This evening i had the distinct pleasure of screening Disney’s latest animated feature Frozen, and I can sum it up this way: Disney has got its groove back. And this time it has a feminist twist.
When young princess Elsa inadvertently injures her sister Anna with her magical, winter-conjuring abilities, her parents lock her away in the hopes that she will be able to eventually control her powers. After their untimely deaths, however, she ultimately ascends the throne. Upon hearing that her sister Anna has become betrothed to the seemingly beneficent Prince Hans, she flies into a fury, inadvertently casts a spell of eternal winter on her homeland, and flees to the mountains in a panic, where she erects her own icy palace. Anna, determined to save her sister, goes in search of her and, in the process, meets the ice-seller Kristoff. After being again inadvertently wounded by her sister’s power, Anna begins to die, her only salvation an act of true love. In a twist, however, it turns out that her lover Hans turns out to be villainous and conniving, determined to kill both her and her sister and take the throne. When she intercedes to save her sister, she turns to ice. However, he act of true love restores her to life. Elsa gains control over her powers, Kristoff and Anna embrace, and they all live happily ever after.
Simply put, the film is an amazing and dazzling affair on every level, from the stunning visuals to the knock-out musical performances, especially those performed by the showtune-belting queen Idina Menzel. What’s more, the story is tight and focused; the narrative never feels as if it is lagging. Throw in some well-developed characters and a sinister spin on the traditional Disney prince figure, and you have got the makings of a Disney film that might become the classic of its generation of animated feature films.
What is most pleasing about this film, however, is the ways in which it plays with the classic Disney formula. For one thing, the seemingly dashing Prince Hans turns out to be as cruel and ruthless a villain as we could hope for, taking his place in a long and distinguished line of Disney villains. The fact that his beautiful appearance hides an inner rottenness is a cunning play on the ways in which Disney has in the past depicted its royal men and as such is a welcome change.
What really stands out, however, is the emphasis the film places on the strong affective bonds between the sisters. Thus, although the overplayed marriage plot does exist in the couple of Kristoff and Anna, it is the bond between the sisters that takes emotional center stage. And, in a surprise to cap all surprises, it is actually Anna‘s act of self-sacrifice, which the film actually terms an act of true love, that saves both herself and her sister, restoring the land to summer and to eternal joy. Even to this cranky feminist, this particular ending provides a much-needed gynocentric gloss to the traditional Disney formula. At last, Disney acknowledges that it is the bonds that exist between women that sometimes have the greatest affective and experiential value in women’s lives, not just their bonds with their heterosexual male lovers. Indeed, the film ends, not with the embrace of the man and the woman, but instead with the two sisters ice-skating in one another’s arms.
For their parts, the two lead female characters also exhibit a remarkable strength that we have grown used to seeing in various recent Disney properties, from Rapunzel in Tangled to the various heroines of the ABC series Once Upon a Time. As much as the film is about their emotional attachments to each other, it is also about learning to find their inner strength as individuals and learning to love themselves for what they are, even if that is not always the easiest thing to do.
Of course, the supporting players deserve mention, for they help to round out the story. Jonathan Groff does an excellent job capturing the affable and eminently likable Kristoff, and Josh Gad’s turn as Olaf the snowman–which had the potential to be the film’s fatal weakness–actually ended up being tremendously endearing and actually funny. And finally, the reindeer Sven was a welcome addition to the magnificent pantheon of Disney animal sidekicks.
The animation and the music were uniformly excellent, though the visual and aural artistry of the song “Let it Go” rendered it a musical piece that cannot help but bring back memories of the glorious days of the Disney Renaissance. If anything shows that the studio has at last managed to recapture that old magic that made it the premier purveyor of glossy animated entertainment, this is it. With such glorious colors and the absolute divine voice of Menzel to go with, it’s hard to see how Disney could have gone wrong. Fortunately for those of us sitting in the audience, they seemed to have hit the musical and artistic nail right on the head.
All in all, this was a truly pleasurable film to watch, and it reinforces my belief that the studio’s storytelling abilities are at their best when they focus on those kinds of stories that brought the studio to prominence in the first place. Fairy tales have embedded within them some of the most fundamental and engaging narratives that we as a culture find pleasurable. The real skill, however, is in giving those old stories some sort of a spin that makes them relevant for our contemporary cultural moment. The fact that Disney has also chosen to spin this tale in such a way that it has even a glimmer of a feminist consciousness is quite promising indeed. One can only hope that it bodes well for their future feature endeavors, and that we might see more films that focus on the powerful and significant bonds that exist between women, rather than those that simply exist between women and the men they are fated to marry.