Frozen and the evolution of Disney storytelling

Credit to linked pixiv user

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while you probably know that in addition to anime I’m also a Disney fan, as well as a fan of animation in general. I go to the theaters to see most of the big animated movies that come out in the US each year, but I don’t talk about them much here since this is, well, an anime blog. However, once in a while I feel like talking about other animated works, and during the last week of 2013 I saw Frozen, Disney’s latest animated film, which has been nothing short of a huge hit among audiences and critics alike. It already managed to reclaim the #1 spot at the box office over a month after its release on Thanksgiving, and currently it’s Disney’s highest grossing animated film of all time, beating the previous record holder, The Lion King (though Frozen would still be second only if you add the earnings from The Lion King’s 3D re-release in 2011). After seeing Frozen, I can’t say I was anything less than blown away – it not only managed to recapture the music and magic of the Disney I loved when I was a kid, but it also inverted many established Disney cliches, making for a really unpredictable story. That together with an amazing staff, actual Broadway talents included for the music, it’s not hard to see why it’s such a hit – but I wanted to examine it on a deeper level…

To illustrate why Frozen is such an amazing feat for Disney, I need to go back and look at the history of how their previous films developed and brought about the fairy tale, princess, and other tropes that Disney has established within Western animation culture. I’m not gonna actually talk about Frozen until the last few paragraphs of this post, but everything I say before leads up to why it’s such a special film in Disney’s canon. So please bear with me as far as the long length of this post XD

Even if you’re not a Disney fan I’m sure you’re at least familiar with their old fairy tale films such as Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty. Of course, Disney made many other popular non-fairy tale films in its early years, featuring talking animals (Dumbo, Bambi, 101 Dalmatians), other kinds of fantasy stories (Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, Pinocchio), or a mix of both (The Jungle Book, The Rescuers, Robin Hood). But their fairy tale stories that revolve around princesses finding their “prince charming” have become a huge part of their storytelling image and massively influential to the overall world of Western animation, starting way back with princesses like Snow White and Cinderella over 60 years ago and continuing to this day, with the Disney Princess line being one of their most successful franchises.

Looking back today on the very early princesses, it’s hard not to think of them as, well, kinda bland. Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora (a.k.a. Sleeping Beauty) were all just really demure, sweet, feminine girls, waiting around for their prince charming to come and save them from unfavorable situations, which he always did, typical damsels in distress and every feminist’s nightmare. I’m certainly not saying that means their movies are bad – their animation quality still looks great even by today’s standards and their stories still have that classic, timeless charm to them. It’s obvious that the simplicity of the characters and stories was a result of the times these movies were made in more than anything else. But they did pave the way for how Disney fairy tales revolving around romance and princesses would be handled in the years to come. Snow White and Alice in Wonderland might have also inadvertently established within the Disney world that “queens are evil” and, until Brave and Frozen over 75 years later, it’ll be all about princesses with Disney and most other Western animated works aimed at young girls, with queens being either evil or not focused on.

Starting with The Little Mermaid in 1989 up until Tarzan in 1999, is what’s rightfully called “The Disney Renaissance.” It’s called that because during those 10 years, after a long slump, Disney got back to its roots of creating films based on familiar stories with a lot of emphasis on music as well as animation, each of the Renaissance films being a huge success. But besides having the great Broadway-style musical numbers we’ve come to know from Disney, the Renaissance films also introduced a new kind of Disney princess – the headstrong, reluctant princess. Now instead of having the overly feminine princesses like Snow White and Cinderella, whose main goal is to be rescued by prince charming, we now have feisty, strong-willed girls who aren’t content to just wait around. They all dream of something more to life, whether it’s disobeying their parents to do what they want like Ariel (The Little Mermaid), being a dreamer and not particularly interested in men like Belle (Beauty and the Beast), or just plain not wanting to be a princess anymore like Jasmine (Aladdin). Mulan even went so far as to disguise herself as a man in order to fight in a war in her father’s place!

