frozen-poster-small

Directors: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee
Writers: Hans Christian Andersen, Jennifer Lee, Chris Buck, Shane Morris
Starring: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathon Groff, Josh Gad, Alan Tudyk
Release Date: November 27th, 2013
Runtime: 1 hr. 42 mins.
MPAA Rating: PG

Walt Disney Studios’ winter 2013 release Frozen is the latest in a string of animated films the studio has put out over the last several years (other titles include Brave, Tangled, and Wreck-it Ralph). This time around, they rely on the tried and true Disney formula of basing the story on a beloved fairy-tale, in this case Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.” As usual, Disney plays with the story enough to make it their own, and adds in some music and dance numbers for good measure. How does this particular interpretation hold up?

On a strictly “is this film entertaining” level, Frozen does well. It is not, however, terribly true to the source material. The Snow Queen and the heroine that goes after her are now sisters, princesses of Arendelle, a kingdom that becomes shrouded in perpetual winter. Elsa [Idina Menzel] is the elder, and she has a gift: she is able to summon wintery cold at will, and sometimes when she doesn’t will it. Her younger sister is Anna [Kristen Bell], and the story begins with the two of them sneaking into a ballroom (at Anna’s instigation), to make snow drifts and play. An accident happens, and two things result: Anna loses her memory of her sister’s power, and Elsa retreats into a self-imposed exile, refusing to play with her sister lest she hurt her. They become orphaned, and further estranged as they grow older, although Anna can never quite figure out why her sister is so cold (yes, pun intended) toward her. As Elsa ages, her powers increase, to the point that she must wear gloves at all times lest she accidentally unleash them. The inevitable happens, and in a very public way; she flees Arendelle as the entire kingdom becomes an unwelcome winter wonderland.

The rest of the movie follows the adventures of Anna as she tries to get her sister back, and to end the winter that has taken over. In her travels she is aided by a young woodsman named Kristoff [Jonathon Groff], his dog-like reindeer companion Sven, and an enchanted snowman named Olaf [Josh Gad, played to great comic effect]. There is also a love interest in the form of Hans [Santino Fontana], a youngest son from the neighboring Southern Isles.

Anna faces many travails, and nearly dies, learning to recognize true love and forgiveness in the process. Being a Disney film, much of the darkness of the original Andersen story is missing, as is a lot of the strong sense of female agency from the fairy-tale. The story’s Snow Queen is older and clearly powerful, and is no relation to the young heroine, who is neither a princess, nor is very old. She is aided and hindered primarily by women, and the additions of Kristoff, Hans, and Olaf really change the tenor of the tale, and reflect a missed opportunity by Disney to produce a strong female-led story with the unnecessary addition of several male tropes and stereotypes. Does Anna really need a love interest? Can’t she be knowledgeable enough not to need a scruffy-yet-lovable guide? The most grievous error in this regard is the agency of the primary antagonist, Elsa. She’s never really portrayed as being evil, although she makes a few poor and hasty choices. In fact, in another move that reduces her agency, much of her initial mayhem is not intentional, but is brought about by strong emotional response. This kind of reliance on female stereotypes of emotionalism and an inability to think logically really weaken the overall strength of the story – where we could have had a strong, decisive Elsa, we instead get a misunderstood and emotional woman running away from her responsibilities. She does gain strength later in the movie, and does show agency, so she is ultimately recuperable; but some of the writing choices weaken her unnecessarily and keep her from entering the upper echelons of Disney’s greatest powerful women antagonists, such as Maleficent or the Queen from Snow White. Regarding the added male characters, I found that both Sven the reindeer and Olaf are nice additions, and feed into the Disney requirement for cute and marketable characters that small children will identify with. I have to admit that I also found myself laughing at their antics; however, I can’t help but feel that Disney could have done something so much more with this story.

The music and singing is excellent, with both Bell and Menzel doing their own work. “Let it Go” and “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” are the two best tracks, with the former being the sweeping epic signature song of the movie, and the latter being the Broadway-esque musical piece with a pinch of fun in the lyrics. “Let it Go” is up for an Oscar award this year, and it would be a worthy winner in my opinion, although I suspect that “Ordinary Love” from Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom will take the prize. In addition, the animation is top-notch, with some of the snow effects particularly dazzling.

The movie is funny with some light moments, but there is definitely enough darkness to ensure that parents stay close to their little ones’ sides. This isn’t your grandmother’s Maleficent, but Elsa’s Snow Queen can still be scary. I do recommend the movie, but with the caveat that the short story by Hans Christian Andersen is the superior telling.

Steve’s Grade: B
Flawless animation, great soundtrack, and humorous subplots don’t entirely make up for the fact that Disney has toned down “The Snow Queen” so much as to make it barely recognizable. Take your children, but stop by the bookstore on the way home to pick up Andersen’s original.

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Comments
  1. Br'nn says:

    Having never read the actual story this was based on, I can only go by what I saw on the screen. I loved this movie a lot, with great songs, a story that wasn`t decided on whether the princess found a big strong man to save her (which Disney has thankfully moved away from with strong female characters in more recent movies), and excellent animation.

