I was lucky enough to see an early screening of Frozen in 3D in early November and it was a wonderful theater-going experience. I’m really looking forward to the movie coming out at the end of the month because I know audiences are going to have great fun watching it. Frozen is gorgeously animated, laugh-out-loud funny, full of lovable characters, music that’s alternatively toe-tapping and transportive, and for good or bad, the point of departure for a lot of discussion.
I decided not to post this discussion until the movie was released nationwide, because what fun is a debate if no one knows what you’re talking about? Even after the film comes out, I bet I’ll be waiting a few weeks before the honey-glow of a new Disney film to dim and fans will want to discuss the finer points. I also want to see it again to be sure my views are consistent. I want to stress I really do like Frozen, but I think it could have been a lot better on the plot end.
One sentence review
The parts are better than the sum, but it’s a lot of fun!
• Anna is a memorable and lovable heroine in a way that differentiates her from any Disney heroine to date. Kristen Bell sought to make Anna unique, and she succeeded with flying colors!
Well, Anna has Mulan's social awkwardness coupled with Rapunzel's gregariousness, but to the nth-degree. Anna was awkward in ways that weren’t just cute or endearing, she reached cringe-worthy more than a few times in a spectacular way. She loves her sister and is excited to make friends and be a part of the world outside her gate. You love her, you root for her - she carries this movie and makes it work as well it does. She jumps without worrying where's she's going to land.
• Elsa is everything I said about Anna inverted.
Here's a fun exercise: Try to describe Elsa without using the words fearful, repressed, or regal. Beyond those three aspects there is no other dimension to Elsa. Her best moment in the movie is definitely the 'Let It Go' montage when we get to see Elsa have fun building a cathedral of ice and being just a little bit sassy. We glimpse who Elsa might be sans powers and status, but then that just gets buried again for the rest of the film. Elsa is so terrified of showing any emotion whatsoever there is no other aspect to her character.
Who is Elsa? What does she think, what does she feel, what does she want for herself? What are her dreams and aspirations? What does she think of her parents, her sister, her subjects? How does she feel about her powers - does she resent them and wish to be rid of them? Does she wish she could be ordinary? Or does she feel most herself when she's at the heart of the storm?
We don't know!
We don't know why she felt like she had to be Queen of Arendelle in the first place. Does she have a love of pomp and panache? Of service to her kingdom? Does she feel like she’s the most qualified for this leadership role? Or does she believe she's has no choice but to fulfill the position she’s been born to?
It's like all the time spent developing Anna's character was taken from developing Elsa's. I got such a good sense of Anna that I felt like I knew her, but ask me anything about Elsa as a person and all I can do is speculate. Elsa is a cypher.
Also, Elsa, baby, bubbalah - you had a chance to live the Calvin and Hobbes/Ice King dream and create an army of gargantuan snow guards! WHY DIDN'T YOU?
THERE IS NO LOGICAL REASON YOU DIDN'T
THIS COULD HAVE SOLVED SO MANY PROBLEMS
• Kristoff was unexpectedly likable. I say 'unexpectedly' because Kristoff's charm is so downplayed you like him long before you realize you do. He is gruff and rough around the edges (my friend was grossed out by the way Sven and Hans shared food). Heck, the trolls sing a song about him being a Fixer-Upper (I like to think Kristoff had a family, but the trolls just kidnapped him and raised him as their own).
Kristoff and Anna eventually connect within their compatible weirdness and make a cute couple. The movie ended leaving room for their relationship to grow, which was a step in the right direction.
Also, Kristoff witnessed and remembers the trolls healing Anna. He presumably knew Elsa had ice powers before she revealed it on her coronation day. Kristoff didn’t seem to have any obvious prejudice to the Elsa’s ability - he wanted to know why she went ‘crazy’ but seemed more interested in the reason why than that fact that Elsa had ice magic. And as a guy who makes his living from and loves ice, it’s a wonder he didn’t harbor a crush on Elsa for her powers alone. Though helping Anna worked out in his favor as he was appointed Official Ice Master and Deliverer by Elsa. Especially because Elsa’s magic could have instantaneously put Kristoff out of business.
