It shouldn’t be a revelation to any of you that I love Walt Disney Animation Studios, because I’ve never really made efforts to conceal that. I’ve always worn that love on my sleeves, happily belting out lyrics, buying tickets to every new release and rerelease that the studio pushes into theaters, memorizing the release order of the whole canon, and encouraging anybody who will listen to me to not overlook them simply on account of their being animated. I’ve stuck with the company even through the dark times, when films like Brother Bear and Chicken Little and – I shudder as I even think about this one – Home on the Range were populating the theaters. They are one of the most enduring influencers on my life and outlook. And they tell stories about princesses.
Today, I’m going to talk about canon film number 53: Frozen. It’s a film I saw a few months back and enjoyed greatly. It’s a film I didn’t talk much about at first, but has been in the back of my mind the whole time. It’s a film I am now ready, after several repeat screenings, to talk about in full. This is going to be a long article, so I hope you’re ready to get your think on.
PART ONE – Disney, the Company
Before we talk about Frozen, we’ve got to talk about context. I’ve long believed that films should be viewable in a vacuum, that any regard to historical context or even filmic context (i.e. its place in film history, what films came around it, the story of its production, etc.) was wrongheaded and irrelevant to any discussion of a film. What I didn’t realize, or at least did not connect, was that a film cannot be viewed in a vacuum because people are not in a vacuum. Everybody brings their own baggage into a film, their own context, that will alter their perception of it in some way, be it imperceptible or totally altering. Thus we must discuss that context, the shared context that people seeing it the first day of release all have (the closest approximation of the “average” context, let’s say), because it will very much affect the emotional impact of the whole affair.
So, again: let’s talk context.
I. Disney, Social Justice, and Corporate Image
Much has been made of Disney’s social agendas in the past couple of decades, but nothing has taken as many hits as their highly lucrative “Disney Princesses” line of merchandising. Coming under fire from feminists for pushing gender roles on young girls for the purpose of a profit, and from sociologists for their lack of equal racial representation, the line has been pretty hotly debated in critical circles. Indeed, the line is somewhat indicative of a running trend with Disney, a trend I’ve touched on in the past. Within the company, there seems to be a constant push and pull between the cold corporatism of it all, and that indefinable “Disney Magic™” that makes their content so appealing. A lot of that Disney Magic™ comes from their storytelling, which is at times rather cookie-cutter: free-thinking, spirited protagonist defies some set social doctrine to achieve their “happily ever after,” which they always do, with minimal bloodshed or sacrifice involved. The Disney Princess line is all about that “happily ever after,” and Disney’s own vision of that “happily ever after,” which usually involves marriage for their princesses, is the big sticking point.
Given the massive cultural impact that Disney has had over its 75 years of existence (the centennial will surely be fabulous; thrilled I’ll be alive to see that), I think this is a very fair criticism and a worrying trait of the Disney Company. There’s a certain responsibility that comes with that power of cultural influence, and Disney has not been as responsible with it as they should be. Sure, films like Mulan and Tangled may appear to be empowering films about strong girls who are here to tell the girls of the world that they can do whatever they want to do – but the unspoken end of that statement is “as long as what you want to do is marry a man who regularly saves you when you’re in trouble.” That’s pretty reductive, I grant, and I do greatly enjoy both of those films. But there’s still that uncomfortable enforcement of gender roles even in films that are ostensibly about breaking them. That aspect of the Disney Company has always seemed worrying to me.
However, I’m not a sociologist, and honestly I’m not well read enough in gender theory to really have a substantial opinion on that matter or to contribute in any meaningful way to that discourse.
I am, however, versed enough in storytelling to have some problems with that cookie-cutter nature. The films are almost always enjoyable despite that, but by-the-numbers storytelling can be a real downer at times. On top of that, there’s the trend of “Disneyfication” that goes into their adaptations – they take well-known stories and folktales (for instance, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hamlet, Notre-Dame de Paris) and adapt them into films. But during that adaptation process, those stories are defanged and declawed, with any bite and roughness removed from them. Did you know The Little Mermaid’s underlying property, the Hans Christian Andersen original story, ends with her suicide and spending an eternity performing good deeds as a ghost so that she might one day be good enough to enter the kingdom of Heaven? Probably not – the Disney version, in which she lives happily ever after with Prince Eric, has become the de facto version of the fairy tale because of Disney’s cultural power. Did you know that The Hunchback of Notre Dame (from Victor Hugo’s original novel, Notre-Dame de Paris) ends with Esmeralda’s hanging and Quasimodo’s subsequent kidnapping of her body, retreating to a grave where he hugs her lifeless corpse until they have both decomposed into skeletons, found years later? Probably not – the gothic fiction element of the original story is all but eradicated in Disney’s version.
