Getting over estrangement isn’t easy!

Frozen is both surprising and a film that makes perfect sense. Disney is on a tear lately, and Frozen belongs to a new and proud generation of “Princess” movies that are not afraid to indulge a little self-awareness, trope-busting, and progressive themes. Its companions are Brave and Tangled, with both of those films functioning nicely alongside this one as the new breed of animated films featuring female characters that are not dominated nor defined by childishness, vapidness, the institution of marriage, or their relationships to men.

Co-directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck may not have known what they had on their hands, but Frozen is a smash success and the type of movie I’m very happy exists. I pride myself on being as manly as the next man, by any sane and emotionally healthy definition, but Frozen made me choke up and just the chorus of stand-out song “Let It Go” gives me the big feels. Lee had no previous animation experience, by the way, and was brought on to make sure the story and characters had depth and complexity. This is a big deal. This is maybe a sea-change in how the business of making these frankly very commercial movies is done. Disney has long done above-average work in the kids’ and animated genres, especially since linking up with Pixar. I hope the quality of Frozen, and the returns it is deservedly enjoying are a lesson to other creatives and executives in the industry.

Seeing movies like this one and Catching Fire in the same weekend, and knowing they are hugely successful in every way that matters, makes me very happy for the state of my favorite entertainment industry and hopeful for the future.disney_frozen___young_elsa_by_sharnihendry-d6pi8fn

The thing about little baby ice sorceresses is that they grow up.

Adapted from The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen (for whom at least three characters are named), Frozen is all about the relationship between the two princesses of a vaguely Scandinavian kingdom called Arendelle. One of them, Elsa (Idina Menzel) was afflicted by some kind of magic that has given her the ability to express her feelings through generating snow and ice. Her sister, Anna (Kristen Bell), wakes her up one night to play with a power that isn’t hers, but is shared with her anyway. Unfortunately, Elsa can’t control her powers and Anna is hurt. Their parents take them to see the trolls, their patriarch (Ciaran Hinds) can fix minor damage but warns that if Elsa uses her powers to freeze a person’s heart, they will be cursed beyond saving. This prompts the King and Queen to keep Elsa’s gifts secret, to force her into isolation and estrangement with Anna, all for the good of the realm.

But the King and Queen die in a shipwreck, leaving Elsa and Anna with nothing but silence and loneliness. For her part, Anna never fully gives up and her sister’s coronation affords her the only opportunity she’s had in a decade or so to reconnect with Elsa.


Anna sidesteps being a bit of a manic pixie dreamgirl thanks to Kristen Bell’s command of the performance.

Anna wants to hang out with people, but she also yearns to meet “the one”. In what becomes a running joke in the film, she seizes on the first nice guy she meets, a Prince Hans (Santino Fontana) with whom she has a sort of awkward rapport. This is the kind of thing she expects to happen to her. A romantic fantasy that immediately connects her with the Disney fans in the room, both the ones who’ve out grown the Disney model of love, and the younger ones who are still ripe to be taken in by what has long been rightfully labeled a somewhat pernicious con. Expanding on Brave‘s stubborn, assertive approach to that problem, Frozen deals with it via humor and an acknowledgement that the love Anna wants is definitely a fantasy.

Ambushed by Anna’s characteristic enthusiasm and snap decision-making, Elsa has a bit of a freak-out predicated on just how hard she’s concentrating on not letting anyone notice her powers. She doesn’t think Anna should marry a guy she’s just met. This comes across as obvious, but unstated, since Elsa is dealing with her own shit. Just think about that for a minute. There are emotions and motives in this film, an animated Disney film, that come out of subtlety and small cues of body language and facial tics. Only the big cathartic stuff is every outright said, or sung, in this movie. That makes it intriguing. That makes it sophisticated.


From Ice Queen to Ice Queen.

Elsa’s fit outs her as a sorceress and she flees the village, scared that her magic will hurt people due to her lack of control over it. Once she’s far away from anyone she could harm inadvertently, she has a moment of reflection and realizes that she’s finally free to let her hair down and be who she is. What follows has got to be one of the singular and seminal Disney musical numbers in their storied history. How to describe Elsa’s transformation via this song? How to elucidate the complexity of character, image, and the interplay between the aware audience (mostly adults) and what they’re seeing on screen?

