Disney’s Frozen is this week’s subject on Escape to The Movies. And not just because it was physically impossible to find six minutes worth of remotely interesting things to say about Homefront; because it’s a terrific movie in its own right and features several significant shakeups to that most unchanging of Hollywood formulas: The Walt Disney Animated Fairytale (or “Disney Princess” movies, to use the contemporary vernacular.)
The review covers a lot of ground: The characters, premise, production and even much of the film’s first act since as is typical – the plot is heavily frontloaded so as to get the cast hurried along on a quest by Act 2. One thing you won’t find is any discussion of anything that happens in the film’s third act. That’s by design, since Frozen can count among its myriad charms the one thing you just never expect to see from an animation studio whose signature brand is rigidly-formulaic retellings of stories so old your great-grandmother grew up hearing them:
But first, to the story – for those of you who (for some reason) are here without having watched the movie or the review: Frozen takes place during what is technically Summer in the vaguely-Norwegian kingdom of Arendelle and concerns two sister princesses, Elsa (the older one) and Anna. Unknown to anyone but herself (their parents are dead, because Disney) Elsa was born with mystical ice-powers that once accidentally inflicted a nearly-fatal injury upon Anna, who has no recollection of the event (or Elsa’s powers) thanks to a memory-affecting magic cure. She’s spent most of her life in self-imposed isolation, afraid of hurting anyone else and of being marked as a witch. But now having reached adulthood she’s to be officially crowned Queen and the palace is being opened to a throng of foreign dignitaries; which terrifies her but thrills Anna – who’s aching for affection and harbors amusingly Disney-specific illusions of meeting her Prince Charming at the party.
Unfortunately, Anna does meet and fall head-over-heels in Disney-branded Love At First Sight ™ with handsome, charming, all-around great fella Prince Hans; and effectively being an adult-sized child (Elsa is similarly arrested, but in her mid-teens) immediately accepts a marriage proposal (Hans is of a similarly reckless disposition) and starts blurting out excited plans to an incredulous Elsa, who would rather not have a brood of in-laws filling up the place. They argue, and Elsa lets out a pent-up blast of ice magic that the scheming Duke of Weselton (who more-or-less introduces himself with “I’ll be your villain for the evening”) takes as cause to declare her a “monster” and run her out of town Frankenstein-style.
Elsa resolves to go full-hermit in the mountains, finally releasing her full power to create a private ice-palace. Unknown to her, this also drops a permanent winter freeze over Arendelle, stranding the dignitaries and imperiling the citizenry. Anna partners up with a wilderness-experienced ice salesman named Kristoff and heads up the mountain to try and fix things (gambling that Elsa will listen to her), leaving Hans in charge of holding down the fort at the castle.
SPOILERS, as you were already warned, follow from this point on.
This is where things start going “off-script,” at least in so much as Disney has been making roughly the same Princess story off and on since The Little Mermaid brought the brand back to prominence in the late-80s: Kristoff is mainly helping Anna up the mountain because, as an ice farmer, endless winter is bad for business. He starts out not taking her very seriously (Anna is no Merida, her guts far outpaces her ability) and does less so when he learns of her hasty engagement. He even gets an extended monologue slamming the whole concept of Love At First Sight™!
Now, since we know our Disney, and since Frozen is doing its very best to – apart from the computer-animation – look, sound and feel like vintage 90s Disney especially, we know this has to be setting Kristoff up to learn a lesson about not being so damn cynical. The Disney Renaissance (aka everything made between Little Mermaid and Tarzan) it’s so determined to recapture was entirely predicated on this specific plot device: Eric and Ariel. Aladdin and Jasmine. Pocahontas and John Smith. Only Beauty & The Beast breaks it a little, and even then not all the way. Hell, in Mulan it happened for Li Shang even though he wasn’t yet aware Mulan was female! (and it’s not like Shang was gay – watch his quick “Oh thank GAWD!!!” take when the truth comes out.)
