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Sunday, January 26, 2014

Frozen is nearly perfect

Saw Frozen with Carmen (4 years old) today. Incredible movie. The music and art direction are in perfect sync with the story, a rare achievement for a musical. Kids in the audience had clearly seen it multiple times and sang along to the credits.
My only major story complaint is that Elsa never has a moment to relish being cruel that might truly test her soul and give her a brush with true villainy. That would have been exhilarating, and would have made me doubt her goodness, which would have made the ending more of a redemption of her. Everything she does is reaction and not agency, where she might do something else instead. When she creates a monster, she does it with her eyes closed and it is no more than a bouncer, born without the desire to destroy.
The "Let it go" show stopper is confused about how exactly she is changing. As she tells us through song, she is liberating herself from shame about her power, and embracing a new identity with that power at its core.
But the first act established that her shame was part and parcel with her inability to love; that's one reason why she can't just tell Anna why she secludes herself.
The other reason is fear that exposure to her power will hurt Anna. It turns out that this fear is a misconception: Anna can take care of herself. The change that requires growth in Elsa is her refusing to be encased in shame.
Since that happens at the end of Act I, instead of the climax, Elsa becomes something of a bystander at the end, when she should be growing. Elsa has to be reminded of the power to love, but that requires her to discard a misconception about Anna's agency, not to outgrow an identity that gave her comfort.
"Let it go" could have seen Elsa embrace her power from a place of darker thoughts, using her shame and anger. Then when Anna finds her and pleads for Elsa to return and lift the winter, she might say "Why would I want to?" rather than "I can't." Without her shame to misdirect her into a bit of villainy, she doesn't have much to do for the second half of the movie. She never even decides to go back.
But these are quibbles with a brilliant picture. The influence of the Pixar acquisition couldn't be clearer, from the short film opener to the snowman in summer song, which is complete genius. My favorite Pixaresque touch is her emulation of the paintings in her palace, which achieves so much exposition and characterization so neatly and delightfully.
Anna is finally a Disney princess I'm happy for my daughters to adore. She's clever, brave, persistent, loyal, principled, generous, and stands up for herself.
I wish the story focused less on the men she is in love with, but given that, the relationships seem built on real connection and not the assumption that a girl is a flower waiting for the first interested guy to pluck. But I love that she is the rescuer more often than the damsel in distress.
The end, rather than being much of a redemption for Elsa, is more a redemption for Disney. The writers seem to be pointedly rejecting the anti-feminist expectations of the audience, which of course have been constructed over the past century by Disney. Even the Mickey Mouse short film that opens the movie is careful to make Minnie at least a little bit of an agent of her own rescue from her would-be rapist. (I mean, think about it, that's what this type of kidnapping is, whether kids have any inkling of that or not.)
One disturbingly persistent trope for heroines in kids' movies is their voice: their speech and gestures are constantly apologetic and self-deprecating.
This has been such a pervasive thing among young women in at least the last decade that it's hard to notice it anymore. It's sobering to compare the dignity and grace of the original Disney Cinderella and Snow White with the eye aversion and deferent giggling of Rapunzel in Tangled and Anna in Frozen.
(Ariel in The Little Mermaid is a curious transitional case -- she mimes deference when she is speechless, but she still seems confident given that she's just permanently emigrated to what's essentially an alien planet.)
But Disney is picking up on something real here, and Frozen does use this to build a moment of transcendence that is the movie's finest: the scene where a desperate Anna affects imperiousness (though she never pulls rank, an absolute taboo) in cajoling a ride up the mountain from Kristoff. Having succeeded, she steps out of his sight and exhales with relief at being able to drop the false bravado.
In effect, she is acting like a more confident person -- perhaps like a man -- in order to get what she wants. And rather than make such manipulativeness and resourcefulness solely the province of sexless (or pathologically lesbian) villains like Maleficent, Rapunzel's adoptive mom or Ursula, here it's a tool at the disposal of Anna and the millions of girls who identify with her.

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