Again: I love The Little Mermaid and am not disparaging it for its alterations to the source material. I love The Hunchback of Notre Dame, frequently praising it for its bravery to hint at darker motives for its villain and its refusal to give the protagonist his romantic happy ending, and am not disparaging it for being different from Hugo’s novel. I am, however, disparaging Disney’s continuing penchant for cookie-cutter storytelling, for it almost always leaves the films thematically lesser than they potentially could be.
What really bothers me most about this, however, is that this decision is almost always motivated – ostensibly, at least – by a desire to keep a squeaky clean corporate image. That’s why there are pages and pages of TVTropes about “Disney Death” and “Disney Villain Death” and “Disney Dog Fight.” The ways that Disney avoids having any blatant violent death and objectionable content are so engrained in the zeitgeist that they’ve been named and catalogued. They turn down powerful thematic opportunities and deviations from their story mold in order to maintain that corporate image.
Are the results enjoyable all the same? Absolutely. But occasionally, you’ll see a film that manages to stretch the mold. It has less obviously defined character roles and more ambiguous morality. It just ever so slightly skirts the boundaries of what Disney considers acceptable. And when a film like that comes along, you can just see how liberated it feels. How fresh. How indicative of a new future for Disney – until the next mold-adhering film comes right along, entertains you, but reminds you that Disney is still Disney.
Yet again: I love Disney. I think that they’ve done a tremendous job of carrying on Walt’s enthusiasm and spirit in the years since his death, and I think that they have created some of the most amazing things in human history. But they’re oh so very safe, and oh so very irresponsible with the cultural power they wield. Most people seem aware of this on some level, and more people become aware of it every day. The wind’s rising, but for now, Disney remains firmly parked in their corporate image maintaining mode.
II. The Disney Revival
Disney’s animated canon is fairly easily divisible into distinct eras of Disney history. The first five films (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi) are the Golden Age (so named for their taking place in the Golden Age of American Animation). The next six (Saludos Amigos, The Three Caballeros, Make Mine Music, Fun and Fancy Free, Melody Time, and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad) were the War Era, in which the studio’s efforts were mostly devoted to wartime propaganda films, and thus their releases were primarily “package films” that consisted of short films drawn together with a slight frame story. The next five (Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, and Sleeping Beauty) were the Classical Period (my term), in which the studio made its first wildly successful and enduring films. The next three (One Hundred and One Dalmations, The Sword in the Stone, and The Jungle Book) were Walt’s final years with the company before his death in 1966. The next eight films (The Aristocats, Robin Hood, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, The Rescuers, The Fox and the Hound, The Black Cauldron, The Great Mouse Detective, and Oliver and Company) are the dark ages – a grave name that many would contest, as the company had moderate financial success with these films (particularly Oliver and Company, which inspired the next slate of films’ creative risks) and continued to grow in other divisions, but the films of this era remain largely forgotten by the public and were less critically and culturally beloved.
It was not until the next ten films that the studio saw such critical and commercial success as they had during the Walt years. Beginning with The Little Mermaid, the studio entered the much vaunted Disney Renaissance, a decade of highly praised and commercially successful films: The Little Mermaid, The Rescuers Down Under, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Mulan, and Tarzan. This era of Disney history is arguably where their greatest cultural influence began, with the founding of the Disney Princess line (which remains one of the public faces of the company) and the establishment of many of the canon’s greatest classics. Beauty and the Beast also became the first animated film to ever be nominated for Best Picture, a feat that has only been repeated twice to date (Pixar darlings Up and Toy Story 3 boast that claim).
The Renaissance was followed, however, by another dark period where Disney’s films were a lot less well received, and several of them were significant box office bombs. They struggled through Fantasia 2000, Dinosaur, The Emperor’s New Groove, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Lilo and Stitch, Treasure Planet, Brother Bear, Home on the Range, Chicken Little, and Meet the Robinsons, relying primarily on the wild success of their live-action arm (which produced the smash Pirates of the Caribbean films) to keep the animation wing afloat. In 2009, after the acquisition of Pixar and the placement of John Lasseter at the head of the animation department, they scored another success with The Princess and the Frog, which has kicked off a new era of Disney: the Disney Revival. The Princess and the Frog has been followed by Tangled (the studio’s 50th film!), Winnie the Pooh, Wreck-It Ralph, and now Frozen, all of which have been critically beloved, and the latest of which is the studio’s highest grossing film of all time.
