The bigwigs at Buena Vista Pictures must find it harder and harder these days to promote the somewhat antiquated image of the Disney princess. It’s not just that Miley Cyrus’ recent twerking antics have all but obliterated a decade-long effort to modernise the dream for celebrity-obsessed tweens. Rather, the problem lies in Cinderella, Ariel, and even Belle making for pathetic role models in a post-feminist world. I don’t think young girls can still relate to them, and frankly they shouldn’t.
Written and directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, Frozen addresses the issue not by dumping the old tropes established by Walt Disney himself but by making them the focus of our heroine’s character arc. Anna (Kristen Bell), you see, starts out like a typical fairy tale protagonist: plucky, kindhearted, resourceful, and ready to dump all these traits the minute she spots a rugged brow. As she grows more proactive and responsible, so does the very notion of the Disney princess.
Consider the barrage of disapproval with which Anna is confronted when she announces her engagement to a man she’s just met, Hans (Santino Fontana), the way Aurora and countless other fairy tale princesses have in the past. It’s as if the entire Frozen supporting cast was taking turns wagging their finger at her, from her big sister Elsa (Idina Menzel) to her competing love interest Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) to the cuddly rock trolls to even that magical snowman (Josh Gad) who longs for summer days, unaware of the melting process.
Olaf is adorable, by the way, and serves as a healthy reminder that one doesn’t have to assault the audience with puns, passive-aggressive putdowns, and pop culture references to fill the role of comic relief. The same can be said of Kristoff’s reindeer, Sven, whose anthropomorphisation is limited to a handful of facial expressions more reminiscent of the woodland critters in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) than the motor-mouth dragon in Mulan (1998). For all its criticism of past Disney movies, Frozen come off downright old-fashioned at times. I mean, when was the last time we saw animated characters suddenly burst into song to move the story forward?
Yes, I really should get to the plot, shouldn’t I? Loosely adapted from Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, Frozen opens with Elsa nearly killing her sister with a magical ice beam. Terrified of her powers, she spends the rest of her childhood in isolation and eventually flees the kingdom, leaving it in perpetual winter. This prompts Anna to search for her in the mountains and try to mend their relationship, but, for all her good will, the young princess lacks the maturity to truly understand her sibling.
Adding urgency to Anna’s character arc is a deadly curse that can only be lifted by an act of true love. With two suitors and her better judgment stifled by dreams of a magical first kiss, our heroine is quick to misinterpret her options, openly demonstrating how toxic the Prince Charming fantasy can become for young girls. Of course, we’ve had love triangles in Disney flicks before, but Frozen doesn’t just promote a healthier set of priorities. It’s about empowerment, as exemplified by the subtle detail of who ends up performing the act of true love.
Look, if it were up to me, we’d have done away with the Disney princess ages ago, but, given the billions of dollars this manufactured fantasy generates every year, I can understand the Buena Vista corporation not wanting to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Frozen presents a perfect compromise. It’s wholesome, inoffensive, and traditional in many respects, but also unflinching in the way it denounces popular fairy tale tropes. More to the point, the film encourages our daughters to take responsibility for themselves and their actions in between begging for fluffy pink dresses. That’s a step forward, I think.