Directors: Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee
Screenplay: Jennifer Lee, Story by Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee & Shane Morris inspired by "The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen
Was there ever a Disney villain or even a Disney character, who's main obstacle is just, accepting the idea of being loved by others? I can't think of one before Queen Elsa (Idina Menzel). Cinderella wasn't rejecting love; even Rapunzel didn't have that issue. Love was a goal, it wasn't an obstacle to overcome before; I guess you don't see that in fairy tales, so you wouldn't necessarily see it in Disney films, but that changed....
In the years since Disney unleashed "Frozen" onto the world it's become by far their most controversial and debated movie; in fact I won't be able to post this is all those FB groups without some commenters bringing up how they can't stand it or think it's overrated, and this it's just "Frozen" or "The Lion King" copies or whatever.... (Sigh)
Screw it, "Frozen" is the best animated movie of the decade, and no, you're not changing my mind. I don't understand one bit how people can look at "Frozen" and not just be awed by the rich storytelling, the incredibly detailed animation, the Broadway style musical cues and narratives. Frankly, every time I look at the movie I find myself more impressed with it. Even the most derided character, Olaf (Josh Gad), who yes, is probably the one annoying part that even the hardcore defenders like myself can struggle with defending, how his childlike joyous view on the world, how he's strangely unaware of his own mortality, how he's just generally just not particularly smart or observant, it can be grating. Yet, In the sequel "Frozen II", he sings and talks about growing up and not being so afraid of things. That's when it kinda hit me, he was created by a Young Anna (Livvy Stubenraugh) and brought to life by Young Elsa (Eva Bella) so he's got the mind and perspectives of somebody who is himself, quite young and unaware, experiencing the world for the first time; his eyes open to the possibilities of the world, he sees the beauty of it all.
Even his song here, "In Summer", his fantasy about how enjoyable he expects his first Summer would be, it always reminded me of Stephen Sondheim's "By the Sea" fantasy number that Mrs. Lovett has in "Sweeney Tod...". He also thematically matches with Sven; Olaf is Princess Anna's (Kristen Bell) imaginary friend as a kid who she's still talking to as an adult, but Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) still talks to Sven, his trusty reindeer he's been with since he was a kid. In fact, they're really well-paired, she grew up talking to the paintings on the wall, he grew up talking to moss-covered rocks.
To this day, I don't think people fully get just how great the influence of Broadway is on the movie. Sure, they know Robert Lopez and Kristin Anderson-Lopez wrote a Tony winning musical, but to me, it was a revelation, from the opening notes, leading into the opening. The beginning of "Frozen Heart", where Ice Harvesters are collecting ice to sell during the Summer months. It's such a striking image, but opening a Disney movie with this song just blew me away. It always felt like the guys who wrote "Les Miserables" tried to write "Heigh Ho," although, now I hear a lot of the more Scandinavian leitmotifs in the chanting and rhythms, which beautifully helps set up and inspire the sequel film. (Although it is curious that they started the movie with Kristoff's origin.)
Yet, the songs and storytelling have this great combination of being inspired by Broadway-style narratives. I absolutely love the staging of "Do You Want to Build a Snowman", where poor Anna, stuck in a castle, trying desperately just to connect with the older sister who she loved and admired and seeing how the two sisters grow up apart over time. To those who question the power of the film, compare this to other Disney movie prologues, but imagined how touching and beautiful this sequence could be done, on stage, especially with ever growing actresses coming in and out to sing Anna's part. Most other Disney musicals, even favorites of mine like "Beauty and the Beast" while the numbers were always great, they always felt like they were more inspired by movie musicals more so then stage productions. That's been changing over the years though, with Disney making several forays successful and naught onto the Broadway stage, yet this was the first time I felt like I saw an animated production that felt like it truly wanted to be a Broadway show.
