Princesses isolated in a castle, magical powers, absent parents, and a handsome prince who proposes after a giddy night of romance.
Check, check, check, check. Frozen starts by fulfilling many of our expectations for a Disney feature. However, there is a twist: All of the above occurs in the first twenty or so minutes of the movie. Rather than a wedding and a slow fade to happily ever after, the movie spends its remainder telling a story about love that is quite different from what we’ve come to expect from the company that’s made its fortune selling little girls the idea of falling in love at first sight.
There is much to love about Frozen.
Although there is a romantic plot early on, this movie celebrates love between friends and love within a family, especially the love between the two sisters Anna and Elsa. Anna gets a lot of attention for being strong, and she is. She makes bold decisions, and doesn’t shy away from dangerous situations. She’s also unrefined, and very real. She wakes up with bed head, has gas, loves chocolate, gets mad, and makes awkward comments. But it’s Elsa who has the magic in this movie, and that puts her in murky (and interesting) territory where Disney characters are concerned. Disney characters who have magical powers tend to either be supporting characters, like Aurora’s fairy godmothers, or evil villains, like Ursula and Maleficent. Not only does Elsa possess ice magic, she also uses that magic to put her kingdom in a deep freeze, albeit by accident. Guests at her palace run from her and call her “monster.”
Elsa flees to the solitude of an ice palace, and it’s there that she can finally be her real self. Not the “perfect girl,” not always in control, but free. The scene in which she unleashes her power, accompanied by the song “Let it Go,” is beautiful and moving. In addition to stripping off her constraints and responsibilities, she also exchanges her covered-up princess look for a much more grown-up gown, with a deep slit up the thigh and a low neckline. Elsa sheds her fear, and grows into a woman.
When I watched, I was reminded again of previous Disney villains – Maleficent, Ursula, Snow White’s stepmother, Mother Gothel. Each of them has vanity, and an awareness of sensuality, that marks them as bad. The Disney princesses are supposed to be modest. Beautiful, but unaware of, and unconcerned with, their beauty. When Elsa struts out in her new gown and high heels, she is telling us that she is different from the other princesses.
In her ice palace, alone and guarded by giant snowmen, Elsa might have become another villain, grown out of her own fears and bitterness. The only thing keeping her from that path is Anna. Anna strives to understand her sister. She shows Elsa love and compassion, even when her sister rejects or hurts her. With Anna’s example, Elsa discovers that love is the way to save everything – including herself. When we see her at the end ruling Arrendale with Anna at her side, she is not an incomplete person as she was before, or some revised version of herself. She is whole – with her powers, her grown-up look, and her family around her. Elsa needed to have – and accept – true love before she had the strength to show the world what she could do.
Frozen proves that a story can capture the imagination of girls with the strength of the characters, rather than the romance of a shallow love story. While it has the attention of all these young girls’ minds, though, I wish that Disney could have gone a little further. Instead, Disney stops short, hedging its bets against Anna and Elsa by making sure that Anna needs a man’s help, and making both of the girls fair, tiny, and conventionally attractive. Given that our society’s standards of beauty are so narrow, it doesn’t make sense for the Disney princesses to all fit within their bounds. I want our daughters to see something of themselves in the Princesses – not just in their insides, but in their outsides, too.
I felt glad when I watched Idina Menzel belt out “Let It Go” at the Oscars, and when Frozen took home the award for Best Animated Movie. The messages in Frozen are powerful, yes, and I hope that girls sing about banishing the perfect girl for a long time. But the character designs – perfect, small, conventionally pretty girls – dilute the message, or at least confuse it a little.
So, I’m still waiting.
I’m waiting for Disney – or anyone – to make entertainment for girls that goes all the way, that really lets it go.
Shannon blogs about her bookish life at www.shannonrigney.com