bit of misdirection, a character is set up for a heroic climax that never comes, leaving him irrelevant in the end. There’s an act of love that melts a frozen heart, though in a way that may not really make sense of the symbolism of frozen hearts.
Continuing in semi-spoiler mode: I understand that, on some level, Disney is still doing penance for the relentless romanticism and passive heroines of the age of “Someday my prince will come.” It’s okay to say that a heroine doesn’t need a man to complete her. Fine.
At this point, though, Prince Charming is dead. He’s been dead for years. The Shrek franchise killed him, and his heirs are the ridiculous, preening buffoon of Enchanted and the various insipid suitors of Brave. Last year’s little-seen Mirror Mirror offered the closest thing to a bona fide Prince Charming of any family film I can think of in the last decade or more (he was still kind of silly).
Hollywood animated heroes and/or love interests are allowed to be redeemed rascals (Tangled, The Princess and the Frog, Sinbad) or they may be seemingly unmanly misfit/underdogs who make good (How to Train Your Dragon, Kung Fu Panda, Rio, Happy Feet, etc.). But your actual manly hero is practically a thing of the past, alas. (Have I mentioned that I also have four sons?)
Having gotten practically to the end of this review without mentioning Olaf, the talking snowman, why do I mention him now? Because he has, far and away, the movie’s funniest scene and best song, “In Summer.” Once again, the mood of the song conflicts with the reality — but this time that’s the point, and it works.
P.S. I can’t quite recommend seeing Frozen just for “In Summer.” I could almost recommend seeing it just to catch the brilliant animated short that precedes the film, “Get a Horse!”
These days, the shorts are often better than the features that follow them, but “Get a Horse!” is among the most inspired, eclipsing last year’s “Paperman” and Pixar’s “Blue Umbrella” earlier this year. How brilliant? In five minutes, I was reminded of the classic Looney Tunes short “Duck Amuck,” The Purple Rose of Cairo, Pixar’s “Presto” and “Blue Umbrella” — and not in a bad way. And it must be seen in 3-D.
Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is studying for the permanent diaconate for the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.
Follow him on Twitter.
Caveat Spectator: Animated excitement, action and mildly scary images; a veiled double entendre or two. Might be too much for sensitive youngsters.