Monday, January 27, 2014

Hearts of Ice

Frozen (2013)

Frozen (2013, directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee) finds Disney's animation unit making some sport of its own traditions. In doing so, it drags the Disney formula kicking and screaming into the 21st Century. If the songs were any better, this might even stand with the best of Disney's classic animations. Alas, when it opens its throat to belt out a song, Frozen crashes to earth. What's left is a pretty good movie that could have been a great one. Still, one takes pleasures where one finds them I suppose, and this movie does indeed offer pleasures aplenty.

Frozen (2013)

Frozen loosely adapts Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen," though that's being generous. "Suggests," is probably a better word for it, because although there is, indeed, a Snow Queen in this movie, that's practically the only similarity with the original story. But that's fine. This isn't titled "The Snow Queen," after all. The story follows two sisters, Anna and Elsa, who are the children of the King and Queen of Arendelle. Elsa, the older sister, has been born with the power to freeze things, and when Anna and Elsa are very young, this delights both sisters as a source of play and fun. Unfortunately, Elsa accidentally injures Anna with her powers and her parents deem it necessary to isolate Elsa for the safety of everyone. Anna, who is cured of her injury by trolls and divested of her memory of the injury and, indeed, of Elsa's powers, feels like she's been abandoned by her sister. Years later, her parents are aboard a ship that founders. Elsa is slated to end her isolation and become queen in a huge public celebration. For Anna, it's an exciting time because she's never been around people. She meets the charming Prince Hans of the Southern Isles and is soon smitten in a whirlwind romance. Elsa, for her part, dreads the coronation, afraid that she'll slip with her powers and stand revealed as a freak and a monster. She manages to make it through the ceremony, but when Anna asks her for her blessing to marry Hans, Elsa refuses. The stress of the argument brings Elsa's powers to the fore, and, revealed, she loses control of them, plunging the kingdom into a terrible winter in the midst of summer. Elsa flees to the North Peak to isolate herself. There, she comes to an acceptance of herself and unleashes her powers as self-fulfillment, unaware of the winter that's raging behind her. Anna, in the company of an ice merchant named Kristof, embarks on a quest to find Elsa and end the spell, but in confronting her sister, finds herself struck in the heart by Elsa's ice powers, an injury that can only be ended by an act of true love. Meanwhile, Prince Hans leads a mob to find Anna. The sinister Duke of Weasleton dispatches two assassins to end Elsa's reign with a sword or a crossbow. Things come to a head as Elsa is captured and Anna lies dying from a frozen heart...

Frozen (2013)

The underlying values of Disney's animated films have been in flux for a while. Ever since the tail end of the Disney Renaissance of the 1990s, the studio has expanded the representation of both diverse ethnicities and alternate family structures. Mind you, they haven't been changing them drastically--whatever their relative virtues, Aladdin, Pocahontas, Mulan, and The Princess and the Frog all have their drawbacks and blunders and half-measures--but it's inconceivable that Disney would have made something like Lilo and Stitch--which features a drastically broken home at its center and a cast of characters without a single white person--before the turn of the 21st Century. There's a realization in these films that Disney's traditional emphasis on white heteronormative heterosexist fantasies just aren't going to be tenable in a society that is becoming more and more diverse and more and more accepting of diversity. On its surface, Frozen hews closely to the whiteness of Disney's past, but it's in its relationship structures that it starts to feel like the first really successful post-diversity film that the studio has ever made. This is a film that has a palpably queer subtext.  Frozen is a coming-out story.

Frozen (2013)

The obvious model for what Frozen is doing is The X-Men. The X-Men are an ideal tabula rasa on which the audience is invited to write their own personal alienation. The X-Men are so versatile at this that various writers have written all kinds of allegories for marginalized others, from the racially themed graphic novel, God Loves, Man Kills, to Magneto's history as a terrorist based on his experience as a Holocaust survivor, to the hilarious coming out scene in X-Men 2 when Iceman's parents ask him, "Have you tried not being a mutant?" Frozen is very much in that vein. Elsa is an amalgam of Iceman and Rogue (who fears being touched without her concealing gloves). She even hews to the X-men heroine's habit of using her powers by striking a pose and pointing. Elsa is an ideal protagonist for adolescents who feel disowned by their parents, who must hide their talents--indeed, their very identities--to avoid ostracism and violence. Further, when she eventually embraces who she is, she flourishes. The way Elsa's costume changes during her big number, the Oscar nominated "Let it Go," is subtly coded as an embrace of her sexuality. The gown she creates for herself is far more sexually provocative than the gown she wears at the outset, a gown designed to disguise and isolate. This is a narrative that speaks to me personally, given that my own coming-out also included an artistic flowering, so when I look at Elsa, I'm looking at a mirror. For that matter, Olaf the Snowman reads as a gay best friend character, which is interesting to me because Olaf is basically a manifestation of Elsa's unconscious as a callback to her relationship with her sister when they were children. And if all of this weren't obvious enough, the brief interlude at the Oaken Trading Post includes what is possibly the first unambiguously queer character in the history of Disney's animation, elided by a throwaway gag when Oaken points to his family in the sauna, including a strapping blond man who is presumably his partner.