But…even with these more pro-feminist Disney princesses, their stories still emphasize that same idea of the “happy ending” being for them to meet and fall in love with their prince charming, “living happily ever after.” The romance between the princess or soon-to-be-princess is always a big part of these movies, with the first guy she meets (who’s not obviously the villain or a minor character) being her eventual “true love.” Again, that doesn’t make these movies bad, just a tad predictable in the romance department.

Sadly, Disney once again fell into a slump after the Renaissance. I don’t know the exact business decisions and sequence of events that went into it, but the music and fairy tales that defined Disney for my generation disappeared for almost a decade. Instead, from roughly 2000 to 2009, they made films that ranged from comedies, to animal adventures, to fantasy stories, none of which had their unique Broadway-style musical numbers, if any music at all, and few were as successful as their previous works. Out of all these post-Renaissance films, maybe just Lilo & Stitch had any kind of long lasting popularity. I also personally found The Emperor’s New Groove really funny and Brother Bear pretty good…but all the others ranged from “okay” to “bad” for me. Then in 2004 after the blatantly awful Home on the Range, Disney made the decision to switch solely to CG animation for its theatrical films after that, which I wouldn’t have minded either way if they were good films. But their first film after that was Chicken Little, one of their lowest rated and one I couldn’t even bring myself to go see. And while Disney was in this slump, Pixar was having their Renaissance, producing one big hit after another with Finding Nemo, Cars, WALL-E, and others.

Perhaps Disney caught onto this disillusionment since, after just three CG films (Chicken Little, Meet the Robinsons, and Bolt), they experimented with again going back to their roots of musical fairy tales AND 2D animation rather than CG, resulting in their 2009 film The Princess and the Frog. It certainly did seem like a Renaissance film with Broadway-esque singing, a fairy tale-based story, and a romance involving a prince and a headstrong female lead. Some say that Princess and the Frog was the beginning of the 2nd Disney Renaissance, though I think it’s a bit early to say for sure. The reason being that it was not only a successful film, but it was followed by an even more successful fairy tale musical, Tangled.

While Disney went back to CG animation with Tangled, it was once again reminiscent of their old classics with being based on a fairy tale and having great musical numbers by song writer veteran Alan Menken. Following Tangled was Winnie the Pooh and Wreck-It Ralph, both of which were also critically acclaimed, despite the latter not being a fairy tale or musical. It’s also worth noting that during the same year Disney released Wreck-It Ralph in 2012, Pixar released Brave. Since Disney owns Pixar, Merida became their first Pixar Disney princess.

So after the slump following the Renaissance films, Tiana from Princess and the Frog became the first official Disney princess in over 10 years (unless you count Kida from Atlantis but that was one of the slump films no one remembers), followed by Rapunzel (Tangled) and Merida (Brave). And, comparing them to the others, they match up pretty well with the headstrong, reluctant princesses from the old Renaissance films. Tiana is an independent, hard-working woman not looking for a guy and Rapunzel “dreamed of something more,” disobeying her mother and doing what she wanted. However, they both end up in the typical Disney romance with falling in love with the first guy they meet and getting married after their adventure with him. Brave, however, is when we finally see a different princess story.

Merida is totally reluctant to be a princess and follow tradition, there’s absolutely no romance in her story at all nor any obvious villain, and for the first time a queen (her mother) is a main character and not a villain! One could say that Brave’s unique take on the princess trope is thanks to Pixar, since they’re known for their innovative and out-of-the-box storytelling. But back on Disney’s side of things, after Wreck-It Ralph they once again went back to a fairy tale-based musical story with Frozen…and while it could have easily focused on the same tropes of a reluctant princess who meets her prince charming and they fall in love in the end after vanquishing the villain, like what happened in Princess and the Frog and Tangled, Frozen instead not only did numerous things no other similar Disney movie had done before, but it even called out certain established Disney cliches.

*WARNING: The below paragraphs contain spoilers for Frozen*

The first thing of note about Frozen is that it not only features two princesses (both of which are going to be added to the official Disney Princess lineup, the first two to come from the same film), but one of them actually becomes a queen during the story, something that never happened in previous Disney films. While Anna is more of the main protagonist, Elsa is the deuteragonist, another unique role for a Disney story, which leads to one of Frozen’s many special traits – the fact that the main conflict has nothing to do with a villain. Yes, there is a villain in the story, but he doesn’t do anything villainous until the third act of the movie, and pretty much everything up until Anna’s self-sacrifice at the very end would have progressed more or less the same whether he turned out to be a villain or not (and whether or not the Duke of Weselton was a bad guy either – he actually had another unique role as a red herring villain). So the main conflict of Frozen isn’t driven by a villain’s evil plot or even a princess’ quest for “something more” – it’s driven by the estranged relationship between two sisters, one of which has magical powers she tries desperately to keep hidden for fear of hurting her sister and others, only for them to accidentally be revealed. It’s a rare thing for an animated work, especially a fairy tale involving princesses, to focus on the relationship between sisters rather than between the princess and her prince.

Credit to linked pixiv user

When Elsa’s powers are revealed and she flees the kingdom, she then sings what will probably be Disney’s most unforgettable song for years to come, “Let It Go.” This song is also something unique in that it almost seems like a villainous song, with Elsa basically saying “F*ck this sh*t!” by the end of it, yet it’s sung by one of the protagonists, and after we see what she went through up until then, it’s hard not to be sympathetic. I believe it’s also the only Disney song a character sings completely alone, without interacting with any other living thing throughout the sequence, which makes it even more striking. This isn’t to say that the 6-7 other songs in Frozen aren’t great – they are, but for me, “Let It Go” is the most amazing segment of singing+animation I’ve seen in years and the handful of people I’ve shown the clip of the song to get the same thought – “I want to see this movie!”

So while a villainous plot isn’t a part of Frozen until the very end, what about the other Disney fairy tale attribute of a princess meeting her prince charming and falling in love? In the beginning, Frozen tricks you into believing that the typical romance will play out, with Anna meeting Hans and falling instantly in love. Both of them even sing a song about how well they get along. But then, when the conflict takes off, Anna and Hans are separated throughout most of the movie, with Anna going on her adventure with Kristoff instead. This makes you wonder, “Maybe the first guy she met isn’t her prince charming at all and it’s this other guy?” This becomes even more apparent with both Elsa and Kristoff in disbelief that Anna would marry a guy she just met that day – that she hardly knows this guy and yet she wants to marry him…which is ironically something that went on all the time in past Disney movies and was never questioned before! It almost seems like Disney used Frozen to call out Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and even Little Mermaid and their other “instant true love” stories, indirectly saying, “Yeah, that was acceptable before but we know better now.”

Even when it’s plainly driven home that you shouldn’t trust someone you just met that day, with Hans turning out to be a villain, the movie once again tricks us into believing in another old Disney cliche; an act of “true love” is needed to thaw Anna’s frozen heart…how about a true love’s kiss? It worked in Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, and even if not a kiss, just being with your true love saved the day in Beauty and the Beast, Little Mermaid, Tangled, and other Disney classics, so why not this one? Hans betraying Anna is one of the shocking points of the film, but not that much so since at that point, we already knew he probably wasn’t her true love. So it’s obviously Kristoff since he’s the only one left – she just has to get to him and everything will be fine. But nope, wrong again. He may be her possible true love in terms of romance, but he’s not the only person left that she loves…what about her sister Elsa? And that’s the big climax of the film: as Anna freezes to death, rather than rush to her supposed true love Kristoff to save herself, she sees Hans about to kill Elsa with a sword and jumps in front of it as her body turns to solid ice, breaking the sword, and that act of self sacrificing “true love” is what then thaws her out and lets Elsa realize how to use love to control her powers. We all expected romantic love to save the day, as it always has in just about every other Disney fairy tale. But romantic love isn’t the only kind of love that can be “true” and no one said familial love isn’t just as important. We never do get to know whether kissing Krisroff would have also saved Anna. And thankfully, rather than having them rush into marriage, the film ends with them just starting their relationship and seemingly taking it slow…how it should be.