The cyclical nature of Disney’s animation arm is quite evident – they can endure during hard times, and will usually fall back on standard successes to get them back on their feet, at which point they begin to take risks: see, their return to fairy tale films – which made their success early on – with The Little Mermaid, which started the Renaissance, and their gradual taking of greater risks, eventually leading to The Hunchback of Notre Dame, arguably the studio’s riskiest film given the subject matter and their uncompromising portrayal of Frollo as a lustful villain (a very decidedly unclean take for the studio so concerned with their image). Disney is a resilient studio; they’ll prop themselves up with safety and move to greater risk. Rinse and repeat.
PART TWO – Frozen, My Good Friend Will, and Music With Purpose
So, with context out of the way, now we can finally talk Frozen!
As I said above, I loved Frozen and thought it was Disney’s best film since the Renaissance, among which it could easily stand. To be specific, I think it is Disney’s best film since The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and for many of the same reasons that that particular film ranks so highly in my estimations. We’ll get into that, but first let’s talk about why Frozen works as well as it does.
A friend and colleague of mine remarked at how Frozen is a rare musical in which he likes every one of the songs. I agree entirely with the sentiment, but am surprised to find that almost everybody I have spoken to regarding the film agrees as well. It’s a very rare thing indeed that a musical film reaches that sort of broad praise of its soundtrack. A great deal of that is almost certainly due to the talent of the voice cast – particularly Idina Menzel as Elsa, and her fantastic solo number “Let It Go” (which has been nominated for a number of Best Original Song awards; we’ll see if it takes home the Oscar this weekend!). An equal deal of that is due to the talent of the songwriters, whose music for the film is poignant and joyful in equal measures at the right times, all while being dangerously infectious. But I have a hunch that the real reason people have so taken to this soundtrack has to do with what is actually Frozen’s greatest strength: its story structure.
“But Brandon!” some of you will say. “What does story structure have to do with the soundtrack?” I’m glad that I anticipated you asking, nameless reader.
Frozen is a damn near perfectly constructed story. It decisively vomits all over three-act structure, boasting a five-act structure with some beautifully synchronized act breaks. It’s tremendously accomplished at emotional and logical economy, compressing huge swaths of time down into small periods while still capturing all of the emotional weight of those periods. Almost no screen time is wasted (with two notable exceptions, but we’ll get to that) and nearly every frame is devoted to propelling the plot forward with conviction. It’s powerful, confident, and clear. Let’s take a closer look.
The film begins with the “Frozen Heart” sequence. Ice miners crack the top of a frozen lake to gather ice for sale to the citizens of Arendelle. The song “Frozen Heart” accompanies it, and deftly sets the tone for the entire film. It’s a very Nordic ballad, the vocals more akin to chanting than singing, and with a simultaneously intimidating and welcoming musical accompaniment: heavy imposing drums contrasting soaring strings. Perhaps most significantly, this sequence fulfills the role of the Shakespearean chorus: it tells us the entire story at the very beginning of the film. Let’s think about the lyrics here, shall we?
Born of cold and winter air and mountain rain combining
This icy force both foul and fair has a frozen heart worth mining
So cut through the heart, cold and clear,
Strike for love and strike for fear,
See the beauty, sharp and shear,
Split the ice apart and break the frozen heart.
Hmm. Well what do you know, that sounds about like the plot of the film. Elsa, born in the mountainous region of Arendelle (“Born of cold and winter air and mountain rain combining”), has the power of cryokinesis, which allows her to conjure ice and snow out of thin air (“This icy force”). She and her sister Anna are the princesses of Arendelle, and greatly enjoy her powers, until one day, an accident occurs and Anna’s mind is frozen by Elsa’s powers (“both foul and fair”). Elsa draws inward, refusing to let anybody but her father in, for fear of her powers once again lashing out (“has a frozen heart”). Anna, her memory of Elsa’s powers removed by the stone trolls who saved her life, still remembers the good times she had with Elsa and tries to coax Elsa out of her shell repeatedly throughout their life (“worth mining”). When Elsa’s powers accidentally threaten a group of party guests at her coronation, she retreats into the mountains around Arendelle, and decides to let her powers loose, creating a large ice castle where she can live alone, free from people she might accidentally harm. It sets off an eternal winter, however, so Anna follows her to the fortress to try and convince her to come back, promising to be there for her and help her control her powers. Elsa, both scared of her powers and trying to protect her sister, tries to send her away, but ends up accidentally lashing out again, freezing Anna’s heart (“So cut to the heart, cold and clear, strike for love and strike for fear”). Anna begins to freeze solid over time. As a small political drama involving Anna’s fiancé Hans plays out, Elsa and Anna are trapped on the ice. Hans tells Elsa that Anna is already dead, which results in Elsa’s powers deactivating. The ice begins to break apart as Hans raises his sword to strike her down, but Anna intervenes, turning to ice as the sword hits her. Elsa mourns her sister, but the expression of true love shown between the two sisters causes Anna to break out of the ice, returning to life. (“See the beauty, sharp and shear, split the ice apart, and break the frozen heart!”)
