on December 12, 2013
I am a huge animation buff, and this review is aimed at my fellow adult animation fans. Just wanted to clarify that up front! If Frozen was not one of a plethora of animated movies which target adults as well as kids, I wouldn't have bothered writing a review of it. Nor are my complaints due to its being a fantasy; my favorite fictional genres are fantasy and sci-fi, and I understand that fantasy by definition has many surreal elements. And like any genre, the quality of the story it tells can vary. The plot should still hold together and make sense within its fantastical context. I don't usually get so analytical or write reviews on ones I don't like-- usually I just say, "meh, it was OK" and leave it at that. But the problems with this movie in particular bothered me more than usual because of all the amazing potential it had which I was disappointed that it didn't reach, and also I've been puzzling over why it's so wildly popular.
Frozen has a lot going for it--inspired by a beloved classic tale, engaging characters, stunning visuals, and great music--but a muddled plot drags it down. There are things I definitely enjoy, and things I appreciate more now after repeated viewings courtesy of my young daughter, but the story problems still keep me from loving it. A few media critics have made this same observation. The Seattle Times said "the important thing that glues all this stuff together--story--is sadly lacking." The St. Louis Post-Dispatch in "Frozen is Pretty but Pointless," said that "Whereas the great Disney (and Pixar) flicks are rooted in story, "Frozen" makes almost no sense. ...The images are crystal clear, but as a story, "Frozen" is mush."
Walt Disney constantly preached and enforced that a great story is required to make a great film, hacking hours of work if it was tied to a weak story. Frozen's plot is all over the place, trying to be too many things at once, and it has too many holes. I have a pretty high tolerance for plot holes (like, how did Flounder get that huge statue of Eric into Ariel's grotto?), but in Frozen there are so many things that don't add up that the story seems patchy and forced, which kept me from getting caught up in the emotion. There are a couple of refreshing twists, but it still uses many staid old archetypes. There are good messages in it but they seem contrived. It all seems so contrived toward specific unrelated ends that it doesn't make sense as a cohesive whole. And many aspects of the movie seem to have mercenary rather than artistic motives, which adds to the story problems.
I think that the decisions made for the basic story arc are at the root of the inconsistencies and holes. It's really regrettable that the studio could not find a way to do the original story of The Snow Queen, which features a plucky little girl and a wonderful villain, but for some reason, Disney Studios has been unable since the '40s to find a good way to "make her work" for a movie. So instead, they used the story as loose inspiration for another story which stars not one but TWO royal females, and also tries to appeal to boys/men (who are underestimated in their scope of tastes, as are girls/women). The character demographics are where the marketing motives really show through, especially when compared to the characters in The Snow Queen. They tried to create an original story with good marketing/merch value but still give a few nods to Andersen's story, and those two goals clashed. Even if they couldn't find a way to put Andersen's story on film (though I bet Hayao Miyazaki could), I'd like to think Walt Disney would have required a tighter story than the one in Frozen.
Here are the specific problems I saw with the plot. If you love Frozen, I am glad (and envious)! And you may want to stop reading now just so some of the points I make won't mar your enjoyment! Some Frozen fan friends of mine who read this said, "Oh yea, I never thought about that!" to several of the points.
*Alert: spoilers in this list!*
- There is not enough development of the sisters' relationship before their estrangement. With only one very short scene showing them together as young children, after which they are estranged, it's really hard to find the rest of the story, which hinges on their deep love for each other, as believable. I would have loved to see the demo song "We Know Better" in the movie, which is all about the sisters' relationship as youngsters, growing together to seemingly older ages than 5 and 8 (the age they are when their estrangement happens in the movie). That song is great in another way because they sing about princesses not having to be poised, coiffed and proper, but rather fun, messy and goofy, and sometimes inappropriate and misbehaving. Instead of that song, the opening song is "Frozen Heart," a chant by big manly ice miners shadowed by the young orphan Kristoff, foreshadowing the movie’s events. I have no doubt that this choice was made to add some testosterone to the movie to offset the princess theme.
- The king and queen were ridiculously hapless parents. They had Elsa try to stifle and hide her power instead of learning how to use it. The troll had said she must learn to control it, but that could have been achieved through practice rather than stifling. He also said that fear made it more dangerous, and the king made Elsa more fearful rather than less. (The queen basically never opened her mouth.) And if the trolls knew so much about Elsa's power and how to heal its effects, wouldn't they have some resources to help Elsa learn how to use it? Why did the king and queen apparently leave Anna to fend for herself and be alone for years while Elsa stayed hidden from her? Why couldn't Anna have still known about Elsa's power and have just been told to keep it a secret? Why did they leave on a sea voyage without a contingency plan for Elsa, saying merely, "you'll be fine"? How did they not realize that, besides being sucky parenting, all these things would lead to disaster? And of course, the only reason they had to die was so that Elsa could become the Snow QUEEN. And also I guess because if they had been alive when Elsa ran away they would presumably have sent an army after her. And because, you know, parents just simply have to be absent in fairy tales. Sure, bad parents abound both in real life and in fiction, but their decisions were so bad that they seemed to be done purely so the rest of the movie could be the way it was. (For a wonderful take on the parents, look up the funny video "How Frozen Should Have Ended," which touches on all of this--I watched it a few months after writing this review... it's good to be validated!)
