I shouldn’t have to explain what Frozen is.
The concept of cultural osmosis fascinates me. Essentially, the idea is that even if you haven’t experienced an aspect of culture, in this case pop culture, you’re still aware of its existence. Sometimes its too a partial degree, like knowing that something exists and that it’s popular, or as pervasive as knowing the lyrics to “Let It Go” despite never once watching the movie. To put it lightly, Frozen has become a media phenomenon in the span of only six years.
Between the original movie’s release, we’ve gotten two short films, a Broadway musical, an obscene amount of merchandise (as per God-Emperor Disney standards), and now a sequel that will most likely be just as successful, if not more, than the original. Frozen has become so large that when people think of Disney, there’s an entire generation of children who will associate the company more with Anna and Elsa than with Mickey or Goofy. But despite Frozen being this nigh-untouchable movie, hallowed in the halls of Disney-dom, it’s still a movie. It is mortal.
So let’s talk about it. How did this movie make the Almighty Mouse bend the knee to modern sensibilities?
I said back in the Decade Decathlon’s 2013 entry that Frozen was able to pull Disney out of a very mediocre decade. It’s not that their movies during the 2000s and early 2010’s were BAD, but most of their releases either were based on uninteresting concepts or were trying to catch that Shrek money and redirected some of their films to be more like Dreamworks affairs. Ask yourself this; does anyone still remember or care about Bolt or Meet the Robinsons? Yes, Disney did make some classic movies during that time, most notably Princess and the Frog and Tangled, both of which were well-reviewed, but didn’t make Disney as much money as expected. Princess and the Frog was seen as being a retread of nearly every Disney princess movie before it, but with an African-American princess this time, and Tangled fell victim to an incredibly large budget that, once you factored in marketing costs, only made a slight profit.
But that doesn’t explain why Frozen struck such a chord with audiences. It was a good movie, sure, but good movies come and go. Why did Frozen immediately capture people’s attention? Could it be because of the stellar soundtrack? That’s certainly possible, but that implies that the soundtrack of Frozen was the only notable thing about it. Did it have to do with Disney’s amazing animation? Disney, regardless of the quality of their final products, can never be seen as having weak animation. So what could it be? If you were to ask me, it had to do with its subversion of every Disney trope up to that time.
Disney is, and always will be, protective of their image to an insane degree. Disney has a very select catalog of tropes that they used on a frequent basis since the Disney Renaissance, with some tropes dating even further back. Damsels in distress, true love’s first kiss, the “I Want More” song in nearly all of their musicals, and uncomfortable/unfunny forced comedic sidekicks (I still hate you Gargoyles) are just to name a few. After the Renaissance, they became predictable and safe. Those tropes made them billions of dollars, so why not just keep using those tropes until the cows come home? Safe and easy money! But audiences eventually tired of seeing the same basic concept again and again just told in a different setting with a different aesthetic. They wanted something new and fresh. Shrek felt different, with that originality making that franchise became the most popular animated movie franchise of the 2000s. Disney was in desperate need of a radical change.
Frozen at times seems almost engineered to subvert any and all Disney tropes of the past several decades. When Anna falls in love with Hans, Elsa is immediately critical because people don’t just fall in love in a day. After she said that line, most of the adults in my packed theater way back when let out a good chuckle, seeing that Disney was willing to poke fun at itself. A quick little throwaway joke, good for the moment, now the movie can move on to the next plot point. But then the movie kept reinterpreting these classic tropes with new meaning.
We’re all probably aware now that Hans turned out to be a villain after the throne of Arendelle, manipulating Anna and Elsa in order to put himself in charge of the country. While his plan failed, when he denied Anna “True Love’s Kiss” to save her from the curse, audiences that grew up with Disney didn’t know how to react. I didn’t know how to react! This was the main love interest! He was meant to save Anna and then they would live happily ever after! He can’t be the villain! And yet there he was, ready to leave Anna for dead and plunge a dagger into Elsa to secure his claim to the throne, only being thwarted by Elsa kissing a frozen Anna, freeing her from her curse. True love’s kiss didn’t come from a romantic bond, but a bond between sisters.
