Frozen left me cold – and not in a good way. It was mediocre at best. I think my wife and I are probably in a very slim minority in that regard, given the overwhelming success of the film. So before you get the pitchforks and torches, let me explain.
The comparisons between Frozen and golden age classics like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and even modern classics like The Lion King are a bit premature. Just because it’s a financial success in its initial run does not warrant comparison, or even make it a good movie (Fantasia, for example, was a box office failure when it premiered in 1940).
This movie is visually stunning. The art direction and animation (for the most part) are top notch. Some of the story elements are very clever send-ups of conventional fairy tale tropes, even Disney ones. However, all of the remarkable visuals cannot make up for the very sloppy storytelling, unnecessary characters, and songs that, while catchy and fun, do not match the film’s story setting or visual tone.
Despite the problems, this film does have a very strong moral center that I wished could have been explored more fully with better (and more coherent) character motivations. What this film has to say about true love and sacrifice is wonderful.
Time to “Let It Go”… SPOILERS AHEAD!
I have to admit that the visuals of Frozen are wonderful. From the kingdom of Arendelle to Elsa’s ice palace, the amount of detail that went into the design of the locations, backgrounds and characters is a wonder to behold. The animators researched Scandinavian architecture to pick up design cues they could use for Arendelle’s structures. The buildings look authentic and lived in. The film’s primary color hue is blue (my favorite color), obviously – as exemplified by Elsa’s palace.
The movie’s novel twist on common fairy tale conventions was enjoyable. It was neat to see that Disney Animation could tell a fairy tale without a romance being at the center (I do enjoy the romantic stories as well). The love of the two sisters was the defining relationship. Disney also did a little bit of commentary on its own past storytelling style with Anna and Hans’ whirlwind courtship – but more on that later.
Christophe Beck’s score was a delight. Like Hans Zimmer’s score from The Lion King, Beck peppered the music with themes, styles and instruments native to the locale where the story took place – in this case, Scandinavia. The Norwegian all-female choir Cantus was employed to sing the opening song “Vuelie,” and it is very powerful. I almost wished that all of the songs in the film also took their cue from that opening song, to add more of that particular flavor throughout the entire film.
The animation, specifically of Elsa’s powers, was quite amazing. The formation of her ice palace represented some pretty sophisticated animation techniques, and had an almost ethereal quality. It all came together like a beautiful kaleidoscope.
Though it has much going for it, Frozen is a very flawed film. All of its flubs in story, character development, and music come down to just two concepts: a glut of modernity in a very un-modern setting and sheer lack of thought. I continually found myself taken out of the film by pop culture references, modern lingo and anachronistic music. Films like these are supposed to be timeless, but the humor, tone and sophistication are firmly set in today’s world.
The story was lazily told and had a lot of problems – problems that could have been easily fixed during the creative process. First and foremost, the origins and reasons for Elsa’s powers were not explained… at all. That was annoying. She was simply born with it, as if she was a mutant from the X-Men comic books. It made no sense to me at all. It would have made better sense to have the trolls be the source of the powers – perhaps a side effect from saving Elsa from a debilitating disease or infirmity (Elsa’s parents mistakenly wanting her to be a “perfect,” good girl because she is the heir, perhaps?).
If the royal sisters were locked up in the castle all those years, who ruled Arendelle in their stead? Who made sure things kept running, made laws and treaties, etc.? For me, instead of being a red herring villain, the Duke of Weselton/Weasel-town should have been like a prime minister, fed up with the antics of the royal family. He would have had a better reason to go in league with Hans when Hans revealed his true motivations.
How did the characters know that Elsa’s artificial winter was truly endless? How long did it last – two, three days? It would have made better sense to have a sizable amount of time transpire between Elsa’s escape and Anna discovering her castle. Have it at least be a few months, show the suffering of the people, give them more time to get attached to Hans and his generosity, see the immature ineptitude of Anna, and provide more time for Anna and Kristoff to get closer. Anna and Kristoff’s relationship needed more time to blossom for emotional impact, and I wished it would have been explored more.
Elsa’s motivations and character arc were muddled, perhaps on purpose. In my mind, she should have been a villain for most of the movie, just as the Snow Queen was in the original Andersen story. It would have made more sense to have Elsa go completely off because of her treatment by her parents (always be good, perfect, etc.) and make the kingdom pay for her parents’ sins. It could have been a combination of cracking under pressure, resentment, and grief – making for better drama and a clearer redemption by Anna at the end of the film (the “frozen heart” that melts should have been Elsa’s).
Let’s talk about useless characters, because this movie was full of them and they were given prominent roles. As mentioned previously, the trolls were not given much of anything to do, except exposit on how the magic works and as a cop out to wipe Anna’s memory of Elsa’s powers (seriously?). And why was Kristoff raised by them? That made no sense and had no bearing on the main storyline, except the convenience factor. Granted, the point of their song was a lesson the characters needed to learn, but it was conveyed in a very haphazard and confusing way.
