Disney has long been accused of brainwashing young girls into having unrealistic expectations about love, romance, boys and their likelihood of one day becoming a princess (and/or mermaid—I really wanted to be a mermaid when I was a kid). I don’t think that Disney, as a corporation or in the form of its cultural founder, Walt himself, ever intended to maliciously message young girls into becoming emotionally crippled women because of fairytales. Even with their aggressive marketing machine turning every animated character into a Halloween costume, Barbie doll and live-action play set, I believe in Disney’s spirit, which is one of innocence and the simple, un-cynical joy of childhood. (Walt Disney’s weird fixation on childhood and its recreation is a subject for another time.) In and of itself, that spirit is not a bad thing.
But the problem with simplicity is that it’s, well, simple. And people, even comparatively unspoiled children, are not simple. That’s why there is such bizarre subtext in so many morality tales, from Aesop’s fables to Mother Goose to the Brothers Grimm. Any attempt to strip human morality down to a simple lesson of “don’t be bad/ do bad things” inevitably ends up in some psycho-sexual hinterland, which is where Shakespeare’s spirit animal lived and why his plays like The Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado About Nothing are some of the best, and not-at-all-coincidentally complex, morality tales out there. Disney wants to tell children stories that teach them the power of love, forgiveness and bravery, but love, forgiveness and bravery are among the most complex feelings we experience. How do you boil those concepts down in a way that children can digest?
Well, Frozen, Disney’s latest princess-starring animated movie, comes closer than anything they’ve tried before. Written by Jennifer Lee (Wreck-It Ralph), who also co-directed along with Chris Buck (Surf’s Up, Tarzan), Frozen is loosely based on Hans Christian Anderson’s classic “The Snow Queen”, and it has a number of post-modern innovations that make it not only a charming and enjoyable movie, but also the most boldly feminist fairytale aimed at the kidlets yet. Pixar’s Brave attempted a similar feat, but though their intentions were good, their heroine, Merida, was an unruly brat who refused to apologize. I’m not sure that “be brave!” is a good message when it comes on the back of, “you never have to apologize so long as you’re willing to be brave!” See? Bizarre subtext.
Frozen, though, neatly sidesteps that problem. Starring not one but two fully invested, engaging and actualized female protagonists, it tells the story of Elsa and Anna, princesses and sisters who we see in the beginning of the film as loving and affectionate partners in crime. In the usual Disney template, one sister would grow jealous of the other and morph into the villain of the piece, but neither Elsa nor Anna is a villain. Neither is a perfect princess, either, as they each have foibles and make mistakes, but their separation is not due to jealousy but fear.
Elsa, the elder sister (wonderfully voiced by Broadway star Idina Menzel), has the ability to create ice, and she accidentally injures Anna while playing as children. Fearful of the extraordinary power of their daughter, the girls’ parents lock Elsa away and have a magical troll erase the event from Anna’s mind. Once grown, the sisters reunite when Elsa comes to take her place as queen, and that’s when things spiral out of control. Anna (Kristen Bell) rushes headlong into a whirlwind romance with a handsome prince—as so many Disney princesses do—and meanwhile Elsa, afraid of her own power, isolates herself, dooming her kingdom to indefinite winter. There’s a satisfyingly adventurous quest with a quirky sidekick, Olaf the Snowman (voiced by Josh Gad of Book of Mormon fame), and a booger-picking dude along for the ride (Kristoff, Glee’s Jonathan Groff). Over the course of the second and third acts, Anna comes to regret her heedlessness in re: the handsome prince, and Elsa learns to embrace her own power and subsequently frees the kingdom from her accidental winter.
There are a couple of ways to cut the moral of Frozen, but ultimately it all boils down to acceptance. Elsa’s power can be analogous of either femininity itself or of homosexuality. Elsa is suppressed, repressed and told, essentially, not to be herself because she is powerful and female, and there are those who see female power as something threatening and oppressive. But her sequestering can also be seen as a denial of inherent sexuality. Elsa’s big show-stopping song is called “Let It Go” and features lyrics like “Conceal, don’t feel”, but ultimately concludes with “The cold never bothered me anyway”. Frozen is destined to be a classic for a number of reasons, it’s LGBTQ-positive message chief among them.
They also flip the script on the true love aspect of the fairytale. Anna’s romantic prospects are hindered by her own blind assumptions based on, well, the fairytale trope about the handsome prince, but they also take a backseat to her relationship with Elsa. The sisters’ bond is the driving force of Frozen, not Anna’s dating prospects, and the climactic “true love’s sacrifice” is not made on behalf of a man or by a man, but is an act between the two sisters. That both Elsa and Anna are interesting and compelling means that we derive far more satisfaction from their reconciliation than we do from Anna straightening out her love life.
Frozen is Disney’s best animated movie since their second golden age in the early 1990’s and is an instant classic. It’s funny, entertaining and beautifully animated, and features great vocal performances and a catchy, Broadway-bound soundtrack. It’s also a clever subversion of the very fairytale tropes Disney did so much to cement in our minds, and features two wonderful female protagonists and a blatant feminist message about female power and acceptance, and not fearing strength or differentness in others. It’s well worth your time whether you see it with kids or not.