Nowadays, that seems old hat. Frozen ironically created a new trend of self-examination within Disney that is still enforced to this day. Lindsay Ellis called this version of Disney “Woke Disney” and I find it hard to disagree with. Disney is far more critical of its own catalog and seems more interested in going out of its way to re-contextualize its history rather than create new experiences. One just needs to look at the slew of recent Disney remakes and notice how a majority of them address old “problems” from their original versions that were somehow fixed in these new versions. Granted, Disney had a slew of live-action remakes in development before and during Frozen’s production, but those remakes seemed to be geared towards making action blockbusters like Alice in Wonderland than actually say something meaningful about Disney culture. It’s no coincidence that Maleficent, which released only a few months after Frozen, had virtually identical creations of “true love’s kiss.”
As much as I want to say that this trend of self-reflection was made in order to better their past, no matter how I look at it, this modern trend comes across as aping Frozen. Most of these changes serve no purpose to their respective stories and only serve to make them weaker. Dumbo is their most notable failure, taking a story about an elephant learning to believe himself and spinning into a narrative nightmare about anti-consumerism and relegating Dumbo to a side character in his own movie. Dumbo tried to flesh out its story with critical self-examination that fell flat on its face because the original story was never designed to address the story beats the remake did.
Frozen, meanwhile, was a natural deconstruction of the Disney Princess genre. There was no need to insert unnecessary commentary into the story because Frozen was always designed to be a Disney Princess movie, so the criticisms came naturally. Sure, Disney was always going to have a comic-relief character because Disney still needs to sell toys, but for the most part, Frozen both felt like a Disney movie and didn’t feel like one. It wore the veneer of one yet when you look into its plot and individual moments, it’s a radical departure for the company.
Inevitably, when one talks about Frozen, one has to eventually talk about “Let It Go” like the two are conjoined twins. While I do believe that “Let It Go” is an important song, not only in the context of framing Elsa as a much more independent main character as well as giving her hints of LGBT subtext (which still remains subtext thanks to Frozen 2 and most likely will be for the foreseeable future), it’s probably the least interesting aspect of the movie to talk about. It’s a powerhouse of a song, performed marvelously by Idina Menzel that deserves all of the praise it gets, and it accurately does what every musical number should; tell a story through music. We go from seeing a worried and self-conscious Elsa transform into a woman who is proud of who she is and holds no regrets over her own self-empowerment. It’s a power ballad to define women, children, LGBT members everywhere, but it’s a song that I feel has been analyzed to death and if I attempted to go into more detail, I feel like I wouldn’t be doing the song justice.
When you combine all of those aspects together, you get a movie that genuinely took risks for the company. There was no guarantee that Frozen was going to be a mega-blockbuster, yet here we are six years later still stuck in Frozen Fever. Like most of the best films around, it was lightning in a bottle that can’t be replicated, no matter how hard Disney tries to milk the franchise replicate it. The unfortunate side-effect is now most major Disney movies are trying to mimic the same introspection that Frozen did so well because that’s what audiences gravitated to most. It was fresh that Disney was abandoning their past, but now six years later that approach is no longer fresh.
Full disclosure; I have not seen Frozen 2 yet. I have a tradition with one of my childhood friends that every Black Friday we see the latest Disney movie in theaters and go out to dinner afterwards. It’s a tradition that we ironically started back in 2013 with the original Frozen. I know nothing about the plot, the characters, or even the new setting, but I can tell that while it will make gangbusters at the box office, which it already has, there’s very little chance of it surpassing the original movie.
Frozen is one of the most important movies in Disney’s library not for how much money it made, though it did make a lot. It’s important because it changed the largest corporation in the world. It flipped the formula on how they created and produced movies and brought Disney to a level of profitability in their animated features that has only been surpassed by this year’s The Lion King. We’ll see what Disney does when the Frozen/meta-textual well dries up, but there’s no denying that Frozen helped shaped modern Disney as we know it.