We Need to Stop Praising "Frozen"
From a Storyteller's Standpoint
"Frozen" is an enjoyable movie. There is no denying that. It's pretty to look at, there are a lot of humorous moments, and its characters are likeable. Anna is spunky, funny, and outspoken. Olaf is goofy, humorous, cutesy, and lovable. Elsa can sing. You may have other reasons for liking these characters and the film's other characters, but I'm stopping there because I'm not here to heap praises on "Frozen", as I think the title of this article has made clear.
In truth, I hated "Frozen". I enjoyed watching most of it, and I can certainly see why a great many people like it. But I don't think it deserves the level of praise it is receiving.
There are many different reasons why people are criticizing "Frozen", ranging from Disney's unoriginal character designs to the false feminism that the movie has managed to feed. Both of those are very important issues, and as much as I enjoy exploring them and talking about them, I will save that for conversations with my friends. If you are interested in reading something like that, I put some links over there on the right, and you can browse them at your own leisure. For now, though, I want to talk about "Frozen" from a storyteller's standpoint.
The Trouble With the Beginning
I'm not in as much of an outrage over deviation from Hans Christian Anderson's source material as others are when it comes to the plot of the story. That's really not my issue. What I do have problems with, however, are the sudden breaks in the story and all the elements that point in one direction, only to be uprooted and thrown the other way. I'm not talking about plot twists. I'm talking about lapses in story.
Let's start from the beginning. (Spoilers ahoy!)
We begin with the ice harvesters. I don't really know what else to call them since they never come up again, and even when Kristoff explicitly states that selling ice is his occupation, that has no relevance to the plot. But at the beginning of the movie, we start with these big, burly men chopping up a frozen river. Young Kristoff is there, along with baby Sven the reindeer, but at no point are we given any reason to believe that Kristoff is an orphan. It's very, very easy to assume that one of the ice harvesters is his father, and yet, a troll decides to "keep" Kristoff and Sven. Which kind of makes them sound more like pets than anything else. But that's not even a chronological set of plot points. (Are you noticing how even the summary of the first two minutes of this movie doesn't flow all that well?)
Before the troll takes Kristoff and Sven, we get to watch Anna and Elsa interact as very young children for all of five minutes before Anna is hit in the head with a blast of Elsa's ice powers. It's very clearly an accident, and is rightly treated as such by the girls' parents and even the troll king, but the solution to this problem is to take Anna's memories of the incident away... as well as all her memories of Elsa's ice powers. Elsa is then isolated from her sister as a further form of precaution, and is discouraged from playing with the one person we've ever seen her be close to.
Now, this actually has a great deal of potential as far as plots go. It feels like a bit of a cop out, but we do get a set up for a sisterly relationship that is less-than-perfect and will need to grow and develop as the two characters mature. Considering that the love between two sisters is what Frozen's pivotal plot climax hinges on, this would have been a great way to start the movie and then move into a story that focused on the sister-sister relationship. Instead, the film tries (and fails) to set up this very clearly non-existent relationship as well as the basis for both female characters through montage. We definitely get that Anna is goofy and spirited, and that Elsa is afraid of herself and of the possibility of hurting others, but the problem here is that the movie never goes beyond that.
To say a little about montages, they are a great device as far as compressing time lapses, some (minor) information, and distances traveled goes. A movie (Disney, no less) that I think does this very well is "Atlantis: The Lost Empire". We see how far those travelers are going, and we see that Milo has his little screw ups and doesn't jive all that well with the other characters. But when Milo actually bonds with them, the film slows down again and lets us see that. It shows him gaining acceptance among the others, and actually developing relationships with them.