Even the biggest number, the Oscar-winning "Let It Go", the one song that has been overplayed to death ever since. Yes, I get it, but my god, not only is it a good song, how it's used in the movie is just amazing, and yes, it would also make an amazing stage number too. This frightened and scared young Queen who's been told to hide her magic for most of her life for fear of hurting those around her she loves the most and now that she's finally revealed her true self, she's making sure that she's gonna control the things that she can control and builds herself a literal ice palace. By the way, the animation is strikingly gorgeous. Snow is probably an easy trick for animators, but a reflective surface like ice has to be a chore to create and manipulated, even for computer animation. Yet, even this transformation still feels like something that could be amazing on stage. Somehow a blank set being evolved into her castle while she transfers herself into the Ice Queen. Yeah, it's actually amazing that it was "Let Her Go" that was the breakout song, it's a song about changing into a villain essentially. It's like if "Be Prepared" was played on the radio all the time. In the context of the movie, this song is beautiful and frightening. She even conjurs up a snow monster to represent her monstrous ascent into isolation. (First a snowman when she wanted love, now a snow-monster when she's been rejected.)
And yes, I know the "Frozen" musical on Broadway didn't do so well, I'm not saying this film should be on Broadway, I'm saying that Broadway is one of the main inspiration used to create the film, "Frozen".
All this, and I'm still scratching the true surface of "Frozen". It's startling just how many themes and influences the film has. The movie is probably the best example ever of a film that truly circumvents Disney's more traditional Princess narratives; I'd argue even better then "Shrek" did years ago. Nobody knows how to parody or mock Disney better then Disney, and they just found a way to do it better. To take their storytelling tropes and criticisms and find incredible ways of reimagining them, and keep them relevant. Even the closing of a door on Anna's love interest Hans (Santino Fontana), not a new trope for Disney, but it has more power when you remember that for Anna, love is an open door, and why it is that for her. (Watch for that motif too next time, doors have a lot of significance in "Frozen" on later viewings, they come up almost as much as an Antonioni film.)
Beyond those themes of love and isolation, "Frozen" is also a tale of sisterly love, something that really didn't exist much in Disney's canon. Hell, it's rare in cinema at all. There's an exception or two here-and-there, but most sibling stories are usually about brothers, but even beyond that, it tells a story of how siblings can be so close, and yet, even as they grow up together, they can drift apart.
I can't say this doesn't effect me personally, even as an older brother to my younger brother, who I still watch and raise 'cause of his low-functioning autism, I can't help but remember how much closer we were when we were younger, and was less likely be accidentally hurt by him. Tsk.
Even more then that though, I see other family members in Anna and Ilsa. There's a lot of loving sisters in my family, and they're very different from each other now, but they still love each other.
I guess one can say that I might be more bias towards "Frozen" because of that, but I'm not the only one who can connect to it, and more importantly, why was it this one that really was the first that made me feel this way about it? Shouldn't there have been others beforehand? Perhaps there's some obscure Disney pieces I missed, I doubt it, but I'm more-then-happy that I got this one ultimately. For that, we have to thank Jennifer Lee, the co-director, writer and creator of "Frozen," and now, the first female head of Disney animation. She said that her main inspiration was to take Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen", completely take out most of the narrative and focus on a love story that was about the tension between "Love" and "Fear", something that she recognized was much more common to be exploited in these days, but frankly is more interesting then just take a tale of simple love. "To tell a tale of the wonderful mess of life," as she expressed
"Frozen" is a mini-miracle, it takes a lot of, in many ways, adults themes, isolation, loneliness, hell, parenting techniques, several different questions about what love means, coping with grief and loss, ostracization from others for being different, and it manages to package it all in a mainstream Disney Princess fairy tale. There's no Disney movie that I can think of that has this much depth and interpretations and readings in it.
"Frozen" is an undeniable masterpiece not because it plays with the simple fairy tale narrative but because of how truly complex it is, in all the best ways. Even the best Disney or other animated features, they're usually pretty simple stories at their core, but "Frozen" is not. It may share the similar motifs of other Disney films, but so many more deeper themes and issues at play and the more layers you dive every aspect of it.... Lee also notes Hayao Miyazaki as a major influence and I believe her, 'cause his movies are never this simple either.
"Frozen" gets better the more you watch it. Perhaps that's why kids, (And adults) keeps putting it on replaying all day. I know that's why I've kept returning to it.