I’ve been a Disney fan since I remember being conscious. I grew up during what is called the “Disney Renaissance” the period from 1989 to 1999 where Disney animation was at its peak, releasing The Little Mermaid, The Rescuers Down Under, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Mulan, and Tarzan. I knew these movies (and others that preceded this era, like Oliver and Company) backwards and forwards. I had a dress up trunk full of costumes, the accessories, the cassette tapes, and I recall being visibly upset when I grew too tall for the Disney Store version of the Mulan costume. I learned lessons from the characters in these movies, felt my soul soar along with the music. I went to Disney world at the age of six dressed as Belle (who continues to be a fictional heroine to this day), took a Lion King backpack to the first grade, and insisted on going barefoot when I dressed up as Esmeralda because “she goes barefoot in the movie, mom, and people will NOTICE.” As a young girl, those movies made a significant impact on my life. Of course I loved the romance and the princess aspect of them, but far more than that, I appreciated the complex, adventurous, smart female characters presented within them; Belle was an independent bookworm who longed for adventure outside of her small village, who saved the Beast’s life with her love without ever losing herself, Esmeralda spat in the face of injustice (literally), Pocahontas taught John Smith to see beyond the arbitrary boundaries of skin color and culture (Colors of the Wind still gives me chills), and Mulan saved an entire COUNTRY. I loved all the characters and all their stories, and when the Lion King came out on VHS, I watched it for two weeks straight at least.
So despite my love of the Pixar films and my obsession with the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, I was really disappointed when Disney quit releasing their traditional animated movies. A solid ten years went by, and finally The Princess and the Frog came out, which I really enjoyed, then Tangled came out and I was thrilled. But Frozen, which I just saw yesterday, was even more of a return to the Renaissance of Disney movies, and it wasn’t something I ever saw coming. I’d seen the trailers and wasn’t all that interested, which makes me think Disney could have done a better job marketing this than they did. Then I saw the video of Idina Menzel as Elsa singing “Let it Go” which made me tingle all over with emotion and delight. I bought the song yesterday, and it’s somewhere in the double digits of number of times listened, and I know I’m not the only one. Frozen tells the story of Princess sisters Elsa and Anna, who live in a world based off Scandinavia. Elsa was born with the power to create snow and ice from her fingertips, which was very, very loosely based off the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale (very loosely). Trouble starts one morning when she and Anna are building a snowman and Elsa accidentally strikes her younger sister with ice when the little girl jumped too fast while they were playing. An accident, but Elsa’s parents fear for both their children, and so lock up the castle gates and try to help Elsa control and hide her powers, fearful of what the kingdom will do to her should anyone find out, which results in isolation and loneliness for both girls. Once inseparable, Elsa is now forced to hide her magic from her sister in an attempt to keep her safe, and the two grow apart.
After watching that video, my roommate and I decided to spontaneously go see the movie, and even though before going in the theater I was in a bit of a down mood, I came out grinning and chatting away about the movie with both of my roommates. I don’t want to give away any spoilers for the film, but the messages and the ideas presented with in it were truly breathtaking and also in a very real sense, groundbreaking. There is of course romance involved (though even that is quite adorably unconventional), but the main bond emphasized throughout the film is the relationship between Elsa and Anna, and the story does a fantastic job of showing that their sisterly bond is also a form of true love, that the idea of that concept is not limited to romantic love, that it’s possible to have various forms of true love within each of our lives; a romantic partner, family, friends, and that is something we don’t see pointed out nearly as often as it should be. There are many different kinds of love we experience, each different but all important, all life-changing, each shaping us into who we are . The film touches on so many deep and crucial things throughout the story, including family dynamics, the idea that good parents, though always well meaning and loving, can still make mistakes, and that sometimes our choices might different from theirs, and that’s okay: that we must always make the choice of love over fear, even when fear is easier.
“Let it Go” struck me in particular, because finally in that scene, Elsa has the freedom to be who she really is, without being entrapped by the fear of her powers, and her transformation throughout the song is truly breathtaking to behold. As one of my roommates said when we were watching, “wow, goosebumps!” The song begins with a melancholy, wistful sound, slowly building to a powerful, unapologetic anthem. Elsa learns to accept herself, and we watch her slowly unravel some of the knots she’s been tied up in for years. The other half of that equation, knowing she can be herself and also be loved and accepted by others, is completed with help from her sister near the end of the film in a truly beautiful moment. I think the song will ring true for anyone who’s ever been held back by the expectations of others, by their own fear, or by hiding their true selves, and it’s very empowering to listen to. We all have insecurities, fears, and flaws, things in our past that had negative effects on us, and this song reminds us to never let those things control us or define who we are, that we have to branch out on our own and be who we are for our own sake. I’ve been walking around humming the line “the cold never bothered me anyway” ever since I walked out of the theater, and Elsa’s proclamation that “that perfect girl is gone” and “the past is in the past” aren’t words I’ll soon forget. Elsa is an incredibly dynamic, layered character, one of Disney’s best in years; her struggle to keep herself hidden for fear she will hurt her beloved sister, for fear she’ll hurt anyone, is heart-wrenching, and her revelation at the end of the film is happy tear inducing. Her struggles and revelations are an altogether different kind of heroism than we’ve seen before in a Disney movie, and it’s intriguing to witness.
Disney also does a good job of playing around with some of the traditional roles, something which I have long felt they were good at. When Elsa runs away after her powers are accidentally revealed to the kingdom, Anna employs Christophe, a local ice seller, to help her find her sister. When they are attacked by animals in the woods, Anna saves the day when Christophe almost gets dragged off by a wolf, and in turn it is Christophe who has the animal companion (the reindeer Sven) rather than either of the princesses, though they all befriend the enchanted snowman, Olaf. Disney also pokes immense fun at itself during another scene with Anna and Christophe, when the latter loudly exclaims “you got engaged to him after ONE DAY?” after finding out that Anna is betrothed to Prince Hans, who she met only the previous morning. It’s a jibe at every fairy-tale where the princess fell in love with the prince at first sight, and Christophe’s litany of questions about Hans, and what Anna does and doesn’t know about him, made most of the theater laugh out loud. (Including “do you know how he eats, because that can be a deal breaker.”) Anna is an utterly endearing, genuine character. She’s clumsy sometimes, she’s adorably dorky, but she’s also unceasingly brave, resourceful, and loyal, risking everything to help her sister; she’s wonderfully human, and a standard to which a lot of young girls can likely relate to. Christophe is rather dorky himself, but also courageous and determined, with a fantastic snarky sense of humor. He does help save the day, but he also has no trouble letting Anna be the hero.
In short, it was a wonderful film, full of the poignancy, adventure, and memorable music of the Disney classics I grew up with, and was also a seriously refreshing change from tradition, a step forward for expanding on the types of emphasized relationships as well as some wonderfully three dimensional female characters, which even in 2013, is sometimes difficult to find . You’ve still got it, Disney, and I hope you keep it up.