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.

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So He Wasn’t My Prince Charming

Oh, the end of a fairy tale. The fairy tale ending is often overly simplistic, including a true love that develops tout de suite without any work at all. It leaves no real vision for what actually happens ‘ever after,’ other than that it happens, well, happily. Reality, of course, is a bit messier.

My reality has never included a fairy tale ending, and I suppose I could really say that my reality has never really included a fairy tale middle either. But I might go so far as to describe one chance meeting as a fairy tale beginning. It was, by no means, a traditional fairy tale; there were no speaking animals, no magical assistants (read fairy godmother), and no real female virtue to speak of. In the same way that Cinderella unexpectedly found herself all dolled up with somewhere to go, I was walking through the streets of Manhattan heading to a ball (okay, just a birthday party) on a glitzy rooftop bar. On my way to the subway station, I ran into some actors who play FBI agents on one of my favorite summertime shows. This was a fun run-in all on its own, but it became even more serendipitous when later that evening I met my first real-life FBI agent.

Life sometimes conspires to push people together, and that night, the FBI guy and I were the only single people at a mutual friend’s birthday party. We were sitting together with a group of people chatting and sipping on pricey drinks (it was a glitzy rooftop bar, after all), as the people around us at the table slowly disappeared, wondering off to speak to other invitees as they arrived. At the end of the night, we were quite attached to one another, and after everyone else in our group had left the bar, we got quite comfy on our couch.

Things moved quickly, and I was enamored from that very first night. But my fairy tale never got written. Challenging work schedules, summer traveling, and a sheer lack of motivation on the part of my not-so-prince-charming resulted in five “dates” over the course of three months, followed by two months of anxious anticipation of the elusive sixth date. The date that will never happen.

Why am I writing about this? Why do I care that this story has not become the story I wished it would? As stated in a previous post, this is the worst year of my life. I am working hard to find happiness and stay sane. And as sad as it may seem, the hope of this man – even if it was just the hope of a next date, and not realistically the hope of a happily ever after – was helping to pull me through. The carefully crafted narrative of what might have been, the idea that somewhere out there in this big city someone was thinking about me like I was thinking about him, these daydreams were making the future look better. In a way, that’s what a fairy tale is for me, the hope for a future that is better than the present, better than the future most likely to come – in short, a fantasy.