- How did Anna and Elsa manage to avoid seeing each other while living in the same house? Did Elsa have her own wing? Did the family never have dinner together? Didn't any servants or former servants remember Elsa's powers, or have to interact with her? Didn't any courtiers ask about Elsa, the heir to the throne, and wonder why they never saw her? People only seemed to care after the parents died; as Anna tells her, "people are asking where you've been."
- Anna's staying cooped up in the castle and seeking closeness only with Elsa for 10+ years is unrealistic even for a fantasy. A 5 year old would almost certainly have looked for friends elsewhere. If they had been older when the accident happened, it would have been more believable. After she does leave the castle to look for Elsa, Anna is plucky and somehow quite socially adept. Why didn't she just go outside and make some friends and look for adventure prior to that time? It's just really odd for her to have willingly stayed isolated for over a decade. If she was forbidden by her parents to go out anywhere, or see any friends or family, it's hard to believe that she would have submitted to that, and it just reinforces the fact that the king and queen were idiots. They ruined both daughters' childhoods, and almost doomed the whole country, through trying to hide Elsa's power from everyone including her sister. Amazing that the girls came out as well as they did, and survived their own near deaths.
- After Elsa runs away, Anna gallops off to look for her, refusing help by saying she needs to "do this alone"-- "this" being trekking up a winter mountain without supplies or directions. Why did her people let the only remaining heir to the throne set off alone into danger with just a cloak and a horse? (At the end, the officials don't let Hans leave to look for Anna because it's too dangerous and he's "all we have left.") Good thing Anna stumbled across a supply store and a (luckily honorable) mountain man or she wouldn't have survived for long.
- Why was it OK for Anna to trust the mountain man she just met enough to travel alone in the mountains with him, but not to say yes to a fast marriage proposal (about which she gets razzed repeatedly by the mountain man)? That seems a double standard. The filmmakers acknowledge this double standard when he asks her if her parents taught her about strangers, in reference to her fiance, and she edges away and says, "yeeess" nervously. But instead of making jokes to gloss over a plot hole, it would have been better not to have the hole! Maybe, like Rapunzel, the audience is to assume that Anna can defend herself, though unlike Rapunzel, no evidence of that is shown. I do like that Disney pointed out that fast courtship is foolish, which was probably their way of rescinding the messages from most of their past fairy tale movies in which the couple spends only a few hours with each other before getting married. I love it when Anna tells Elsa of her engagement and Elsa is totally baffled.
- If Elsa was truly so concerned about not wanting to hurt Anna or anyone else, why did she create a huge snow monster that almost killed Anna and others? She basically hurt Anna out of fear of hurting her, which doesn't make sense. Maybe we're supposed to see deeper motives, such as perhaps Elsa's shame of her power or her desire to no longer be restricted in its use. But if those are her deeper motives, one wonders why they didn't overtake her before now... how would she have tolerated imprisonment in her room for over 10 years if not motivated primarily by love? Maybe this was the closest they could get to making her like the Snow Queen. Or maybe Disney just needed to inject something really scary, as they almost always do. I have long wondered why almost all the princess movies have terrifying scenes in them!
- When Kristoff takes Anna to see the head troll, even though Anna needs help urgently, the other trolls don't wake him up from his nap right away but instead spend several minutes singing about Kristoff and Anna's romantic potential. Sure, we've got time for a musical number, let's go for it! Of course as soon as the jolly song is over, the head troll manages to wake up and tell them how dire her condition is, Anna collapses and Kristoff frantically tries to get her back to town, racing against every second on the clock.
- I liked the plot twist of an 'evil prince,' but concealing Hans' duplicity until near the end meant that the audience couldn't have any hint of Anna or Kristoff's feelings for each other, which made their admitting feelings at the end seem forced and sudden. It also made some of Hans' actions at the beginning not make sense. They had to add incongruous elements in order to keep fooling the audience. At least the 'act of true love' was between the sisters and not romantic, which was refreshing.
- The country's officials were far too quick to make Hans their new leader. They had no proof of anything he told them: Anna's death, Elsa's treason, or his exchanging marriage vows with Anna. They accepted his word on all of it without question and without checking on Anna (whom they could have easily found still alive in a nearby room), and begged him to take over.
- Elsa suddenly learned how to control her powers with no explanation other than, "Love! That's it!" and a lifelong problem was solved. She was so full of love for Anna and her entire kingdom that she hid herself away for over a decade, so why was that not enough before? Maybe it was the 'love drives out fear' principle? Maybe it was realizing how much she was loved? Maybe she realized she had to consciously focus on her love? Whatever it is, I hope she passes the revelation on to the trolls, who strangely knew everything about her powers except how to control them.
