Saturday, November 30, 2013

Love: Frozen

Frozen is a Disney princess film that follows closely in the footsteps of Tangled and, to some extent, Pixar's Brave. Like the "Rapunzel" update before it, Frozen is ostensibly meant to be a modernized, musical retelling of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen," though, you know, with 95% of the story excised and rewritten. Adding up what remains of the original fairy tale amounts to roughly a reindeer and, well, a queen with icy powers.  Purists may be disappointed, but many will find the revision a welcome one. Though the milquetoast, white skinned, blonde character design may be a bit too reminiscent of smirking Rapunzel for some haters, Disney gets everything else right with Frozen. After decades of criticism on their seemingly passive princesses, Frozen represents another strong step (or two) in the right direction. 

The story's construction is less old school fairy tale and more Broadway musical, though it follows the structure of both to a T.  We are introduced, in the once upon a time land of Norway, to two young princesses, Anna and Elsa.  Elsa, the elder, was born with magical powers. She can produce snow and ice out of thin air, much to the delight of her playful little sister. When Elsa accidentally injures Anna, though, all bets are off.  Anna's memory is wiped by a Troll King, and with no memory of her sister's magic, she can't understand why they've become distant.  Meanwhile, Elsa is forced to take her ever-growing powers underground, to hide in her room, try to control herself, sheath her weaponized hands in gloves, and ignore Anna lest she injure her again.  When the King and Queen die in an accident, the girls live an even lonelier existence, wholly detached from one another. Things change when Elsa comes of age. The castle gates are opened for her coronation and the sisters are reunited with each other even as they interact with outside parties for the first time. In true stage spectacular style, character grievances and motivations are spelled out in song, and the trajectory becomes clear from square one.
Excitable Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) is thrilled to engage with Elsa (Idina Menzel) again, and anxious to make first contact with eligible young princes.  Anna's enthusiasm finds her quickly smitten with a handsome guy, but when she enthusiastically drags him to meet Elsa, her disapproval escalates quickly into an argument, and Elsa's emotionally triggered powers plunge the kingdom into perpetual winter. Freaked out and exposed, Elsa bolts, escaping the scene, and tearing off into the wilderness. Halfway up the mountain, she comes to terms with her new freedom. She can be who she is, finally, but the problem with her glittering, fabulous, self-imposed exile is that everyone in the kingdom is suffering.  From here, the story shifts to Anna's attempt to connect with her sister and solve the problem, and on her journey the story picks up a handful of lovable, charming sidekicks: Kristoff (Jonathan Gross) the ice merchant, his trusty reindeer Sven, and enchanted, sun-obsessed snowman Olaf (Josh Gad).
All the pieces are in place for a cliff-scaling adventure chock full of romance, self-discovery, and cheeky jokes.  For the most part, Frozen delivers on those promises in full while providing a killer merchandising tie-in in its double dose of princess power. Extra doll sales aside, Elsa and Anna's story is an important one, and much needed.  As entertaining and impossibly charming as Frozen is, it's also a bit of a game changer.  It shouldn't be much of a spoiler to note that the kingdom can only be restored via a togetherness between the sisters. Elsa isn't a villain to be vanquished, but a woman who wishes to be understood and appreciated for her unique abilities.  The film's largest defect is that to successfully bridge the communication gap between the sisters, it must first keep Elsa at a distance. Consequently, we lose sight of the more complicated character for longer than we might hope.
Still, the decision is one that makes a fair amount of sense. Elsa is relatable in her insecurities, but more in keeping with the traditional fairy tale model of being a little too special.  Shifting the spotlight onto Anna allows the story to ground itself in something like reality.  Though her nose may be perfectly turned up and her waist teeny tiny, Anna is written to read on screen as a real girl princess: she has no magic powers, didn't know magic existed, has been desperately seeking her sister's attention for years, crushes too hard, is smart, resourceful, kind, awkward, and knows her priorities. She connects in a way that allows us to crack the surface of the sister that's been forced to hide away for years, and by the end?  It's all worth it. Point: Disney. This is a win, and one that girls need.

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