In the past all of Disney’s Princess movies tend to follow a similar plot line. It was always the same formula, the princess falls in love with the first man she meets and relies on him for comfort and guidance as they go off to live happily ever after. This formula has worked commercially and financially for Disney with movies like, Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs (1937), Cinderella (1950), Sleeping Beauty (1959), The Little Mermaid (1989), Aladdin (1992), and Pocahontas (1995). While these movies have turned Disney a huge profit they have never given young girls a strong, independent role model to look up to. These films, while entertaining and visually appealing, have taught young girls nothing but to find the person that they will spend the rest of their life with as soon as possible. Not one of the princess movies allows the princess to be anything more than something of a housewife. These women did not pursue any type of dream or career, they just fell in love with the first man they saw. Now while the Disney princess movies of the past have only been about finding love and riding off into the sunset, there was a Disney release last year that broke the cycle. Frozen, released in November of 2013, was a box office hit grossing over $400 million domestically and $700 million internationally. It did not focus on finding love for the main female character. Instead it built two strong female lead characters while focusing on the importance of sisterhood.
Frozen is the tale of Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) embarking on a journey to find her sister, Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel), after she goes into hiding when her powers cast an everlasting winter in their town, Arendelle. Frozen was inspired by the 1844 fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson. We first meet the sisters when Elsa is eight years old and Anna is five. The sisters have a great playful relationship right from the start. While playing, Elsa shows off her powers to create ice and accidently injures Anna. Their parents take Anna to a troll that has healing powers. He heals Anna and wipes out her memory of Elsa’s powers and recommends Elsa to be hidden from everyone including her sister Anna. For years Anna is kept away from her troubled sister Elsa and longs to reconnect with her. Dr. Nina Howe studies in early childhood development, suggests that a sibling relationship is essential in developing social skills. In a study for the Centre for Research in Human Development she writes,
“The sibling relationship is a natural laboratory for young children to learn about their world. It is a safe and secure place to learn how to interact with others who are interesting and engaging playmates, learn how to manage disagreements in constructive ways, and learn to regulate both positive and negative emotions in socially acceptable ways. There are many opportunities for young children to develop an understanding of social relations with family members who may be close and loving at times and nasty and aggressive at other times.”(Howe, p.4)
Anna wanted her relationship with Elsa to grow but was pushed away by Elsa out of the fear that she may hurt her. The song “Do You Want To Build A Snowman,” a song that you may hate but it is so catchy that you will be singing it days after you watch the movie, represents Anna’s attempt to reconnect with her sister.
The title, “Do You Want To Build A Snowman,” stems from when Elsa was playing with Anna in the beginning of the film and used her powers to create a snowman, Olaf (voiced by Josh Gad). While Olaf is the comic relief in the movie he also represents the ups and downs of the sisterly relationship of Anna and Elsa. The first time we see Olaf he is not alive and melts when Elsa accidently injures Anna. The sisters build him together and this is a memory that Anna cherishes and the last cheerful memory she has with Elsa. Olaf isn’t seen again until Elsa runs away from Arendelle and hides in the North Mountain. It is here where Elsa decides to accept her powers and use them freely. Disney keeps their reputation with catchy songs with the song “Let it Go”, and Elsa recreates Olaf. On Anna’s search for Elsa she runs into Olaf and remembers that Elsa created him. Olaf is used to reconnect Elsa and Anna, and the happy moments they had together. Olaf helps Anna reach Elsa, but things do not go so well. Elsa is still hesitant to be around Anna, the thought that she may hurt her lingers in the back of her mind, so she pushes her away. Elsa creates an Ice ogre to scare Anna and Olaf away. It is here where Olaf’s body is separated into pieces. This scene is a metaphor for the sister’s relationship at this point. Olaf is broken into pieces just like the sisterly relationship to this point. Towards the end of the film when the sisters are reunited, we see them with Olaf. Elsa removes the curse of eternal winter from Arendelle and uses her powers to create a snowfall over Olaf’s head so he can live all year round. This is a symbol that from this point Anna and Elsa will stand by each other till the end.
Doors, gates and windows are all representations of the relationship of Elsa and Anna as well. Doors and gates keep the sister separated, but safe from one another. Elsa’s bedroom door is what separates the sisters as Anna sings, “Do You Want to Build a Snowman.” The happiest moments in the film are when there are no restrictions between the two sisters. During Elsa’s coronation, the gates are lifted and the doors are unlocked. This is when the sisters are reunited after years of isolation. At the very end of the movie Anna says to Elsa “I like the open gates and Elsa replied, “We are never closing them again.” This is after the two sisters are reunited and have never been happier together.
Now while Frozen differs itself from your average Disney princess movie there are some things that will never change with Disney. First of all, both the parents die in a boat crash before we even get to know them. Anna looks to Elsa for comfort when she is informed about the accident. Anna has no one else to turn to but Elsa and sings the somber chorus to “Do You Want To Build a Snowman” outside of Elsa’s door. Dr. Howe writes that when one or both parents are absent, it is the job of the older sibling to be the caretaker.
