Disney finally got around to doing a story inspired by “The Snow Queen” by Hans Christian Anderson. It’s a pretty good movie, I guess. I’d give it three stars out of five, at least, because it only fails on points where it’s traditional for Disney films to fail, and does everything else reasonably well. I guess most people liked it a lot better than I did. Critically, the film is very well received. People find the characters relatable and the relationships compelling and consider it a good story.
It’s a good thing they changed the title; this plot and these characters have absolutely nothing to do with The Snow Queen. If I’d gone to a movie actually named The Snow Queen I’d have been a bit upset not to see Kai and Gerda and have the story of the troll mirror and …. but I digress. Like I said, that stuff and those characters have nothing to do with this movie. We can count “Frozen” as a Disney original, and so skip entirely over the issue of whether anyone who’s seen it will be confused as to what story the title The Snow Queen actually represents or whether Disney’s interpretation of that story was consistent with the intent of the story’s original author.
You can spot the predictable Disney tropes a mile away, starting with dead parents and uncaring men. I don’t quite get why, but in order to be a Disney heroine, you have to be an orphan. In this case all three of the major characters – the two sister princesses Elsa and Anna, and the woodsman Kristoff whom Anna teams up with later in the film to go after Elsa, are all orphans. It’s nice to get that out of the way early in the film; that way you know who the heroes are.
We never learn what happened to Kristoff’s parents. Of course, Kristoff is a guy. In Disney films guys’ stories don’t matter much, so they’ll get cut if the film’s running long. When the film opens, Kristoff is in the care of a crew of men cutting ice; but when they’ve got their load of ice, they harness up and move out without even bothering to make sure he’s still part of the group. We learn later that after those lovely specimens of humanity ran off and left a child alone in the wilderness at night in the middle of winter, Kristoff got raised by Trolls. Lucky him. If I recall those old stories right, they eat a lot more people than they adopt. Maybe the ice cutters eventually became concerned and sent out a search party for him, or maybe one or two of them felt bad about the poor lost, probably dead, child the next day. But if so that all got cut from the film. One might get the impression that these rustic heroic workmen are actually uncaring jerks. But it’s a Disney film, and they’re men, so that’s almost a given.
So, anyway. This film gets us two Disney Princesses in the same story, Anna and Elsa. The elder of the pair, Elsa, is an ice witch. Not through any choice of her own, apparently; she’s identified as having been born with the power and her main problem is trying to keep it under control as she gets older and the power gets stronger. Their first major scene together culminates with Elsa accidentally injuring Anna. Their parents (DOOMED parents, this is a Disney film) take the two of them to see the trolls and ask for help. Kristoff, wandering in the forest after being abandoned by the ice cutters, sees them and follows, and winds up getting adopted by the trolls.
What follows is that either the Troll who’s doing the magic is something of an idiot, or the doomed parents are idiots and misinterpret him, or both. As my wife says, you can’t have a plot without people making bad decisions. Anyway, the Troll heals Anna, removing the magic injury — and the memory of Elsa having any magic at all — from her head. He explains that this will leave behind altered memories, so the girls will remember having fun together and their love for each other and so on — but that Anna won’t remember Elsa is an ice witch. And then he cautions Elsa that her power will grow stronger as she grows up, and that she must be very careful and learn to control it, and that if people learn she has this power they will fear her.
King Idiot (who may have had another name in the film, but I don’t remember one) concludes that the power must be kept secret even from her sister, that Elsa must remain locked away from other people as much as possible, that she must not have friends, and that must be isolated even from the sister who is her main emotional support. It never even occurs to him that learning to control her power should include becoming familiar with using it and emotionally accepting what is part of herself whether she likes it or not. It never occurs to him that if a child is to keep a secret the child needs the emotional support of people (or trolls, or whatever) who are in on the secret. It’s hard to judge age in these computer-animated things, but just looking at the figures, I’d guess that Elsa and Anna are about six and about four here; there is absolutely no way you can isolate kids that age and deprive them of friends and emotional support without having both of them turn into raging seething pits of angst as teenagers and then complete assholes as adults.
But this is a Disney film, and they’re heroines, so of course the angst is kept to a minimum and both characters remain relentlessly sympathetic “good girls” into adulthood, never acting out rage and pain and destruction even through the obligatory death of their parents. Elsa never gets angry at the world for depriving her of everything, Anna never gets angry at Elsa for withdrawing from her, neither of them gets angry at their parents for abandoning them (yes, I know, death is death, but to kids it’s still abandonment, and they still get angry), neither of them seeks revenge against the world, neither of them seeks out “forbidden” friendships with people or magical creatures to relieve thier loneliness, and despite a few complaints everything holds together ’till Anna’s coronation day. These kids are not acting like human beings. But they’re acting within normal parameters for Disney heroines, so I guess that’s all right.
To me this “Coronation day” is another huge plot hole in the film. The idea that a kingdom would exist for as much as a year with nobody on the throne is absurd. Especially since there’s been no hint of any legislative body, court, house of lords, or anything else; it looks as if the King actually runs things in Arendell, so they need somebody on the throne. One of two things should have happened the same day that the ship that King Idiot and his wife were on was acknowledged as lost; either Elsa should have had her coronation immediately and become the regent queen regardless of her age, or some person or group with the authority to do so should have appointed a regent to act in her stead until she came of age. But, whatever. Coming into massive political power and obligation because your parents die isn’t relatable for most modern audiences, and a regent would have added another character — probably a guy — to a film that’s already almost too long for short attention span theatre. So that all gets cut.
