Tuesday, December 17, 2013

FROZEN and the Disney Renaissance

I grew up on Disney Princesses. To this day I long for red hair, wish I could sing, name the squirrels that hang around my office window, and still hold out hope that Prince Charming is going to ride into my life some day.

Of course, being of sound mind and legal age, I know that none of this is rooted in reality. In fact, many feminists criticize the "Disney Princess Movement" for creating undesirable role models for young women. For instance, Ariel literally gives up her voice and changes who she is to be with Eric. (To be fair, Eric was a total babe).

That began to change last year, though, with the Oscar winning film Brave. Audiences fell in love with the ballsy, wild-haired, bow-wielding Princess Merida, and feminists rejoiced at the change in pace. She had no interest in getting married, and wanted to be a warrior. It was revolutionary, believe it or not, because it was the first time (at least in my memory) that a Disney Princess movie shrugged the romance angle entirely to instead focus on the relationship between two women (in this case, mother and daughter). Sadly, these great strides were almost completely erased when Disney marketers "relaunched" Merida into the Disney Princess line with a sexy redesign. This enraged mothers and feminists, and even caused the films co-director Brenda Chapman to publicly denounce Disney's decision.


Luckily, Frozen gives me hope that Disney is (slowly but surely) beginning to understand what they should be doing when it comes to female characters. Not only are we treated to another plot which centres on the relationship between two women, but the film actively rejects and even makes fun of Disney's prior narrative structures and character models. It's this awareness, coupled with a continued move towards dominant and multi-faceted Princesses, that bodes well for future Disney efforts. With proper care, it may even reverse some of the damage they did sexing-up Merida last spring.

Frozen tells the story of Princess Anna (Kristen Bell) and older sister Elsa (Idina Menzel), the orphaned royal daughters of a fictional Scandinavian kingdom, Arendelle. Since birth, Elsa was gifted with magical powers that allow her to freeze the world around her. Unable to control her powerful gift, Elsa hides herself away to prevent a repeat of a childhood accident which nearly killed her sister. Anna, who has no memory of her near-death experience, entertains herself by fantasizing about one day being swept off her feet by a handsome Prince. When her sisters Coronation Day arrives, her wish is granted when she meets Hans (Santiago Fontana). They dance, they fall in love, and they get engaged: all in one night.

"Yeah right!" called out the 7-year-old girl sitting in front of me.

"Thank you! See?" my best friend said, her arms crossed defiantly. I had brought her to the movie because of our mutual love for Disney. But now she was looking at me like I had betrayed her, and I started to get worried that we had both been led astray.

Instead, Disney agreed with us. First, Elsa advises her sister that she should get to know Hans before agreeing to marry him, tells her "you can't love someone until you know them", and tells Anna that she's rushing into things. This is a sentiment that is frequently repeated by other characters throughout the film, rejecting the "love at first sight" ideal that Disney has always heavily leaned on. This about-face was my first clue that I was about to see something very special indeed.

When Elsa loses control and accidentally reveals her powers, she flees to the snow capped mountains and leaves the kingdom locked in a deep-freeze. Anna, leaving Arendelle in the hands of her dreamy new fiancee, journeys into the mountains to find her sister. Pampered and ill-equipped to make the journey, she eventually seeks help from an ice-salesman named Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and his reindeer Sven. He thinks she's spoiled and she thinks he's gross, but we all know that won't last long, right?

Disney carefully executed this film, making the wise choice to select an experienced Disney writer/director, Chris Buck (Pocahontas), and teaming him up with up-and-coming female writer/director Jennifer Lee (Wreck-It Ralph). They then cast established stars like Kristen Bell alongside Broadway powerhouses Jonathan Groff and the incomparable Idina Menzel (the music is still stuck in my head, by the way).

I kept thinking that I knew where this story was going, and you might too, but Disney surprised me when I least expected it. Even a character I expected to be the Disney equivalent to Jar Jar Binks, Olaf the Snowman, is adorably and hilariously brought to life by Josh Gad.  The animation, done in the new style we first saw with Tangled and Brave, is also spot on as always. With such a well-rounded film, I would be stunned if it didn't take home an Oscar this year.