"Frozen" does the exact opposite. It does a really good job of showing the passage of time between the ice-shooting incident and Elsa's coronation, but then all it really does is show that Elsa never interacts with Anna ever again. Which actually completely undermines the "magical sister bond" the film so eagerly buys into, namely that sisters will love each other unconditionally simply because they are sisters. It is entirely possible to have a special relationship with your sibling that does not, in any way, have to be antagonistic, but that requires you to actually grow up with them and learn what it means to be a sibling in addition to being yourself, which "Frozen" pointedly denies its two female characters. As such, Anna's unbending love for Elsa does not make any sense. I liked that Anna tried to reach out to Elsa following the deaths of their parents, but from this moment on, the movie is a lot of Anna making assumptions about Elsa that are just not true, mainly that her sister would never hurt her. There's a minor moment of antagonism when Elsa tells Anna that she cannot marry Hans, but like so many other potential conflicts in this film, it is solved by Elsa running away.
Another thing that the montage denies us is knowledge of just how isolated Anna and Elsa really are. Conceivably, Elsa is severed from everyone except her parents. Anna, however, is free to roam the castle. There is, at the very least, a skeletal staff running around. Even if Anna was neglected by her parents and therefore completely starved for love and thus willing to fling it every which way (as a good friend of mine put forth in a theory of her own), there should have been other people for her to interact and bond with. There's actually a confirmation of this when a male voice calls to Anna on Coronation Day, telling her it's time to wake up. So there are definitely people in this castle. And they interact with Anna. So why is she so stuck on Elsa?
This is why I called the sister-sister relationship of the film "non-existent". There is never a moment of bonding between them during the montage, and unfortunately in a case like this, it's very much a case of "pics or it didn't happen". There's only so much you can infer from things that are not onscreen. And what "Frozen" does show onscreen is is that Elsa never opens her door and lets Anna in. "Frozen" shows us that Elsa sits huddled alone in her room, ignoring the world as best she can.
In spite of this (and what I think is a pretty solid ground for severe psychological damage, considering Elsa is allowed to spend 21 years terrified of herself), the first time we actually get to see the sisters interact following the montage has Elsa acting weirdly composed and friendly. There's awkwardness on Anna's part, but it feels more like an extension of her "cutesy" character than acknowledgement of the fact there is no actual bond between these two women. I was glad that the awkwardness was there, certainly, but it disappears almost immediately because of chocolate. The smell of it, specifically. That could have at least been a (stereotypical) thing for them to bond over, but instead, it's mentioned purely in passing and is just a way for the film to nod and say, "Yep, these two are sisters. See how much they have in common?"
Sister-sister relationships do not work that way. (Having spent the past nineteen years of my life as an older sister, I do get some authority on that.) Common ground is a great way to start bonding with someone, but you have to actually spend time and energy building that bond. It does not pop up automatically fully-formed. The very beginning of the film definitely lays the groundwork for that bond by showing young Anna and Elsa playing together and having a great time, but "Frozen" then rips that ground to shreds, and yet somehow still believes that there is something to stand on. The film believes that there exists enough of a bond between the sisters to motivate Anna's decision to charge after Elsa into the wilderness. That right there is something that could be explained away by Anna realizing that Elsa does, in fact, have powers, which really does explain a lot about their past. But of course, Anna is still missing the fundamental knowledge that Elsa has actually hurt her in the past, and the beginning of her epic quest is just as motivated by ignorance as it is by the fact that she and Elsa are sisters. Perhaps even more so. If Anna had known that Elsa had hurt her, would she have been able to look past that and gone after Elsa? That's speculation for a very different movie, but does tie into a point that I will make later. For now, though, let's move on.
Breaks in the Narrative
One of the most awkwardly placed scenes in the movie is the "Let It Go" sequence.
It kills me a little inside every time I say that, but that does not make it any less true. I absolutely love the song. I think that Idina Menzel absolutely crushes with her performance. And I greatly enjoy the animation sequence that accompanies the number. But from a narrative standpoint, this scene does not make any sense whatsoever.
Let's start with the placement of it. Ignoring the fact that this feels so much like a climax song that does not belong in the first half-hour of the film (and there is some evidence (scroll to Trivia section, 16th main bullet point) for that, given that this was intended to be a villain song, but was deemed too joyous and motivational for a villain song, thus leading to some rewriting of the surrounding story rather than the song itself), it's position within the movie disrupts the flow of the narrative. Much more so than the ice harvesters do at the very beginning, which is actually meant to be more of a foreshadowing song than anything else, although it's desire to make Kristoff relevant from minute-one feels a bit forced.