Edited to add: After some dialogue in the comments below, the answer to all these questions finally hit me! The parents, knowing they'd have to isolate their kids, time traveled to 2014 and brought back two laptops with access to the future internet. With those, their daughters were able to happily live in their rooms, not have much human contact, and learn everything there is to learn about the world, including fractals, the word "totally," and how to be sexy. It all makes total sense now!!
P.S. A note about the characters, which is mainly about what influence they have on kids: They are likable and relatable, with quirkiness and flaws, and great sidekicks (Olaf steals the show!), but their demographics could have been more diverse and unique in a way that would have made this movie even more refreshingly different than its not being about romance.
- Fancy teen princesses...AGAIN. Why do we need yet more princesses in the already bloated line up? We don't; Disney just wants the revenue. For 50 years there were only 3 princesses; in just 24 years they've added 9 more. As a wise uncle said to his niece about the Rapunzel merchandise, "Disney made a new movie so that they can sell you more dolls." (I predict their next movie will be "The Twelve Dancing Princesses," maybe called something liked "Blistered.") I bet that if Gerda and her friends (from The Snow Queen) had been used, girls would have loved them AND would have been enriched for it. Girls love Merida for her youth, spiritedness, strength, skill, normal looks and unkempt hair, but Disney decided to do a "princess" makeover on her anyway for the merchandise, making her older and sexy--which caused an uproar among parents, girls, and even the creator of Brave. (If you go to the Princess page on Disney's site, you'll see that all of the princesses have been subjected to a glamming-up makeover... except Merida! That's because of the uproar!)
- A whiter shade of pale. Diversity in film matters for many reasons, but here's just one: "Disney is the largest media conglomerate in the world, and the Princess brand is one of its most successful marketing tools. ...In 2009, two doctors, Sharon Hayes and Stacey Tantleff-Dunn, did a study on animated characters and young girls' self-image. After watching clips of cartoon characters who were princesses, the participants were asked what made a 'real princess.' The results might be different from what you would expect: these girls, around the ages of six and seven, generally did not report having a desire to be thinner after studying and watching the narrow-waisted princesses. Instead, when asked how they could become a princess, many of the girls reported that they would need to change their skin color. They responded with things like 'I'd paint myself white' and 'I would change from brown skin to white skin.'" (From SPARKsummit's excellent article "Bright Like a Diamond, White Like a Princess.") With Frozen, there are now 8 white Disney Princesses vs. 4 non-white, and unbelievably, 3 of those 4 have been lightened in the Princess merchandise! (The porcelain-skinned Elsa, being a queen, may not be an 'official princess,' but I'd say she's #9, because little girls really love her. AND her hair and skin got even lighter after her transformation.) The humans in their last nine feature films were also all Caucasian (i.e. white-non-Hispanic). In fact, the humans in 80% of Disney's feature films since 1970 are Caucasian (33 Caucasian, and 8 non-Caucasian), and for no good reason; there are plenty of places where non-white characters could have been used and weren't. Tumblr's "This Could Have Been Frozen" highlights the lack of diversity in Disney characters. Recently my (white) daughter brought home a coloring page of Elsa and Anna, on which she had colored Elsa's skin a very light beige, and Anna's peach--the slight difference in their skin color was something she noticed. She always colors characters with their actual skin and hair colors; she colors Jasmine, Tiana, Pocahontas and some of the fairies brown, so I'm glad that those characters exist. But more diversity is definitely needed in Disney movies. Memo to Disney execs: Europe is not the only source of great stories, culture, princesses, or fairy tales. Caucasians make up 60% of the U.S. and just 16% of the world.
- Gender imbalance and stereotyping. The supporting cast is all male. True, the two main characters are female. But why make all of the rest of them male? It was probably to try to appeal to the male population whom they presumed would have no interest in a mostly female and royal cast, which I'm sure is why the movie's name, trailers and posters weren't feminine... sneaky marketing strikes again! As for the two lead females, while they do show resourcefulness and strength of character, they also still retain some negative female stereotypes. Anna, though brave, plucky and selfless, is also naïve and ditzy, desperately wants a man, and has two men highly interested in her throughout the movie. Elsa is strong-willed and self-reliant, and fortunately not given any romantic interest, but she is dysfunctional and over-sexualized. My 5 year old daughter and her friends love Elsa because she's "so pretty" when she turns into the snow queen, but I was bothered by how vampy Elsa becomes in that scene, with more makeup, swaying hips, high heels and a skin-tight dress with a long slit. Wow, a 19th century Norwegian suddenly channels Dolly Parton! Were they trying to appeal to males in another way? Or maybe they were trying to give her some 'bad girl' flair for that number. (It's certainly not the first instance of a sultry female in a Disney animated feature--Esmeralda's pole dance, Jasmine and Jessica Rabbit come to mind.) On the flip side, my husband pointed out the many male stereotypes they used for Kristoff. He also hates the fact that girls love Elsa just because she's pretty and can do magic, since she lets fear control her--which, in her defense, is her parents' fault--whereas Anna is brave and selfless.
So, there is the end of my longest review ever... Thanks for reading!