Oh my goddess. Where did Frozen come from? It didn’t come from Hans Christian Andersen, that’s for certain; this bears so little resemblance to his “The Snow Queen” that I wonder why they even bothered with the connection. It did spring from the grand Disney tradition of full-on Broadway-style animated musicals, like we haven’t really seen since the 1990s. But unlike 2009’s throwback The Princess and the Frog, which felt like nothing more than a tired retread of the pursuit-of-romance motif that had long since been laid to rest, Frozen is — we can hope, anyway — the start of a new era for the wonderful little subgenre Disney has claimed for itself.
Because, listen: Frozen is a princess story, sure. Hell, Disney is doubling down on the princesses, cuz there’s two of ’em here. But Disney is also doubling down on the hints of nascent feminism that Brave hinted at, the barest-bones sort of feminism that accepts that girls and women might possibly want more outta life than to get married. The princesses are sisters — the elder Elsa (the voice of Idina Menzel: Enchanted) and the younger Anna (the voice of Kristen Bell: The Lifeguard, Movie 43) — and this is mostly the story of their troubled relationship. Which has nothing to do with, oh, jealously that arises over them both liking the same prince or something. (Don’t worry! This isn’t a hairy-legged feminazi sort of story. The film fully accepts that boys are totally cute and it’s really nice to be liked by them.)
When Elsa and Anna are small children, there’s an accident: Elsa’s para-ability to make things cold — a sort of arctikinesis — knocks out Anna as they’re playing in supernaturally produced snow, threatening the little girl’s life. As part of the magical cure, Anna’s memory of Elsa’s ability is taken away — cuz it’s probably a good idea that they not play like this again — and their parents, the king and queen of the realm of Arendelle, decide that Elsa should remain locked away, lest she hurt anyone else; Elsa is so terrified of doing so that she readily agrees. Fast-forward to the present, as Elsa comes of age and is about to crowned queen (their parents were killed in a shipwreck). Anna has spent years not knowing why her beloved sister has shut her out; Elsa is desperately worried that, with her powers increasing and not easily controlled, she’s become a monster, and that her subjects will see her as one. The recipe for disaster is in place.
Just to underscore: it’s not Girl Hero and Girl Villain here. It two girls as protagonists revolving around each other.
So who are the villains? Not who but what, in fact: Unintended consequences and good intentions — there’s a strong undercurrent of “Don’t try to shelter your daughters; you may think you’re protecting them, but you’re not” — and the pressures of conformity. (There are also some minor weasels and opportunists looking to do harm to Arendelle, but they’re secondary.) And those villains are stomped, handily. When Elsa finally stops denying her unique and pretty darn amazing arctikinesis, she celebrates by belting out a tune that is a glorious anthem to female power and ability as she creates a wondrous mountain ice castle for herself. Not since Howard Ashman’s remarkably astute lyrics for Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid — which were far more about a girl’s longings to be her own person than they are about finding romance, even if the stories around them were — has there been a Disney song like “Let It Go,” as Elsa tosses away “the good girl” she “always [had] to be” and stops believing that “conceal, don’t feel” is a healthy way to live.
I had chills listening to this: someone gets it. (The lyrics are by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez; they wrote the songs for Avenue Q.) Writers and directors Chris Buck (Surf’s Up) and Jennifer Lee (Wreck-It Ralph), with a screenplay assist from Shane Morris, get it. Disney is finally getting it. Hearing that you’re not allowed to be yourself is stifling to a girl. (To a boy, too, of course… but boys don’t get told that, directly or indirectly, anywhere near as often as girls do.) Bottling yourself up is dangerous.
In Elsa’s case, literally and on a grand scale. Cuz she doesn’t realize that, in her letting go of her inhibitions, she has accidentally also covered all of Arendelle in ice and snow. In summertime. She didn’t mean to do that. Anna doesn’t know yet whether Elsa’s actions were deliberate or not, but Anna is determined to find her sister and convince Elsa to fix everything… and to let Anna back in as friend and family.
Another message that needs more airing: A gal doesn’t need a guy to save her from herself, either.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t male characters here, too, in case you’re worried about little boys having someone to identify with. (Not that little boys can’t identify with girls and women; they just need to chance to do so!) There’s handsome Prince Hans (the voice of Santino Fontana), whom Anna falls hard for. There’s goofy ice merchant Kristof (the voice of Jonathan Groff: The Conspirator, Taking Woodstock), who helps Anna on her journey. There’s even snowman-come-to-life Olaf (the voice of Josh Gad: The Internship, Ice Age: Continental Drift), a byproduct of Elsa’s magic; as comic relief sidekicks go, he’s one of the best Disney has come up with yet, and he even gets one of the film’s best songs, a hilarious and poignant ditty about his longing for… well, you’ll see. (As kiddie-aimed comedy goes, Frozen is an especial treat: there’s not a one “humorous” crotch injury here, and no fart jokes. Incredible.)
The animation is gorgeous. The songs are soaring. There is real Disney magic here. And it’s subverting much of what the Disney magic of old was spinning. Progress! And it goes down very easy.