Hell, we even keep cutting back to see how right Anna was about Hans being an awesome guy: He’s back at Arendelle doing Awesome Guy Stuff like standing up for Anna’s authority, putting Weselton in his place (he only showed up to try and manipulate the young Queen into a trade agreement and now thinks maybe he can score even bigger) and converting Castle Arendelle into a makeshift refugee camp for the freezing peasantry. He’s a total mensch, basically – only stepping away from his post to lead a rescue mission when Anna’s horse comes back without her (long story.) Sure, he fails to notice that Weselton has added two henchmen to his party with orders to incapacitate (or kill) Elsa if they get the chance… but nobody’s perfect.
And then it clicks. This is a two-Princess movie (I would not want to be a parent of two daughters trying to work out Halloween costumes this year), Anna has already landed Captain America Somewhere-South-Of-Norway, this whole thing was touched off by poor self-isolating Elsa’s failure to believe (and this is Disney, so you must believe!) in Love At First Sight™, Kristoff needs to learn the same lesson, so therefore that has to be why he’s here: He’ll be Elsa’s Prince. A change in formula, to be sure, but it gets us to more-or-less the same place – with the value-added feature of letting Disney sell two new dolls this year.
As if to drive the point all the way home: Kristoff already knows about (and doesn’t fear) magic and has a more-than-professional… “thing” about ice. When they reach Elsa’s castle, he moons over her creation like a relic-appraiser at a newly-unearthed Grecian Temple. The meet-cute writes itself: Whoa… I’ve never seen anything so-“ ::enter Elsa:: “…beautiful!” Talk-talk-talk, romantic-yearning song from Kristoff (he’s voiced by GLEE‘s Johnathan Groff) big fight-scene when Hans shows up and Weselton’s goons try to do their thing, good guys win, believing in Disney-love gives Elsa the serenity and self-control she needs to dial back the snowpocalypse, double-wedding, happy ending, please recycle your 3D glasses and Olaf the Snowman plushies are available in the lobby.
Instead, the sisters’ basic personality issues (Anna’s immaturity, Elsa’s self-hate) screw things up again: Anna gets hit by a blast of ice magic and Elsa chases them both off with a giant Snow Monster… which proves less effective in keeping Weselton’s assassins from getting in and starting a fight that fails to end in deaths on either side (the film does a really good job of establishing how deadly and powerful a villain Elsa could potentially become if she wanted to) because Hans is on hand to beg her not to be “the monster they think you are.” Granted, she still gets knocked-out and wakes up chained in Arendelle’s dungeon… but it could’ve gone worse, considering.
Meanwhile, it turns out the ice-magic that hit Anna is going to gradually freeze her heart solid; a condition which can only be cured by (what else?) True Love. So it’s back to the castle to secure True Love’s First Kiss™ from Hans, who (of course) buys into the premise without hesitation: He’s quite sure love would fix the problem…
…if he actually loved Anna.
The Handsome Prince was The Bad Guy. THE WHOLE TIME.
Whole generation of children under 10? The good news is, the sensation of shock will go away. The bad news? That dawning pit-in-your-stomach suspicion that nothing is really safe or sacred and anyone or anything can turn on you or let you down at any time… that’s here to stay. We call it reality, welcome aboard.
To twist the knife further, Hans is one of those petty, especially hateable Disney bad guys whose goals are too “real” and tangibly-scaled to be perversely admirable (read: He doesn’t want to rule the world or anything.) He’s the youngest in his family, he didn’t want a meager inheritance, so he figured he’d PUA his way into Arendelle’s royal family and find a way to discreetly murder Elsa and become king… a plan he’s been revising on the fly since Elsa’s blowup. Current plan: Let Anna die, execute Elsa for the murder. He’s creepy because he’s recognizable, a fairytale version of a Law & Order antagonist. In the pantheon, he’s down in the gutter with Gaston LeGume (yeah, apparently Gaston had a last name), who’s between-the-lines motif seemed to be “probable rapist” – or rather it probably would’ve been were he living now and not in the Middle Ages.
What a douchebag.
In all seriousness, though, I’ve seen a lot of “big twists” in recent movies and Frozen’s is one of the most well-executed I’ve been privy to in awhile – regardless of it being in an animated film for children. It makes sense, it doesn’t leave any plot holes or questions… and yeah, it worked on me. I didn’t see it coming, even though I spent a lot of Act 2 thinking “Y’know, it’s unusual that the closest thing we have to a villain here is Weselton, who’s way too ineffective to be scary.”
