Loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen's 'The Snow Queen', Disney's newest movie is one of the best animated films of the year - but that's not saying much.
"You know, there’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you." explained Inga to Frederick in Mel Brook’s classic comedy
Young Frankenstein, referring to the operation which successfully took away part of the doctor’s considerable intellect in order to repair the damaged mind of his creation. "In the transference, the monster got part of your wonderful brain. But what did you ever get from him?"
I’ve had a version of that question rolling around my skull for years now ever since The Disney Company started buying up a good chunk of my geeky obsessions. Marvel Comics, LucasFilm, The Muppets, Pixar, the list is staggering. Thank the Lord they can’t buy the Catholic Church (you know they would if they could), otherwise I’d have no choice but to simply give up and bow down before the almighty mouse overlord. Still, even without a religion under their belt, the sheer amount of intellectual properties now owned by Disney is impressive, and I’ve often wondered when we would start seeing some aspects of their acquisitions begin to bleed over into their main brand. Well, I’ve finally gotten my answer because I’ve just seen
Loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s
The Snow Queen (and I mean very loosely, as in both stories have snow in them and that’s about it),
Frozen tells the tale of Princess Elsa, burdened since birth with the ability to create ice out of thin air, and her younger sister Princess Anna, who accidentally receives a near fatal case of brain freeze from her sibling while the two tots are playing around the family castle. Hoping to find a cure for both children, the king and queen travel with their daughters to consult the magical rock trolls who live in the nearby mountains. It’s from these creatures that the royal family receives the dubious advice to lock Elsa away from all human contact, teach her to suppress any strong emotion, and to allow the trolls to magically remove all of Anna’s memories of her sister’s abilities. Fearing for their eldest daughter’s life if she is perceived to be a witch by the citizens of their perpetually sunny kingdom, the parent’s reluctantly agree to all of the trolls’ conditions.
Completely isolated from the public and from each other, the girls grow to their teens behind the castle walls. When their parents die during a sea voyage, however, Elsa finds she has no choice but to undergo the coronation which will crown her as the new queen. While Elsa makes her plans to make it through the ceremony without revealing her powers, the ecstatic Anna wanders off into the city for the first time and immediately falls head over heals for Hans, the youngest of thirteen princes from a neighboring kingdom. When Elsa sensibly denies Anna permission to marry someone she has just met, Anna creates such a scene that Elsa looses control and inadvertently exposes her abilities to a horrified public. Terrified that she will be arrested for witchcraft, Elsa flees to the mountains, unaware that her emotional turmoil has created an ice storm so severe that the entire kingdom has frozen over.
And so begins a series of adventures as Anna pursues her sister into the mountains in order to bring Elsa home and return the weather to normal, enlisting along the way the help of Kristoff, an awkward young ice salesman raised since childhood by the rock trolls, Kristoff’s reindeer companion Sven, and a sentient snowman by the name of Olaf. In many ways the movie is classic Disney, just with the standard tropes multiplied by two to up the stakes a little. There’s two (not one, but two, count’em two) princesses, two dead parents, two potential suitors for the youngest girl, and two goofy non-human sidekicks. It’s almost as if the filmmakers looked at the success of their previous effort,
Tangled, and said to themselves, "Hey, let’s do the same thing all over again, except this time… let’s make two of everything. It’ll be twice as good, right?"
Well, no, not really. In a year notoriously weak for its animated features,
Frozen ranks near the top of the heap almost by default, but it’s not quite the return to the renaissance days of
The Little Mermaid or
Beauty and the Beast that the advertising would lead you to believe it is. While the movie mostly follows the Disney formula, it messes up some of the ingredients, in particular the musical numbers. The music is serviceable and advances the story along like it should, but the tunes are forgettable and the lyrics are nowhere near as clever as they think they are. Once the film is over, odds are you’ll be hard pressed to recall enough of the melodies to be able to hum a few bars.
On top of that, the film also stumbles a bit in the areas from which it borrows from some of Disney’s subsidiary companies. Elsa’s predicament is straight out of Marvel’s X-Men. A young girl born with extraordinary powers must hide from a populace who fears the unknown. Except that’s not quite what the movie portrays. Really, the king and queen simply accept the rock trolls’ admonition that people will react that way if they learn of Elsa’s abilities, and instantly force their daughters into a psychologically scarring living arrangement. But when Elsa’s powers are finally revealed, only one (count’em one) person actually accuses her of being a witch (you would think in a movie that doubled everything else, they would have at least of had two people make the accusation). The rest of the city just seems to want the warm weather back. Not exactly the mutant hysteria one was expecting.
But that’s a minor quibble. More bothersome is how
Frozen messes up what it tries to borrow from Pixar. In the classic Disney films of old, the characters acted more or less along the lines of traditional gender roles. Even though the princesses were the main characters, they eventually got into trouble and the princes had to come and rescue them. In a post feminist world, of course, this kind of arrangement was intolerable. After all, what kind of real (or animated) woman could possibly need a man to save her? So in recent years, Disney fell in line with conventional wisdom and made sure their princesses participated in their fair share of battles and did everything a boy could be expected to do.
Pixar shook up that new status quo, though, with its contribution to the Disney princess roster, Merida from Brave. Spurred on by her father’s approval, Merida develops into an accomplished archer, better than any man in the kingdom. But over the course of the movie, much to the horror of hyper-feminist reviewers everywhere, Merida learns from her mother that rather than a direct confrontational approach, more traditionally feminine traits are often called for when addressing certain situations. Merida comes to know and appreciate what Pope Francis recently pointed out in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium
(The Joy of the Gospel), that is "the indispensable contribution which women make to society through the sensitivity, intuition and other distinctive skill sets which they, more than men, tend to possess.”
Following Pixar’s lead, both of Frozen’s princesses are strong, capable characters, but rather than just being boys with suspicious curves, Elsa and Anna surprisingly embody those traditionally feminine traits the Holy Father was speaking of. While the men of the city make warlike preparations, Anna’s solution to the crisis at hand is to simply find her sister and talk things over. She never once brandishes a weapon throughout the whole movie. And Elsa, who could easily kill every single living being in the kingdom, never willfully uses her power to harm anyone. Her first thought, in fact, is to separate herself from others so nobody gets hurt. She uses her powers only to create (the building of her ice castle is a visual highlight of the film) or in a defensive way. Even the giant ice creature (non-threateningly named Marshmallow) she manifests to guard her palace does little more than try to chase people away. There’s not a warrior princess to be found in Frozen and it’s a better movie for it.
Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t treat its male characters as nicely. Of the two main male protagonists, the one who comes the closest to embodying traditionally male traits such as chivalry and physical courage is stupidly turned into a villain at the last minute because the scriptwriters wrongly assume the movie needs one. Meanwhile the other main guy ends up embodying… nothing. He’s probably the most useless male lead yet seen in a Disney film. I’m trying to think of one thing he accomplishes during the whole film and I’m drawing a blank. So instead of borrowing properly from Pixar and giving us a Mr. and Mrs. Incredible, Frozen instead provides us two Mrs. Incredibles and zero functioning male role models.
Maybe that’s one of the reasons why my eleven year old son wasn’t ecstatic about Frozen. Oh, he enjoyed it, for sure. He found the reindeer and the snowman funny, and had a good laugh whenever they were on-screen. But as we walked from the theater, he didn’t demand that we immediately buy the DVD, which is sort of his version of saying a film is a must-see. And I have to agree with him. Frozen isn’t a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination. It’s just not a great movie either. If I may borrow from the late great Siskel & Ebert, for a film that tries to give us two of everything, Frozen unfortunately earns only one thumbs up.