Now that I have access to some footage of Frozen, I can finally talk about Frozen the way movies should be talked about–with spoilers.
***Spoilers Below: You Have Been Warned***
Now, the footage isn’t very good, so you’ll have to forgive me on the quality of some of these screenshots. This would usually not be made acceptable by me, but this is NOT a movie review of Frozen. I will give Frozen a formal review once it comes out on DVD/Blu-Ray. This is a discussion of Frozen so I can qualify some of the statements found in my non-spoiler review. In fact, if you haven’t read that review yet, I recommend starting there before progressing with this post. Okay, let’s talk Frozen.
Just kidding. I would actually like to start off by talking about Disney: why do we love Disney? I think anyone who says they don’t like Disney are just plain lying to themselves. Yeah, there’s tons of Disney hate to be found on the web. Feminists rail on their princesses, YouTubers upload videos about subliminal messaging, and fellow bloggers debate upon whether Disney movies teach good moral lessons to children. But I think no matter how much we hate Disney as a money-collecting corporation, we will always have a special place in our hearts for their movies. Pure nostalgia definitely plays into it, but I’m going to argue the best Disney movies are so compelling because they transport you to another world. A world that seems plausible yet magical, familiar yet impossible. That is what I hope for every time I see the iconic castle appear on screen.
Anybody who knows me knows how much I adore Pixar, but this is actually something that is lacking in their movies, with the exception of my favorite Pixar movie which has yet to be revealed through this blog. Although I love all the substance to be found in their movies, their films never really makes me leave planet Earth. Toys, bugs, fish, cars, and rats can talk, but the struggles their characters face are all too similar to my own personal struggles. This works in Pixar’s favor when it comes to delivering a powerfully resonant message, but when I just want to forget about life and say: I wish there was something better than this, I have Disney. We will always have Disney.
Simply put, hand-drawn animation and fantasy were made for one another. As Roger Ebert said in his Beauty and the Beast review: “…it’s a reminder that animation is the ideal medium for fantasy, because all of its fears and dreams can be made literal.” I couldn’t agree more.
But then we have Disney’s newest collection of computer-animated princess films with Tangled and Frozen, and they’re actually really good. Good enough, in fact, to make me question: is it just the 3D animation that’s stopping me from saying these movies are as good as the ones from the Disney renaissance? Are these movies as good as The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast as movie critics have been commonly saying? Am I simply clinging on to cherished childhood memories? Am I old-fashioned and need to get with the time? Is 3D animation the new 2D animation? Are we in a second Disney renaissance?
Whew, a lot of questions to think about. It’s these sorts of questions that have bugged me and prompted me to respond to them. Yes, I am responding to my own thoughts through my blog… totally not weird…
To me, both Tangled and Frozen comes short of immortal Disney greatness for different reasons. I know a lot of people are saying these movies are similar, but they’re really not.
What I really appreciate about Tangled and Frozen is how original they are, without completely forgetting their roots. I would say this is a huge strength in Beauty and the Beast, which gives a new spin to many traditional aspects of the classic Disney princess formula (For more detail, check out my Beauty and the Beast review under “Kevin’s Favorite Movies”). In many respects, Tangled and Frozen are utilizing a similar tactic to maintain that Disney fairytale feeling without being repetitive.
In this regard, Tangled is definitely superior to Frozen. I would actually put Tangled in my top five in terms of its ability to make me feel like I am being told a fairytale.
1. Beauty and the Beast
3. Sleeping Beauty
4. The Little Mermaid
6. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
All omitted Disney princess movies don’t really give me the impression that I’m in a fairytale. Note that this list does not reflect my overall impression of these movies. For that list, check out:
So what makes Tangled feel like a fairytale? What’s in it that makes me escape reality? It oftentimes needs just one magical moment. And the best magical moments come from the Disney renaissance, the new standard in which every Disney feature continues to be judged against. These are the moments that make me forget about my life.