Before "Let It Go" begins, we see Elsa reveal to the world that she has powers. She stumbles out of the castle into the square, freaks out (justifiably so), and runs away (also justifiably so). But we switch from focusing on her from an omniscient perspective to focusing on her from Anna's perspective. We watch Anna watch Elsa run away. And then we watch Anna deal with some very minor, practically non-existent chaos in the village before handing control over to Hans. (At this point, I must ask, where is the person who was running the kingdom between the death of the king and queen and Elsa's coronation?) So Hans is left in control, and we watch Anna jump into her epic quest to find her sister. And then, suddenly, we're back with Elsa. She sings her song, and then we jump back to Anna and stay with Anna until she meets up with Elsa again.
"Let It Go" is very much just plopped into the movie without any real regard for how it fits, and not only narratively speaking. In terms of character, it is a complete lapse in Elsa's character. It's a song all about accepting yourself for who you are, embracing your identity, and coming to terms with your own flaws. That's awesome. But Elsa has spent her whole life living in fear of herself and her power. In "Let It Go", she turns on a dime and suddenly comes to grips with everything about herself, including her ability to control her powers. Which especially does not make sense because we know that she has set off an eternal winter back in town. The film wants us to rationalize this by saying that Elsa just doesn't have complete control over her powers at this point, even though she thinks she does, and especially even though the wintry conditions only exist in Elsa's immediate vicinity when she is under extreme emotional duress at all other points in the film. And yet, the movie also wants us to rationalize that Elsa suddenly has such a firm grip on her emotions that she is able to engineer a stunning ice castle, create a living snowman, morph her gown, and be totally okay with completely isolating herself... again. And all this without her ever practicing with her powers because she was supposed to "conceal it, [not] feel it".
I'm not buying it.
Now, "Let It Go" feels even more like a lapse in character when we finally do get back to Elsa again. Anna appears at her front door, ready to confront her and finally deal with their issues. Which would have been fantastic. But rather than embracing who she is and being willing to work through or at least confront those issues, Elsa relapses into her timid self and runs away from Anna. Again. Anna actually chases Elsa through the ice palace before being shot in the heart with frost, which still isn't enough to drive Anna away or even motivate Kristoff to get her out of there. Instead, Elsa has to create a snow golem and actually endanger everyone once again by sending said snow monster to attack them.
Everything about that interaction is so jarring and unrealistic, and not in a way that the fantasy genre can even get away with. Elsa claims that she's happy but is very obviously not, despite the entire "Let It Go" sequence. Anna goes charging headfirst at Elsa despite now knowing that her sister is, actually, capable of hurting her (although she still lacks her memories... more on that later). Kristoff admires the ice castle, Olaf barges through the front door, Elsa makes a snow beast, everyone runs away. Anna begins to experience physical pain as her frozen heart begins to actually take its toll, but here is where another really glaring lapse in the film's narrative comes into play. This is during the second (and thankfully, only other) troll sequence.
We meet the trolls again, and we all know that they won't be able to help Anna. They said at the very beginning of the movie that they could not fix a frozen heart. It's beyond them. And yet... here they are, ready to give us that information all over again. But for some reason, before we can even get to that, we have to sit through a song.
I was incredibly uncomfortable during "Fixer Upper" for reasons that I could not quite pin down, but Dani Coleman's article does a really good job of explaining what I failed to immediately following my own viewing of the movie (article discusses consent and the roll of it in Disney films). But ignoring the social issues that the song invites us to laugh at, it's another awkward moment of broken narration.
For one thing, despite the fact that almost everyone in the movie has told Anna that she cannot marry a guy that she just met, the trolls are totally fine with pushing Anna and Kristoff together and, of all things, trying to marry them even though they have spent less than 24 hours together. I'm sure you can figure out why that's a bad move based on what appears to be the overarching theme of "Frozen", but also, everyone completely forgets about Anna's frozen heart for the duration of the song. That is kind of a pressing injury, considering she's dying. But it takes a back seat to "Fixer Upper", and Anna actually appears perfectly healthy during the sequence. How do you forget about something like that??