After years of having wonderfully charming but fairly predictable romantic fairy tales, I hope I was able to illustrate here how Disney didn’t take the easy and safe way with Frozen, giving it many memorable qualities in terms of story, characters, music, and plot progression that opened up possibilities never seen before for their princess stories. Looking at what the studio’s future projects are, it looks like they’re gonna be switching around between their musical fairy tales and other kinds of films. But I hope the massive success that Frozen had will make them realize that their musical Renaissance-style films are the ones people really love and that stand the test of time. What I’d really like for them to do now is make quality theatrical sequels (not the mediocre direct-to-video sequels they always do) for their newest successful movies, like Princess and the Frog, Tangled, and Frozen of course. Seeing how popular Frozen has become, a sequel is a possibility, but not for many years I’m sure. But for now, will their next films continue the supposed 2nd Disney Renaissance? Will they fall into a slump again after Frozen’s success? Or maybe we’ll actually get some decent sequels from them? We’ll just have to wait and see.

Credit to linked pixiv user

11 Comments… read them or add your own.

  1. Chibinium says:

    I thought Brave was good technically, but it was too heavy handed and actually disappointed my Disney romance fix. To me, it was like it couldn’t afford wool, and made up with feminist polyester while charging me full price. Frozen is much better. Rather than use polyester, it still avoided wool but compensated with leather. To me, it achieved what Brave tried to sell me on. It is good enough that I sing the Frozen soundtrack in the shower and car.

    I know cosplayers for both Elsa and Anna. Many women want to be Elsa because the themes of conformity, embracing oneself, and finding the bright side of your personality/powers resonate deeply with them, moreso than Anna’s romantic travails. I don’t know what that says about the young female zeitgeist, but I’d be interested in hearing from someone on the inside (i.e. a woman).

    • Yumeka says:

      For me, Brave turned out to be a much smaller-scale story than the big, fantasy epic the trailers would have you believe. But I still thought it was a good story and I give kudos to Pixar for taking a totally different, non-romance direction with their princess. Now that I think about it, both Brave and Frozen emphasize familial love over romantic love, which is a welcome change of pace.

      That’s a good point about why Elsa seems to be more popular than Anna; in terms of personality and romance, Anna is more similar to past Disney princesses. However, the fact that the love for her sister was more important to her than saving herself with her own “true love” at the end is pretty inspiring ;) Elsa may be getting all the admiration but let’s not forget who performed the heroic act in the end.

      Heh, I listen to the Frozen soundtrack in the car – I’m sure a lot of people are doing that now :3 I hope to see Frozen cosplay at the next convention I got to.

  2. Frog says:

    It’s impressive to see how Disney has grown and evolved over the years. While I haven’t seen Frozen, I’ve been thinking that Disney has slowly been finding their footing since the 2D era. I think they’ve had their hits and misses transitioning into the 3D era, but I thought you could really see how they’ve reinterpreted their style for old and new audience. I think they’ve been at their best recapturing the “timeless fairytale” while updating its themes for a modern audience. Needless to say, after this glowing review, I’m really looking forward to Frozen.

    • Yumeka says:

      I agree that Disney has had hits and misses in the transition from 2D to 3D, and also in just trying to keep up classic, timeless stories in these rapidly changing and technologically advancing times. They’ve been trying to find the balance in keeping their familiar style of storytelling that has charmed audiences for decades, while also trying to update it to better appeal to the kids and families of today…without changing it too much (which I feel is what they did with their less than stellar films during the slumps they were in).