But it’s so well hidden because it’s so blindlingly simple: Hans isn’t a master-schemer. He’s technically responsible for Elsa’s freakout, but it wasn’t his intention – his whole plan was “fool Anna into thinking I’m a good man,” and since there’s zero direct foreshadowing (no narrowed eyes, no explicit double-entendres) he gets to fool the audience, too. He even sails through the “does this person have any other reason to be here?” test, since his presence serves two direct functions: Anna’s love-interest and the person keeping track of home-base so Anna can go questing. Even divorced from genre and franchise-legacy, it’s simply damn good Screenwriting 101 stuff – and I can attest from the screening I attended that the reveal seemed to surprise basically the whole audience… but it hit kids in the target age group like a ton of bricks.
This will be a generational touchstone, revisited with only partially ironic shell-shock by whomever/whatever the 20 years from now equivalents of The Nostalgia Critic are: “Remember in Frozen when the good guy turned out to be evil? That was messed up!”
As good a twist as it is on broad cinematic terms, it’s an all-time stunner in terms of the Disney canon – the context of which Frozen can’t avoid being seen in. Most prominently, it makes Anna wrong and Kristoff (and Elsa!) right about True Love At First Sight™ being a bunch of malarkey. Yes, Kristoff realizes that he’s in love in with Anna and comes riding to the rescue, but it’s rather pointedly well after they’ve both participated in a musical number that amounts to a Disneyfied version of “Love The One You’re With.” Furthermore, though they do indeed wind up “together” (hey, I said this was a spoiler piece) they’re taking it slow – no rings or weddings. As it turns out, “True Love’s Kiss” (from either guy) isn’t the act of love that breaks Anna’s spell – she breaks it herself, by sacrificing her own life (temporarily) to stop Hans from beheading Elsa during the big climactic fight sequence.
The significance of this cannot be overstated, in context: this is the Disney of the 21st Century repudiating the Disney of the 20th; or at least that Disney’s central thematic message regarding matters of the heart as imparted to young children: Frozen is the Disney Princess movie where The Handsome Prince turns out to be a sleazy bad guy (who gets punched in the face by The Princess!), “real” romantic love is a long-term project you work at, and that weddings/kisses/etc are nigh-inconsequential next to maintain bonds between sisters.
There’s a bit more floating around in this one, to be sure: It’s very interesting that Elsa (who ends the film embraced by her family and subjects, powers and all) not only isn’t provided with a love interest… she never once even hints at being interested in one. More than a few critics and commentators have wondered/suggested that perhaps we’re meant to “read” Elsa as being a lesbian, with her powers acting as an unsubtle metaphor for the same the way it does in the X-Men movies – she was, after all, born this way.
I’m not sure if that was the explicit authorial intent (not that anyone at Disney would ever admit to it if it were), but queer-theory subtext is an extremely easy metaphor to draw; especially since Elsa’s big “I am becoming” musical number (“Let It Go,”) visualizes her “coming out” by stripping out of her hairpins and modest, body-covering cloak and gloves and emerging as a big-haired, hip-swaying, sashaying diva in a sparkling silver dress and cape number that carry an unmistakable drag-show pizzazz.
In other words, whatever she’s “meant to be” in the film (frankly, the idea of a Princess who doesn’t see a romantic partner as a mandatory accessory is revolutionary in itself, regardless what type of partner she might prefer), Elsa is pretty-much a ready-made LGBTQ icon right out of the box, and “Let It Go” (which starts as self-pity but climaxes as a soaring anthem to not just self-acceptance but self-adulation) is practically begging to be repurposed as the gender-unbound sibling to “I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar.”
And there it is. Frozen: Fairytale insta-romance is bunk, buying into it can make you a mark for predators, that which makes you “different” should not only be embraced but flaunted, and who needs a damn Prince to begin with, anyway? Are Elsa and Anna the first modern “feminist” Disney Princesses? That might be a stretch. But make no mistake, in their own way they’re radical – or, at least, as radical as you can be while staring out of cardboard boxes in The Pink Aisle. And so is their movie – and not only because it manages to pull off one of the best “gotcha!” twists in kiddie-movie history.
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet. Aside from his work at The Escapist, he wrote a book and does a videogame criticism show.