• Hans was a peach of a prince, matching Anna's energy beat for beat in Love is an Open Door, being dreamy and accommodating and protective - overall just a swoon-worthy fellow right up until his heel-turn (big gasp from audience).
Hans sells dreamy a lot better than murderous usurper, but that seems to be the point. It comes out of left field but also underscores that Anna didn't know who she was marrying after one day. I'd like to know more about his motivation to be a King from a childhood of 12 older brothers ignoring him. If the story had played out differently, Anna and Elsa would be dead, but Hans would be ruling Arendelle. And truth be told: Hans seemed good at it. Infiltrating the royal household and commanding the kingdom within a day takes a great deal of skill and ambition.
Though I would have liked Hans’s monologue to have been less from the mustache-twirling school of villainy and more consistent within his personality. Hans struck me as a Bob Benson-style sociopath - nice to everyone, deeply ambitious, and if someone is in his way he uses his impeccable reputation to rally people against them. One of the hallmarks of this kind of sociopath is he doesn’t actually have much of an ego. He doesn’t need to earn the respect or admiration of others because he’s skilled at cultivating it out of nothing. Everything he does is about achieving the position and lifestyle he believes is worthy of him.
Hans wouldn’t gain anything emotionally from tormenting Anna beyond that he can, and that doesn’t gel at all with the rest of his personality. Hans didn’t resent Anna’s trusting nature or despise her royal position. She was a perfect mark for his plan and he would have felt lucky to find such a dysfunctional Princess to manipulate. If Hans had a grudge against anyone, it was his brothers or Elsa, because she treated Anna the way his brothers treated him.
In that moment when Hans realized Elsa froze Anna and all he had to do was let Anna die, Hans would have been elated! His plan had just been simplified to where he’d just let the magic take its course. He’d feel cheerful and excited rather than smarmy and condescending. Hans would feel grateful toward the sisters for cancelling one another out, and leaving only him to legitimately ascend the throne.
So I didn’t want Hans to lose his winning personality and outlook when his true intentions were revealed. Maybe that’s why Hans’s heel-turn feels forced, because Hans being such a smug, petty murderer doesn’t gel with the rest of his winning personality. Also, the entire delegation to Arendelle saw he was about to stab Elsa so Hans wouldn’t have got the throne anyway.
• Duke of Weselton was the character created to monger fear against Elsa when her powers were revealed. He's exceptionally goofy and reads like a last minute addition. Alan Tudyk makes him fun, though.
• Olaf is great. You wish you could have a snow-friend as funny and supportive and sweet. I'm glad I got onboard the Olaf-train early. My trust that Olaf would be great was not misplaced!
• The Trolls were just sort of there to contextualize the magic elements, be funny, and tell Anna that you can't change someone, you can only love them. They come into the story at important points but seem to slow down the momentum. They're fun to watch, though, so it's an even trade.
• Oaken of Wandering Oaken’s Trading Post is in the movie for five minutes, but he makes every second of screen time funny. He’s everything a big, sweet Norwegian fellow would be! Just mind your manners with Oaken.
Like Brave, Disney/Pixar seems interested in making movies centered around female relationships (mother-daughter, sister-sister) but in the most bland, inoffensive way possible. And the result is bland, inoffensive stories with bland, inoffensive themes. Everything else about the movie can be spectacular, but the stories are weak and unremarkable on their own. With Frozen, Disney changed the character roles but not the situation. There are so many more interesting scenarios and emotions to use than just the unimpressive True Love Conquers All. We’ve seen it enough, especially in Disney fare.
I suspect there's a lot of executive meddling in these movies, and not just as it relates to merchandising. Frozen was obviously written by committee as there are small scenes that are exciting, heartfelt, and funny while all the important plot points aren't well-developed, feel forced, phony, or meandering. The movie feels incomplete, likely because it was on a rushed production schedule.
