Disney’s animation studios have long been hounded on gender issues, from playing heavily on damsel in distress motifs that reduce a woman to her need for a man to unrealistic body images. In the case of Frozen, the Scandinavian Princesses Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell) may not break ground in character design but the way their relationship shapes the story is groundbreaking and greatly refreshing.
Elsa, the elder sister, has inherited magical powers that allow her to create snow and ice at whim, but when playing around together Anna is seriously hurt, these lively and rambunctious girls are suddenly cooped up and kept apart for their “safety.” These magical powers are in essence tied to Elsa’s emotions so she has to learn to suppress them. The metaphor surrounding Elsa does seem somewhat undercooked but it does convey an ambiguous comment on gender role repression.
Ultimately Elsa’s powers do cause further problems sending Anna on a quest to mend things. Anna is a tricky character and when an early song has her falling in love at first sight with the first handsome man she sees, ready for a quickie marriage, I was a bit uncertain but here the film is more overtly sending up the absurdity of the behavior of so many past Prince Charming-obsessed Disney girls. Anna is eventually joined on the quest by Kristoff, an ice cutter, and his trusty reindeer, and eventually a magical snowman Olaf (Josh Gad). While Kristoff does on occasion provide assistance to Anna, she is just as likely to get him out of a bind. Gad’s role is the overt comic relief which can be trying, and my previous experience with him from the Book of Mormon soundtrack had me hesitant, but he really pulls it off well here.
While plenty of this story runs along typical fairy tale/Disney paths, it is quite important that at the end the focus of the film isn’t a romantic relationship but the bond of the two sisters, pushing back against so many stories (again, many of them from Disney) that create two female characters only to pit them against each other. Romance isn’t completely absent but it is made clearly not essential to these women…plus a scene promoting enthusiastic consent. The music is generally strong, though not so connected with the plot, thus as the plot gets more intense in the second half the music almost entirely disappears. Even if this isn’t the best story or best music from Disney, the way it pushes interesting gender themes in direct contrast to much else we’ve seen raises it to another level, supported by the basic enjoyment factor. This was a really pleasant surprise and has good odds of being the best Animated film of the year.*
*Though Miyazaki has another film that looks like it’ll be awards eligible, though for my purposes will probably be 2014.