But what's the message?

I always try to boil a children's film down to it's essence and find out what it's meant to teach it's young audience. I believe that, unlike more mature-rated films, children's movies have an added responsibility to provide some kind of moral or intellectual value to the tiny humans who will inevitably force their parents to watch it seventeen thousand times on DVD.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about Disney's new direction is the overhaul of the message they're sending young girls. In Frozen, our heroines must remember that their love for each other is stronger than any obstacle that man or magic may put in their path. They learn to never silence their voice, to never push their feelings inside, and to never be ashamed of who they are. What they believe makes them weak in fact makes them strong and when united, strong women can achieve anything.



  1. Thanks Katie :) I loved this review and I think that all the things you have pointed out about Disney films in the past and present are valid and so helpful in critically understanding how media can influence it's audience. Especially in the case of children, who are way more susceptible to the often unrealistic standards children's media sets for them.
    I also have recently watched this film and enjoyed it very much. It was great to see Disney making its way towards a more positive outlook on love and life for children. I would also like to point out some things I noticed about the film that I feel Disney can hopefully in the future change for the benefits of children and adults who watch their films.
    Although I enjoyed very much the way Disney denounced the "love at first sight" ideal in...yup, pretty much all of their old movies. I felt it was a bit "surface-y" in their delivery of this idea. First, despite all the positive changes Disney is making in recent years, all the female main characters in their movies are carved out of one body. Racially, they are of one race... (yes Pocahontas and Aladdin could be an exception but they are not when it comes to body image/body type). Secondly, in Frozen, when Elsa runs away into the snowy mountains, she transforms herself using her power.... however, this transformation is not far off from past Disney films like The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast (which was my favorite when I was a little girl). Elsa transforms from a fearful princess into a powerful woman. but the symbol of this transformation, the one that is most easily seen and would be more picked up on for younger audiences is her silvery dress after her transformation. I know there are many papers out there pointing out the sexualization of female bodies and I feel that Disney continues to send out this message of sexy means a specific body type, showing more skin and tighter clothes and I even have to say having a certain skin color. I also want to make a bolder suggestion that Disney is sending out the message that being happier means having a certain body type, dressing a certain way and being of a certain color.
    Despite these points I have made, I still want to say that this does not detracts from what you have pointed out about the recent changes in media. Disney, being such a huge influence in what children today are learning and how they come to understand themselves and others, will have much more to improve on and work on in order to become a more socially responsible company through their films. This film, among many others (Brave was SOOO amazing!) however, is a definite positive step towards bringing more awareness into our world.
    Again, thanks Katie for reviewing this movie! :)

    - L

    1. Great points! I agree with you a lot, as well. They have started to move towards this cartoon, Barbie-esque frames that are in no way really human, and I do see what you mean about the Elsa become sexualized when she becomes more powerful. However, I saw it more as becoming more free. She was very covered up and buttoned up, both emotionally and physically, in the first part of the film. She freed herself, took off the layers, and literally sparkled. Sure, it's sexy, but I didn't feel overly so. I guess I just didn't feel the camera was taking on an overly male gaze, so maybe I felt less inclined to notice.

      The representations of race in Disney films, both contemporarily and historically, is a whole other ball of wax. A very complicated and messed up one, sullied by extreme racism, fascism, and misrepresentation. I think that's a hurdle they've shown they're trying to jump, as well, (THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG, for instance), but I haven't seen any major strides in that area. Their films, like many in Hollywood, are largely white washed. It's an important parallel to draw, though, because both women and minorities face similar struggles to be equally represented in the industry. Like I said, the idea that I'm applauding a story line like that of BRAVE, where the main relationship is that of a woman, is a little sad. But we must take the victories where we can! They're clearly making a concerted effort, and I'll give them points for that.

  2. I kept hearing about "Frozen" and very much wondered about it. I'm glad to have the knowledge from this review :)

    1. Definitely worth the ticket, that's for sure. I'm betting it'll win the Oscar handily.