Hans Christian Andersen, Shane Morris, Chris Buck, and Jennifer Lee, 2013
#70, 2013 Skandies
I wouldn't normally look through the Skandie list and think, "70th place? A must-see!!", especially given that in my view the voters tend to overrate rather than underrate these CGI cartoons. But the ones they like generally come from Disney's Pixar division rather than from Disney itself. Tangled, for instance, didn't make the list at all in 2010, and so I didn't see it until I had to watch it for work — and I was shocked by how much I enjoyed it. That by itself would have put Frozen on my watch list. But I have also gathered from the parents on my Facebook feed that for anyone who went to preschool in the 2010s, Frozen is now a universal cultural touchstone. So I figured I should give it a look if only so that ten years from now I know what my students are talking about. (I already missed my chance with the Millennials since I don't know anything about pokeymans.)
I'll eventually be discussing the big climactic moment of the movie, and even my initial evaluative remarks will give away the premise, so mind the unusually appropriate sled.
Frozen is the story of two princesses, and never questions the legitimacy of monarchy. That's bad! I've discussed this in a number of these articles — most recently here, I believe — so I won't go into it again now, but yeah, supporting the idea that some people should have the right to rule over others on the basis of an accident of birth is evil.
Speaking of accidents of birth: Elsa, the elder princess, who soon becomes queen, has cryonic powers like DC's Icemaiden and Killer Frost and Heroes's Tracy Strauss. This allows Elsa to perform such feats as creating a magnificent ice palace by waving her hands and running across a fjord by freezing the water as it makes contact with her feet. That's good! As a spectacle, Frozen is first-rate, at least when it comes to the ice effects. (I wasn't as sold on the character animation, as everyone looked just a little too much like a line of plastic toys come to life.) Unfortunately for Elsa, she can't completely control these powers — a standard trope, and in fact when I first started collecting X-Factor Bobby was wearing a regulator belt to keep himself from encasing the entire city in a block of ice every time he used his powers — and after Elsa nearly kills her little sister Anna with an accidental cryonic bolt while playing, her parents instruct her to stay in her room for everyone's safety. They also wipe Anna's memory of her near-death experience, so she doesn't know why her beloved sister won't play with her anymore or even open her door.
This state of affairs, like every third line in Frozen, prompts a song, but most of the songs are pretty weak. That's bad! I will give the songwriters credit for finding a way to include the word "fractals" in the lyrics of a Disney musical; I have to assume that that's a first, though maybe Jiminy Cricket name-checked the Mandelbrot set in a deleted scene. Luckily, the spoken dialogue is better than the songs. That's good! Not only do the screenwriters throw in a few lines that are clearly for the benefit of the adults watching, but as in Tangled, the line readings are spot-on. There's a comic relief character, a goofy talking snowman named Olaf, who I assumed would soon have me praying for death, but to my astonishment I found him genuinely funny. "Oh, look at that. I've been impaled."
All right, enough rox/sux talk. Let's talk about how the story was put together. On Elsa's coronation day, Anna has a Meet Cute with a prince named Hans, and following a musical number about how they instantly know they're perfect together and how much better their lives have already become now that they've found each other, they seek Elsa's blessing upon their engagement.
Elsa (haughtily): "You can't marry a man you just met."
Anna: "You can if it's true love!"
The argument that erupts between the two sisters stirs up buried resentments on both sides and triggers Elsa into losing control of her powers; as Anna reels at the revelation that her sister is superhuman, Elsa flees into the wilderness with the townspeople and coronation guests convinced she's a monster. In the wilderness, Elsa decides to embrace her fate and focus on the blessing of staggering power rather than the curse of isolation that comes with it. What she doesn't know until Anna tracks her down is that she has doomed the whole realm to eternal winter, and can't turn it off.
It is on the way to find Elsa that Anna runs into Olaf (whom we see Elsa create during her musical number, though it's interestingly underplayed), and, before that, Kristoff, a rustic young ice salesman, and his reindeer Sven. By the time Anna gets zapped again, when Elsa has a breakdown that sets off a cryonic explosion, it looks like Kristoff is the actual love interest: not only do he and Anna follow the conventional formula of starting off as a mismatch and growing on each other, but his childhood self is actually the protagonist of the first scene in the movie, whereas Hans shows up out of nowhere. And when we learn that "only an act of true love" can prevent Anna from turning to ice forever, and Kristoff sets off to reunite her with Hans, there are at least three reasons to suspect that that's not going to work:
- There's still half an hour left — it's too soon
- The House the Medical Doctor formula: the first
thing characters try tends to make things worse
- When Olaf cries, "Let's go kiss Hans! Who is this 'Hans'?" (really funny, as delivered — nice work, Josh Gad), it emphasizes that we now have a gang we've been following and Hans isn't part of it
And yet! Even though Hans seems like he'll have to be dispensed with, it's not obvious how the story will do that. One possibility would be to make him turn out to be a secret baddie, but the movie already has a main antagonist in Elsa and a muha-muha secondary villain in the Duke of Weaseltown, so there's no baddie-shaped hole for Hans to fill. And the movie keeps cutting away to Hans, giving him ample opportunity to bust out with a villainous soliloquy in private, yet he remains an earnest straight arrow in scene after scene. Furthermore, it's hard to miss that, since surely Elsa will be redeemed by the end, the presence of two boys doesn't necessarily imply an unhappy ending for one of them, as there are two girls. Thus, for me at least, it was not so much surprising as meta-surprising when Hans did his heel turn at the moment of the supposed curing kiss — I'm so used to the higher-ups on these sorts of projects valuing suspense over surprise ("You can't just do that out of nowhere! It's too jarring! You have to lay the groundwork!") that I was surprised not by the heel turn itself but by the courage it took to spring it on the audience with no setup behind it.