The greatest example of a useless character is Olaf. Though the trolls were useless, they weren’t useless and annoying in the way that Olaf was. The snowman continuously ruined very dramatic scenes with his silly antics and dumb lines. All of the things that Olaf did, like freeing Anna after being captured by Hans, could have been accomplished by Sven and/or Kristoff – making for better drama and solidifying their relationship (Olaf just wandered into the room and wasn’t really looking for Anna – what?). And Olaf’s song, “In Summer,” was unnecessary and annoying. It literally stopped the story. Literally. The song’s visuals were full of anachronistic silliness, which made it even more grating.
In fact, most of the songs in Frozen, while catchy and fun, were not a good fit for this type of film. The songs were the biggest offender when it came to anachronism and pop culture references. They seemed more suited in tone, style and musicality to a modern Broadway show like Rent or Avenue Q – the latter of which songwriter Robert Lopez worked on. Though, I wasn’t expecting much going into this movie. Lopez and his wife, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, had previously provided songs for the most recent Winnie the Pooh feature, which lacked the simple warmth and charm of the Sherman Brothers songs from the 1977 original, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Even with an exact template to follow, the Lopez team insisted on going off on their own and could not hit that mark. As stated earlier, I wished that the entire film’s musical style had been set by the opening song, “Vuelie,” which was very much in sync with the time and place of the story.
The Frozen songs simply lacked the classical sweep and scope of the songs of, say, Beauty and the Beast or Cinderella. Songs like “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” and “Be Our Guest” may have a Broadway quality to them, but their tone and style add something to the story and do not take one out of the film. The two songs that really stood out in my mind were “For the First Time in Forever” and “Love is an Open Door.” Again, both of these songs are great on their own – lyrically dynamic with very witty turn-of-phrase. However, their use of modern speech conventions took me out of the film. It’s even in the title of the song (“For the First Time in Forever“).
Themes and Thoughts
Like most films in the Disney fairy tale cannon, Frozen‘s narrative themes center around love and the nature of love. However, the film takes an interesting twist on the common romantic conventions and tells a story about a kind of love not really given center stage most of the time: sibling love.
“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down His life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” 1 John 3:16
Anna and Elsa’s relationship is at the center of the film. It is probably the film’s most dynamic relationship and was appropriately given the most attention. The key component in this relationship was sacrifice. Elsa sacrificed her happiness and freedom to keep Anna safe from her uncontrollable powers (at the behest of her parents). Anna sacrificed her life, and potentially a life with Kristoff, to protect Elsa.
Anna was a sort of embodiment of hope. Even as children, Anna tried day after day to get Elsa to play with her, never giving up despite Elsa’s constant rejection. After Elsa fled Arendelle, Anna’s love for her sister drove her to try to bring Elsa back. She wouldn’t give up on Elsa, even when Elsa (accidentally) froze Anna’s heart. At the film’s climax, despite her weakened state, Anna was determined to brave the snowstorm, save her sister, and prove to Elsa that she did love her no matter who she was or what she had done.
However, Anna’s boundless hope also blinded her when it came to relationships generally. Given the difficult relationship she had with Elsa growing up, Anna was simply looking for something easy. She looked at it from a very selfish angle – singing about finding a love that simply worked, not realizing that work is required to maintain a good relationship. Anna was easily duped by the charms of the duplicitous Hans, seeing in him an easy relationship. Through the trials of the story, Anna eventually realized that love takes work, and that any relationship as easy as the one Hans projected was too good to be true.
Love is not easy, especially in a real, sinful world like ours. Sacrifice is the ultimate act of love, as described many times in the Bible. To love someone enough to push through one’s own selfishness and natural instincts of self-preservation is a remarkable thing. God Himself taught sacrifice when He put up His Son as a penance for our sins and transgressions. He did not have to go through the pain of the cross, but He wanted us to see that His love for us was unconditional and selfless.
Elsa was a pretty good representation of what we often do with God’s perfect love. We run away from Him and want to “let it go,” do our own thing. “No right, no wrong, no rules for me,” as Elsa sang. What we don’t realize is that true freedom is not found in doing our own thing, but in obedience to God. Through God’s love, all the hurts and sins of the past fall away. He carries us through our trials, teaching us how to love Him and each other along the way (Matthew 11:28-30). Our own way may be enticing in the moment, but like Elsa’s castle, it eventually becomes a lonely, cold place.
Frozen is a severely flawed film with some enjoyable aspects, which is a real shame. A better story told well in the same setting, with the interesting twists on the typical Disney fairy tale, and including more suitable songs, would have been an absolute wonder. Based on the tremendous financial success of this film, however, I fear that Disney Animated Features will be headed down this very rocky road. Infusing stories with pop culture references and modern lingo may play well today, but it will severely hurt the film in the decades to follow.
What this film has to say about the attributes of love parallels the love God has for us. His love is inexhaustible and unconditional. Like Anna, He never gives up on anyone, and relentlessly pursues His sons and daughters to have a relationship with Him (Deuteronomy 31:6). He is quick to forgive, and He will embrace you with open arms if you simply turn away from your old life and return to Him (Luke 15:11-32).
“Whoever does not know love does not know God, because God is love.” 1 John 4:8
Walt Disney Pictures / Walt Disney Animation Studios
Starring Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad and Santino Fontana
Written by Jennifer Lee
(based on a story by Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee and Shane Morris)
Based on The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen
Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee