The Curious Case of Frozen
by Jansen Musico
D: Jennifer Lee, Chris Buck
S: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Santino Fontana
WARNING: Spoilers ahead.
Much has already been said about Frozen, which, to this day, is still generating one form of discourse or another. For an animated Disney film, this is no peculiar feat. These films have always relished in the residual buzz emanating from Disney’s golden age. But to brush off the company’s continuing success as an effect of nostalgia would be unfair. These recent years have given us some noteworthy films in like The Princess and the Frog, Wreck It Ralph, and Tangled—each lauded for their attempts to push boundaries of Disney storytelling. Frozen seeks to do the same. Though it makes heavy use of traditional Disney elements, there is a novelty in it that not only captures its audience’s attention but also, in some ways, moves them to exchange and dissect ideas.
The kinds of discussions Frozen generates are interesting. Like any film, Frozen can be processed differently by different people. No matter the filmmaker’s intention, how a film is understood, felt, and experienced will always be subject to the varying tastes and biases of its viewers. As cultural theorist Stuart Hall puts it, the encoded message and the decoded message will not always be the same. Since Frozen is a film that’s so rich in encoded ideas, the decoded ones come in vast numbers and in varying degrees of deviation. Put it simply, the film is polarizing. Though generally loved, Frozen is both praised and booed, but not for the same reasons.
Origins and Color
A lot of the flak Frozen’s been receiving is not for the film’s story or form, but for its characters’ skin tones. The portrayal of race has always been a controversial issue, not only for Disney but Hollywood as a whole. There isn’t much cultural representation in mainstream American film, and if there were, most often than not, people of color are misrepresented.
The backlash came even before the film hit theaters. The promotional images of pale-skinned characters caused several raised eyebrows. For the unaware, Frozen is based on the Danish tale “The Snow Queen” by Hans Christian Andersen (one of my favorite stories as a kid), and is set in Norway. Much of the clamor arose when it was pointed out that the pale characters were a misrepresentation of the Sami, the indigenous people of Norway, who were not intrinsically white. This is where the period of the narrative should be considered. “The Snow Queen” was set in the late 1800s. By this time, Norway would have already been a melting pot of cultures and genes from Europe and North America. Given Europe’s history with indigenous people, the Sami were most likely displaced, and pale skin would have been a norm.
But then again, Disney has never really been known to be faithful to its source material. Its portfolio of animated films is proof of how much Disney likes to deviate. If they were set on having a Sami Disney princess, they would have done it, but they didn’t. Instead, they gave us their first two Scandinavian Disney heroines. A quick review of the old princesses tells me this: Aurora, Belle, and Cinderella are French, Snow White and Rapunzel are German, Jasmine’s Arabian, Mulan’s Chinese, Pocahontas’s Powhatan Pamunkey, Merida’s Scottish, Tiana’s American, and Ariel’s related to tuna. This means that though Elsa and Anna may not have darker skin, they still represent a culture different from those of the current roster of Disney heroines.
Though it would have been nice to see more diversity in color, it would be wrong to belabor Frozen for not adhering to the standards of all its viewers. To please everyone would be impossible. In the words of postmodern critic Craig Owens, “No one narrative can possibly account for all aspects of human experience.” This doesn’t mean to say that all sentiments about race are invalid. But it also shouldn’t be the sole barometer that Frozen is measured against.
As stated earlier, Disney took liberties in retelling “The Snow Queen,” drastic liberties, in fact. Disney has this habit of plucking out recognizable elements from stories and reworking them to make the end result more savory (read: kid-friendly.) In Frozen, they borrowed “The Snow Queen’s” titular queen, the troll, the snow, and the frozen metaphor and did away with everything else. Even though “The Snow Queen,” in its original form, is strong enough to withstand a full-length treatment, Disney has its reasons behind their alterations. And lucky for them, Jennifer Lee, screenwriter of Wreck-It Ralph, was tasked to make these changes. She, together with other story developers, and songwriter Robert Lopez, were able to infuse a spoonful of sugar into this revamped hard-hitting feminist tale.
Sisters Before Misters
Ever since Snow White’s debut in 1937, Disney has been on a mission to fine-tune their depiction of women to suit the times. The early days of Disney introduced the damsels in distress as delicate ill-fated women in need of a prince to find their happy ever afters. These women are treated as the objects of princely affection (whose stories are purely dependent on their external circumstances) rather than the subjects driving their own fortunes. The Disney renaissance of the 90s and its succeeding years saw these women trade in their passive selves for more active roles, ladies taking up the reins of their lives, pursuing their dreams, and making a positive difference: Tiana rescues her prince and builds her own business; Mulan breaks gender stereotypes and saves her country; and Merida and her mother Elinor save each other and abolish arranged marriage in the process. The latest in that growing list are sisters Elsa and Anna.
In Frozen, the two are introduced as kids. A sprightly Anna wakes her older sister in the middle of the night so they can play. An ensuing accident leads to a sequence establishing the relationship between the ladies and the rules governing Elsa’s choices throughout the film. From here on, Elsa’s struggle begins. With her ability to conjure ice, she’s automatically placed on the seat of power. Not only does she have this uncanny ability, she is also set to rule the kingdom of Arendelle. (This, in itself, is a step forward for Disney. Elsa is a queen, not a princess with a prerequisite prince to rule.) An older Elsa is governed by fear, not really of the harm that may befall her, but by the harm she can inflict on others. Her solitary confinement is her choice. It is an act of selflessness made to look selfish because of outside biases and preconceived notions of her.
On the other hand, Anna, having her childhood memories distorted, is unaware of her sister’s plight. As a result of her being sheltered and alone, she longs for affection, both her sister’s and of a man’s. Though portrayed innocent, her actions are brash and selfish. Anna is concerned of her own happiness. She sees herself as a victim of her sister’s supposed self-centeredness. It takes another accident during Elsa’s coronation to alter these sisters’ characters.
Elsa heads to the mountains to relinquish her royal responsibilities—as signified by the removal of her cape and crown. Her “Let It Go” is not only a celebration of her freedom from fear, it’s also the swan song of her old self, a momentary manifestation of self-regard, a shedding of old skin. Ironically, Elsa does not physically shed all of her old clothes when she transitions into her own woman. Instead, she covers herself up with fresh garments, a new skin.
Anna also makes her way up the mountains to rectify her sister’s mistakes. Cold and alone, she spots a trading post where she meets an iceman named Kristoff. Lacking in knowledge of the mountains, she commandeers Kristoff’s services as a guide. This, by no means, demonstrates Anna’s weakness. Her banter and adventure with Kristoff (notably the sled and giant snowman sequences) validate her status as a woman with her own mind and set of skills. Her moment of selflessness arises during the penultimate point of the film, when she offers up herself to save Elsa from certain death.
This expression of selflessness sets Frozen apart from its contemporaries. Anna, cursed with a frozen heart, needs an act of true love to survive. Normally, in Disney mythology, a curse would be broken with a true love’s kiss. Surely Snow White, Aurora, and Tiana are fully aware of its mechanics. But in this case, Anna needed no man to liberate herself and save her sister. Her self-sacrifice was the key to her own salvation. Sure, Merida, too, needed no man to lift the curse off her family, but unlike Anna, Merida didn’t have the option of kissing two men vying for her heart. (And no, Merida’s suitors do not count.) Anna ultimately chose her sister over a man.
Lee is a brilliant writer, seasoning the narrative with subtle details that make for poignant contrasts. In the scene where Anna is left to freeze to death in a locked room, Olaf, the animated snowman, comes to her rescue and starts a fire. Mid-dialogue, he begins melting and says, “Some people are worth melting for.” It’s a tender moment. Olaf, enlightened about his fate, would much rather stay with Anna to keep her warm. Minutes later, it’s Anna who freezes to death to save her sister.
The addition of Lopez’s songs adds another imperative layer to Frozen’s already plush narrative. It is evident that Lopez—whose works had catapulted shows like Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon into Broadway and beyond—would treat Frozen as if it were a stage musical. He opens strong with “Frozen Heart,” an anthem for the icemen who regard the ice as if it were human, personifying it with adjectives that bear more meaning as the film progresses. Not only does the song describe the setting of the story, it also foreshadows the succeeding events.
Lopez follows this up with “Do You Want to Build a Snowman,” a demonstration of his ability to stir emotions. Layered over a montage of passing time, the song’s lines, as if a series of switches, interchangeably and fluidly turn on feelings of joy, awe, and sadness. His wit is on full display in “In Summer,” perfectly performed by Mormon’s Josh Gad. Olaf’s naiveté coupled with playful rhymes and a clever pregnant pause make for a very funny break in the film.
But Lopez’s moment of pure genius comes in the form of Disney’s most nonthreatening villain song to date, “Love is an Open Door.” Compared to its predecessors, which are outright exhibitions of vanity and dominance, this duet shared by Anna and Hans is understated. Since the song brims with Anna’s optimism and earnestness, its true connotations are effectively veiled. When Hans sings “I’ve been searching my whole life to find my own place,” it’s a forewarning of his true intentions of usurping the Arendelle throne. He repeats this when he an Anna exchange lines. He sings, “But with you I found my place.” Anna alternately sings, “But with you I see your face,” denoting that her judgment is clouded by his looks. Later on, it’s revealed that Hans had been deceiving Anna all along.
Another song worthy of mention is “Fixer Upper.” At first pass, it comes off as filler, as if its sole purpose is to give the trolls some activity before news of Anna’s fatal ailment is broken. The stone creatures take time showing off Kristoff, poring over each of his imperfections and good qualities for Anna to consume. Feminist texts have long pointed out how women are objectified by film and how they are demoted to an image for man’s consumption. For Kristoff, a man, to become subject to the viewer’s gaze, it’s innovative. Sure, Anna, too, is briefly placed under scrutiny during the song, but the criticisms of her are neither about her looks nor traits but rather the fact that she’s already engaged.
With everything going on in a film like Frozen, it is easy for anyone to gloss over its hidden merits or, inversely, obsess about the trivial. Regardless, the amount of discourse it has spawned since its release in November last year confirms Disney’s continuing influence. With its treatment of characters like Anna and Elsa, the company is showing signs of progression. Disney is willing to grow with its audience. But of course, this will be tested over time.