Next I wondered how the creators were going to resolve the "true love" issue. They had already shown a willingness to turn convention on its head by having the icy elder character scoff at the winsome younger character's belief in love at first sight… and turn out to be right. That plus the fact that this movie came out in 2013 made me think that it wasn't just going to be as simple as having Kristoff supply the kiss — effectively telling the girls in the audience that your life depends on finding a boy to kiss you. It seemed a lot more likely that the act of true love would come from Elsa somehow, but even that prospect made me wonder about the message it would send: if Anna's life is saved by her sister's love, well, what if you don't have a sister? Or what if your family doesn't love you? Telling someone with an emotionally impoverished upbringing that "Oh! You just need love!" is like Mitt Romney telling working-class college students that if they can't find jobs they should just get their parents to lend them enough money to start a business. On top of all this is the storytelling principle that the protagonist, by definition, should be the chief actor in the story, not someone passively waiting for others to act upon her. So I can understand why the filmmakers went with the twist that Anna is cured by her own love for Elsa: the princess saves herself, you go girl, etc. And it's a powerful moment! The frost spreading through Anna's body as she staggers toward Kristoff; Kristoff racing across the frozen fjord, desperately trying to reach Anna in time to save her; the distant sound of a sword being unsheathed (the sound design in this movie is really good, by the way); Elsa about to be murdered by Hans, and too overwhelmed with grief over Anna to care; Anna leaping in the way of Hans's swing just as she turns into a frozen statue of herself, solid enough to shatter his sword… if you want to learn how to maximize drama, this could be the textbook. Except there's just one problem. Anna's sacrifice does nothing to further her character arc. When she comes back to life, heart first, and has this exchange with her sister—
Elsa: "You sacrificed yourself for me?"
Anna: "…I love you."
—we already knew that! Anna hasn't grown — she's just demonstrated the admirable traits she's had all along. And then when Elsa says, "Love! Of course!" and brings back the summer through the power of love — uh, love for whom? For Anna? For the world? For herself? And what exactly is it that her newfound love for something-or-other vanquishes? What is the curse?
I've heard enough university lectures on folklore to know that female power in fairy tales is generally taken to represent sexuality, but that doesn't seem to make a lot of sense here. Literal frigidity as a metaphor for libido? I suppose that actually is how it works for Oglaf's delightful NSFW Snow Queen (seen above) — her realm gets increasingly wintry as she gets sexually riled up, and thaws out after she's satisfied — but here, no. Like, what would Elsa's inability to control her powers represent, then? Self-destructive promiscuity? Even though she hasn't left her room in ten years? I mean, I guess "represent" is the wrong word here — I don't think this is or should be an allegory. But there should be some real-world resonance. And I think there is!
As Elsa's ice palace rises from the mountainside, looking like the twin of Dr. Manhattan's crystalline fortress on Mars, she sings about how all her amazing creations are fueled by the same "swirling storm inside" that has tormented her from her earliest days, and I couldn't help but muse that, thematically, this isn't too far removed from most of the music I listen to. Knowing you're fucked up, finding yourself cast out by the world, hating yourself and wanting to die — but these women (and a few men) scream about it so beautifully and brilliantly that they transmute that pain and despair into joy. Joy for the listener, that is, or at least this listener. Not for themselves, usually. There's "no escape from the storm inside me", as Elsa later sings, and as one of the musicians I'm talking about demonstrated by blowing his head off with a shotgun. And as heavy as it is when your artistic idols "can't control the curse", it's that much heavier when the ones wrestling with it are the people in your life. As I watched Elsa's coronation, and her struggle — her ultimately unsuccessful struggle — to keep it together just for a few hours, force of habit had me poised to jump into the screen and quickly usher her out of the room, explaining to the guests that "she's not feeling well". And Elsa locked in her room, unable to cope? I've been on Anna's side of the door my share of times. Actually, I've been on both sides: I've had bouts of depression from time to time, not to mention the occasional OCD flare-up and the possibly psychosomatic anhedonia that is about to head into its fifth year. But I have more experience on the outside, because everyone I've been close to in my adult life has suffered from depression and social anxiety and the like even more severely than I have: multiple people on lifelong regimens of SSRIs and MAO inhibitors; multiple people involuntarily committed to suicide wards; multiple people who made a practice of disappearing for weeks or months at a time, pleading a fundamental inability to function. Once, during a typically fraught conversation, I told one of these people that I cared about her, and she growled that "no one can care or love away my problems", which despite the "no one" I took to mean that my etiolated version of love wasn't up to the task. But upon reflection, I have to concede that back when I was loved it was by someone much better at it than I am, and it still didn't help. So one of the chief exceptions I take to this film is that it portrays love as an all-powerful healing force, when in real life, set against the curse of being a broken person — and who isn't, to one degree or another? — it's more like when Anna is confronted by a giant roaring ice golem and ineffectually pelts it with a snowball.
So anyway, that's Frozen! Fun kids' movie. All in all I liked it. I think I will skip the Frozen-themed sheet cake, though. The "buttercreme" topping contains potassium sorbate and sodium benzoate. That's bad!