Needless to say Coronation day doesn’t go as planned. Anna, who has apparently inherited the title of ‘Idiot’ although it’s sort of believable given how isolated she’s been since she was four, meets a guy and decides the same day that she wants to get married to him. Elsa freaks out, displays her ice powers in public, and runs away, and suddenly, for no particular reason, the whole kingdom is plunged into eternal winter. This isn’t something Elsa did out of spite, or out of revenge, or in desperation or despair; It just happens. Elsa isn’t even aware that she’s done it. Which conveniently moves the plot forward without requiring any character development beyond the “good girl” trope.
The next movement of the film involves Elsa running off by herself, embracing her power even if it means she’s always going to be alone, and building her own palace out of ice on a high inaccessible crag. Anna chases off after her, meeting up with Kristoff on the road, confronting her sister and getting accidentally injured again (this time in the heart, not the head). Of course it had to be another accidental injury, for the same reason that freezing the kingdom was accidental. Once again, it moves the plot forward without requiring any character development beyond the “good girl” trope for Elsa.
After that, the action flows pretty seamlessly. It turns out that Hans (Anna’s one day wonder of a fiancee) and aother character, the Duke of Weaseltown, both have plans to kill Elsa. Hans considers it convenient to let Anna die as well, since that leaves him as the new king. Hey, it’s a Disney film, they’re both guys, and neither of them is an orphan. We should have expected it, right?
As villains, they were … just okay. They were believable and genuinely threatening, but there wasn’t much substance to either of them, no complexity in their motives nor conflict in their characters. Neither acted from a personal grudge or for any reason having to do with who their victims actually were rather than the positions their victims held. The Duke of Weaseltown was merely greedy; tawdry and venial and very boring. Hans, as an excellent portrayal of a sociopath, was more interesting, though motivated by nothing more complex than a desire for power. In neither case did their animus have to be against Elsa or Anna. It could have been anyone who controlled exploitable wealth for the Duke, or anyone whose corpse could open a path to a throne, for Hans. Also, the writing for both failed miserably when they succumbed to the “exposition presented as gloating” thing that badly written villains do when revealing their Evil Plan.
It turns out that Kristoff (who was marked out as being “good” early on because he’s an orphan and it’s a Disney film) loves Anna. And it turns out that Anna’s sisterly love for Elsa is what saves Elsa, Kristoff, the kingdom, and everything. Elsa gets full control over her powers once she learns that “Love can thaw a frozen heart”, and causes ice that would take weeks or months to melt on its own to thaw out in about two minutes. Even the ships in the fjiord whose hulls had been broken and crushed by ice, whose masts had shattered from the freezing moisture within them, are all restored perfectly and float again when the water turns liquid.
And suddenly all the people who were absolutely terrified of an ice witch, who’ve been living under a magically caused unnatural winter because of something she did by accident, whose crops are likely ruined and whose livelihoods are in peril now because of it, are perfectly okay with her. She celebrates by making an ice rink in the palace courtyard so they can all do some recreational ice skating, and none of them even run away screaming, which is what sane people would do.
So…. like I said, three stars out of five. I knew what I was paying for when I went to see a Disney film, so there were no surprises about where the film failed. Dead parents as a cheap sympathy ploy, check. Men are assholes, check. Everything gets better at the end, check. Heroes and (especially) heroines defy all emotional influences in their lives to turn out nice, check. Trouble caused by our heroines can never be blamed on them because it’s all an accident, check. People who have good reasons to be terrified or outraged are perfectly accepting and welcoming once the plot is resolved, check. And all damage done by the heroes or heroines is undone by the end of the film even if that makes no sense, check. I did find the villains disappointing; Disney usually does better villains than that – heck, some of their villains are crunchy enough to inspire their own films – but I guess most of their best villains are female characters. Maybe they’re just not putting in the effort once they decide the character’s going to be a guy.
The interaction between the sisters and between Anna and Kristoff, was superbly done. The voice acting was exellent. The visuals were awesome, especially the sequences in Elsa’s Ice palace. There were at least three really good original songs. And the villains – well, they weren’t very interesting, but they were believable and genuinely threatening, so they worked for the film.
I’m tempted to do a rewrite of this entire film, as it would be most appreciated by the much smaller audience that shares my peculiar, darker tastes. It would be a redemption story, about the ice witch princess turning by degrees to evil thanks to the outrageous emotional burdens placed on her, then being saved by the sister, herself morally ambiguous, who loves her anyway, and having a change of heart. But then neither of them could be queen, because the people of the kingdom would be terrified of the elder and distrustful of the younger. So they’d probably conspire to put some terrified puppet on the throne – a character like sociopathic Hans, if I reuse other characters from the Disney film, well aware that if he makes the Snow Queen angry he’s going to die a painful death. Things would not go back to the way they were before; Anna for example would not get her lovely red-orange hair back, she’d remain a platinum-blonde for life and probably bear some more visible scars as well. Ruined ships and ruined crops would stay ruined, and people would struggle on after their great misfortune. Quite probably both sisters’ names would become curses throughout the land. Anyway, at some point Hans would manage to secretly engage some brash young adventurer to go and destroy the terrible Snow Queen, and then we’d start some serious plot moving….