“First-born siblings engage in leadership and teaching roles, whereas second-born siblings are more likely to imitate, follow and be a learner. During early childhood, siblings can act as sources of support during caretaking situations when the mother is absent for a short time and in middle childhood siblings may provide support during stressful family experiences.” (Howe, p.3)
Anna looks for the support and offers support for Elsa but again Elsa keeps the door shut thinking she is protecting Anna from her powers. According to Dr. Howe, Elsa does not do her job and become the leader in the absence of their parents. It is unclear if we can all Elsa a terrible sister because we understand her intentions were to protect her sister from herself. We see the frustration on Elsa’s face after Anna is once again singing outside her door, she wants to be with her sister in a time of grieving but also wants to be responsible. The next time we see the sister face to face is three years after the death of their parents.
It is on Elsa’s coronation day, a formal introduction of royalty, that the sisters are together again. Anna is so excited to be with her sister again and the feeling is mutual for Elsa. However, Elsa quickly says things can’t be like this all the time after Anna suggests it should. Elsa again is afraid she will hurt Elsa, and in her eyes is protecting her younger sister even if it means damaging their relationship. The next scene might have scared some viewers into thinking this is just going to be another Disney princess movie where she falls in love with the first guy she meets.
At the coronation ceremony, Anna meets a young man named Hans (voiced by Santino Fontana) and they are infatuated with each other. After a few hours Hans asked for her hand in marriage and she replied “yes.” Now here the viewer is thinking, oh no not this cliché story again, but the movie does not take that path. Hans and Anna quickly run to Elsa to ask for her blessing. Elsa immediately shoots down the idea of their marriage and says, “you can’t marry a man you just met,” quickly distancing itself from past Disney princess movies. Elsa blessed Anna with great sisterly advice and prevented Anna from making a terrible mistake, as Hans becomes the movie’s antagonist. Elsa is not the only character that gives Anna relationship advice. Anna meets, Kristoff another young man on her journey to find Elsa. On the journey up the North Mountain Anna tells Kristoff that she got engaged to Hans. Kristoff is baffled that she got engaged to someone she just met that day. Kristoff says “didn’t’ your parents ever warn you about strangers?” Seems hypocritical of Disney to suggest that you may actually have to get to know someone before tying the knot.
The audience sees that Anna is a strong and capable woman during her journey with Kristoff to find Elsa. While on the journey they run into a pack of wolves and have to find a way to escape. They try to cross a gap with their sled and Kristoff barely makes it and is left hanging on the ledge of the mountain while Anna makes it across. Anna then helps Kristoff in a time of need. This is a twist on the usual formula for Disney where the female character is helpless and always needs the strong male character to come to her aid. During this escape Kristoff’s sled in damaged beyond repair and Anna promises to provide him with a new sled. At the end of the film Anna honors her word and buys Kristoff a new sled. There is a little role reversal here, as Anna is the one buying a gift for Kristoff.
The Bechdel Test, popularized by Allison Bechdel’s comic strip titled The Rule, is a test that measures gender bias in films. According to bechdeltest.com, a movie must meet the following criteria, it has to have at least two women in it, they must interact with each other, and lastly they must have conversations about something other than men. According to bechdeltest.com, Frozen measures up to these standards and lacks gender bias.
The final scare that this film may end up like the countless cliché princess stories we receive from Disney, comes towards the end. Anna’s heart is on the verge of being frozen after Elsa forces her out of the North Mountain. After Anna finds out that the only cure is “an act of true love,” they venture back to Arendelle to find Hans. Once Anna finds out the truth about Hans, and realizes how foolish she was, it is suggested by Olaf that Kristoff will perform the act of true love. At this point the audience is saying to themselves, what a predictable ending, but that’s the feeling the movie wanted you to get. Once Anna if frozen completely, Elsa is in tears and finally hugs her sister. This thaws Anna and heals her. This was the act of true love that healed Anna. It was only a sister’s love that can heal Anna, a real love. The sisterly love in Frozen was convincing enough that a Pastor came out against the movie on his radio show saying it was promoting homosexuality. Pastor Kevin Swanson said “You know, I think this cute little movie is going to indoctrinate my 5-year-old to be a lesbian or treat homosexuality or bestiality in a light sort of way.’ I wonder if the average parent going to see ‘Frozen’ is thinking that way.” Not sure that Pastor Swanson understood the movie quite well, but it just goes to show how strong the bond between Elsa and Anna was.
The film had nothing to do with the male characters. For once Disney made the male characters the bystanders as the females took center stage. The film is not about finding your one true love and living happily ever after. Surprisingly no one in the film ended up getting married. The female characters stood their ground and remained strong independent women. Instead it is about two sisters in a coming of age story and reconnecting as sisters. Little things like the death of their parents and the catchy songs live up to the Disney formula, but the film as a whole is something new and refreshing. While Disney is not quite on Japanese director, Hayao Miyazaki’s level of producing strong female characters, this movie was a move in the right direction. Instead of a movie with girls this movie is about girls.