Advance Perspective: Disney’s Frozen Defies Expectations

October 26, 2013

frozenposterI had the opportunity to see an early screening of Disney’s upcoming animated movie, slated for a Thanksgiving release. “Frozen” is the first Disney animated feature directed by a woman — Jennifer Lee. Despite this fact, I was a little nervous about seeing this movie, because the speculative articles I had read weren’t encouraging. I was also put off by the theater displays featuring a giant cardboard Snowman in a grass skirt playing a ukulele. And the trailer, which featured a goofy guy and his goofy moose. Nothing about the marketing appealed to me, at all.

I was particularly worried because I knew this was going to be a “princess movie,” and historically, Disney Princesses do little more than anger me. Add in the marketing, and it all seemed to scream out “it’s princesses, but don’t worry, there’s lots of boy stuff, too!” Disney movies are the epitome of gender stereotyping, and I really felt — based on the pandering trailer and signage — that this was going to be the worst.

And so it is with great surprise, and even greater joy, that I can say that this movie was exciting, adventurous, and nearly flawlessly feminist. I went with a group of boys and girls, ages 6 through 10, and all of them proclaimed it “the best movie ever.” The boys didn’t have the impression that it was a girly movie, and the girls felt empowered by the characters, the relationships, and the story itself.

My two biggest — perhaps only — complaints are that the two main female characters are, as expected, wide-eyed and impossibly thin and that there are not any people of color in the whole movie. I expect the excuse for the lack of non-white characters to be that people who live near the fjords tend to be pretty pale, but if we’re talking about a movie that has trolls, an anthropomorphic snowman, and a surprisingly sentient reindeer, we’re not talking about strict realism here. As for the thin, traditionally pretty female characters — to be fair, the crowd scenes involved women of all shapes and sizes, but there were a few secondary characters who could easily have been women instead of men in order to move the cast list a little closer towards gender parity. The proprietor of the trading post, for example, could easily have been a woman, or some of the visiting leaders of nearby kingdoms, who are part of a minor plot line, could easily have been women and have a little variety in their skin tones.

Now, I’m not attempting to minimize those issues, but I am here to celebrate the things Frozen gets right. And there are a lot of things Frozen gets right. The non-spoiled version of my explanation is simply this: both female characters — the protagonist Anna, and her sister Elsa, the Snow Queen — have strong personalities, make bold choices, display courage and intelligence, and neither woman is ever praised for her beauty. Anna is quirky, playful, and a little bit awkward, in the most charming way. This is not, at any point, a story about a frail girl being saved by a noble man (even when it looks like that’s exactly where things are heading). And every single time I cringed, expecting the worst possible misogynist dreck on the horizon — this film addressed my fearful expectations head-on, acknowledged them, and then went another direction. I admit that I did see the climax coming — not because it was the obvious choice, but because I was crossing my fingers and hoping for an unconventional outcome, and fortunately, I got my wish.

This movie had all of the typical elements of a typical Disney fairy tale. But there’s something about it all — it’s almost like the film was made by a team of people who have spent their lives bothered by all of the same things that bother me about typical Disney fairy tales.

Even that snowman — the typical ridiculous Disney sidekick — even the snowman was a joy to watch. I generally loathe those comic-relief characters, possibly because I am a complete curmudgeon, but Olaf the snowman was really and truly funny. I found myself laughing out loud and clapping my hands like a toddler whenever he came on the screen. He was absolutely delightful. And believe me, that’s not a word I toss around lightly.

Now I’m going to get into some details, so if you want to experience Frozen without knowing the outcome, stop reading. Just have a little faith, and go see the movie. Take your favorite girl and boy children of all ages, and rest assured that you won’t be bombarding them with animated misogyny.

Now. For the spoilers.

This is a Disney fairy tale. So, obviously, there’s a tragedy which kills off the parents and orphans the central characters — a pair of sisters named Anna and Elsa. In this case, though, the parents were never really a huge part of the emotional landscape of either girl, and though their loss impacts the events of the story, you don’t really see the girls mourning their death, and it’s over (and forgotten) in a few brief scenes. The loss of the parents isn’t the main story here, it’s the divide between the sisters — something which happened long before the parents left the scene.

And then, of course, there is the meeting of the handsome prince and the falling in love at first sight— complete with a song about being made for each other. But this song is notable because it completely neglects to mention physical beauty, and instead points out the compatibility of Anna and Prince Hans. Anna is not a docile, submissive, pretty face. She is vibrant, laughing, and playful. She talks, she eats, she laughs, she flails about awkwardly without falling gracefully into her prince’s arms for a few meaningful and burning stares.

Well, I thought to myself, if they’re going to have to do that thing where the princess falls in love at first sight, at least there’s some substance to this relationship. I admit that I was begrudgingly ok with this turn of events. However, I started to like it even more when they rushed off to ask Elsa — the newly crowned Queen of Arendelle — for her blessing on their engagement, and she refused on the basis that they had just met.

And then Elsa ran away and Anna left her prince behind while she raced off to save her sister.