      I don’t know how many theaters are still playing Frozen, but if you plan to see it on DVD/Blu-ray, it comes out here in the US on March 18th. I assume the date is similar in other countries. Let me know what you think when you do see it =D

  3. Myna says:

    Chicken Little was one of Disney’s biggest mistakes. It hurt me to watch it. Home on the Range I have absolutely no desire to see, but I do want to see all of Disney’s animated feature films…so I’ll end up watching it at some point.

    I just want Disney to go back to 2D animation, but since they shut down the entire 2D animation department, my dreams won’t come true. But as long as they keep going with musicals, things should stay smooth(er) for them.

    Disney people have already began talking about making Frozen into a musical, and I cannot wait until that happens. (Probably not for a while since Aladdin hasn’t even gone up yet, and they already have a bunch of movies lined up already. Next is the Jungle Book. Which I’m surprised about because the Tarzan musical was such a flop.)

    • Yumeka says:

      The only good thing about Home on the Range is that Alan Menken wrote the songs. I remember liking a few of the songs but other than that…definitely not Disney’s best work >_< I've actually grown to like the large scope and realistic feel of 3D animation - I get plenty of 2D with watching anime so I've grown accustomed to 3D for my Western animation XD As long as the setting style and designs of the characters look as nice as Frozen and Tangled, I don't have a problem. A Frozen musical sounds awesome! If I don't get a chance to see it I'd definitely buy the soundtrack XD

  4. Kal says:

    I have not seen Frozen yet, but my cousin has seen it 3 times already, and she loved it to death. It’s great that they are evolving their stories, and it is needed. We have seen evolution in comic superheroes (Marvel DC), Anime keeps constantly evolving, Pixar also evolves well, but Disney had kind of stayed the same for years. So it’s good to hear they are finally evolving with the needs of the audience, and I hope they can keep it up :)

    I’ll try to go see the movie this weekend, it sounds pretty good.

    • Yumeka says:

      I too have seen the kind of change/evolution in other forms of media that you described. To me, Disney changed too, but for the worse for a while, which was what led to their slumps. But in the past few years starting with Princess and the Frog, I feel they’ve been getting back on track as far as making good, modern movies that still retain the magic of their past works. Hope they keep it up!

      If you do get to see Frozen this weekend, let me know what you think! =D

  5. Brianna says:

    Fantastic write-up! I’m also as much a Disney fan as I am an anime fan, so it was really a great read. I saw Frozen the day it opened, and it was absolutely fantastic. I preordered it as soon as it became available on amazon!

    While the new animated feature coming out this year is Big Hero 6 (which I’m sure is going to be amazing), there have been announcements regarding upcoming Disney fairytale films such as Giants (Jack in the Beanstalk)!

    • Yumeka says:

      Frozen comes out on DVD/Blu-ray the day before my birthday =D I’ll probably just stop by a store as soon as I get a chance and grab a copy rather than preorder…but we’ll see.

      I heard Big Hero 6 is gonna be like a comic book superhero type story, which isn’t really my thing (I’m sure it won’t have songs in it). But if they do something really innovative with it, like with The Incredibles or something, I’m sure it’ll be good. Giants sounds interesting too (but even though it’s a fairy tale, will it have a new princess? I don’t think the original story has one…but knowing Disney they could add one if they wanted to XD)

      • Brianna says:

        You can read more about Giants here: There’s going to be some bad ass female characters, and I’m 99% sure it’s going to be a musical. There’s a magical harp in the original story which is a female character. So Disney might do something with that and pull “princess” from it. We’ll have to see! Maybe Disney will even start a new lineup of just “Disney Heroines” who aren’t necessarily “Disney Princesses” – or they could pull a Mulan and add them to one to the lineup even though they aren’t technically princesses.

        Big Hero 6 is based on a Marvel comic; however, I feel like it’s going to appeal to the anime audience more than anyone. Disney is just taking their own liberties with everything. It’s a basically unknown comic, so they can pretty much get away with anything. Plus, the characters have Japanese names and it takes place in San Fransokyo. I think you’re going to be very surprised.

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