For as good as the beginning portion of the Disney renaissance was, it was an era that I think wore out its welcome with audiences long ago. The people who brought you The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin continued to be brought back by the studio, hoping to produce another big hit. Rather, it was The Lion King, the movie with Hans Zimmer doing the score instead of Alan Menken, that ultimately succeeded. That’s because it took risks, it was different, it was new, and I have no idea why Disney has never since tried to replicate its success by adapting Shakespeare instead of fairytales.
Nonetheless, Glen Keane and Alan Menken, two of the renaissance’s biggest players, showed an almost renewed sense of motivation when trying to adapt the Disney princess genre into its new computer generated medium. It was reportedly Disney’s last princess movie, and had it not been for its gaudy box office numbers, I believe those reports would have been true. I mean, just look at what happened to Disney’s traditional animation department after The Princess and the Frog, which brought back The Little Mermaid directors only for Disney to be disappointed by its (lack of) revenue.
The music from Alan Menken was the best I’ve heard from him since The Hunchback of Notre Dame, although I am pretty fond of Hercules’ I Can Go the Distance in 1997. Glen Keane produced one the best textured 3D animated films I’ve ever seen, often mimicking paint instead of plastic. Tangled is the product of those from the Disney renaissance who wanted to show they could still do it, and to a large degree, they accomplish their goals. Tangled feels and plays much like Beauty and the Beast while embracing its modernity through medium, song, and humor. Maybe a little too much like Beauty and the Beast…
What the producers of Tangled wasn’t able to do is keep the timeless quality found in Beauty and the Beast with its modern update. When Will My Life Begin, for example, includes instruments like an electric guitar, giving it the feel of a rock song. While I like the song a lot, I don’t think it will live through the ages like Be Our Guest or Tale as Old as Time (Beauty and the Beast). The ultimate reason Tangled falls short of Disney greatness, however, is its lack of a unified message. There were some really good ideas present in the movie: the fear of having your dreams not be everything you thought they would be, the fear of having your dreams be everything you thought it would be and having to find a new dream, the idea of trusting the outside world even if it is a scary and cruel place, and even parenting/teenage independence. But while Beauty and the Beast was really about love, Tangled is about too many things all at once. I hope this explains why Tangled is not a Disney classics in the same way the Disney renaissance classics are.
Where Tangled falters, Frozen excels. There hasn’t been this much substance in a Disney princess fairytale since Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. Frozen asks: what does it mean to be special?
I know a lot of people are going to walk away from Frozen finding the most meaning through the sister-to-sister relationship, but then the scope of the movie’s message is so narrow. Moreover, I ask everyone who has seen the movie to think beyond the obvious message of familial love being as powerful, if not more powerful, as romantic love (a great message for the holiday season, nevertheless).
Princess Anna and Queen Elsa are great foil characters. Whereas Queen Elsa is elegant and born with unique powers, Anna is clumsy, impulsive, and talkative. Elsa is almost superhero, and Anna is the most human of the Disney princesses. I actually think this is why I love Anna so much. Now, I love Ariel and Belle, and they still top my list for favorite Disney princesses, but I feel like I could never really meet them in real life. First off, Ariel is a freakin’ mermaid with firey red hair, and Belle is depicted with such grace and elegance that couldn’t possibly be replicated outside of animation.
Like us, Anna sleeps in later than she should. She snores, she has bad hair days, and she’s extroverted like many of us. While Ariel hides away in her secret trove, while Belle isolates herself away in her books, Anna dreams of talking to people. Isn’t that what we dream of on Friday nights? To hang out with friends? To meet new people? To party the night away? Well, parties are a little different here in Arendelle, but Anna embodies normality with the way she acts and dreams.
Elsa embodies abnormality. With ice powers she can barely control, she locks herself away in her bedroom as to protect Anna. Elsa is the recluse, the introvert, the misunderstood heroine.