Anna eventually seeks the help of Kristoff — the goofy guy from the trailer — but it’s because he knows the wilderness, not because she is in need of rescue. Anna climbs mountains, she fends off wolves with both strength and cleverness, and she makes as many, if not more, decisions as Kristoff does, when it comes to their safety and survival. He’s not blazing a trail for her to follow, she’s leading the way. And he respects her for it, and treats her as his equal from the moment they start.

And the scene during which Kristoff mocks Anna for getting engaged to a guy she barely knows is pure gold. She gets huffy and defends her true love, but even then, it’s not because it was pre-ordained or because he is dreamy and makes her swoon — but because he is a good man whose company she enjoys.

Anna and Kristoff — with the help of Sven the reindeer and Olaf the snowman — search for Elsa in order to convince her to end the eternal winter she has brought to Arendelle. Now, because it’s a Disney movie, there’s also a life-threatening magic curse, and Anna’s life is in peril. So there is definitely a “save Anna!” element of the story, but it never feels like this fragility is part of Anna herself, but merely the curse.

I sighed, audibly, when it was revealed that only an act of true love could save her frozen heart, but once again, the movie confronted the cliché and upended it. By this time it was obvious that the true love wasn’t going to be Prince Hans of the love at first sight. And, so, just as expected, Kristoff and Anna realize that their friendship has grown into love. But my fervent wish from the moment I heard of the “act of true love” ex machina? I was muttering to myself “Please let it be her sister. Please let it be her sister.” And I burst into actual tears of joy when the climax unfurled in all its glory.

Rewriting the storybook definition of true love doesn’t mean that Frozen entirely gives up on romance, though. The movie has to end with a kiss. And the most significant (though subtle) feminist moment comes in that final scene — our hero takes his princess into his arms, he leans in…. and asks her permission.

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9 Responses to Advance Perspective: Disney’s Frozen Defies Expectations

  1. Eque on October 26, 2013 at 6:48 pm

    Looking forward to seeing it a.s.a.p.

  2. Vi on October 27, 2013 at 1:00 am

    I am really excited for this. Seems like an interesting and delicately handled subversion of all the themes in a typical Disney Princess movie, without bashing the romance aspect, but instead respecting it by exploring and fleshing it out much further by developing the characters. As a feminist AND a diehard romantic myself, I couldn’t be more delighted! :)

  3. […] Review of the advance screening that makes the movie look quite promising even from a feminist perspective. Note that there are spoilers in the second half, but the reviewer provides a warning. Reality is only for those who can't handle Star Trek. Reply With Quote […]

  4. FeralFemme on November 3, 2013 at 12:25 am

    The Hans Christian Anderson story that this film is supposedly based on was MUCH more feminist. It had the female protagonist go rescue a MALE from his captor, the Snow Queen. Plus it had lots of strong female characters – the Queen, the aforementioned protagonist (whose name was Gerda), and a little girl thief who pretty much ruled a gang of robbers. Why did Disney change the story so much for this warmed-over (or perhaps “frozen-over” is the right term) version of Tangled? So it could sell TWO princess dolls to kids? Nuts to this film, I’ll pass.

  5. […] the first animated Disney movie to be directed by by a woman – Jennifer Lee. And from the early reviews based on advanced screenings, it looks like Frozen does feature some very strong, smart and courageous heroines who can take care […]

  6. Lauren Gove on November 27, 2013 at 12:08 pm

    Man. I wanted Anna and Hans to get together and Elsa and Kristoff. But I guess that’d be to much to ask since this is Disney. I wish that Elise at least got a love interest. Now… I have no interest in this movie. And Tangled was great. One of my fav. Besides How To Train You Dragon.

  7. Frozen on December 12, 2013 at 6:51 pm

    This is a huge movie, seriously huge. You can tell the Disney animation studio really put mountains of effort and it shows they’re firing from all cylinders now. Music and awesome sisterhood story separate this from many animation offerings of the past. Also the computer generated animation is really cool, pun intended. The quality is top. I have a sister and so i felt this deep connection to this feature. I won’t lie i was moved to tears. I ended up visiting my sis and giving her a huge hug which totally caught her off guard. I am really happy to see a movie that can connect worldwide and with something so simple and profound and that is sibling bond and its special quality is demonstrated really amazingly and with a lot of tenderness. I have been singing part of your world and reflection for years and i feel that let it go and most songs i will be singing for years to come. It was new and yet nostalgic and took me back to my childhood years and recreated the spirit of the movies i adored tenfold. It has something for everyone and that is why i loved it so much. Everything from action and romance and comedy and fantasy and not forgetting the tears. Many movies from Disney are always uplifting and this one was even more so and that made this a very special experience.

  8. […] the first animated Disney movie to be directed by by a woman – Jennifer Lee. And from the early reviews based on advanced screenings, it looks like Frozen does feature some very strong, smart and courageous heroines who can take care […]

  9. Ce on April 21, 2014 at 4:52 pm

    “n this case, though, the parents were never really a huge part of the emotional landscape of either girl” – What? Elsa’s entire struggle is based on the fact that her parents’ verbally abused her, telling her not to feel and to stay hidden away. They had a HUGE impact on her. She has to overcome what they instilled in her for years as she grew up.

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