Not only that, but prior to this moment, there did not feel like there was any romantic development between Anna and Kristoff at all. Kristoff read more like a big-brother figure than he did a romantic interest up until this point. I mean, is it any small coincidence that he and Elsa, who is Anna's older sibling, both expressed concern at the idea of her marrying someone she's just met?
And actually, the moment when Kristoff admires Elsa's ice palace had me thinking that the movie was actually going to do something completely new and have Anna serve only as a means of introduction for Elsa and Kristoff, who were going to become a couple. That would have been a real first for Disney, romantically involving the non-main character with the (in this case, forced) love interest rather than the main heroine. And then maybe Anna would realize that she wanted to take her time with Hans and put off the engagement until she had gotten to know him a bit better, or something like that. I initially thought that this was older sibling bias coming in and coloring my interpretation of a scene, but then I learned that a few of my friends had these exact thoughts, and most of them are not older siblings. One of them is actually a younger sibling. So I'm not so sure that wasn't a piece of dialogue from an original draft that the writers tried to integrate into this version of the script. It could very well not be, but my friends and I all come from different backgrounds and have different opinions on romances in movies, and yet we all had the same thought regarding this moment.
That being said, I feel that there are a lot of things in "Frozen" that point towards a deeper plot and sense of character, but the movie ultimately rejects those ideas in favor of a much more explicit and simplistic resolution. I don't think it necessarily involved an Elsa-Kristoff romance, but there are things that make me wonder what the script looked like before "Let It Go" was written and Elsa's character was rehashed.
"Frozen" Wanted to Go Deeper
I really, really think it did.
I'm convinced that somewhere in the Disney compound, there is a version of the "Frozen" script sitting in a trashcan that focuses almost entirely on the relationship between Anna and Elsa and that actually treats those two characters as equals rather than focusing almost completely on Anna with vague sprinkles of Elsa here and there. There's a script somewhere that did not make the final cut that explores Elsa's feelings of fear and anger more fully than just occasionally stating, "There's so much fear!" And somewhere, there's a script that let Anna remember that Elsa actually had hurt her.
Which, I fully believe, is what this guy was intended for.
Olaf is basically the gun on the mantle. Kristoff is a red herring, but Olaf is the walking incarnate of Checkov's Gun. He just screams "memory trigger". His name and physical form are exactly the same as that of the snowman young Elsa creates while playing with Anna at the very beginning of the movie. He constantly repeats lines from their childhood like "I like warm hugs!" and "The sky's awake, and so am I!", but beyond just repeating these lines, he does not do anything. Except point out when moments are awkward, and what makes them awkward. Which, yes, is funny, but doesn't really trust the audience members to figure that out for themselves.
Throughout his time on screen, Olaf is just a series of missed opportunities, or opportunities that are blatantly ignored. He so easily could have triggered Anna's memories and made her remember that Elsa had hurt her in the past, which easily could have fit in with the movie's themes. Anna could have realized this about Elsa, been afraid of Elsa, and then worked past that fear in the name of love. This also would have helped alleviate the "magical sister bond" the movie is so fond of, because Anna could have realized to a much fuller extent that Elsa really was shutting her out for her own protection rather than out of anger or spite. But that never happens. Anna never remembers, and Olaf ultimately proves rather pointless.
Oh wait, I'm sorry, he explicitly tells Anna that Kristoff is in love with her, thus sparking the final climactic moment of the film.
This is another problem in and of itself.
Anna and Elsa are NOT Strongly Written Characters
Anna throughout the movie is, quite frankly, kind of stupid. That's the argument Anna-haters are putting forth, at least, and there is some basis for it. She leaves control of the kingdom in an outsider's hands, she refuses to believe that Elsa will hurt her despite witnessing how dangerous Elsa's powers can be (eternal winter, spiky ice shafts, frozen rivers, the works) and not really knowing her sister as a person at all, and she constantly needs things pointed out to her. Such as the fact that Kristoff is in love with her. Or that you can't climb a mountain without mountain-climbing gear. And she decides to run off into the eternal winter without donning proper snow gear. And interestingly enough, Anna-lovers respond to this by saying, "Well, yeah, but that's part of her character arc!"
