Over the years, I’ve complained a lot about Disney’s expansive line of princess tales, from Cinderella to The Princess and the Frog. Even with renditions that I liked overall, namely their adventurous undertaking of Rapunzel (Tangled), I still had moments where I felt something was left to be desired. Well, Disney, you’ve finally done it. I enjoyed your newest princess movie, Frozen, as both a story lover and as a feminist. As a movie that follows your classic princess formula, i.e. one that has romance as a focus, this is an improvement.
Like many princess tales, Frozen‘s featured protagonist is a teenaged princess, Anna, but in this case, she’s not the only one. Anna’s got an older sister named Elsa and, as we’re quickly shown, the two are close. But Elsa has a little secret. She was born with a magical, wintry power that allows her to create ice and snow with just the touch or wave of her hands. It’s all fun and games until Elsa accidentally hurts Anna with her powers, which leads Elsa to close herself off from everyone to protect them. The years pass and the sisters grow distant as they live their separate lives in a castle completely shut off from the outside world. Soon, however, Elsa comes of age and must emerge for her coronation. While Elsa is terrified of what might go wrong, Anna is ecstatic and wants to use the opportunity to the fullest after the years of loneliness, maybe even find her “prince.” But when an argument breaks out between the sisters and Elsa’s powers are revealed, she’s labeled a sorceress and flees, inadvertently putting her kingdom into an eternal winter as she goes. Worried about her sister and the kingdom, Anna sets off to find Elsa, picking up some help in the form of a boy and his reindeer (not to mention a talking snowman) along the way.
In recent years, Disney has made an effort to put forth princess protagonists who don’t wilt at the first sign of trouble and Frozen is no exception. Both Anna and Elsa are dynamic characters who display fears and flaws viewers of both genders can relate to while amply showcasing their inner steel as well. And although the sisters get into their fair share of difficult situations, neither feels like a helpless doll, collecting dust while they wait for a prince to save them. If anything, spunky Anna could be viewed as taking the hero’s place for her sister, although Elsa is anything but helpless and has her own crucial part to play. Needless to say, the interaction between Anna and Elsa is wonderful and while Anna’s relationships with Kristoff and Hans are very important, the plot between the sisters is just as much so. In Disney’s past princess films and many other romantic fiction, it’s been hammered home that romantic love can overcome anything, but through Anna and Elsa, Frozen wisely makes it clear that romantic love is not the only powerful form of love.
As for Elsa, overall, I like that the queen/witch character is not vilified. Typically, the queen/witch has great power and independence, but she ends up ruled by jealousy, vanity, and other shallow, ugly emotions, resulting in her torment of the innocent heroine before her inevitable downfall. As a result, power and independence in women almost goes hand-in-hand with evil in many classic Disney princess movies. Elsa, however, is an independent, powerful woman who girls and boys can relate to and like. Of course, it’s arguable that Frozen‘s queen/witch character loses some of the authority and power her evil counterparts command since Disney puts her in the role of the persecuted victim. That was done to garner sympathy for a character that plays the villain in the tale Frozen is based on. This role change is something I’ll try to look at more in-depth in a later post. For now, however, I’m just happy that Disney is trying something new.
Disney also continues its trend of pulling away from perfectly plastic prince charming in favor of a more layered, interesting male lead with flaws and quirks of his own. In Frozen, just as there are two female leads, there are two male leads: one prince (Prince Hans) and one average guy (Kristoff), both of which play vital roles in the story. Hans very successfully sets himself apart from the 2D princes of old and I found Kristoff to be an improvement to Disney’s gruff male lead formula. In their attempt to create a new down-to-earth male lead in the princess movies, Disney began featuring more rugged types, the opposite of the stark, clean blankness of past prince characters. The result in the last two movies were somewhat the “bad boy” type. Prince Naveen from The Princess and the Frog starts off as an egotistical playboy while Tangled‘s Flynn Rider is a wanna-be “cool criminal” type. Both were good guys deep down, of course, a goodness which the heroines eventually bring out in them. It’s a charming and fun concept in fiction, but since this trend has been used a lot and can send the wrong message about real-life relationships, I’m happy that Disney took a slightly different approach with Kristoff. As with the past two male leads, Kristoff is a little gruff with the heroine, Anna, resulting in fun and dynamic interactions between the leads, but not once does Kristoff try to pose as a “bad boy.” Instead, he’s an honest, hard-working guy who is perhaps a tad socially awkward, a trait which he shares with Anna and that reflects their mutual struggles with loneliness and isolation.
I also feel Disney has improved its messages about romance. Toward the latter half of the movie, a song starts in which one of the male leads is referred to as a “fixer-upper.” At that moment, my heart sank, thinking this was when fiction would once again announce that if your potential mate has traits you don’t like, all you have to do is stick with and change him/her. But Disney didn’t say that this time. In fact, they made a clear effort to tell viewers that you can’t change people like we’re always told you can. Rather than searching for the “perfect” one like Cinderella or even The Little Mermaid suggest, or finding someone who has flaws that you don’t like and believing you can change those aspects as movies like Beauty and the Beast and The Princess and the Frog seem to say, Frozen settles upon middle ground. That is, recognize that we all have flaws and don’t expect to whisk those flaws away with love. It also directly challenge the romantic idea that one can simply bump into the right person and know instantly that this is “the one.” Instead, Frozen sends the message that you must get to know someone before love truly enters the equation. In the end, it touches on the issue of accepting reasonable flaws, but cautions viewers to watch out for duds.
There are still things to improve such as including a lot more POC in their movies, but Frozen is a step in the right direct for Disney’s romance-focused princess films. After years of transition, trying to balance romantic fantasy with modern ideas, I feel they’re finally starting to hit the right notes; female and male leads who break stereotypes and standard roles, a plot with just the right touch of magic, hilarity, and heart-felt moments that both adults and kids can enjoy, and messages that freshen up an old genre, even directly contradicting old fairytale notions. I haven’t read “The Snow Queen” which Frozen is based on so, if you’d like to read an insightful post on that angle, check this post out, but just judging the film, I would recommend it as a large improvement to the classic Disney princess formula.