In Broadway musicals, the second or third song is usually dedicated to the heroine. She sings…
…about her dreams. Oftentimes, this is the keystone to the success (or failure) of a musical, since this is the moment the audience gets to know what the protagonist wants in life and root them on until the end of the musical. Even before Disney decided to make their features more like musicals than anything else in the late 1980’s with The Little Mermaid and the arrival of Howard Ashman, Disney heroines have always sang about their dreams somewhere.
Accompanied by animals (of course). That song in Frozen goes to Elsa with Let it Go. Strangely enough, it comes pretty late into the movie, and she’s not even the main female protagonist. The most interesting decision of Frozen is to tell this story from the lesser of the interesting characters. Elsa is the one with the awesome magic powers. Anna doesn’t.
This is because Frozen argues being special isn’t about having a unique physical trait. It isn’t about having magic powers, or being abnormal. Being special can be as simple as loving without knowing what love even is. Anna is without human interaction throughout her entire childhood. How would she know what love is? Frozen understands that love is something so primitive, so fundamental in human existence that everyone sort of knows what love feels like, what love looks like, and what love is. Sure, Anna makes mistakes about love, but what makes her special is that she’s so sure about love she’s willing to sacrifice her life for it. She’s willing to marry someone she just met for it. Anna goes with her heart when it comes to love, and in a day in age where marriage is more like a financial union and love is calculative, I’d say that’s pretty special.
Frozen is pretty heavy on the symbolism. All but one were too obvious for me though. I’ll just list them here and I’m pretty sure the meaning behind each symbol will become apparent. Let me know in the comments below if I missed any: door/gate, glove, crown, white hair, and snowman. I guess the snowman is a little tricky. I think Olaf represents Anna and Elsa’s happy childhood, or at least child naivety and innocence.
The one symbol that took me a while to figure out is the re-occurring, hexagonal snowflake. It kept showing up throughout the course of the movie and, in fact, it’s how the movie closes.
Then I remembered every snowflake has a unique imprint on them, and I realized it represents how everyone can be special. The normal, like Anna, can be special sister. The abnormal, like Elsa, can also be a special sister, as long as she embraces her uniqueness. The best message from Frozen is to embrace abnormality and use it for the better. Don’t shut the world out because you’re afraid people won’t accept you. Go with your heart and reveal your secret to people who you believe you can trust. There is beauty to be found in the abnormal. There is beauty to be found in everyone. There is beauty in embracing who you are.
So why isn’t Frozen as good as Beauty and the Beast or Aladdin? Well, Frozen doesn’t have that magical moment. People are probably going to quickly point to Elsa’s Let it Go sequence as being magical, but I personally wasn’t impressed by that scene. As in tradition with other Disney princesses, it was Elsa’s big moment to shine. However, for whatever reason, it plays like a music video to me. When Ariel was with Flounder in her hidden hide-out admiring a dinglehopper, it just feels so natural when Ariel fluidly transitions into song, and the animation that follows highlights what intrigues her most about human culture. Let it Go kind of took me off-guard, and the animation that followed showed me Elsa could build a castle… cool. Moreover, Idina Menzel had her best moment on the For the First Time in Forever reprise, and the castle looked more like a barbie doll house made out of purple-tinted glass. I know I have been rather critical of Menzel, who played the green witch Elphaba in the musical Wicked, as of late, but it is only because of her immense reputation. When Kristen Bell and Menzel sing together in the For the First Time in Forever reprise, Menzel undoubtedly shows who is Broadway musical queen.
The castle looks better on the inside when Anna comes in, but even then there’s nothing to be found in the castle except a bunch of staircases, frozen fountains, and a brightly lit chandelier (how did Elsa do that, by the way? does she have electricity powers as well? or the ability to change the color of ice?). A total wasted opportunity in my mind. I’m probably in the minority on this, but I’ve never really let that stop me from stating my opinions.