I've seen people call Anna brave, outspoken, and strong. Anna is only brave because she lacks some fundamental information that might otherwise give her serious inhibitions. Her outspokenness is an extension of her goofy characterization, lending itself more to awkward humor and a "look how delightfully clumsy I am" attitude that may actually be comparable with Bella Swan more than anyone else. And her strength really only comes from the fact that she is willing to face her problems head-on, which in another set of circumstances would actually be great, but the issue there is that all of her problems are external. She is morally in the right throughout the entire film, and she never grows as a character. Even her final moment of what is supposed to be a great character climax has been forced by the walking plot-device Hans, and she's been chasing after Elsa the entire movie, so it's really no surprise that she decides to throw herself in front of that sword. Show of hands, how many people thought that she would actually go make out with Kristoff rather than try to stop Hans? Not hoped that she did not, or were relieved when she did not, but actually, genuinely expected her to choose kissing Kristoff over saving Elsa? I'm not so sure this reads as the great moment of selflessness it's supposed to. It's selfless, certainly, but when has Anna actually been selfish?
Despite the vanity she exhibits at the beginning of the film, Anna's main desire as outlined by "For the First Time in Forever" is companionship. She's very lonely, and even if there is a castle staff for her to interact with, maybe she's actually just starved for company with peers of her own age, and hey, romantic attention would be great for her as well. Something very important to note, however, is that Anna's decision to jump into an engagement with Hans isn't as desperate-for-true-love-romance-motivated as the movie would love for us to think it is. Anna's desire for companionship is, first and foremost, what she wants, and the idea of romantic love comes in as a whimsical afterthought that envelops the rest of the song. Which actually reflects the outcome of the movie. A film that started off about two sisters becomes entrenched in a romance-driven side plot. "Frozen" then uses this as a means of subverting the "True Love's First Kiss" trope, which is not actually as firmly ingrained in Disney culture as this movie would have us believe. (I'll happily do a sound off on that for anyone who's interested.) But this misdirection is contingent on us believing that Anna does not actually know what true love is to begin with. Anna, however, has loved Elsa unconditionally throughout the movie, wants to be close to her sister, and help Elsa through her emotional issues. Regarding true romantic love? On Coronation Day, Anna is under a deadline. This is what everyone overlooks the most.
In "For the First Time in Forever", Anna sings about the possibility of finding love now that she finally has the chance to interact with people, and one of her final lines is "I know this all ends tomorrow so it has to be today!" She knows that the moment Coronation Day is over, her shot at a life that is not devoid of human interaction or the potential for romantic love is gone. She's gotta find love today so as to escape her loneliness. Cue Hans.
Now, rewatching "Love is an Open Door" on YouTube is a different experience the second time around because we know that Hans is gonna turn out to be a total jerk, but the problem is, he never reads as one at any point in the movie prior to his abrupt character shift. Anna's decision to jump into an engagement with Hans is, therefore, not purely motivated by the fact that he is conveniently there, but also by the fact that she clicks with him, and they get along incredibly well prior to the plot twist. Hans could certainly be presenting an illusion to Anna as a means of getting close to her, which is what we'll always carry with us after watching "Frozen" for the first time, but even after Anna leaves, Hans does not read as a power-hungry leech. He hands out blankets to the freezing citizens of Arrendale, and tries to make sure everyone is able to survive the winter weather. Unless this guy is shown kicking puppies in some scene that I'm not aware of, he's just... not a villain. Not until it is convenient for him to be one. And considering Elsa was meant to be the villain of this movie, Hans is very much a character of convenience. He was scripted in after Elsa's villainy was scripted out, and the result is a quick and frankly very noticeable patch job. But seeing as Disney has never really accepted the fact that "antagonist" and "villain" are not interchangeable terms, I guess we'll always need a clear-cut villain in the Princess subgenre. Disney has done redeemable villains (see: John Silver from "Treasure Planet" and Jumba from "Lilo & Stitch"), but we've never seen a redeemable female villain from them. Which is a shame, really, because Elsa would have made a fantastic redeemable villain.