Look at that! They tell us the whole story in the opening song! But wait, there’s more!
Beautiful! Powerful! Dangerous! Cold!
Ice has a magic can’t be controlled
Sounds like someone we know, right?
The film straight up tells you the story – albeit in a way you won’t immediately recognize – at the very beginning. “Frozen Heart” is an incredibly effective song that serves both as a tone setting for the film and a Shakespearean chorus, setting the stage for the drama to follow by outright telling you what happens. There’s a certain ballsiness involved with doing that. Shakespeare did it because it removed the emphasis on what was going to happen and placed it on the how it happened; he told you upfront “Romeo and Juliet die, guys,” so that the play would be more concerned with the ridiculous inter-family politics and tragicomic misunderstandings that actually lead to their deaths.
Guys, this is about to get real real, because let me drop this bombshell on you: “Frozen Heart” is a Shakespearean chorus, because this film is a Shakespearean tragedy to a tee. I mentioned above it has five acts – that five-act structure perfectly models Shakespeare’s structure, and we’re going to talk about every single detail of it.
I. Act 1: The State of Existing Conflict
Shakespeare’s plays almost never start with things in a good state – there’s always pre-existing conflict. It’s always more interesting and organic to enter your world already in a state of conflict. Once we exit the “Frozen Heart” chorus/overture scene, we enter Elsa and Anna’s bedroom, where Anna entreats Elsa to go and play. It is the offer to build a snowman that actually has an effect on Elsa, and the two quietly sneak out of their beds and head into the foyer where Elsa uses her magic to create a bunch of snow.
This might not seem like a situation that lends itself to pre-existing conflict. Two sisters happily playing doesn’t suggest it all that much. But the fact that they are sneaking around is emphasized heavily by the film, with the sisters repeatedly reminding each other to be quiet when in the foyer. It’s a necessity that is clear, but of uncertain motivation. When Elsa strikes Anna with a blast of frost accidentally, freezing her mind, the concerned parents run in, making the motive for sneaking apparent. And with one line, the unnamed king establishes the pre-existing conflict: “They’re getting even stronger.”
Elsa’s powers are growing. She and Anna are sneaking out at night to use them. We have our pre-existing conflict. With one line. Economy, ladies and gentlemen.
Their parents rush the two children to a gathering of stone trolls, who remove the frost from Anna’s mind, at the cost of her memories of her sister’s magic. They promise to reel in Elsa’s powers, to help her learn to control them, and to hide those powers from the rest of the world. They close the gates to the castle, and begin a life of isolation, with Elsa terrified of her powers and doubtful of her ability to control them.
II. Act 2: The Conflict Intensifies
Shakespeare’s second acts universally take the established conflict from Act 1 and ramp it up. It puts the characters at direct odds with that pre-existing conflict, which causes it to ratchet up and intensify. I hate the phrase “rising action,” but when people use it, this is what they mean.
Their life of isolation is not going well for Anna, who has a severe case of cabin fever after having been locked up in the castle for most of her life. But when Elsa comes of age, it is time for her coronation as Queen of Arendelle (after their parents died at sea a few years previous). The gates are opened, and in come the people. Elsa, terrified that she will accidentally let her powers loose, barely manages to cope through the coronation ceremony. Anna strives to find a romantic partner, and upon doing so impulsively agrees to marry him. She asks for Elsa’s blessing.
Here is where we can see Shakespeare’s model at play: Anna, in pursuit of her own desire to find a romantic partner, has been placed at odds with the pre-existing conflict of Elsa’s attempts to control and conceal her powers. She’s put Elsa into an emotionally difficult state, frightened about opening up the castle to yet another person she might hurt, and angry with her sister for doing that to her. But there’s a wonderful bit of dramatic irony here in that Anna has no idea why Elsa is upset; she finds out with everybody else that her sister has the power to conjure ice and snow. Dramatic irony being used to amplify pre-existing conflict by placing characters at odds with each other and that conflict?