Do You Believe In Magic In A Young Girl's Hands?
I really, really wanted context for Elsa's magic, especially after it was so well contextualized in Tangled. We understand Elsa was born with her powers, but has that happened before historically, or in her family? Did no one notice it when she was a baby or toddler? Why did her family feel the need to hide it? Was their a native prejudice toward sorcery in their kingdom? Were they afraid that their subjects would reject Elsa as Queen because of her magic?
What happens to Elsa's magic after the movie? Does she invade other kingdoms with her inexhaustive ice, or do other kingdoms bring the war to Arendelle out of fear of her sorcery? What does the future hold for Elsa, Anna, and Kristoff?
Since watching Frozen, I've read the script and spent a lot of time trying to read into the symbolism and actions to understand Elsa, a clear sign the movie could have done a better job with her development. And the answer is pretty obvious, but it bears definition because it’s so vague.
What Elsa's Uses Her Powers For:
- Creating snowstorms of ballroom-, kingdom-, or snowman-sizes
- Creating a layer of ice across a flat surface (ballroom, fjord, castle court etc.)
- Creating snow slides and peaks
- Suspending snowflakes in the air*
- Turning others hair white
- Building cathedrals of ice
- Granting independent sentience to snow
- Freezing people to death
- Creating icicles and ice structures to attack people
- Dissolving the ice and snow up into the sky, then dispersing it
- Grief :: Suspended snowflakes in mist*
- Anger :: Ice spikes
- Fear / Confusion :: Snowstorm
How Elsa Describes Her Powers:
- Raging/swirling storm inside of me
- My soul [is spiraling in frozen fractals all around]
- The Queen
- The good girl you always have to be
- That perfect girl is gone
- Such a fool
- A danger to Arendelle
Even though her powers make her unique, Elsa lives in fear of two things:
- She will hurt someone, especially someone she cares about. We all have thoughts and actions we didn’t intend to say or do. Elsa has only learned to deal with her true self by suppressing it. She can’t trust herself to be herself because she doesn’t know what that person will do.
- She will be ostracized or attacked because people don’t trust or understand her. It’s interesting, however, that Elsa doesn’t seem to fear the people she cares about (Anna) rejecting her or wanting to harm her.
Based on this vagueness, you could read into this symbolism that Elsa is gay or transsexual, or has a mental, congenital, or degenerative illness that she has to hide. Or maybe she’s just got an artistic soul, and that was her first opportunity to express herself honestly. Or it could just be Elsa has a really inappropriate sense of humor. It could be anything because almost anything considered deviant or abnormal could be substituted for Elsa’s ice magic.
It’s a fairly obvious symbol: Elsa’s magic = Whoever Elsa Is To Herself. And there’s a certain self-insert genius to it - if you've ever been afraid to be who you are and terrified of how people would react to your true self, Elsa knows that feel! She's been there! But that vagueness that makes Elsa so relatable also makes her a very dull, generic character. She's everyone and no one.
How Does This Work?
So why ice magic for this metaphor? The film is set in a Norwegian-inspired region, where there is a lot of sub-arctic weather, especially up in the mountains. Ice is also a very mutable form - Elsa uses it for structure, defense, and recreation.
But it’s still magic, and thus has supernatural properties and obeys supernatural laws instead of natural physics. For example, a person’s hair will whiten and they will slowly freeze to death when struck by Elsa’s ice. This can be undone by memory-altering magic if a person is struck in the head, but it’s irreversible if a person is struck in the heart. For a frozen heart, that magical cure-all - True Love - must be conveyed by physical contact.*
Why? Who knows. Who knows why a person’s hair turns white first if they’re struck in the heart. Hair color is not affected by issues in a human cardiovascular system. Who knows why Anna’s lungs, diaphragm, ribs, spine, stomach, or spleen were unaffected when she was hit in the chest by that wave of ice. Who knows why Anna’s hands turned blue before the rest of her, even though her heart is far closer to her brain. Because it’s magic, and magic only has to follow the rules you make up.
You can probably tell I find all these answers unsatisfying. Again, Tangled contextualized it better.
*In order to be True Love, both parties have to be feeling the same kind of devotion and affection for one another to the same degree. It is usually fostered between those romantically in love, though in Frozen it is proven sororal love can also considered True Love. Otherwise... Frozen just raised a lot of awkward questions about incest.
It is possible Kristoff could have unfrozen Anna while carrying her down the mountain because he loved her. Kristoff was developing feelings before and during that alpine descent for Anna that Anna reciprocated for him. Unfortunately, Anna was still fixated on Hans being her True Love which prevented the spell from breaking. In fact, it is unknown whether Kristoff’s public display of affection would have thawed Anna’s heart. He may yet be a future ex-boyfriend.
You're Frozen When Your Heart's Not Open
As to the crux of the film, there was an important head/heart dichotomy in Frozen:
- If Anna's mind was touched by Elsa's ice, the mind could be convinced not to let the body freeze to death,
- but if the heart was struck by supernatural ice, the heart would kill the body, or let it die.
That’s a rich vein of metaphor in freezing the heart versus the head, and thus should have been the effect of Elsa's magic on Anna. If Anna's metaphysical heart - her personality - had frozen instead of her body, she would become more hesitant and indifferent to her friends, similar to the way Kai was affected by the demon mirror shard in The Snow Queen. As Wikipedia surmises:
These splinters are blown around and get into people's hearts and eyes, making their hearts frozen like blocks of ice and their eyes like the troll-mirror itself, only seeing the bad and ugly in people and things. [...] Kai's personality changes: he becomes cruel and aggressive. He destroys their window-box garden, he makes fun of his grandmother, and he no longer cares about Gerda, since all of them now appear bad and ugly to him.
Anna is such a colorful character, it would have been devastating to her companions and audience to see her vibrancy wane into hopelessness (similar to the way her hair color is bleached away). Thus Anna's friends would be fighting to save more than to just Anna's body, they would have been fighting to preserve her as a person.
Now the argument may be made that this metaphor is achieved in the movie: by freezing Anna physically they also froze her personality. I agree with that - the film wisely tamps down Anna's antics throughout the third act to underscore how she's disappearing.
But we understand loss in the abstract. We don't understand how loss will affect ourselves or our lives before it happens. Loss is an unknown quantity, and that makes it terrifying. But by freezing Anna's personality - removing what makes Anna Anna and replacing it with fear and distrust, the audience is shown how her loss affects everyone else in the story before she’s gone. It creates more conflict between the characters and thus raises the stakes.
It was always Elsa's responsibility to conquer her fear and live openly in order to reconnect with Anna. It was Elsa that needed to change. But if both sisters were experiencing a personality change neither could control and would have to sacrifice their fear to overcome it, that would have made for a resonant and meaningful reunion.
Even more than that, it would mirror to Elsa her own isolationism and fear, helping her realize how destructive and ineffectual her behavior really was. Elsa would understand how she had been affecting Anna for the worse, more than regretting killing Anna by accident and or feeling guilty for Anna taking a sword for her. Both regret and guilt suggest that Elsa has loved Anna in the past, but I would want Elsa to realize she loves Anna now and hates to see what’s become of her beloved sister because of her own callousness.
That makes the movie’s solution - True Love - directly applicable to Anna’s state. It would be emotion combating emotion, rather than emotion combating magic. True Love doesn’t cure hypothermia, but the forgiveness and patience fostered by unwavering devotion and admiration from another person (“True Love”) can help a beleaguered individual open up and trust again.