    Condemning Disney for making the story toned down doesn`t really do the movie justice, as most viewers won`t know the source material and Disney has done that with almost every fairy tale they`ve adapted. As you say, from an entertainment standpoint, it does an excellent job. I found the parallel journies of the sisters to be well done. You had Elsa continuing to run away from facing her problems and pushing people away until she finally sees that it was not in her best interest, while you have Anna realizing what love and companionship is after her earlier flight of fancy with the other noble. Whether Anna could have been more resourceful is up for debate, as her character is clearly shown to be isolated and cloistered in her castle, and this is what keys into her emotional response when she meets someone that she can talk and connect with. I didn`t find it a typical women`s response but rather one that makes sense after a long period of isolation from similar peers. It sets up her own voyage of discovery and I didn`t feel that the addition of the men took anything away from the overall story of the two women. Sure, the addition of the Kristoff, Hans, and Olaf was as much for comic relief as much as anything, but I didn`t feel that their inclusion stepped on the toes of the women`s journey, nor did Anna`s budding romance with the scruffy boy. That is wasn`t the boy who saved the frozen girl but rather her sister tears of realization was a key moment in my mind and what separated this movie from many of the older Disney tales where the Prince or other true love would always come to the rescue. This was true love also, mind you, but it was a sisterly bond, not romantic one, that saved the day.

    While it may not be on the level of the story you mentioned, I thought this was a fantastic movie and one I am certain will be regularly revisited in my house when it hits DVD. Tamikko and my girls loved it as well, and Inara can`t stop singing Let It Go, even more than a month after seeing the movie. I would easily give this movie an A, as it was fun for all ages and a return to what made Disney movies so magical in the past. I will happily see it again.

    • zillwood says:

      Hi Chris – I agree that the movie on its own merits is quite good, but there is still the unfortunate weakening of the female characters to contend with. The fact that Elsa is only in control of her power once society has condemned her, and that she loses that control when faced with emotional situations, weakens her as a pseudo-villain; Anna’s ineptitude in reading people (re: Hans, or even her own emotions regarding Kristoff) can be explained by her sheltered upbringing, but why make her so sheltered? Where Disney dropped the ball is in failing to make a strong female character girls can look up to that doesn’t rely on male intervention to make her complete. We see tons of examples of male characters who do not need female aid; why not vice versa, and why not here, in a story where the source material lends itself so well to that kind of telling? I’m not condemning the movie per se – a grade of B is excellent, basically 4/5 stars in standard ratings – but I am giving it a hit for failing to go places Disney has consistently been afraid to go to, with subject matter that is already built in that direction. Disney always makes the stories their own, absolutely, but sometimes in doing so they undermine the tale.

      In considering my reaction to the source material, consider the ongoing debate between our generation and the generation that went to see the Prequels as their first foray into Star Wars, or the current generation of filmgoers going to see The Hobbit and thinking that Legolas is rad. It works for them because they don’t know what came before; if they did, they might still enjoy the movie (as I did with Frozen), but they’d know how much more it could have been.

      I’m adding a paragraph here, as I had read your reply in the dashboard and missed the whole section you wrote on why you felt the male characters didn’t detract from the women’s journeys. I do agree that it is Elsa who ultimately saves Anna, and that it is Anna’s stubbornness that wins through to get to her sister, both clear cases of female agency; however, the reaction that causes Anna’s frozen heart in the first place is purely emotion-driven, and is not a conscious act on Elsa’s part. This was made necessary by changing the story to make the two sisters, so in this context it works, but it still removes agency from the equation once again. At the end, though it is Elsa’s tears, it is Kristoff coming to the rescue that enables the final scene to take place, again removing agency and reintroducing patriarchal power.

      To be perfectly honest, if there weren’t already a wonderful story by Hans Christian Andersen, I would likely have seen this movie as a step forward for Disney. In some ways, I believe the sisters have more agency and power even than Merida in Brave – of course, her actions there almost bring about destruction, thus showing the dangers of powerful females (I say this not as an opinion, but as a commentary on how the movie portrays female agency). Again here, Elsa’s actions almost bring destruction, but it shows that powerful women working together can be successful, albeit with male help. Without the Andersen, I’d see this as one more small step toward humanizing their female characters; instead, they took a story, created two new princesses (neither was a princess in the story), and maintained something of the party line.

      The music is wonderful, the voice acting stellar, the story well-told and beautifully animated, but I’d just like to see Disney trust us to enjoy a movie with purely powerful, purely female heroes.

  2. […] few months ago, I reviewed Disney’s animated retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “Ice Queen&#8221… (which, upon several further viewings, I feel that I may have been a little harsh with in giving it […]

  3. […] grossing film domestically, number one overall worldwide, was Disney’s musical Frozen (read my review here). It’s the first musical to crack the top ten all-time list, sitting at number five with over […]

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