In Disney’s latest feature Frozen, the true love that saves the day turns out not to be between the prince and the princess but between sisters. This deserves some applause. It also doesn’t end with everyone married off — Elsa the Snow Queen (Idina Menzel) will apparently govern the land of Arendelle without a king. Not that she needs a king, or anyone else, to protect her; Elsa has extreme, almost apocalyptic powers over ice and snow, and in Disney’s more simplistic days she would’ve been the villain of the piece. Instead, fearing that she’ll hurt people — a fear instilled in her when she accidentally almost killed her younger sister Anna — Elsa goes into self-imposed exile, where she creates her own magic queendom of ice and sings heartily that she can finally be herself. Meanwhile, though, Arendelle suffers through year-round winter.
What makes Frozen interesting is the way it humanizes the standard Disney villain so that she isn’t a villain at all, but also weighs the consequences her powers have. Elsa pushes people away for their own good, but her dramatic exit from her land leaves it barren. She keeps her door locked against Anna, who grows up not knowing why. The movie spends a great deal of time on Anna (Kristen Bell) trying to reach Elsa; it’s as if Anna were the standard Disney hero trying to rescue the princess, except that she’s trying to rescue Elsa from herself. Anna represents unconditional love (she wants to jump into marriage with a guy she’s just met); Elsa represents fear, which is, I think, what the movie’s showstopping tune “Let It Go” really refers to.
The emotional throughline is all about trying to bring Elsa back into the mainstream of society, a society that’s quick to reject her as a “monster” when she first “comes out” as magically gifted. To see it through a nerdish superhero prism, Professor X of the X-Men would try to help Elsa harness her powers for the greater good, while Magneto would encourage her to stay in her ice castle, perhaps build many brothers to the hulking snow beast she makes to scare Anna away, and crush the human peons. Essentially, Elsa is a mutant, and is handled with post-X-Men compassion, but Anna the normal is the real focus and hero. Anna’s big number is “For the First Time in Forever,” which details her longing for contact with her sister and with people in general. Elsa is offscreen a lot, but the movie fixates on her normalization — though, like I said, unlike Anna (who pairs off with a hunky ice merchant who helps her), but like many evil Disney queens, Elsa has no male companion. Given her similarity to the mutants of X-Men, and given that the earlier X-Men films equated mutants with gay people, is Elsa Disney’s first gay (and pro-gay) character?
Beyond all this, Frozen is a beautifully crafted fable, with snowscapes and ice convincing enough to make a viewer shiver (maybe they should’ve released this in July). The songs are by and large forgettable, though that could just be me — the only Disney song in the last 25 years of which I have any memory is “Under the Sea.” Kristen Bell brings charming awkwardness to Anna (the movie may set a record for the number of uses of “Wait, what?”), and Idina Menzel, familiar with playing misunderstood sorceresses after her Tony-winning turn as Wicked’s Elphaba on Broadway, infuses Elsa with gravitas and regret. Elsa definitely knows that with great power comes great responsibility, but instead of outing herself and doing some good, she chooses to hide. That’s the other thing about Frozen — choice. The women have agency. Elsa makes mostly bad choices, Anna makes mostly good choices (other than her initial taste in men), but they each own them and exist with them. And instead of demonizing Elsa for her choices, the movie shows endless concern for her well-being.
I can’t say it’s a coincidence, then, that Frozen was written and co-directed by a woman (Jennifer Lee) — this is, in fact, the first animated feature under the Disney banner with a woman so credited. Lee (whose partner was Wreck It Ralph’s Chris Buck, who handled the animation side of things) has made a casually feminist, no-big-deal entertainment — it certainly passes the Bechdel test — in which a man can assist in saving the day, but it’s really up to the sisters. Only female hearts in unison can melt the ice that entraps a kingdom. The lesson is administered with no small amount of humor (thankfully no fart humor, though we do get a booger joke) and good nature; the heavy moments aren’t lingered on, and the narrative is a fast straight arrow aimed at the simple goal of reuniting two sisters who used to love to build snowmen together.