Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Movie Review?

This post contains spoilers for Disney's Frozen. Yeah, that's what I said.

Last Friday, if you asked me what I thought of Disney's Frozen, I would have said that I didn't have any opinion. I knew the plot, vaguely, but I'd never seen it. Apparently people really like it.

Now that I've seen it five times, I have some definitely opinions.

Plot


First of all, it's by far the most plot-intensive Disney movie I've ever seen. A lot happens in the movie, a lot more than, for example, Beauty and the Beast. If I wanted to summarize the plot of the Lion King or Sleeping Beauty it would take me two or three sentences and require me to name two or three characters. To summarize the plot of Frozen would probably require two paragraphs and require me to name at least four characters, I might have to mention a fifth to make sense of part of it.

Anyway, despite being much more complex, it is about the same length as other Disney movies. It also has about the same amount of time devoted to comic relief. That means that the plot comes at you pretty fast. If you leave the room to change a diaper you may actually miss something, which is not something I could say for pretty much any other Disney movie. For example, another adult asked, "Are their parents dead? When did that happen?" ten or fifteen minutes after the death of their parents.

I'm not going to say that's a bad thing. The movie expects a little more of the children who watch it than earlier Disney movies, but that's a general trend in movies and TV shows over time - to expect more and more from their audiences in terms of being able to handle many characters with complex relationships. Given the response, it seems that kids can handle the more complex plot.

It does make some of the decisions in the movie feel a little odd, though. The comic relief character gets a song shortly after showing up that has absolutely nothing to do with the plot and that isn't really one of the big selling points for the soundtrack. When I contrast with Hukana Matata - another vehicle to give the comic relief characters screen time - it seems striking how little Olaf's solo has to do with anything. Hakuna Matata formed the foundation of why Simba stayed away from lion society for so many years, choosing to live a carefree life in the wilds instead. That goes by in a flash on the screen, but in the story he is gone for a long, long time, and that bears some explanation. Olaf's song - "In Summer" - from Frozen doesn't do anything except reveal a little big of the character of Olaf, when his character has already been revealed completely by his introductory scene that reveals he is comic relief. I suppose someone could wonder why a snowman is so eager to end the endless winter, but that would take one sentence to deal with.

But speaking of songs that don't really advance the plot, perhaps the most bizarre thing about the movie is that "Let it Go" is another example of this. The centrepiece of the whole movie is about how Elsa feels when she runs away from her life of enforced seclusion to a new life of voluntary seclusion. I get that she has strong feelings about that, but when Anna comes to find her, those feelings don't factor much into what happens at all. The scene with Anna and Elsa in the ice castle is driven primarily by Elsa's desire not to hurt anyone with her magic, which is the same thing that was motivating her since the beginning of the movie. The change she undergoes during "Let it go" isn't really a change at all. Now, unlike "In Summer," "Let it Go" is pretty much the big selling point of the movie. My three-year-old who doesn't know any of the words except "Let it Go" and who probably doesn't understand the theme of the song at all has been walking about singing it endlessly. My older nieces love it too. It's probably the reason the movie was a hit. It just really jumps out at me how unrelated it is to the plot.

Sexism


These days I'd never pronounce something as not sexist, but I feel like Frozen does a pretty good job. Anna - who is, actually, the protagonist - is extremely determined and confident. She's very wrapped up in the idea of parties, dancing and finding love, but that's actually a logical part of her character who is, after all, a teenage girl who has lived a life of seclusion. Clearly Elsa got the majority of her parent's attention as the child with the big problem, so Anna is attention starved, and dreams of having a normal - for a princess - life when she doesn't really know what that means. Also, the ending scene where Anna and Kristoff kiss is awfully respectful. I'd wager few first kisses are preceded by explicit requests for consent, but it's not a bad model.

Elsa, by contast, shows no interest in romance at all. The very idea of having a sympathetic leading female character in a Disney movie who isn't all about finding love is actually sort of a breakthrough. Not only does she not spend the movie seeking love, romantic love doesn't fall into her lap either. She spends the movie seeking to be herself, and rather than seeking other people.