Getting back to Anna, though, she is actually a pretty selfless character. Her motivations for marriage could indeed be interpreted as selfish if you look at it the way I have, but the movie ignores the escape motive in favor of focusing purely on the love motive. This hinders the selfish aspect of her character. Someone who is starved for love but who has demonstrated the willingness to be emotionally available to someone clearly understands that love is a give-and-take dynamic, not just all take. If anything, Anna is too selfless. She does not want to take power away from the rightful ruler of the kingdom, repeatedly risks her life for the sake of her sister, stops Kristoff from crushing Olaf's summery dream, is willing to emotionally be there for Elsa and work through her issues with her sister while said sister just wants to run away, etc. And yet, even during that ball scene when Anna "makes the evening all about herself" by demanding to know what she'd done to deserve Elsa's cold shoulder, she's right. She has no idea why Elsa won't talk to her, and she can't understand why her sister--who she was so close to at the beginning of their lives--has turned away from her. That's not being selfish so much as it's saying, "I want to work through these problems with you because I love you. Please don't shut me out!" And Anna explicitly says almost exactly this when she confronts Elsa in the ice castle.
But even after Elsa has hurt her again (mortally, this time), even after she was chased away from Elsa's ice castle by a snow golem, even after Hans aka Mr. Plot Twist abruptly reveals that Anna will not be receiving a kiss from him and will die, her concern feels like it is just as much for Elsa as it is for herself. She tells Hans, "You're not match for Elsa!" (thereby showing that she has confidence in her sister but also wanting to dissuade Hans from going after Elsa at all) and the idea of him "not getting away with it" applies to the situation as a whole, not just to locking Anna in a room to die. But even then, when Anna is on the couch alone, dying from a frozen heart, she does not slip into moments of introspection and consider or say anything about Elsa being the one who hurt her. Instead, she's actually very concerned for the suddenly-appearing Olaf and the fact that he will melt if he stays with her. Again, that's pretty selfless on both characters' parts, putting your friend's needs ahead of your own. But Olaf mostly serves as another distraction at this point rather than as a source for dialogue centered around Elsa's refusal to let Anna in. Olaf instead steers Anna into thinking about Kristoff, and she doesn't reflect on what brought her to this point, or that maybe she pushed Elsa too hard, or even that maybe Elsa was too emotionally fragile to be pushed at all. She's never afraid of or angry at her sister. There's no emotional obstacle to overcome. It just does not happen. So why is it that Anna needs to perform an act of selfless love in order to save herself when that's really all she's been doing throughout the movie?
I don't mind that Anna has flaws like vanity and incompetence. Those actually do lend themselves to her character, more so than cutesy clumsiness (which is an overused cop out for teenage girl characters). And I really do think that a lot of her stupidity isn't actually stupidity, but a lack of fundamental knowledge. I wasn't expecting her to know how to do every little thing under the sun, and do them without any struggle whatsoever, and even the whole handing power over to Hans thing can be chalked up to poor world-building. (Again, where was the person in charge prior to Elsa's coronation?)
However, I do mind that, in spite of all of this, Anna never grows emotionally. She's certainly a consistent character (much more so than Elsa, which definitely makes Anna the stronger character of the two, but that's a lesser of two evils kind of thing) but despite her flaws and virtues, she has no emotional arc. Her constant desire to be close to Elsa is something that we're supposed to admire and sympathize with, because "Awww... sisters!"