Thus Elsa's demonstrative love for Anna (a warm hug, aww) would still have thawed Anna’s frozen heart. Heck, I would have lost it if Elsa tearfully reprised "Do You Want To Build A Snow Man?" while hugging Anna's frozen corpse. The audience would have realized Elsa had positive remembrances of their childhood the way Anna did, AKA the entire context of their healthy relationship. It would also give Elsa more to do than cry with her back to the audience (more on that in Animation) as a display of grief for her sister.
The core of the story is about two girls freezing to death because they cannot love - one who isolates herself out of fear of truly knowing herself (Elsa) and one so deprived of love she can’t recognize it anymore (Anna). But the opposite of love isn't it's absence - it's indifference. Both sisters would rather ignore or give up on one another during the coronation ball - they’re indifferent to one another. Anna as a statue is absence. Anna as a terrified inversion of herself, convinced she cannot be loved, wandering away from everyone who loves her - that’s a fate worse than death.
I've thought a lot about this because the movie's solution ("feeling loved will help me control myself") is nonsensical and a little unsettling because the inverse ("love me OR I'll go into the mountains to die") is concerning.
So what did I like about the movie? Everything else.
Frozen is probably the biggest departure from anything else in the Disney fairy tale canon. Alan Menken it isn't. As soon as you can start thinking of Frozen not as a Disney film but a fairy tale musical brought to you by the songsmiths of Avenue Q and Book of Mormon, it works! The lyrics and comedy throughout the film are very different, in an awesome way. Each song is cleverly worded and the arrangements are sweet and plaintive, goofy and fun, beautiful and sweeping, powerful, funny, or uplifting. The music is the strongest feature of the film on it’s own musicality but also because it also features a lot of comedy.
There were titters of laughter here and there before Olaf wanders on screen, but after he shows up? Belly laughs so loud you can't hear the dialogue. Josh Gad is funny. Trust.
Remember the foofaraw around what Frozen's director of animation, Lino Di Salvo said?
“Historically speaking, animating female characters are really, really difficult, because they have to go through these range of emotions, but you have to keep them pretty - [...]"
At the time that quote blew up and differing communities reacted:
- Feminists saying women have the full spectrum of expressions and not all of them are pretty OR should be beautified, and
- Animators saying the quote was out of context as it really related to the character being on model (something Lino goes on to say in the original quote).
Watch this scene again without the sound on and see if you can tell what I mean:
Seems like they're just having a mild sibling tiff, right? The acting is so subtle and constrained that it doesn't read to the audience as the plot-hinging blowup it's supposed to be.
And that's it - that's the whole movie. I really wanted to see these emotional expressions and gestures between these sisters that had to be inferred through the dialogue. The characters could tell me what they're feeling, but I didn't believe them because I didn't see it. I didn't care about the crisis of the third act because the characters didn't appear to. In that regard, as a visual medium it failed.
More than anything this movie made me miss Glen Keane and Mark Henn. Neither were afraid to let their leading ladies look ugly at the expense of letting them emote. Just go back and watch Rapunzel talk for a few minutes, or watch Sergeant Calhoun from Wreck-It Ralph yell at everybody. These were visually interesting, dynamically-animated leading ladies.
Anna and Elsa look pretty and not much else. Even looking at Anna’s expression comparisons in Tumblr GIFs maker her facial range appear drastically limited. It's bizarre when you have Anna next to the Duke of Weselton or Olaf, male characters who are allowed to have big, hilariously-grotesque expressions because it looks like they're from two different films, and that's a problem.
And of course, the effects animation is beautiful and impressive, but it's hard to focus on when what you're thinking about is how underdeveloped the character animation is.
Two steps forward, two steps back. Where are we going, Disney?
• Stay until the end of the credits to find out what happened to that which Elsa left behind.
• Rapunzel and Eugene have a cameo. Look for them on the lower-left hand corner of the screen as Anna comes out of the castle gate during “For The First Time In Forever.”
• There's a disclaimer in the credits: "The views of Kristoff and all men who pick their noses are not necessarily those of the Walt Disney Company."
Frozen 2: Hans With A Mustache
Frozen 2: Elsa Develops A Personality