Disney’s Frozen: Surprising the Critical Fairy Tale Viewer

Anna & Elsa in the Ice Castle

The holidays are a time for family films, so this year I trekked to the theater on Thanksgiving when my sister told me she was taking my two nephews (six and four) to see Frozen. I’m pretty sure that the only part of the plot that I remembered from any trailers was a talking snowman, but I was pleasantly surprised to hear that this a Disney film. I was even happier to see that this was a fairy tale, and I have since picked up that it’s based on Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen. Since I’m not familiar with that work, I enjoyed hearing what was, to me, an original story.

Along with the beautiful design of this icy world, and the fun songs and powerful ballads, I was happy with the narrative. I quickly realized that this was designed as a Disney Princess vehicle, part of a very lucrative set of Disney films with so much marketing. However, since I didn’t know how the story would reach its happy ending, I was left to speculate. Even if I had read the Andersen, it’s possible I still wouldn’t haven known how this tale would end–based on the fact that Disney studios did some fiddling with the original to make it less dark and twisty, and more family-friendly. Other recent Disney princess films have been very satisfying: I very much enjoyed Tangled and Brave, because regardless of whether I knew the tale or not beforehand, I knew the formula and was able to watch how the story unraveled–for the princesses. Tangled included a complicated “mother”/daughter relationship, in which Rapunzel was rebellious against her “mother”-captor while feeling so very guilty about it. But that didn’t stop her from leaving home when she felt stifled by her life in the tower. Brave also made much ado about the mother/daughter relationship, and was even able to forsake any romantic developments because the development of the family was more important to the story. Both films included strong leads who were strong and daring, willing to go out on their own, work with thieves, wander after will-o’-the-wisps in the night, and fight bears. These princesses don’t sit around waiting for someone to come rescue them.

Part a trend in titles that aren’t chosen based on a character’s name (i.e. Beauty and the BeastCinderellaSnow WhiteThe Lion King, Aladdin, etc.), Frozen, like Tangled and Brave, has a strong lead, and deviates from the standard narrative formula–and even comments on that deviation. Like the Snow White and Sleeping Beauty motifs, where the princesses lie around in wait for Prince Charming, Anna’s romantic interest early in the film is a result of love at first sight; after years of being cooped up in her castle and meeting no one but the small staff, people from surrounding kingdoms are welcomed into Arendelle to see her sister’s coronation. Her desperation for love leads Anna to become engaged that night to a young prince who seems so much like her. However, the film does not just let this traditional narrative stand: Anna soon finds herself in the company of a commoner who questions (read criticizes)–multiple times–her decision to get engaged to someone she just met. The other people of Arendelle are similarly even-headed; no one expects Anna to sit back and let someone else take care of her kingdom when her sister’s magic turns the summer cold. Instead, Anna, as the second in line to the throne, is allowed to run off to find the queen and fix the whole kingdom’s woes.

The question of good and evil is similarly handled in Frozen. Early in the film, it seems fairly clear who is going to be good and who evil, as most Disney films do define these roles. There is a charming prince, there is a queen who’s magic threatens to harm others, and there is a princess who wants love and order in her kingdom. But as the story moves forward, the lines of good and evil are blurred, and the real evil isn’t revealed to the characters in the film until it’s almost over. 

As a viewer speculating about the ending of this fairy tale, I was weighing what I was expecting Disney to do with the story, and what I hoped they would do.

{SPOILERS} As it became clear that the originally identified Prince Charming was less than honest about his intentions, I could see an ending forming around a different “true love” of Anna’s. The question for me was: would true love be a romantic “true love’s kiss” or would it manifest itself in some other relationship? There was a lot of sacrifice going on in this film, from the young man walking away from the young woman because he thought that was best for her, to the snowman who would let himself melt to be sure to keep his friend warm. But the largest potential for true love to vary from the standard “true love’s kiss” seemed to be the sisterly relationship. Anna had been trying her whole life to understand why her sister blocked her out, and suddenly, knowing that it was her magical powers, she wanted to be there for her. I hoped that, when Anna was in peril, her sister Elsa would be the one to save her, and not a man. The makers of this film went even farther than I expected, however, and it was Anna who saved her sister at the risk of her own life. This act of a sister’s true love is what allowed the story to arrive at its happy ending, and not a romantic act. Pretty great. {END SPOILERS}

Frozen is part of what to me seems a new era of Disney. There are still plenty of flaws when we look at race, class, and other social factors in the most recent Disney pictures, but the Disney princesses of the 21st century are far better off than their 20th century counterparts. The studio seems to understand that since (let’s be honest, mostly) girls are looking up to these princesses as role models, it might be worth giving them some quality characters to emulate. My nephews have watched, and very much enjoyed, all of these movies, for which I’m glad. They may not want to be a princess, because they very much understand even at their young ages, that princesses are girls, but they can see from the young women of these films that women are strong people, too. Magic still plays a role in the development of these great characters, but it’s not a quick fix to a happy ending in this century. There are fights being fought, sacrifices being made, and lessons being learned by Rapunzel, Merida, Anna and Elsa–and by little kids all over the world.


3 thoughts on “Disney’s Frozen: Surprising the Critical Fairy Tale Viewer

  1. It is gratifying to see Disney forging a new path! I imagine the stickiest bit will be the problematic, persistent valuation of beauty over every other female character trait, which supports, extends, supersedes, and confirms the value attributed to intelligence, bravery, independence, compassion, etc. The NYC Girls Campaign exemplifies this dilemma: (when) can we expect these new paths to mainstream gender indentity shift the center of gravity from beauty to one of the constellation of alternatives they are actively rearranging around beauty (as the ultimate source of valuation)?

    • Oh, I agree completely! The valuation of beauty in contemporary media doesn’t make this any easier on the animators! A quick look at the CW and one might notice that all the young beautiful people are there, sans old or asymmetrical folks, and that the acting is mostly not so great, even when the writing is good. The emphasis on a certain look seems more important than acting quality, and it isn’t just in the present time, or on the CW, when that has been a problem. But there is perhaps an increase in value placed on ‘perfectly beautiful people’ in lieu of ‘interestingly beautiful people.’ Criticisms of very beautiful, well-established actresses–of the Julia-Roberts-is-a-horse-face type–make me fear that in the era of digital film, the perfectly symmetrical standard of beauty might eliminate the potential for more interesting people (women) to be stars like Roberts has been. Obviously, she’s still beautiful, but even beauty seems to be homogenized by much TV and film today.
      So what is a movie studio supposed to do when they are designing their northern princesses? Small noses, of course! I was actually a bit put off by the very small noses of Anna and Elsa, both inherentely because of the identical arch of their noses that seemed to be concave in pursuit of daintiness, and also in comparison to the broad large faces of the men, Hans and Kristoff.

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