It’s that time of year again, when ‘Let It Go‘ blasts from every loudspeaker across every mall across America. But there’s more to Frozen, and its queen, than meets the eye.
Premiering in 2013, Frozen is the newest Disney animated feature released and has garnered numerous accolades for its music, storytelling and art and has quickly risen to cult-classic status. The film tells the story of Anna and Elsa, two sisters and princesses of the vaguely-Nordic mythical kingdom of Arendelle. Elsa was born with the ability to control ice and snow but after injuring Anna in a childhood incident she has been living in isolation, hiding her powers from everyone in the kingdom including her sister. A tragic accident forces Elsa to ascend the throne, and although she attempts to keep her powers in check during her coronation, she loses control revealing her powers to everyone in attendance. After unknowingly plunging the kingdom into eternal winter, Elsa flees for from the palace and Anna attempts to bring her back and ultimately save the day. The project was stuck in development for decades precisely because the filmmakers thought that the Snow Queen fairytale was too dark and inaccessible for modern audiences-so what pushed it over the edge? And was Frozen more successful than its predecessors?
In many ways, the final version of Frozen has retained some key hallmarks of the ‘Classic Disney’ females, both in terms of character tropes and plot elements. One art historian describes fairytales of princes and princesses as “temporary escape(s) from the dreary reality of daily living”. Elsa and Anna are of royal blood and in many ways, they still adhere to the modes of femininity that are characteristic in terms of aesthetics as well (huge doe-eyes, impossibly thin waists, gravity and static-defying hair). Furthermore, Disney women have often been alienated from other female characters, the sole focus of the plot rather than integrated into any sort of community. Anna and Elsa are no exception, with both their isolation from society in the palace and their estrangement from one another. By using several well-known archetypes, the creators of Frozen ensured that audiences would associate these new movie characters with the characters of Disney past.
But where Frozen does diverge from the Disney mold is in the character of Elsa, who I believe is one of the most complicated and compelling Disney characters to date.
In the original plot line, Elsa was destined to be the villain of the story; this remained the case up until months before the release date (which is why there are discrepancies in the theatrical trailers as animators scrambled to re-write the story). Her overall look was based off of such performers as Amy Winehouse and Bette Midler, quite the opposite from the shy blonde that finally ascended to the screen. Elsa originally intended to have a large personality, not unlike several other Disney villainesses. In the final version of the film, Elsa does expedite her sister’s demise by inadvertently wounding her in the heart with ice, ironically the thing she was trying to avoid in isolation. But does it change things that that she never intended to harm her sister? Characteristic of Disney storytelling is the opposition of good vs. evil, light vs. dark, with good always triumphing in the end. But where on the scale does Elsa stand? While she may have originally been cast as the villain early in the development of the film, Elsa does not intentionally cause misfortune. Her conflict, and subsequently the conflict of the kingdom, lies not from abstracted external forces but rather within herself: how can she rule a kingdom if she can not even control her own “dangerous” powers? Although the final version of Elsa is not immediately identifiable as a heroine, she also does not carry any of the hallmarks that would classify her as a villain either; rather, she is a person that has the capacity for both light and dark. I think that it is certainly a sign of the changing times that a princess (queen) can exist in these shades of grey.
What I find to be Elsa’s most interesting and human aspect is her inner turmoil (and acceptance), which take center stage in the song ‘Let it Go’. Previous Disney princesses have been variations of the ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’, ones with singular goals that may or may not be achieved by the film’s end. But what is Queen Elsa’s goal? To not hurt anyone, least of all her sister Anna. She bore a great deal of trauma from her childhood and it is evident that there are still ramifications of this in her present. This is much more three-dimensional portrayal compared to Cinderella and Snow White, each of whom suffered the loss of a parent and poor treatment and still manage to wake up singing and cheerily going about their chores. Elsa is beautiful and powerful and is still afraid and vulnerable. Her humanity is what resonates with audiences and causes them to identify with her on a deeper level than they might have with another Disney princess.
In the end, Elsa is able to solve her own problems, with the aid of her sister but without the aid of a prince on a noble steed. She begins to take charge of her abilities by constructing a magnificent ice castle in ‘Let it Go’ and is able to thaw the kingdom (which she had put in peril by accident). But she is able to do this of her own accord and take charge of her situation. Over the course of the film she is able to realize who she is and use it to her advantage rather than living in fear of it. The idea that we are in charge of our fates is a really powerful one, whether you are a toddler or a recent college graduate.
Has Disney re-invented the fairytale with this film? Certainly not; Frozen has kept many of the character and plot elements that identify a ‘classic’ Disney film. By staying in line with some older forms of storytelling, the creators of Frozen ensured that the audience would have an immediate sentimental attachment to the film, simply by that association. However, there is a definite negotiation between familiar elements and more progressively complex characters. Frozen begins to challenge some of the conventions of femininity previously set forth by the franchise and traditional stories. Other princesses have always been identified by their beauty, goodness and final aspirations of marriage but Elsa diverges from this archetype and occupies a more sophisticated niche of confusion and fear but also power. Although there are several elements of the film that merit critique from a feminist perspective, Frozen represents a refreshing change after several decades of the same fairytale formula.
Note: Frozen and all of the pictures included in this post are the property of the Walt Disney Corporation.