Oh man, it’s Shakespeare up in here.
III. Act 3: The Conflict Shifts
It’s the climax already! Shakespeare got to the point. His third acts are a lot like his second acts, in that they intensify the conflict, but in a fundamentally different way. Whereas the second acts simply intensify the conflict, the third acts do so by changing the nature of the conflict. It finds the one thing that could make that conflict more complicated, more difficult to resolve, and makes that thing happen.
In Frozen, the third act sees Anna pursuing Elsa. Their relationship is still the same as it has always been; Elsa is shutting Anna out for what she believes to be Anna’s own good, and Anna wants Elsa to open up to her so they can help each other. The only thing that has changed is their physical distance. Similarly, even though Elsa has decided to isolate herself and allow her magic to run wild, the conflict between her power and her need to let people in and support her remains intact.
The third act, however, shatters that to pieces. Anna finally reaches Elsa (with the help of Sven and Kristoff) and the two have a brief heart to heart. Upon finding out that the kingdom is now in an endless winter, Elsa retreats back inward and regresses, losing the openness that her isolation had given her. Anna once again tries to reach out and comfort Elsa, but Elsa unwittingly lashes out, this time striking Anna in her heart. Their relationship is fundamentally shattered, here, with Anna being forced to no longer try and help Elsa but to actively retreat from her.
IV. Act 4: The Conflict Spirals
Act 4 is where all the pieces line up for the climax, the big finale. Characters make rapid, ill-conceived decisions that compound on each other, “spiraling” events toward their ultimate conclusion. This is often where the “comedy / tragedy of errors” happens in earnest; characters make decisions without full information or with false information, which begets consecutive decisions without full information, and so on.
Frozen plays this really well by waiting until this point in the film to reveal its traditional villain character, Hans. The audience, and thus the characters, have no idea that Hans has villainous intentions. So when he arrives at Elsa’s castle with the stated goal of saving Anna, Elsa believes it fully reasonable to stop attacking the two guards who had been tasked with killing her and to go with Hans, willingly. When Kristoff and Anna reach the stone trolls, who inform them that only an act of true love can save Anna from the fate of the frozen heart (turning into ice), they think it perfectly reasonable to get back to Arendelle and have Anna kiss Hans, who Anna thinks she loves (and is loved by in return). But these actions just cause the conflict to spiral. It places Anna and Elsa back together, and gives Hans what he needs to manipulate the two into getting the throne for himself. Elsa is chained to the floor, her hands encased in steel to prevent her from using her powers. Anna is left to turn into ice in a locked room. Their fates appear all but sealed.
V. Act 5: The Conflict Resolves
Act 5 wraps it all up. It’s pretty simple, really.
Elsa breaks free of her chains when her powers freeze the room around her in bursts of unbridled emotion. Anna is let out of her room by Olaf, and she goes off to find Kristoff, believing him to be her true love. They both end up out on the ice, Elsa pursued by Hans and Anna in search of Kristoff. The conflict between Anna and Elsa reaches a head, as Anna has the opportunity to sacrifice herself to save Elsa from Hans’ blade. She seizes that opportunity, and turns to ice as Hans’ sword strikes her.
And thus, “Frozen Heart” comes to pass. Elsa’s love for Anna revives her, resolving the sisterly conflict at the center of the film. And all is well.
VI. Act Breaks and Music
At the beginning of this section, I said that the songs in the film are almost universally praised because of the film’s story structure. Now that we’ve outlined the film’s impeccable structure, we can talk about how that makes the music meaningful.
All this Shakespeare business was set in motion by looking at what function “Frozen Heart” serves within the film as a whole. Its choral nature and its status as an operatic overture of sorts led to an examination of the act structure of the film. When looking at that structure, we can see the ways that the musical numbers within the film fit into that structure. What makes Frozen’s soundtrack special, however, is the way that it manages to squeeze nearly every song into a pivotal moment – an act break in almost every single case.
As we discussed, “Frozen Heart” serves as part of the first act of a Shakespeare play – it sets up the tone of the piece and tells you the story in broad strokes. After that sequence, we’re given the sequence with Anna and Elsa playing as children that leads to Anna’s initial injury. We then move right into “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” which serves as not just a poignant, catchy song, but also as the first act break, propelling the film into its second act.
“Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” is also one of the best examples of what Tarkovsky called “sculpting in time;” it takes a long process – the entire childhood of Elsa and Anna – and compresses it into three and a half minutes. In that span, we go from immediately after the accident, with young Anna begging Elsa to come build a snowman, all the way to their despair after the death of their parents, with a much-older-than-her-age Anna begging Elsa to come out and let them support each other. It’s a powerfully emotional song, bearing the full brunt of a childhood of isolation and conveying all of that in the span of three and a half minutes. It does this not only through the tremendous vocal talent of Kristen Bell, who sells the last third of the lyrics with such a resigned hope in the face of hopelessness, but also through the lack of Elsa’s vocals. She is limited entirely to “Go away, Anna!” during the first third of the song. After that, she needn’t say a thing: her silence speaks so much louder.
The song compresses this important period into such a small fragment of the film’s runtime, and creates the first act break in the process. We see the immediate result of Elsa’s decision to turn inward and isolate herself so as not to hurt anyone else accidentally. We see that decision’s ramifications spread over an entire childhood. We see that decision’s impact on her sister Anna. Immediately, that decision creates more conflict than we saw in the preceding scene. It’s powerful. It’s moving. It’s more affecting than an entire film of their childhood could ever hope to be.
Immediately after “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” we move into “For the First Time In Forever,” which occupies a similar position to “Frozen Heart;” it is here to settle us into the second act, and what the conflict currently stands at. It provides an immediate contrast to the sad, mournful Anna we saw at the end of “Snowman,” with a bright and upbeat Anna dancing around the castle in anticipation of the gates opening. It also actually provides us with a meaningful glimpse into Elsa’s state, something we haven’t really seen since she was a child. It’s a slight ratcheting up of that central conflict, as we finally see how much that decision to turn inward has impacted her.
Musically, this song is a beautiful reflection of the film’s central conflict, despite its relentlessly cheery nature. For the second half of the song, Elsa and Anna sing together, but inverse sentiments. Anna eagerly awaits the opening of the gates, while Elsa fears it and what it might mean for her powers. Their pseudo-competition within the lyrics (they aren’t addressing one another, but simply singing at the same time) underlies the conflict between the two sisters perfectly, and sets the stage for the events to come in the second act…
…events that are captured by the next song, “Love Is an Open Door,” which is sung by Anna and Hans, not quite of their love for one another. Anna believes she is in love with Hans, and her half of the song reflects that. But, with the knowledge that Hans is actually the film’s villain, his entire half of the song is about his love for the kingdom that he sees as his for the taking:
I’ve been searching my whole life to find my own place
And maybe it’s the party talking or the chocolate fondue
But with you, I’ve found my place
And it’s nothing like I’ve ever known before
There’s a sinister undertone to the entire song that is in wonderful dissonance with its quite sprightly and upbeat tune. This, however, is mostly a footnote, as in terms of narrative propulsion, this song’s primary purpose is to condense an expansion.
That probably doesn’t make sense. Let’s tease that out a bit more: this song’s purpose is to expand the length of Hans and Anna’s relationship, and then condense it. It is meant to feel like a condensation of a much longer span of time than it is, so that we, the audience, are totally willing to buy into her engagement at its end. Because the bulk of their relationship happens in a song, a device almost always used as a way to compress time, the audience feels as if more time has passed than actually has. If we cut this song out and turn it into a simple conversation between the two, then the proposal at the end would send immediate red flags and betray the reveal that Hans is a villain. Some viewers might still figure that out, but it’s a mostly effective subterfuge all the same.
In terms of narrative propulsion, it provides the spark for the fire that is ignited when Anna asks for Elsa’s blessing of their marriage. It doesn’t directly lead us there, but it moves toward it, and we go there right after the song concludes. That conflict, started by this song, sends us into “Let It Go.”
I probably don’t need to say much about “Let It Go;” this song, more than any other from this film, has been talked about and talked about and talked about. For damn good reason, too; Idina Menzel’s performance is utterly fantastic, the music itself is soaring and operatic, and it’s just an all-around beautiful song. This is proof-positive that Disney’s post-Renaissance Broadway-stylings are fantastic filmmaking.
But, even though I don’t need to say all that much, I’m going to anyway. Let’s just talk about how well this song takes us from Act 2 Elsa, scared and uncertain about her powers, to Act 3 Elsa, assured of her own abilities and willing and able to just let them out, creating beautiful things (“See the beauty sharp and shear!”). It does that in the span of two lines. We go straight from “Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know…” to: “Well, now they know… Let it go!”
A complete reversal of character in two lines, and it plays. It totally works. It’s the full stop of the music, the moment of silence, and then the outburst of frost and sound and lyricism all at once. It builds and it builds and it builds, tensing up, and then – it lets go.
I’m getting chills.
This song is perfectly placed on the cusp of the second and third acts, and propels us straight into the third act. It adds another ratchet into the conflict, setting an endless winter between Elsa and Anna, making it much more difficult for Anna to achieve her goal of getting to Elsa, and much easier for Elsa to achieve her goal of isolating herself from everybody else. As a show-stopper, it’s unmatched. But it manages to actually keep the show from stopping simultaneously. It deserves every bit of praise that it gets.
The third act sees Anna make her way up the mountain and eventually confront Elsa, where we are treated to a reprise of “For the First Time in Forever,” which serves as our third act break. Like the first version of this song, there’s a wonderful element of Elsa and Anna dueling, so to speak. But unlike the first one, this is very much a conversation. Initially, the song serves to illustrate the current state of the conflict, with Elsa once again pleading Anna to leave her be, for both of their sakes, and Anna pleading that Elsa open up, also for both of their sakes. But when Anna alerts Elsa to the fact that her powers have plunged Arendelle into an endless winter, the song shifts and becomes a method by which the film ratchets up the conflict even further. Elsa’s mental state deteriorates as she retreats inward (physically, too; she curls up into a ball that is amplified by the swirling snowstorm she summons), and the song grows more severe and morose with heavy drum beats, with Anna’s voice getting progressively drowned out.
The whole thing builds and builds and builds and ultimately culminates with a sharp cymbal crash: Anna being struck in the heart by a bit of Elsa’s frost. That moment completely changes the relationship between the two sisters, and the song continues for thirty more seconds in silence. They’re no longer speaking: Anna is no longer trying to get Elsa to open up, and is turning away from her, while Elsa has given up begging her to leave. That silence is deafening. Fortunately, Kristoff runs in and is sent off by Elsa, who summons a snow golem to chase them away. The song takes us from the third act, gives us our transformative moment, and sends us into the fourth act.
And so does the film dispense with lyrical songs from this point onward (with an exception we’ll talk about in a moment). It allows the fourth act break to come naturally from the propulsion of the character’s decisions, with no additional propulsion in the form of a musical number, and then lets the events of the fifth act resolve themselves. It’s a decision that lends things an added potency, as it removes the inherent layer of artifice that a Broadway style musical number will provide from the proceedings, and the film is, I think, stronger for that decision.
That’s five of the film’s seven songs; what of the other two, however? Well…
Frozen is not a perfect film, and for all of my praise of it so far, there are two glaring flaws with the film. Its structure is impeccable and it is remarkably good at placing songs on critical moments that amplify the emotions of that moment. But it is remarkably bad at trimming fat. The fat in Frozen is primarily in the form of the character Olaf, the animated snowman that Elsa inadvertently brought to life, and the stone trolls. While these characters serve important story functions, they are each given a musical number that unfortunately is not nearly as critical to the story as the previously discussed five numbers. Instead, “In Summer” (Olaf’s song) and “Fixer Upper” (the stone trolls song) are dead air. They’re scenes that don’t advance the narrative or significantly add thematically. They’re simply there.
They aren’t bad songs; in fact, they’re both very good songs, and most people have said that they enjoy them. “In Summer” is an amusing and catchy song while “Fixer Upper” is an energetic and playful bit of fun in a rather dark and downer half of the film. But neither of these songs serves any purpose other than to slightly explore the characters who sing them, but not in any significant way. Olaf’s real purpose in the film is in giving Elsa pause before turning Anna away in the third act, and in freeing Anna from the locked room in the fourth act. The stone trolls serve only to direct Anna toward Arendelle once she has had her heart frozen, so that she may be in place for the fifth act showdown. Plot reasons, not character or thematic reasons. To an extent, even Kristoff doesn’t really need to exist. He is a valuable character for providing Anna a believable path up the mountain, and in increasing the emotional impact of Anna’s choice to sacrifice herself for Elsa, but of his own merits he has little reason to be there.
These instances of dead air do not substantially detract from the film, but it is more than clear that the audiences have picked up on their relative uselessness. They are the only two songs I have heard anything negative about, and I wager that is because the audience, even if they are unable to identify it as such, knows intuitively that they serve no propulsive purpose. They might manifest that feeling as not liking the song, but I’d bet it’s their inner movie analyst knowing that the scenes serve minimal purpose in the film as a whole.
