For all the hyperbolic praise lavished on it and all the interpretive controversy surrounding it, here’s what I took away from finally seeing Disney’s Frozen last week: it’s very good, and decently thought provoking, but it is neither one to the degree that everyone says it is.
The animation and music are excellent, though not unusually so–Frozen is great in those ways, but it is not a masterpiece. For example, the symbolism of Elsa’s power is muted in vagueness–the simplest explanation of Elsa’s power is that she’s merely an introvert.
And this is where the characterization in the film went off track. (Warning: spoilers ahead; on the off-chance that you’re even more out-of-the-loop than I and still haven’t seen it, the following may not make much sense, anyway.)
The whole concept of the film is that Elsa is different. Hardly revolutionary stuff in storytelling, but the plot makes it clear that Elsa doesn’t have anything against people, but her nature makes it hard to be around them. Her sister, on the other hand, is a social butterfly.
This dynamic does get explored, but only shallowly. I’m surprised the writers didn’t think to make the title more metaphorical here–Anna accuses Elsa of “shutting” her out, but never of “freezing” her out or of giving her the “cold shoulder.” That should have been obvious!
At any rate, after Elsa’s true personality is publicly revealed, she is branded a monster–every introvert’s worst nightmare. But when she runs off, she instantly embraces the nature she’s always repressed–a drastic change in character that hardly seems warranted by the plot. More likely she would have resented herself more. Perhaps Disney just needed an excuse for her to let loose so they could animate the cool palace-creating sequence during the song “Let It Go.” Internalized emotional flagellation makes for poor visual splendor.
Then we meet Kristoff. The movie makes it clear that he and Anna will follow the traditional rom-com plot of misadventures leading to love. This is a big mistake for two reasons.
The biggest is that the movie makes a big deal of him also being an introvert. Thematically, he and Elsa would be perfect together! Chalk up another lost opportunity to go from generic outsider story to original commentary on introversion in society.
But also, matching them up demands that Anna and Hans be split. How do they do that? Reveal Hans as a bad guy! This is the dumbest thing the movie does. It’s the film’s biggest cliché, and a tacit admission that film’s antagonist thus far, the Duke of Weselton, is a non-entity. Seriously, his motives are bland and with very little adaptation, you could lift him right out of the film. Certainly he’s no menace.
But then, Hans’s presence as a villain is weak, too. The execution of his plan is convoluted, and his comeuppance at the end–a punch from Anna–is laughably inadequate. “Let’s see what his twelve brothers back home think of this?” He tried to kill people! You couldn’t at least have had guards take him away and say something like, “You’ll be tried for your crimes?”
The worst case of poor characterization comes at the end when Elsa, having revived her sister, suddenly realizes that she is instantly capable of perfectly controlling her power. This denudes the symbolism of her power from any potency it might have had–anything immediately subdued was never that much of a threat. This is like in The Avengers when Hulk can suddenly control himself when it’s convenient to the plot. Another Disney contrivance!
Lest you think I hated the film–I didn’t; I liked it quite a bit, but just felt it was artistically flawed–here I’ll say something positive: having Elsa’s love be the cure for Anna’s heart, not Kristoff’s, was beautiful and genius. THAT was truly original, powerful, and important. Kudos to the writers.
Overall, though, Frozen could have made an even more powerful statement if it had avoided these pitfalls. How would I have written it?
It starts off the same, except no Duke of Weselton. After the fiasco with her coronation, Elsa runs into the wilderness and tries to find solace in solitude–more intense than she knew as a sheltered child–and finds it scary and miserable, even for her. Anna and Kristoff’s adventures make them friends, and their closeness just solidifies Anna’s resolve to build a marriage with Hans, as Kristoff wonders if Elsa–this woman who sounds so much like him in her aversion to the world around her–might not be as bad as everyone else he’s known.
The troll village exists to comment on the importance of getting past your neurotic hang-ups and coming together–they sing about how we’re all flawed and emotionally needy, and how accepting that makes us happy.
Later, a hurt Anna returns to Hans and he kisses her. Nothing happens. They realize Elsa was right–their love isn’t true. Yet. They realize they need to spend time together, and help Elsa regardless of the sacrifice. They and Kristoff go back out to her.
Elsa, meanwhile, is facing dangers in the wilderness alone, brought on by her powers uncontrollably growing and threatening her (the giant monster turns on her and nearly kills her).
Anna, Hans, and Kristoff find Elsa and together they defeat the immediate threat of the monster, which has mutated through additional power from Elsa to Godzilla size, but must implore her to accept their love as the only way to start controlling her fate. Kristoff goes out of his comfort zone to save her and commit to staying with her, patiently, accepting her for the individual she is, because he’s now realized the importance of community.
But it’s the scene of saving Anna that truly changes Elsa. The immediate threats are gone, and she starts to be able to control her power.
She and Kristoff kiss, and they want to get married, just as Anna and Hans did before. The sisters bond over this swapping of circumstances, as Anna explains that Elsa was right before: the couple needs to let time and experience deepen their infatuation.
This is where “Let It Go” belongs–as an inspiring celebration of the protagonists’ victory over their shy, social anxiety. All four main characters participate in this joyous lead-in to the credits.
The two couples start rebuilding the kingdom–and each other’s hearts–as they live happily ever after.