Christmas Catch Up - Ithaca Edition
Contributed by Colleen Crawford Drozd
Disney’s Frozen – What it Feels Like for a Girl (and her mother)
(Warning: major SPOILERS included.)
Disney Animation Studios puts a lot of effort into making its movies “fun for the whole family.” In fact, much has been made about how the marketing strategy for their latest film, Frozen, essentially excluded the two princesses at the very heart of the story, and studiously avoided the word “princess” in the trailers and everywhere else, for fear of scaring off young boys, who apparently run in fear at the mere utterance of the dreaded “p” word. (Of course, we all know that girls will happily see “boy” movies like Cars, or Planes … but I digress…). Nor was it remotely clear, based on the marketing campaign, that Frozen is a full-blown, flat-out musical, with its wonderful stage-ready show tunes performed by some of Broadway’s brightest stars (Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad). Really, for all anyone knew it was going to be a wacky comedy about an odd-couple friendship between a snowman and a reindeer. But despite all of the efforts to make this a gender-neutral experience for “kids of all ages,” and its real success in doing so, the most important demographic group for this picture is the one that will actually be buying all of the merchandise, and dressing as Elsa and Anna for Halloween next year. At its core, it’s a movie about, and for, girls. As the mother of a four-year-old princess myself, I am happy to report that Frozen serves its most important audience in very meaningful ways.
Frozen is really nothing short of spectacular. Every aspect of this movie is Disney at its best: magical, musical, emotional, inspiring and funny. The animation is beyond exquisite, the score is tremendous and the vocal performances could hardly be better. But perhaps the most important aspect of the movie, at least for anybody trying to raise children, is that it follows in the footsteps of Tangled, The Princess and the Frog, and Brave by blowing the Disney princess archetype of yore right out of the ice water. Neither Elsa nor Anna, the two main characters, fit the perfect princess mold of decades past. Elsa starts out as the fun-loving big sister who happens to have the power to create snow and ice with a wave of her hand, but as the story unfolds, becomes a sad recluse who is afraid of her own power and emotionally cut off from the person most important to her. Anna is a sweet-but-awkward optimist who has been deeply hurt by a family decision to keep her in the dark in an effort to protect her from a big secret. This over-protection causes her to make a bad decision as soon as she gets a taste of freedom from her sheltered life. Anna’s true inner-strength and Elsa’s ability to overcome her paralyzing fear are uncovered through the course of the film. These young women are far from the perfect, if vapid, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty who were basically beautiful, helpless victims until nice men come to their rescue. Disney did not invent these earlier princess stories, but they essentially cemented these narratives into our collective psyche over nearly the entire course of the twentieth century.
That Elsa and Anna’s stories had such resonance with my daughter, who was near bursting with fairly deep questions after the film, speaks to a refreshing new level of character-complexity within the Disney Princess oeuvre. To my recollection, this is the first time a little girl watching a princess movie has had the opportunity to see the real, true pain which, although some of it is universal – like the agony of losing one’s parents at a young age - feels unique to growing up female. For example, the fear of being seen as too powerful, and feeling society’s wrath when a glimpse of one’s true power accidentally escapes; or the loneliness of knowing that there is something very wrong, but also knowing that you’re not considered smart enough, or strong enough or… whatever enough to deal with it. Also, there’s the external pressure that creates unnecessary rifts between girls, weakening them. While watching this movie, I kept thinking about Madonna’s moving (at least for me) pop tune, “What it Feels Like for a Girl:”
Strong inside but you don't know it
Good little girls they never show it
When you open up your mouth to speak
Could you be a little weak?
Hurt that's not supposed to show
Tears that fall when no one knows
When you're trying hard to be your best
Could you be a little less?
The major theme of the movie is, rather typically, the power of love. But unlike previous Disney Princess movies, it is not romantic love that saves that day (although the script cunningly tries to convince us that it is going this way), but sisterly love. A powerful bond of love between sisters is the curse-breaker, instead of the usual “true love’s kiss.” To anyone who hasn’t been as deeply immersed (and I mean DEEPLY immersed) in Disney Princess movies as I have lately, this may not seem like the biggest of deals. But watching my young daughter embrace a story that actually relates to her own feelings and fears so powerfully, rather than trying to fill her head with some idealized notion of romantic love, is a huge relief. Another theme is self-empowerment. In order for the conflict to be resolved, Elsa has to own her power and learn to use it productively. These themes have combined to create a situation in which I now get to hear my daughter belting at the top of her lungs lyrics like, “It’s time to see what I can do, to test the limits and breakthrough … I’M FREE,” rather than wistfully - and with comically fake vibrato - warbling into her imaginary wishing well, “I’m wishing for the one I love to find me today. I’m hoping, and I’m dreaming of, the nice things he’ll say.” This is obviously an infinitely improved message for a little girl to receive. Disney has clearly made an effort to negate some of the damage done by princess stories of the past
Another impressive aspect of this film is the thoughtfulness with which the script treats its core audience. While Frozen is entirely enjoyable for just about anyone going to see it as a one-off trip to the local cinema, it really was crafted for children, especially girls, who will watch it dozens of times during their childhoods on DVD, and immerse themselves in the story through their Anna and Elsa dolls, story books and apparel. While watching the film, I became very disappointed as the love story between Anna and Hans unfolded too quickly, and with too many clichés about love at first sight, etc. But things turned around when Hans turned out to be a bad guy who was taking advantage of Anna’s vulnerability, forcing Anna to learn a hard life lesson. Now when my daughter asks question like “Why didn’t Anna know Hans didn’t really love her?” I get to say things like “Well, she didn’t take enough time to get to know him” and “She didn’t really understand what it means to love.” Thus, with this one plot point from a princess story, parents have been given some help in teaching their future impulsively romantic teenagers early that true love takes time, and that it means more than physical attraction and having a few superficial things in common. Hopefully, our girls will be someday be looking more for a sturdy, reliable, caring Christophe than a handsome, charming, ingratiating Hans.
If I have one small quibble with the script, it is that Hans turns out to be such a baddie. The love triangle between Anna, Christophe and Hans dissolves when the Hans turns out to be an evil villain man who used Anna’s own desperation for love against her. While this is convenient for the story, and although I was relieved when the quickie engagement didn’t work out, it felt like a lost opportunity to further strengthen Anna’s character development by forcing her to face her own mistake. While watching the film, I’d hoped that the love triangle would be resolved with Anna realizing that she had jumped into the engagement with Hans out of loneliness, and that she has just lost both of her parents, and has been through an incredible journey to get her sister back, and that she needs time to grieve, to get to know herself now that she’s no longer a sheltered child, and to build the relationship with Elsa before she’s ready for romance. That may have been a much more realistic resolution … but also perhaps a less dramatic one. (Or Anna and Hans could have realized that the reason they’d hit it if so well is because Hans is actually gay… but, yeah, I don’t think Disney is quite ready for that…). That quibble aside, the story still accomplishes everything necessary to make this a most empowering princess story.
Frozen is a splendid, gorgeous, emotionally gratifying, and fun adventure that will entertain our children for years to come while teaching them powerful things about life, love and themselves. Kudos to Disney for understanding the immense role that they play in the lives of young girls, and making this incredibly important course-correction in what may be the finest Disney Princess film to date.