Anna suffers from what is actually a very dangerous notion going around the writing world, namely that a "strong female character" has to be externally strong (meaning she faces and overcomes external obstacles) and not in need of development because she's already nearly-perfect with little flaws that only serve to make her more likeable. The fundamental problem here is that this phrase replaces "strongly written" with "strong", and a lot of people are buying into that. A female character that is emotionally weak, naïve, and struggles internally can be an incredibly strongly written character, and such a character certainly has the opportunity to grow and evolve. "Strong female characters" that are strong in the misconception of the word deny this for themselves and others, especially when they dip into Sueism. A prime example of a well-developed female character that has room to grow and evolve is Sansa Stark from the A Song of Ice and Fire series. Not Anna from "Frozen". And this is not just because Sansa gets to grow and evolve over the course of a series of books while Anna only has one movie. Taken even from the first novel alone, that Sansa (who does not at all take up a majority of the narrative space) sees her dreamy view of the world shattered. She realizes how wrong she was about the world around her, and begins to open her eyes to how power struggles work. She's still naïve about a lot of things, is manipulated and makes mistakes that have serious consequences, but she is taught a very harsh lesson, and learns. And that's just in the one book.
Compare this to Anna, whose only goal is to be close to her sister. That never changes. That's not necessarily a bad thing, and is, in my opinion, a good moral for a Disney Princess Movie. But rather than sticking with this goal, the movie's focus is allowed to wander because the writers felt the need to distract us for some reason. There are things that come flying out of left field like Hans's betrayal and Kristoff's romantic feelings, but ultimately the film is always about Anna wanting to be close to Elsa, despite all the reasons she has to not want that at all. She never stops trying (except for a brief moment during the montage when she finally stops knocking on the door), is willing to plunge into the wilderness for someone she barely knows, and never, ever questions why she so badly wants to be close to Elsa. I believe that, had the movie actually focused on this relationship and not been afraid to allow its female characters to spend more than five minutes onscreen together at any given time, "Frozen" could have been an incredibly powerful movie that showed where different kinds of (emotional) strength actually come from as well as emphasizing that the bonds you build up with your sister (or brother, parents, friends, whatever extension we could get out of that) are very rewarding in and of themselves. But instead, "Frozen" attempts to do this through misdirection, and it ultimately fails. As for Anna, I think that she had incredible potential as a character, much like the potential Sansa Stark actually has, but there is something (or someone) stopping "Frozen" from actually delving into her.
And if we wanted to look at Elsa, she's even more weakly developed as a character than Anna is. She's barely on screen, and when she is, she's acting in ways that don't even make sense. These are not moments of development. These are lapses in character. I've talked about them before so I won't restate them here, but one more thing to note about Elsa is that she, too, is never given the chance to confront her internal issues, only the external ones. The moment when she does not run and decides to face her antagonists is the moment when two henchmen are trying to kill her. They have nothing to do with her (lack of a) relationship with Anna. It's supposed to be an instance where the past (namely, angry villagers / devious trade partners) has caught up with her, but again, it's presented as a very external struggle, and the only moment where we get an instance of internal dilemma is when Hans calls out, "Don't be the monster they think you are!" Even this, however, is solved by a moment of convenience when the overhead chandelier comes crashing down, knocking Elsa unconscious. So even when Elsa is facing her problems head-on, she's stopped from actually resolving those problems.
Elsa is then brought back to the castle, locked in a dungeon, and then... escapes. I don't blame her for wanting to run at that point (although we know of the more sinister things going on at this point, and she does not), but rather than working with dramatic irony, "Frozen" lets Elsa run away again, and the only time she stops running is when she's told that she has killed Anna. This is one of the few things that I think the movie does well: shows that Elsa could not solve her problems by running away from them. And yet, everything is ultimately fixed for her and not by her (with the exception of the snow still physically being on the ground). In the end, it's Anna's actions that set everything right, and although Elsa mourns Anna's fleeting, temporary death (which, incidentally, she was already doing before Anna fully turned into a Popsicle), everything snaps back into place without Elsa needing to lift a finger. And then Elsa suddenly understands everything perfectly, gathers up all the snow, and makes a giant snowflake in the sky before giving everyone the ability to ice skate. But not before Anna punches Hans in the face. Because that's all the emotional resolution we need for those two, apparently.