Family Dynamics


Something I find interesting is that every little girl I know wants to be Elsa, not Anna. It seems very unusual that the character who gets the most screen time isn't the most popular. Now part of this is clearly the fantastic ice powers, which are a big draw, but I recall kids playing Alladin and Jasmine, not Genie and Carpet. I recall kids playing Ariel and the Prince, maybe Ariel and Flounder, not the King and Ursula. My little sister wanted to be Cinderella, not the Fairy Godmother, as far as I recall. I'm sure a big part of this is just "Let it Go" but I think maybe it's a lot easier to understand Elsa's motivations. It's easy to imagine yourself as the one who has to hide, and, I think, much harder to imagine the effect that has on the one who doesn't have to hide. The movie attempts to show what it's like for Anna to be isolated from Elsa, but doesn't really address the issue of what Anna's life is like otherwise. Her parents spend all of their time worrying about Elsa. Anna knows there is a secret reason why Elsa shuts herself away, but doesn't know what it is. Imagine knowing your entire life is being shaped by a secret that you aren't even in on.

Which brings me to my signifiant criticism of Anna and Elsa's parents. Of course Elsa grows up to have no control over her powers, the only message she's gotten her whole life is to hide. "Conceal, don't feel," is not a working message for a child. It's fine to put on a show for social reasons on a case-by-case basis, but you can't live your whole life putting on a show. It should have been obvious that Elsa's powers went off when she was upset, so she needed to learn to deal with negative emotions constructively. She needed mindfulness training, not emotional suppression. Elsa realizes at the end of the movie that while negative emotions make her powers go haywire, love is the secret to keeping them under control. They play that up a bit, but it seems like if being afraid makes you lose control of your powers, you need to learn to not be a afraid all the time, which is the exact opposite of how Elsa was raised.

Hetero-Normativity


My sister told me that "Let it Go" is also a bit of an anthem for some queer communities, and that it is taken as a metaphor for being queer and/or trans. Now being trans isn't really the same thing as having magical ice powers, but basically it all comes down to the lines leading up to the first chorus: "Conceal, don't feel, don't let them know / Well now they know." I'm sure for many queer and trans youth who are keeping secrets about themselves, those secrets feel like they are life and death matters, and Elsa's realization that she has revealed her secret and is simply still alive is a pretty powerful message. Elsa transitions from keeping a dark secret, to leaving that life behind, to returning to find acceptance. It's a sorry commen that for many youth that is a fantasy, but probably for many it could become a reality if they were willing to chance it, so it's an empowering message. A point for Frozen there.

Further, baked into Elsa having no romantic interests in the movie is the fact that Elsa's sexuality is never revealed. Even if the makers of the movie were thinking in completely hetero-normatively and assuming she was straight, there's nothing in the movie that actually tells us that, and it would have been quite easy for them to imply it has they been interested in doing so.

Racism


Now clearly in time period pieces like this it's not unrealistic that everyone basically looks the same, I'm not going to criticize Disney for failing to making Arendelle a diverse metropolis. On the other hand, this is one of those things where you say - if people can be born ice powers then why are we being "realistic" about race? In a movie with just a few characters it's a hard thing to draw a line under. It's just something to keep in mind when you see movie after movie where all the humans are white.

Of course it's important to say that we are talking about the humans. Magical snowmen don't really count, but trolls are a completely distinct race of beings in the movie. While the relationship between trolls and humans seems pretty good, I increasingly have this nagging feeling about fantasy races and a sort of underlying racism that comes with them. The trolls of Frozen are little bit noble-savagey. I don't know how to get away from this - of course elves will be different than dwarves, who will be different than trolls, who will be different than satyrs. That's especially true when they live totally separately from one another. Still, I think about the relationship between humans and trolls, and about the trolls' deference to the king. Is he their king? Aren't they self-governing?

