Because I am not only all about preparation but also stocking up on declining physical media, I recently joined the Disney Blu-ray Club to nab some Mouse House for my three-month-old daughter to enjoy once she gets to an age where she can, y’know, comprehend things. There were some easy choices in there: The Incredibles, The Rescuers, The Aristocats, etc. But I hesitated when I came to The Little Mermaid, because I had (sorry, don’t mean to keep mentioning it) a new prism to look at it through. And through that prism, I was reminded that The Little Mermaid, for all of its peppy songs and marvelous animation and cheerful fun, is actually the horrifying story of a young woman who literally renders herself mute to make herself more available to a man she barely knows. Pass! This feels like a rite of passage for the new parent, a realization that the biggest brand name in children’s films has made many movies that are filled with terrible messages for children, and it’s something that Disney has, to its credit, tried to make right in recent years with female protagonists who are a little less damsel in distress-y. And they’ve still got a ways to go, but their latest effort, Frozen, is certainly a step in the right direction.
They’ve got a bit of a mountain to climb with the feminist audience, though, thanks to some spectacularly stupid comments Disney Animation supervisor Lino DiSalvo made about the picture back in October. “Historically speaking,” he explained, “animating female characters are really, really difficult, ’cause they have to go through these range of emotions, but they’re very, very – you have to keep them pretty and they’re very sensitive to – you can get them off a model very quickly. So, having a film with two hero female characters was really tough, and having them both in the same scene and look very different if they’re echoing the same expression; that Elsa looking angry looks different from Anna being angry.”
When that quote started making the rounds, plenty of readers felt — how shall I put it — a range of emotions. It made them angry (in different-looking ways!) to hear the head of Disney’s animation despairing that it’s so hard to keep the womens pretty when they’re gettin’ all mad, especially since they all also tend to look the same. Ladies, am I right?
The best news about Frozen is that while its two leads are, yes, both very pretty, it is also a far smarter movie about gender roles than DiSalvo’s dunderheaded quote would have you believe. That’s presumably thanks to screenwriter Jennifer Lee (Wreck-It Ralph), who is also the co-director — the first woman to hold that job on a Disney animated feature (and c’mon, seriously with that, Disney?). Her script sneakily subverts the usual “Disney princess” tropes, although — fair warning — you have to give it some time to get there, and grant it a benefit of the doubt that the studio hasn’t exactly earned.
But Lee’s wise strategy is to fake the viewer out, to set up the kind of situations and flourishes that we’re used to seeing in these stories, and then cut them down. Example: the story, loosely adapted from Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, concerns a pair of princesses whose parents are killed in a storm (that studio sure does love to kill some parents). One, Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel), can create snow and ice at will, merely by touching or looking at things, and her gift nearly kills her sister when they’re young. Frightened of her power, she isolates herself and her sister in their castle, only opening its gates, after three years, for her coronation. When younger sister Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) finds out that their isolation will be broken, she breaks into a song about how she hopes this long-delayed exposure to other people means she could finally find “The One,” and sure enough, that very night, she meets a handsome prince who decides to marry her.
This is the kind of love-at-first-sight bullshit that Disney’s been shoveling for years. But in Frozen, Elsa’s not hearing it. “You can’t marry a man you just met!” she tells her sister, not unreasonably, and when Anna later tells the story to Kristoff (Jonathan Goff), his response is equally disbelieving: “You mean to tell me you got engaged to someone you just met that day?” And I won’t spoil how that thread turns out, but suffice it to say that an argument is made for maybe getting to know someone a little better than that before opening up your life to them.
Anna is brave and plucky and capable, but that’s nothing new; in films from Mulan to Brave, Disney has been reimagining their female protagonists as tough ass-kickers for years. Yet Frozen feels like it’s breaking new ground in telling a story where the women are actually in control (they could spice up Tangled all they wanted, for example, but it was still Rapunzel), and where the clichés of their narratives are turned inside out, almost as a sly commentary on what has come before. Frozen is far from perfect — a couple of the songs are unbearably corny, while Elsa’s power ballad, “Let It Go,” plays like a big chest-thumping showstopper at Celine Dion’s Las Vegas extravaganza — and some of the beats (like Anna’s inevitable rescue by white knight Kristoff) are unfortunate throwbacks. Frozen isn’t the feminist Disney movie you might be hoping for, not quite, not yet. But it’s certainly a step in the right direction.