Elsa is, quite frankly, too central to the narrative to work as a character. Personally, I wanted more of her. I wanted more development, more actions and reactions, more growth. But if we wanted to keep her as is? If she was more of a side character and less of a somewhat-central non-character, she may actually work. The movie wanted to focus on Anna anyway, so I'm not really sure why it showed Elsa as much as it did anyway. I was glad that Elsa was not a villain for the sake of being a villain (Hans, anyone?), but she is not really an antagonist, either. Her fear is motivated by love, but also ends up being the only thing that defines her. Fear is an incredibly strong motivator, but does not present a character arc unless the character in question struggles to overcome it. They can fail, certainly, which could make for an interesting narrative in and of itself, but Elsa's problem is that she never really tries to overcome it, just suppress it. There is a difference. A huge one. And Elsa's constant fleeing from her challenges could have been remedied by her actually caring that she shot Anna in the heart with frost. Rather than have her wander in circles in her ice palace muttering to herself while the castle grows teeth (which, I will say, was cool, seeing the environment reflect Elsa's fear) and then have her need to fight for her life, why not have her actually realize that running away from Anna solved nothing, and that she could not protect Anna by severing herself from her sister? Why not have her at least try to set things right? Why not let her actually regret throwing all responsibility away and have her work out for herself that her love for Anna can set things right? And why not let her fail by maybe not getting there in time, and have it so that it ends up being both sisters' love rather than just Anna's that leads to Anna's thawing? If you're thinking, "But it was!", then I say again, Elsa was already mourning for Anna prior to the great self-sacrifice, and Anna was already so loving towards Elsa that this great self-sacrifice really doesn't make sense.
In no way are either Anna or Elsa strongly written characters. Not when they try to serve as main characters. Elsa especially is really only defined by two things: the fact that she is Anna's sister, and her fear of her own powers. Just because a character shows emotion does not mean that they are complex and multidimensional. We wouldn't consider a character who is only ever angry fully developed. Not without exploring that anger and giving that character the chance to overcome it, at least. We wouldn't consider a character who is only ever happy rich and complex. But we're ready to call Elsa "rich" and "complex" because she only experiences fear with a weird smack of "F*** it all!!!" thrown in the middle alongside unconditional love for Anna (which exists without any real sisterly bond and with the knowledge that the accident that incited this whole muddled plot was caused as much by Anna as it was by Elsa) and the constant need to protect Anna by running away from her (which is motivated by fear). Anna and Elsa both have a lot of potential as far as characters go, but they fall flat. That is a fault that rests entirely with the writers / whoever had the final say on this script. Let's be clear on that.
Some Closing Remarks
Someone is going to try to tell me that I'm being too critical of what is ultimately a fantasy movie targeted at children. However.
Genre and target audience are not excuses for sloppy storytelling.
Writing stories is difficult. There's no denying that. And getting every little thing perfect is nearly impossible. But "Frozen" had a team of people working on it throughout the process, and it's concept comes from a story that Disney has wanted to adapt for years. With all that in mind, how can we possibly praise a movie that has these glaring issues, and then try to justify them as character development?
In writing this article, I wanted to take a look at "Frozen" from an angle that I thought everyone could relate to. There are definitely things throughout the film that are fun and enjoyable, and subtler things that the film does well, but there are also a lot of things that are jarring and that, in my opinion, far outweigh the pros. There's more I could say, but I'd rather not require you to take several days' worth of your time to read it all, so I will end with that.
If you disagree with what I've said in this article, I would very much like to know why. I am open to discussions and reading other people's interpretations. I just ask that you be respectful in your responses. I'm not interested in being told that I'm wrong simply because the critics are saying the exact opposite. I've seen plenty of glowing reviews for "Frozen", and I disagree with almost all of them for the reasons I've outlined above, as well as many more. Now, I've said before and I'll say again that "Frozen" is a very enjoyable movie.
But it does not deserve all of this praise.
And when I say that this time, I'm including the social issues as well as the storytelling ones.
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