Frozen (2013)

Anna's story is deconstructive. Her relationship with Prince Hans is a parody of every love at first sight romance from Disney's long history of such things. The fact that she agreed to marry a man she knew for less than a day provides the film with one of its best running gags, and provides a nice dagger with which Kristof needles her throughout the film. When the plot inevitably reveals the profound foolishness of Anna's crush, it's a blow, because up to that point, Hans has been nothing but upright. Hans is a clever villain, both in his machinations on screen and in his very conception. Disney has lampooned their Prince Charmings before--notably with Gaston in Beauty and the Beast. But where Gaston is obviously, obnoxiously chauvinistic to the point of absurdity, Hans is subtle. He's the abusive boyfriend who gaslights, who looks to all the world like he's doing the right thing, who seems like a genuinely good guy when he's not manipulating his girlfriend's affections. He's the film's hidden monster, and he's concealed very, very well. He reminds me a bit of Hitchcock's preference for "normal" psychopaths. A man who is obviously a monster will never get close enough to his victim, after all. The denouement of Anna's story, where she finds true love, is vastly different from Disney's traditions, too. Perhaps the most radical critique of not just Disney's formula, but of adventure stories in general is the fact that Kristof has the girlfriend role in a "boys adventure" where the gender roles have been inverted. He doesn't save the day. Anna does. He's the one with the cute anthropomorphic animal best friend, not Anna.

Frozen (2013)

Frozen is a film that is tailored to my own sensibilities, but, as I say, I'm not fond of the songs. They're a bit too show-tuney for my tastes, ready made for the inevitable stage show that will follow the movie (perhaps an ice show, if they still do those). A quarter of the movie is devoted to songs and I found myself tuning out during some of these interludes. The only song I remember at all is Elsa's self-actualizing "Let It Go," but that may be because it's an Oscar nominee. As an example of film-craft, this is state of the art: the environments and props are lovingly designed and the characters are mostly likeable and individual and just cartoony enough. The film's initial images--of ice merchants carving the ice of a frozen lake--are startling and kick the film off like it's a Soviet propaganda film, lionizing the worker. The depictions of snow and ice are so far beyond the Ice Age movies that they hardly bear comparison. Elsa's ice palace is one of the cinema's most dazzling pieces of unreal estate. Really, I should like the film better than I do. It's everything I want from contemporary animation. And yet...

The takeaway from this for me is that I can love every element of a film and it can still rub me the wrong way.  And don't get me wrong: I do like it. I do. But that seems like it's faint praise.

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Aubyn said...

"The film's initial images--of ice merchants carving the ice of a frozen lake--are startling and kick the film off like it's a Soviet propaganda film, lionizing the worker." The connection hadn't occurred to me before, but I love it! Thanks for that one. I did really enjoy the film's visual design. However, it was really the ice and the landscapes that I liked. I felt like the human design was a little lackluster. Not bad but not nearly as expressive as it should have been. And I'm getting kind of tired of those huge, huge eyes they keep giving to the female characters.

"Frozen is a coming-out story." I've heard other critics make the connection but I appreciate all the connections you make to X-men and your own experience. For me personally, the subtext was more blatant than I'd ever really seen from a mainstream Disney film before. I mean, the lyrics of "Let it Go!" It's a lot more than I ever saw in Brave despite the fuss made at the time.

Overall, I did like the film. I liked the sisters. I liked that for once, the Disney villain did not come right out and announce themselves as the villain right off the bat. Enjoyed the snowman. And the landscapes are gorgeous. But I am getting a little impatient for the day when Disney takes the next step beyond subtext and just gives us an openly gay protagonist.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Allegedly, Mulan is canonically bisexual, but I don't see anything in the film itself to suggest that at all. I'd love to see an openly gay protagonist, of course, but I think I'd have to have popcorn ready for the social backlash from cultural conservatives.