Classism


While moving away from sexism and hetero-normativity, Disney is holding on tight to the royalty-are-awesome trope. Everyone loves the king and queen. Everyone is super proud to be led by them. The trolls revere the king for a reason I can't quite get my head around. Anna and Elsa are clearly portrayed as deserving of the power they were born into.

What jumped out at me the most is that Anna talked a lot about never being around people when the castle has a large staff of servants. I mean, come on. I know that for the purposes of this movie, Anna's isolation is important, and the key is that she was isolated from people her own age, but where were her friendships with castle staff who she grew up around? Ultimately a beloved servant who practically raised Anna wouldn't fit into the movie, both for time reasons and because Anna needs to go up the mountain to find her sister alone but they really made the servants into objects and not people.

Extreme Power


Back to Elsa and feeling isolated, her secret is a life or death matter on a much greater scale than any secret anyone has in reality. Having basically hidden her powers and not practiced with them at all she builds a massive palace of ice in the course of a minute with a mere thought. She touches off an eternal winter in her kingdom by accident by just getting upset. She creates a living, sentient snow creature, again, completely by accident, then having found out she did that she almost immediately makes another living creature on purpose, one with thoughts and a personality that precisely suits her needs. If you had to rate Elsa's power as a magical being on a scale of one to ten she would easily be a nine, held back from being a ten because she is only an existential threat to life in the world she is in, and can't threaten other worlds or time periods. Disney has never posited a being of such extreme power. "Oops, I accidentally killed everyone in the nation, I guess I'll just have to replace them with sentient beings of my own creation," is a heck of a thing to be able to say.

It's true that at one point she is nearly killed two dorks with pointy things, but that just goes back to her never practicing with her powers and really not knowing what she is capable of, plus her desire not to actually hurt anyone. Given the power she displayed, I can think of a lot of ways she could neutralize that threat in both lethal and non-lethal manners.

Hans


The worst thing about Frozen is how it cheats you with Hans. As a friend of mine once said regarding a fairly popular movie that had a character who turned from sympathetic to unsympathetic: "Don't tell me how to feel." This movie plays a trick where it gives Anna and Hans a "We're in love" song and dance number and then it turns out they aren't in love. That's a bit of an exciting break from established rules, but it's also a little unfair. When Hans turns out to be downright evil, it's completely unfair. Sure, Anna was desperate for love and easily duped by Hans, but there is simply no foreshadowing of this at all. We are supposed to just sit back and say, "Oh well, I guess he fooled me." No, he didn't fool you, the makers of the film gave you nothing to go on.

I can think of two much more satisfying ways to have dealt with Hans. My preference would be that Hans does actually attempt to thaw Anna with a kiss, and then upon finding that it doesn't work, acts of out despair when he rushes off to avenge her by killing Elsa against Anna's protests. Instead of trying to escape and being rescued by Olaf, she just gives up until Olaf comes to encourage her - which basically doesn't change that scene at all. The twist at the end of Frozen, where the "act of true love" is an act of love for her sister instead of an act of romantic love, obscures what I feel is the real twist - that thawing the frozen heart required loving rather than being loved. It wasn't passively hoping that someone would kiss her in a Sleeping-Beauty-esque fashion that saved Anna, it was sacrificing herself to save her sister. It was her heart that needed to be thawed, so she needed to do something.

In the aftermath, Hans would still be in love with Anna, but Anna tells him that she's learned that meeting someone exciting at a party isn't the same thing as really loving with someone, and that she could never love someone who would try to hurt her sister. I think this would do a better job of capping off the themes in the movie, and it would be neat because the movie would be without a real force of evil.

Alternatively, if you are going to go with Hans as a pure psychopath, I think a more fitting end would be for Elsa to freeze his heart and tell him that he'd better figure out how to perform an act of true love in the next day or so or he'll freeze solid. This ending is 100% inappropriate, but I'd like it better.

Other notes


Olaf's line, "This is the best day of my life, and quite possibly the last," should be "This is the best day of my life. I guess this is the only day of my life." He has been alive for less than 24 hours.

"For the first time in forever" is used to describe both things that haven't ever happened and things that haven't happened in a long time. That's just awful.

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