Of all the great moments, characters, and scenes in this film (and there are plenty), this is the one that hits the hardest and is probably what people will remember. If only for the great song. Elsa, without having to worry about hurting anyone, truly controls her powers and creates beauty. She erects an ice palace on a mountainside, in a nod to Watchmen‘s Dr. Manhattan, who does something similar when he finally gets away from the fear and judgment of other people. This shows unequivocally that Elsa’s magic is something to be refined and respected, a true gift rather than a curse.


Wonderful homage to Watchmen.

But this moment also suggests something far more interesting and subversive. Other critics have mentioned that Elsa’s characterization may be a wafer-thin metaphor for the experience of LGBTQ people and I have to agree with them. Even if it wasn’t intentional, and I seriously doubt it wasn’t, the metaphor is perfectly functional and ridiculously valid. If her snow powers are a metaphor for her sexual orientation, follow through the way the movie handles it as a metaphor for the way parents, society, and possibly our loved ones can possibly shut us into ourselves when there’s something about us they fear and don’t understand. Carrying that out, you can apply it to any outsider narrative you might want but I think that the most powerful is the LGBTQ message, if only because it’s never represented in this type of film. And besides, Elsa never seems all that interested in men.

Elsa takes complete ownership of herself, and the animation and dress of the character once she’s unleashed is probably one of the most adult, sensual, and attractive that Disney has produced. This is a powerful woman. Woman is the key word there, the italics be damned. And she’s there for the grown-ups. Anna, great as she is too, is the princess meant for the kids in this one.


This movie has a lot of warm hugs to give.

There’s more than one love story in Frozen. There’s Olaf (Josh Gad), the snowman Elsa accidentally animates, who loves everything and everyone (the idea of summer most of all). He’s in the JarJar spot, in this movie, and he’s a character that could easily annoy but is endowed with so much heart (and not a little wisdom) that he wins you over. Similarly, Sven the Reindeer feels like a Disney character we’ve seen 600 times before, but the movie knows this and uses it expertly. Just enough to keep us happy, not too much to edge into obnoxious. This is helped a lot by Christoff (Johnathan Groff) who insists on carrying on entire conversations as himself and play-acting as Sven. This is a nicely executed joke on Disney’s history with the “talking animal” trope and it endears both characters to the audience.

Christoff is the love interest for Anna, and agrees to help her to save his ice-selling business. Raised by the trolls after being separated from his own people, Christoff is the evolution of Tangled‘s Flynn Rider. He fills the role that women usually fill in typical action-adventure or fantasy films. Tangled wasn’t quite confident enough in the idea of a purely female lead (which is odd for Disney, really) that Flynn narrated the thing, putting the film at least nominally in his perspective. This time, Anna and Elsa get the full honors and this is only fitting.

Elsa and Anna have the most important love story in the film. It’s also a lot more focused than the similarly filial “romance” of Brave. The bad guys aren’t important, and though Disney has a history of great villains and a lot of time spent on their characterizations and evil plots (think Scar, Jafar, etc from the golden period of the 90’s), Frozen is more perfunctory about it. That said, Hans is the closest thing to a villain that there is and even his motive (he’s the youngest sibling in a big family, left out of inheritance or special status) feeds back into the central issue.


There’s room for everybody to be heroic.

Though Elsa is potentially destructive, highly emotional about it, and estranged from her, Anna’s defining characteristic is hope. Not only for herself, even in pretty dire circumstances, but for Elsa. When it comes to Elsa, Anna never gives into fear or reproach but is an unwavering line of support, love, and selflessness. This is a beautiful message, and a mark of restraint for a film where it was probably very tempting to reduce the conflict to sibling rivalry, angst, or open fighting. Frozen sidesteps those simpler ways of dealing with the conflict, and keeps it all operating at a higher, more realistic level. That it’s a fantasy film makes this approach a bit unnecessary, but certainly functional. And I get why they did it. In spite of Elsa’s snow powers and what their function in the story could represent (I say could but I think I mean definitely does), their shit is way relatable to anyone who has siblings.

The miscommunication. The storming off. The tantrums. The paternalism. The natural and irrefutable willingness to drop all that at moments it really matters. That’s all stuff even the most manly men can understand, especially if they have brothers or sisters.


Or small, affable snow golems.