Frozen’s Whole Less Than the Sum of Its Parts

So, this happened.

I realize this is a little outside of my normal genre, but I found this worthy of talking about anyway, and I wanted to do it while both 1) it’s still a hot topic, and 2) I actually have the time to do so (Man of Something Part II should be coming along, as well). So here it goes:

People are calling Disney’s Frozen the best thing to come out of the studio since the Disney Renaissance of the ’90s. That is seriously high praise, because I thought Tangled was pretty awesome, but I’m not here to compare. I’m just here to analyze.

Well, first, let’s summarize. SPOILER WARNING for those of you who intend to see it, stop now, the Internet will not collapse before you get the chance to come back and read this later.

This computer-animated musical is about fun-loving, wide-eyed Princess Rapunzel Anna and her magical sister Elphaba Elsa. When they’re young, Elsa accidentally hurts Anna with her magic, and her parents decide absolute repression is the best way for Elsa to learn to control her powers. This naturally sucks for Elsa, and due to this she and Anna drift apart as they grow up, a rift that is not even overcome when their parents die.

A few years down the road, there’s a big party for Elsa’s coronation that royalty from many lands come to attend. Anna loves the idea of a party, Elsa is terrified of it. And it turns out both those feelings are perfectly justified: Anna finds a fun-loving prince and gets engaged, while Elsa gets upset at Anna over it and ends up revealing her ice magic. As the guests freak out, she flees into the mountains, without realizing that she has blanketed the entire kingdom in deep winter.

Anna sets out after her, leaving her fiance Hans in charge of the kingdom. Along the way she enlists the aid of mountain man Kristoff and his dog-like reindeer, Sven. They bump into a magical snowman named Olaf, who dreams about how nice life will be in the summertime. With their help they find the ice palace Elsa has built herself in her freedom and Anna confronts her, but things go poorly and Anna ends up struck by ice magic again, this time in the heart. Elsa creates a snow golem sort of thing to make them leave, but they provoke it and they end up being thrown over a cliff.

Meanwhile, Hans leads a rescue team into the mountains, finds Elsa’s palace, and manages to capture her and bring her back to the kingdom. Kristoff takes Anna to his ‘family’ of rock trolls who mistakenly believe they are an item, but when Anna starts to show signs of the ice magic affecting her, the prognosis isn’t very rosy; ice in the heart is fatal, unless an act of true love can thaw it.

They race back to the kingdom so that Hans can kiss her and thaw the ice. Well, it turns out that Hans has been manipulating Anna so that he could become next in line if Elsa ever “accidentally” died, and couldn’t be happier that Anna is actually freezing to death from the inside out. Elsa, who had been locked in a dungeon, escapes, but she’s terribly distraught and that creates a monstrous blizzard over the fjord. Kristoff sees this from the mountain he’s returning to and, fearing for Anna’s safety, rides back down. Olaf finds Anna freezing to death alone, and they realize that Kristoff is who they need now. Olaf sees him riding down the mountain post haste, and they decide to go meet him, as she has very little time left.

Hans is pursuing Elsa, hoping to kill her in the blizzard and make it look like an accident, so he’ll become king all in, like, three days. Anna sees Kristoff rushing to her, but also sees Hans about to kill Elsa, and decides to dive between Hans’ blade and Elsa just as the ice in her heart takes hold and turns her into an ice sculpture. However, this act of true love for her sister reverses the effects a minute or so later, and Elsa, overjoyed that her sister is alive and that she would sacrifice herself for her, rekindles some love in her heart and that enables her to undo the winter-pocalypse she had set off initially. Anna punches Hans into the fjord, she and Kristoff hook up, and Elsa is able to be queen with her powers.  Everyone’s happy.

Except Kristoff. All he got was a 14-second song and a hyper-active princess.

On the positive side, this movie’s songs are fantastic. I admit it, I like showtunes, and this musical’s tunes are so catchy, so joyously modern, and so packed with pathos. Let It Go is possibly the best song Disney has produced since Part of Your World, and it is the most pro-feminist song in the entire Disney canon. The characters are all endearing, even enjoyable (with the gigantic exception of Olaf), and the visuals are pretty grand, even though most everything is just ice and snow. The reversal of the true love’s kiss cliche is very effective and very refreshing.

Unfortunately, none of these things work particularly well together. The glitzy, Broadway-inspired pop style of the songs is fun, catchy, and great for a soundtrack. But the animators made great efforts to make the visuals feel, in their words, epic. Those two tones really grate against each other as you watch the movie.

Most of the characters were fun, they had great personalities, but they didn’t develop over the course of the movie; we don’t see enough of Anna’s feelings towards Elsa to know if her sacrifice at the end is a reversal or just a matter of course. Elsa spends much of the movie moping, and then instantly remembers that love happens and everything is nice again. The trolls’ song is really, really fun, but contributes nothing to the actual story. The same with Olaf’s song; terribly clever, but useless, because he doesn’t go anywhere, development-wise. He’s faithfully devoted to Anna the moment they meet, and then he just stays that way to the end of the movie.

Even the overt feminist message in Elsa’s story is totally subverted when it is her one expression of independence that first blankets the kingdom in winter and then almost kills her sister. Not to mention that she spends the second half of the movie either being a jerk or moping about, not being proactive about anything. Serious missed opportunity here.

This movie just couldn’t figure out what it was trying to say. They wanted to make Elsa so “understandable” that they removed any actual antagonism between her and Anna, so the ending doesn’t say anything about how they’ve changed (if they’ve changed). They couldn’t decide if they wanted to focus on the sister story or the love story, so neither was very developed. And Olaf. And the trolls. Interesting ideas, but so shallow that they end up just being a waste of screen time when there are more interesting things that ended up only half-baked.

I enjoyed this movie, just not as much as I was hoping to, and it’s because the story seemed really uncommitted to what it was trying to talk about. The fact that the “second act” really dragged is probably a symptom of that problem as much as it is another problem.

I certainly won’t devote the time to re-write it, but if I were going to I’d focus on Elsa’s fall and then rise a lot more, and pretty much make her the main character, although if I could make it so that Elsa and Anna were equally main characters, that would be ideal. Yes, I’d make Elsa realize that she put ice in Anna’s heart and join the party to find a way to undo it. I’m not sure where it would go from there, but it would be about Anna and Elsa slowly reconciling, so that the sacrifice at the end doesn’t feel forced. To focus on that, I’d probably de-emphasize the love stories, which might mean the kiss twist wouldn’t work, but then again I could just trim some of the cruft from the rest of the movie and there would probably be time for that.

Look at that nose. He *must* be related to Jar-Jar.  We’ll all be better off with less Olaf.

Most interestingly, it almost sounds like Disney at one point had a version where there was more angst between Anna and Elsa that actually made the self-sacrifice at the end meaningful. I glean this from the “deleted tracks” featured on the Deluxe Edition Soundtrack, graciously posted to YouTube by Red Rose. The song “Life’s Too Short” sounds both 1) way more like sisters trying to talk through differences, and 2) like a better set up for the ending. What they replaced it with is pretty, but not nearly as solid as this, from a narrative standpoint.

We’ll never know just what kind of movie it would have been if the story had remained in that iteration, but it makes me sad to think that Disney went from a more emotionally gripping and thematically dynamic idea to a kind of hesitant story that crippled all the other elements, which were strong on their own, but didn’t have enough substance tying them together to make a really great show.