Frozen, Princess films, and the Disney Canon

Frozen theatrical poster, (c) DisneyA rather lengthy post because all my friends love Frozen and I have mixed feelings. Spoilers, probably.

I’m a big fan of Disney films. I’ve seen a lot of them (though thanks to primarily those ’40s compilation films, not all) and tend to have sussed out what I like and what I don’t. There’s been a lot of development over the 75 or so years since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but there’s definitely a thread from which you can split the good stuff from the less so. And while I reckon Frozen is good – it’s hilarious and enjoyable, and hopefully a sign of a continued resurgence in the general quality Walt Disney Animation Studios films – I don’t think it stands up to the best, and even pales in comparison with its most immediate predecessors.

I’m going to define a few terms here, not to be patronising, but so we’re clear on what context I’m placing Frozen in. When I say “Disney films” in this article, what I mean is strictly the Disney canon, the films from Walt Disney Animation studios, of which Frozen is the 53rd. There’s also a subset of these which is unofficial in terms of criticism, but heavily marketed –  “Princess films” – that is, films generally adapted from a fairy tale with a female lead who is royalty. This group of films is what people think of when you say Disney – Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and so on, and I’d say Frozen is one of them. In fact, here’s my list: film numbers 1, 12, 16, 28, 30, 33, 49, 50, and 53. As you can see, a significant minority of the total, but these films tend to be the most prestigious, and have a lot in common. There are, of course, honorary members in either of these groups – Mary Poppins is a quintessential Disney film, and Enchanted and Brave (which should have been a Disney film) well worthy of inclusion amongst the Princesses, but they’re nevertheless outside the bounds.

When it comes to story, the best Disney films are water-tight. Sure, you may get occasional asides from funny animals, but they are always… inevitable. Little about a good Disney film seems convenient or contrived, and all the scenes lock together into a whole, that usually conveys something simple. In Princess films it’s generally “Love, yay”, which is more than decent enough as a message, but they’re not just limited to that. Pinocchio tells us that if you believe in something, want it hard enough, wish for it, it will come true. The Princess and the Frog updates that, by saying that if you wish for something and you work really hard to get it, then it will come true. These messages may seem trite, but when encoded in a narrative largely told with colourful visuals and music, rather than dialogue and declamation, you do believe them in your heart – the film makes you believe it, because it successfully creates a world in which this message is the core truth. I think this is a chief component of what is generally known as “Disney magic”.

My problem with Frozen is that the magic wasn’t working. The story is basically a series of incidents, a mixed bag of misaligned concepts, and is driven – it isn’t really driven by anything. There’s no real reason why one scene follows another, because there is no point that it is building towards, and its mythology is muddled and ultimately inconsequential.

It’s worth stressing that I have no attachment to The Snow Queen. I vividly remember a couple of shots of what must be the 1995 film, but have no recollection of the plot, and only read Anderson’s story last night. I don’t mind that Frozen only retains a couple of elements of it, because that’s simply the process of adaptation. Besides, the story isn’t very Disney-shaped. Go read (or re-read) the story yourself, it’s not bad, but it’s in seven parts with at least four different entirely separate bits of fable in it, and while I’m personally a fan of Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (which would be the closest comparison to a straight adaptation of The Snow Queen), I like it for the Carroll and the design and the songs, not for the story, and I wouldn’t call that film successful anyway.

My problem is that there is no clear piece of mythology anchoring the film. While Maleficent’s curse at the beginning of Sleeping Beauty lays out the rest of the movie, it’s never clear not only where Elsa’s ice power comes from, but what it does, and how exactly it harms Anna. Receiving the information of how to heal her two-thirds of the way through may preserve dramatic tension (a heart of ice does sound like something you would die from) but at the cost of any clear direction. The entire thread seems forced in from another Disney film, when in fact it’s one of the few things preserved from the original story. It isn’t explained until the crucial moment there, either, but The Snow Queen is driven by wonder and discovery, whereas the Princess film is driven by myth and fable. Tangled solves Rapunzel‘s relative lack of mythology by inventing healing hair that is desired by Mother Gothel, thus setting up the hair being used to heal in the climax, and its removal dispelling the villain. It also takes the idea of being locked in a tower and turns it into a metaphor for wanting to experience life, which also drives the plot. I don’t believe that Frozen invented anything as coherent as this – the idea that the character with ice powers being cold emotionally may have been somewhere in the development, but is directly contradicted by much of Elsa’s actions and motivation. The lack of mythology, the fundamental basis of the subgenre being missing, or its execution being unsatisfying, contributes to Frozen‘s directionless feel.