Anyway, Frozen doesn’t have that classic Disney fairytale feel to it. It’s too grounded in modern sensibility to be a true fantasy, a true escapism from real life. Anna marries Prince Hans in one day. That basically happens in almost all the Disney princess movies. But then Elsa and Kristoff brings some (unwanted) realism into the fairytale by condemning Anna for her rash decision. This is a fairytale! What ever happened to “and they lived happily ever after”?
I know people are going to take it the other direction and say this is something that gives Frozen some originality, something new to play with. But if that’s the direction Disney is going to take, then count me out. You can only derive so much originality from parody. Yes, it was hilarious to see fairytale tropes be recognized and flipped completely on its head. As a result, there was a degree of uncertainty while watching Frozen uncharacteristic of other Disney features, which was really refreshing. But I’ll have people reminded that this was already tried with Disney’s Enchanted just 7 years ago in 2007. What about Dreamwork’s Shrek in 2001?
I’m not meaning to imply Frozen is a rip-off of any of these movies; I’m just trying to point out that Frozen is not unique in this regard. What makes Frozen special is its substance. Beauty and the Beast also had substance, but it pertained to romance, which is something almost all Disney fairytales are about. Frozen explores new grounds with its story about sisters and message about being special. While Beauty and the Beast was the perfect culmination of its genre, Frozen is the new direction for Disney. Frozen gives me hope Disney can produce a movie that will have us forget about the Disney renaissance. Frozen makes me believe in a second Disney renaissance.
I’ve always wondered what would happen if Pixar and Disney meshed their talents together. A movie with Pixar substance and Disney style. A movie with Pixar’s tech-savvy animation and Disney’s great legacy of amazing animators. A movie with a Pixar-worthy script and Disney fanaticism. Frozen is getting there. All Disney needs to do now is play it straight. No parody, all seriousness.
And this doesn’t mean sacrificing its sensibility. Yes, it’s a little silly now to marry anybody you met that day, but a movie shouldn’t be conscious of the genre it’s in if it’s trying to be a great movie. Instead, it should immerse itself in its genre. And if not, it should try and redefine the genre. I know Disney can do it because they did it with The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. Both featured a much more proactive and independent princess without stripping them of their femininity or the prince’s heroism. Disney’s next princess movie needs to follow in these movie’s footsteps and be a fairytale possibly without a hint of romance, about something besides love–a Beauty and the Beast about something else.
Easier said then done, but the way Disney is going about this makes me optimistic. James Berardinelli from Reelviews brings up a very good point in his Frozen review: “This movie, co-directed by screenwriter Jennifer Lee and animation maestro Chris Buck, has been assembled by people with a genuine love of films like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast and they have imbued Frozen with the spirit of those productions.” I would argue these people may have even unconsciously embedded scenes from The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast into Frozen.
But most importantly, Berardinelli’s points gets at the fact that people who care about the Disney legacy are now working at their studio. People who knew why the Disney renaissance captured audiences are here to take the reins from those people who brought you those movies. This is actually akin to how Beauty and the Beast was produced. The reason why Frozen, not Tangled, makes me believe in a second Disney renaissance is because there are new people to participate in the second Disney renaissance. Screenwriter Jennifer Lee impressed me even with the faulty Wreck-It Ralph, and again with Frozen. Robert and Kristen Lopez has composed some real hits for those who love belting out with their Disney favorites. The animation department of Disney is making me believe 3D animation can look just as good as 2D animation. Producer John Lassester is showing he cares about Disney and not just Pixar. Roger Ebert said, “Beauty and the Beast reaches back to an older and healthier Hollywood tradition in which the best writers, musicians and filmmakers are gathered for a project on the assumption that a family audience deserves great entertainment, too.” I say the studio currently has the ingredients for its first Oscar-nominated for Best Picture computer-animated feature.
It is ultimately this excitement for a new Beauty and the Beast which has motivated me to write my longest post yet. To quote Berardinelli again from his Beauty and the Beast review: “If they could once again come close to this level of mastery, movie-going audiences across the world would be forever grateful.” For the first time in forever, I believe.