The Problem with Frozen

Frozen came out on DVD on Tuesday, and like many other parents of small children, I watched it Tuesday night. My five-year-old daughter sang along with the music. Her baby sister clapped for the reindeer.

Of course, my daughters aren’t the only critics giving Frozen a big ole thumbs-up. There’s a lot to love about this movie, like that chest-thumping, show-stopping power ballad, or Kristin Bell’s perfect voiceover performance, or the whole sequence for “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” Guys, I haven’t seen such a concise, moving, and utterly heartbreaking musical montage since the first ten minutes of Disney/Pixar’s Up.

Yep, I’ve heard a lot of nice things said about Frozen, but the one I probably hear the most is from viewers who were thrilled that the film is centered around two sisters, rather than a male-female romantic couple. Woo, powerful female role models!  Women who don’t need men to be complete! (Never mind that Elsa is happiest right after she gets sexified, or that Ana spends half the film panting after a con man she just met) Princesses who can rule in their own right!

If all that praise sounds a little familiar, it might be because a lot of the same comments were tossed around two years ago when Disney/Pixar’s Brave was released. Merida is a tomboy princess who can’t fathom the idea of marrying a guy she barely knows just because her father says so. And she doesn’t. The film ends with her deciding she’ll marry for love when it’s the right time.

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Cue the pro-estrogen cheers all around, right?

Don’t get me wrong; I’m all about powerful princesses. And I love the idea of little girls having onscreen role models that don’t need to fall in love with men to be complete. But in our haste to gush about feminist role models, I think we’re all getting a little too quick to pat ourselves on the back. Because let’s face it: as movies, both Brave and Frozen have a lot of problems. Like a lot.

Yeah. I said it.

Look at Frozen (spoilers here). I know I just did. First, I would bet money that Hans being a bad guy was an eleventh-hour addition to the story. His love song with Ana is too convincing, and he has a guilt-free shot at Elsa in the ice palace that he doesn’t take. And doesn’t Arendell, which by all appearances seems like a fairly progressive nation, require marriage witnesses? He can’t just say he married Ana and then she died (at least not without finishing her off). If he really is a diabolical villain, why wouldn’t Hans get a preacher, say the vows with Ana, kiss her, and then be all “oh, bummer, the kiss didn’t work but now the kingdom’s mine?” Maybe because him being a bad guy only turned up in the thirty-sixth draft of the script, is what I’m thinking.

Not enough? I’ve got more. During the years in between Ana’s accidental injury and Elsa’s coronation, why on earth couldn’t Ana go out in the world? Why was she cooped up in the castle, especially after her parents died and she had basically no supervision? And why introduce the crotchety visiting dignitaries (played by the likes of Alan Tudyk, who gave such an exhilarating voiceover performance in Wreck-it Ralph) and then barely use them? Why make a big deal about Kristof seeing the trolls cure Ana if you’re never going to mention the fact that Kristof saw the trolls cure Ana? Actually, the trolls in general are underdeveloped, which makes it particularly creepy when they start hardcore pimping their adopted son to the nearest rich lady.

Okay, maybe I’m getting a bit unkind there.

Look, the process of making a film, with it’s many collaborators and regularly shifting vision, is not unlike weaving a tapestry from a pattern, using a variety of fabrics, colors, and textiles. You have a number of people who all turn in their raw material – the actors, the cinematographers, the visual designers and composers – and a writer or director puts them together to form a gorgeous final product. It might not look exactly like the original blueprint, but it’s still art.

One problem with both Brave and Frozen, though, is that during the making of both movies, there were waaaaay too many hands pulling the strings. Walt Disney has been trying to adapt the Snow Queen story for decades. Do you know how many different people have pitched in raw material –a subplot here, a character design there – over decades of development? Hell, the finished film credits five different screenwriters– and those are just the ones who Disney’s willing to acknowledge. Brave, meanwhile, had six screenwriters and three directors. That’s a baseball team, people. A baseball team.

So maybe that’s the problem. After all, weaving a tapestry works best if there’s only one set off hands doing the majority of the work (look at The Incredibles, which had one writer and one director, and they’re the same friggin’ person). If you use hand after hand, person after person, you end up with either loose threads or tangled strings.

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Hanging by a thread…

There is a lot to be admired in Frozen –and some to be admired in Brave, too – but both of these movies are full of loose threads, and I hate loose plot threads. I hate tangled plotlines. And I hate the fact that everyone seems to be willfully overlooking them when it comes to Frozen,  which currently holds an 89% “fresh” rating on RottenTomatoes.com. I don’t know, maybe critics are pulling their punches because the two big Disney animated films with the most cohesion issues are also the two big Disney/Disney-Pixar animated films with feminist protagonists. But that’s not a reason to gloss over these films’ story problems and congratulate ourselves on our progress. It’s a reason to be inspired, and push harder. Strong, self-sufficient princesses deserve to have their own solid story structure around them. We can do better. Disney can do better. And we shouldn’t be spending so much time congratulating Frozen on it’s amazingness.

We should be inspired, and push harder.

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