There are other plot problems. You would never have thought that Anna would have left her sister to die, so saving Elsa in the climax doesn’t have much impact. The lack of a clear antagonist throughout hurts the film. Elsa as drawn in the film doesn’t work as one, since you don’t believe she’ll hurt her sister beyond the two accidents, which are key plot points so would be diminished if the massive snow monster were actually to hurt Anna (though he looks too cuddly to anyway). Hans was underplayed in the first half to ensure the drama of the twist, but that sacrificed another chance of a clear plot thread for a memorable moment. The problem with a film full of memorable moments is that it’s the moments that are memorable, not the film.

You might argue, though that Frozen, unlike most Princess films, is driven by character development instead. It is true that Frozen features characters that connect, and better still, female characters with agency that seem real and interesting and have an inner life. One of the biggest strengths of Frozen is how people, especially women, have something they can own, something that represents them. I would debate that the film is driven by its characters on two fronts, though. Firstly, I don’t think it’s important that Disney films, particularly Princess films, have particularly rich characters. As I said in the third paragraph, they’re not about the people in the story, they’re about simple and universal concepts and themes. As long as the character can convey this, they’ve done their job. As you see the Princess films progress from Snow White to characters such as Belle and Tiana and Rapunzel, you do see a steady development towards characters that marry this functional aspect with the awareness that the older Princesses can be interpreted as vacuous, as lacking agency, and the writing is a lot more mature and interesting.

Frozen‘s protagonists, needless to say, fail their function. This is mostly to do with the story problems I’ve detailed above, but perhaps also because there are two of them, and one is not quite sure which is the protagonist, but is sure that the writing isn’t good enough to support both. However, if you don’t believe the mythology is important in a Princess film, or at least this Princess film, you might suggest that the strength of their characters alone put Frozen above the pack. I certainly agree that it is refreshing to see a Princess film that’s not about romantic love, but love between sisters. It’s good that they seem like women you might actually meet, and follow Rapunzel’s lead of being goofy and funny as well as beautiful. My problem with them is that the film does not clearly show how these characters develop, and this is another reason why the film seems directionless. Since it’s a musical, the best place to start looking for where the characters develop is the songs, and “Let It Go” typifies what is wrong with this film.

Let it Go fundamentally does not work. Listening to the soundtrack, the song has grown on me, as a piece of pop music. As an animation sequence, as a music video, it’s perfectly good, and even finishes with that door slam in a satisfying way. But it didn’t fit into the wider context of the film, it didn’t progress the story, and it fell flat. It doesn’t establish what Elsa is moving from or to – all it says is “I’m going to go crazy with ice powers now because I’m tired of withholding them”, but it’s mostly the former, and the problem with that is it’s fundamentally useless to sing about going crazy with ice powers because it’s a cartoon, you can see her going crazy with ice powers to much greater effect than the picture the lyrics paint.

The song should be about why she’s doing it, and the phrase “let it go” doesn’t really say much more than what she’s doing – in this instance, the lyrics are far too simple to convey the intent. If it was a song more like “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished” (to pick an apropos example) it would have made much more sense, moving Elsa into being the antagonist. Instead, it’s a rather lame retread of “Defying Gravity”, which is a song properly about freedom rather than gesturing to it. (I’m not a massive fan of Wicked, but comparing it to Frozen has shown me that there’s nothing actually that wrong with it as a musical, I just miss the depth of the novel that was lost in translation.)

I’m tempted to say that “let it go” is entirely the wrong phrase to use. Elsa spends much of the film in a passive role – rather than think of workarounds for her powers, or manage to control them (it amuses me to think of Elsa as the world’s worst superhero – she’s had powers all her life and still can’t make them work properly) she removes herself from everyday life. She’s going through the motions for coronation, but there’s a slight hope that she’s emerging from the castle and back into the mainstream – until she makes it clear that it is a one off. Then, her powers go off – out of her control – and she runs away. Now, up to this moment you could argue that Elsa lacks agency. She’s at the mercy of her powers, and passively hides away rather than face her problems. Now, at the moment of her exile, is the point where she should take her agency, transform herself into the woman she wants to be, and do it with a song. And this is the story the fans of this song are hearing, because it’s the story the music and the performance and the creation of beautiful ice sculptures is telling.

Except, the words are “let it go”. Not take control, rescind it. Elsa’s problem wasn’t that she was denying herself her ice powers, and now she’s unleashing them she’s being her true self. Her problem was that misguided parenting and poor childish decision-making led her to remove herself from her sister rather than work past her problems. “Let It Go” isn’t a victory, it isn’t taking control, it’s just running away again, to shut herself in a different room that’s away from everyone. Also, the line “the cold never bothered me anyway” is clearly a lie – she spends the entire film scared of her ice powers – but it is animated with that sassy look to camera, which is entirely out of place and completely misses a moment for emotional complexity.

I think here is a good point to directly address the song-score. I did like that it was wholeheartedly a musical, that was a lovely surprise, since Tangled was more a film with songs, but I have my criticisms. The songs very simple and poppy, but with aspirations to musical theatre, and this leads to big, long notes on words that simply can’t sustain them. I’m not sure the Lopez’s write successful counterpoint (two people singing different tunes at once) and the sung dialogue in “For the First Time in Forever (Reprise)” isn’t good. However, keeping that in mind, plus the criticism of “Let it Go” that it doesn’t drive the story (which might be said for most of the songs), the song-score’s one of the strongest points of the film. The Lopez’s previously worked on the 2011 Winnie the Pooh film, which was a great success in its entirety, and Robert Lopez worked on Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon, so we’re in the hands of a phenomenally successful couple. The songs in Frozen are witty, have a simplicity to them that can really work, and are great sing-alongs (they use two of my favourite melodic variations for repeats – 3:27 in “For the First Time in Forever”, 3:20 in “Let it Go”). So any reasonable person wouldn’t have any further reservations, but, as you can tell by the length of this essay, I’m probably not a reasonable person.

As you may know, I’m co-writer, composer, and co-lyricist on a musical, so when I say that it feels like these are the sort of songs I’d probably come up with if tasked with a Disney film… well, you can take it how you like. My problem with it is not that that’s a bad thing (it’s a great feeling for me, in a way) but I’m used to Disney songs being something a bit more than that. I grew up primarily with the 90s Disney films, so Alan Menken is one sort of expectation I have – he’s musical theatre through and through, so he writes these great, open, melodic songs, but he also has a gift for sound and genre, and a massive range, hence the Motown bounce to the Hercules songs, but also the Catholic choral drama of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (which is my favourite Disney song score). But I also have the Great American Songbook style of most the people hired to do songs from the ’30s to the ’70s in my head, not to mention the Sherman Brothers, who are head and shoulders above the rest.

However, I do have a special place in my heart for Sleeping Beauty, and its mix of the tin-pan-alley-sourced songwriting and Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty ballet. The film’s score has lodged itself as the definitive Princess music – beautiful melodies and grand, dramatic sweep. Great music adds scale to the film, and Sleeping Beauty’s music makes it an epic. Menken, too, manages to make his films larger than life could ever be. Even as recently as Tangled, the combination of “I See the Light” with those strings and that key change and the thousands of lanterns floating up into the sky in honour of a lost daughter lift the scene and every scene around it. My problem with Frozen is that it doesn’t have that. You may argue that “Let it Go” fulfils the quota, but I don’t think that moment works, and even if it did it showcases the character, not the film. The choral intro and opening song aims for the opening to The Lion King, but it comes off as lightweight. The score is perfectly fine, it just lacked gravity.

I did feel that, when it came to the songs, Menzel’s voice is far too mature for a character who must be 21, which that works against the film. Perhaps it’s unfair to criticise Frozen for casting one of the greatest musical theatre actresses around. But the thing is, I’ve seen a lot of animation, a lot of Studio Ghibli films in dubbed form, and I can’t think of many examples that caused me the disconnect between the character and the voice that I found in that song (speaking voice is fine). Not to desecrate another sacred cow, but I spent the entirety of How to Train Your Dragon with the sense that the voices weren’t coming out of the mouths of those characters, and the loss of that suspension of disbelief can be near-fatal to a film.

The thing is, I worry that the film was Disney Channel rather than Disney. I define Disney Channel how Neil Gaiman defines it – someone thinks no-one’s thrown them a birthday party, they spend the episode sad about how everyone’s forgotten their birthday, but it turns out that it was a misunderstand, and their friends have thrown them a surprise party, and everyone’s happy at the end. That sort of lame storytelling is my problem with Frozen. Imagine the film where Elsa had turned evil, and turned the kingdom to ice on purpose, rejected her sister with violence, almost killed her, and still Anna sacrificed herself because despite all that, she was still her sister, and she loved her. That sort of intense emotion that you get in Tangled and Beauty and the Beast and non-Princess films like Wreck-It Ralph, that’s an element of what I watch Disney for, and was missing in Frozen, because Elsa was never really that bad – or, indeed, responsible for her actions. As I said earlier, she lacked a degree of agency, and agency on all sides of a conflict makes any conflict immediately more interesting. They seemed to be trying to keep both sisters as protagonists, and as good people, even though one has to move into being the antagonist because that’s how mainstream film works. It’s a stupid restriction, based on the wrongheaded assumption that you have to be the good guy to have the audience identify with what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Just look at Loki. He’s clearly wrong, but you can understand and sympathise with what he’s doing. Yes, it’s good that you have two female heroic protagonists in a film, when most struggle with one, but having Elsa as even a proper anti-hero would have made the story better.

I would be interested to see someone put forward a decent argument that Frozen is driven by the comedy. The thought puts me in mind of Iron Man 3, which I defended from those who were disappointed that it didn’t succeed in their expectations of a superhero action movie, because to me it worked completely as a comedy. Action and comedy aren’t really that dissimilar. Instead of action beats, where something is set up, then something is resolved, you have comedic beats, where something is set up, and then something is subverted – a punchline rather than a punch. Of course, being an Iron Man film, you had plenty of action beats, but I felt that the primacy of the comedic beats in Iron Man 3 played on the strengths of the previous films. The action may have occasionally been a bit ropey, but what they had over other superhero films was that they were funny. The other thing is that while action films tend to be anal about three-act structure, the fundamental point is that they reach a climax, and then there’s a comedown, and comedy films aren’t that different. Superheroics is such a porous genre that you can do any sort of other genre within it – sf, horror, crime thriller – and still succeed as a superhero film. Since Iron Man 3 succeeds both as an Iron Man film – that is, alongside the other films, rather than necessarily the comics – and as an action comedy, it succeeds as a superhero film.

I’ve not been diminishing Frozen by saying it was funny – it probably is from start to finish the funniest film in the Disney canon. The silly was sublimely silly – I’m a big fan of Winnie the Pooh, and Frozen equals if not exceeds that film when it comes to joyful humour. It’s the jokes that keeps the film barrelling along like it does, that gives it the energy and the drive that Frozen undoubtedly has, and might make one forgive its clear narrative flaws. Even here, though, I wonder. Often in Frozen, the characters are in a situation, then a character jokes about the absurdity of the situation. This seems less like the set up/subvert structure of the classic comedy, and more like papering over the cracks of a ropey script. A sequence of gags is fine, but it takes more than that to make a film. Either way, though, comedy is far enough from the structure and expectations of a Princess film that I couldn’t accept it as an example of the subgenre, however well it succeeds, and as a Disney film, this complete lack of story coherence leaves it leagues behind.

As a final thought, I am put in mind of The Emperor’s New Groove, another incredibly funny Disney film (they’ve made a few). Originally to have been a more traditional Disney musical called Kingdom of the Sun, the development hell that often ensnares an animated film in production transformed it into something quite different, a fairly disposable comedy. The Snow Queen has been a concern for Disney for much longer – the earliest thoughts concerning it date from the 1940s, and it was revived as a going concern in the ’90s and ’00s. The version that became Frozen dates from 2008, though it appears to have been through quite  few iterations since then, particularly after the release of Tangled. But again, you have a Disney film in active development, that has hit some story trouble, and has finally come out as a fairly disposable comedy, albeit with better songs.

I’ve come across a quotation from Jennifer Lee, co-director and one of the screenwriters, who said that it was never their or the studio’s intention to make a Princess film, which is fine, but perhaps misleading. It certainly looks enough like a Princess film that it will probably be considered one – it has the love story and the showstopping ballad and so on, after all. But even as a Disney film, I can point out over twenty others that tell a story more competently, and most of these have the Disney magic that Frozen lacks. I’ll emphasise again, I enjoyed the film, in an honest way, but it seems like it was rushed into completion. My frustration with the film is not that it’s bad, but because there’s a bad point for every good one, and because the story is fixable.

Bob Iger, Disney Chairman and CEO, has revealed there are plans to turn Frozen into a Broadway musical. If this pans out, it could well be the best thing for it. The lyric problems I’ve detailed with “Let it Go” turn into assets in a stage show, when the true majesty of ice powers would have to be suggested more than it is seen, and I spent a good car journey wondering how you could transform an entire theatre into ice during a production number at the end of act one. It would give them another chance to bash the story into a real shape, with action and consequences, allow the opportunity for good flesh-and-blood actors to play subtleties and emotions that the animators missed in this film, and would probably good fun to see. Or it may be pants. If it looks anything like Beauty and the Beast looks on stage, it doesn’t matter what beautiful new songs you put in, it’ll just be ridiculous. But we live in hope, and wish upon a star.

With thanks to Kayla, Meenu, James B, Ben J, Grace, Laurie, and even Issy, for their debate and input.

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