But again: these two lapses don’t in any way take away from the remarkable achievement that is Frozen. The film is a beautifully constructed musical that has some of the best, most meaningful songs of any musical I’ve seen. It’s emotionally devastating and heartwarming in equal measure, and is easily one of the best animated films in a good, long while.
PART THREE – Bringing It All Back Home
Oh man, you didn’t think we were DONE, did you? Oh no no no! We’ve still got to frame this film within the context we discussed at the beginning!
In our act breakdown of the film, we saw quite plainly that the film’s central conflict was between the competing desires of Anna and Elsa. Anna wished to allow her sister to open up to her so that they could support each other, while Elsa wished to remain composed and isolated from people so that her powers could not hurt anybody inadvertently. The friction between these two desires was the primary driver of conflict within the narrative, even if the villain was an external third party.
This story structure is already defying Disney’s standard cookie cutter mold. It lacks a traditional villain until all the way in the fourth act, very late in the film’s runtime. Instead, the conflict is between our hero protagonist and an anti-hero deuteragonist, both empathetic characters that the audience identifies with. Though it eventually caves and gives us a standard villain character to despise, the film spends the bulk of its time being an uncomfortably grey tale of a fractured sister relationship. That’s unique among their films; things like The Fox and the Hound come close to that kind of pathos, but for the most part, their films have identifiable villains in black and white moral situations. Frozen is a much more challenging and uncomfortable film, and I applaud Disney for that.
Beyond that, it absolutely tears to shreds the standard foundations of Disney Princesses. Placing Hans as the villain is a decidedly dark twist on the standard “love at first sight” trope that Disney Princess films tend to fall into (Cinderella and Prince Charming are perhaps the worst offenders); it actively discourages the sort of immediate falling in love just to find a husband thing that the Princess line has been accused of perpetuating. Sure, Anna does get-the-guy in the end, but her relationship with Kristoff is earned, and still nascent at the film’s end (he awkwardly asks for a kiss, and is quite surprised to receive one).
Instead of romantic love, it pushes sisterly love and affection as the “true love” that conquers all, and that is a truly unique take among Disney’s canon. It’s also more earned than almost any of the romantic love endings, as it is the culmination of the film’s entire conflict – all that tension builds up throughout the film to that ultimate release where Elsa hugs Anna’s iced body, causing warmth to radiate from her heart all over her body and into the audience’s hearts. No marriage proposal could top that moment.
And Elsa? Well, do I even need to point out the obvious metaphor of her being born different, shutting herself away because of that difference and the fear of people finding out about it, feeling liberated once the secret is out and feeling free to be herself at last, and finally finding acceptance in her sister despite her fears that she would be hurt? Come on. It’s 2014, and that’s a really blatant metaphor. But it’s a touching one all the same, and the fact that Disney would allow that metaphor through, implying that one of their Disney Princesses might in fact not be heterosexual? That’s awesome.
I made the statement some 7,000 words ago that Frozen is the best Disney film since The Hunchback of Notre Dame. While there are certainly some 7,500 words to be said about THAT film as well, for now it will suffice to say that it takes a lot of these same risks in deviating from the formula and delivering a film that provides some genuine pathos rather than the sickly sweet Disney Magic™ that most of them provide. It and Frozen are two of a kind in that respect.
But Hunchback was a Renaissance film. It came in the middle of a streak of home runs, when the Broadway style musical was Disney’s lucky bat, and they were swinging it until it broke. We’re not in the Renaissance anymore. This is the Disney Revival now. Disney’s trying different things all over the place. Frozen represents perhaps the greatest risk the studio has taken in some time; is that a fluke? A desperate allowance to get the long-languishing Snow Queen adaptation that had been with the studio since 1943 (yes, it’s been in development for 70 years)? Or is it indicative of a new trend?
Only time will tell. For now, I’m going to go and listen to “Let It Go” for about the fiftieth time – just while writing this article. Because Frozen is a rare film. There are a lot of films that I love – a whole lot – so many, in fact, that Frozen, for all the praise doled out here, wasn’t even in my top 10 for 2013. But Frozen is a rarer film than those 10. Frozen, for all its flaws and its useless characters and dead air, is an absolute joy. It’s a film that simply makes me smile just thinking about it, or hearing one of the songs in my head.
It’s Disney Magic™. Long may it live.