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If you’ve been awake at any point during the last six years, the cultural avalanche that is Frozen (Watch Now on Disney+) won’t have passed you by. From the music to the merch, the Halloween costumes and the influx of real-life baby Elsas, it’s safe to say that Walt Disney Animation Studios struck a chord with their 53rd classic.
The highest-grossing animated film of all time (if you don’t include 2019’s The Lion King) Frozen is the first Disney animated musical to get a theatrical sequel, and the appetite for it has not wavered in the years since the original’s release. But what makes Frozen as successful as it is?
We asked Frozen stars Josh Gad (Olaf) and Jonathan Groff (Kristoff) as well as director Chris Buck and writer/director/chief creative officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios, Jennifer Lee, for their input as we explore how the stars – or snowflakes – aligned to create such a stratospheric success.
Disney Formula, With a Twist
On the surface, Frozen is one of the most traditionally ‘Disney’ films there is. Like most of the studio’s biggest hits, Frozen is inspired by a fairytale – primarily Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. Add in not one, but two Disney Princesses, a cute and funny sidekick, and a handsome prince, and you’ve got yourself the basic House of Mouse blueprint.
However, Frozen stands out by using Disney’s tried and tested formula as a springboard to something brand new. By subverting the studio’s expected fairytale storytelling, Frozen manages to be both comfortingly familiar and dazzlingly fresh.
Firstly, the film completely changes the perspective of Andersen’s source material. While the Snow Queen is traditionally the villain of the piece, due to her dangerous powers, in Frozen, Elsa is the sympathetic hero, so afraid to hurt others that she isolates herself from the world. The trolls in Anderson’s tale are still present, but instead of being vengeful ice-wielding menaces, here they are spiritual healers.
“We try not to do tropes – in Frozen 1, we put tropes in there to flip them. Like Hans was not the answer. That was fun.” — writer/director/chief creative officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios, Jennifer Lee
Frozen methodically sets up and dismantles the tropes we expect from a Disney movie, especially through the dynamic between Anna, Elsa, and Hans. With the all-too-familiar killing off of the parents in the opening sequence, the romantic-hearted Anna is isolated from her sister and primed for a chivalrous prince to sweep her off her feet and deliver her happily ever after.
When she first meets Prince Hans, the film indulges in parodying Disney’s penchant for the ‘love at first sight’ moment. Far from a straightforward romantic duet, ‘Love is An Open Door’ plays like a comedic number, highlighting the ridiculous notion that you could truly fall in love in one day.
Of course, we later learn that Hans is far from the gallant hero, and has been manipulating Anna all along. It’s the bond between the sisters that will save Anna and the kingdom when the hour of need arrives.
“For me, the big thing was the big revelation of the first movie, in addition to the amazing visuals and characters, and phenomenal score — the fact that the love, the true love, in a Disney film was not about a woman pining for a man but about familial love, and the love between two sisters.” — Jonathan Groff shares his thoughts on the secret to the Frozen success story
For an audience used to sibling rivalry (Cinderella, anyone?) and handsome princes saving the day, Frozen is a refreshing u-turn. For an increasingly woke audience in the 2010s, Frozen immediately becomes a film that parents feel comfortable showing to their little girls, without having to explain that life doesn’t work that way.
In lieu of the classic, scenery-chewing Disney villain, Frozen’s creative heavyweight, Jennifer Lee, describes the real threat as much more abstract – “Frozen 1 had a thematic villain – fear versus love.”
It’s in this departure from the tried-and-tested Disney formula that Frozen elevates itself from other Disney films – and goes some way towards explaining the unprecedented appeal of a certain Disney princess…
The Elsa Factor
When you think of Frozen, what’s the first image that pops into your head? The chances are that it’s Elsa in her glittery gown, strutting through her ice palace while belting out ‘Let It Go.’
Elsa is a phenomenon all by herself, sparking millions of kids around to world to own at least one item of merchandise with her face on it. In 2014, Elsa entered the baby name charts in the UK, with 243 new registrations – with many being named by their older siblings. Elsa was the most searched page on our Disney community from December 2013 – December 2014. In order to explore the appeal of Elsa’s character fully, it’s necessary to address the musical elephant in the room.
It’s impossible to ignore the huge cultural moment that was Elsa’s Oscar- and Golden Globe-winning anthem, ‘Let It Go.’ From the moment the film first hit screens, the song broke out as the standout song on an insanely popular soundtrack written by songwriting duo Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez (one Fandom staff member’s son actually calls the film ‘Let It Go,’ such is its synonymity).
The first Disney anthem in the age of social media, the song spread like wildfire. Its official music video is the most viewed on Walt Disney Animation’s YouTube channel, with 677 million hits – and counting – while the singalong video has been played over 1.8 billion times. Even Jennifer Lee has apologised to parents who could not escape the song for months afterwards.
Researchers have done their best to pick apart why ‘Let It Go’ is so special, and it comes down to three key elements:
- The melody of the chorus is an earworm, and it’s satisfying to sing. If you take one thing away from the first viewing of Frozen, it’s the three close-interval notes of the phrase ‘Let It Go’ – you’re singing it now, aren’t you?
- The lyrics convey a strong emotional message – that you can find the confidence within yourself to overcome fear. Audiences can apply this to their own struggles with anxiety, whatever that may mean. It’s also been adopted by some as an LGBTQ anthem. When Elsa belts out ‘Here I stand in the light of day,’ people felt that.
- Idina Menzel’s voice is its own empowering force. Earlier in her career, when she played Elphaba in Broadway’s Wicked, her rendition of ‘Defying Gravity’ had a similar effect on theatre kids to ‘Let It Go.’ Her unbridled, powerhouse performance is a virtual fist in the air.
Perhaps most importantly, ‘Let It Go’ exemplifies Elsa’s struggle as a character, inspiring so many audiences worldwide to face their demons. Like other iconic fantasy heroes before her – Harry Potter and Frodo Baggins just to name a couple – she struggles with a burden that she cannot control, but learns to trust herself and the support of others to succeed.
“When we were crafting [the characters], we looked for their flaws. And so none of them are perfect. And I think people respond to that. But they’re also aspirational. Especially [with] Anna and Elsa, you’ve got these two fantastic women that are powerful. And they each have their own powers. Elsa has her magical power, but Anna’s power is her love. I think that those are things that people really respond to.” — Chris Buck on the key to Frozen’s popularity
Kristen Bell‘s Anna is much more of a typical princess, largely unflawed, despite what Chris Buck says – well, except for her judge of character – and boundlessly optimistic. People connect in particular with Elsa because she has complex, human fears. She has to overcome her own intimidating power to find a happy ending.
Jennifer Lee explains, “Anna is your perfect fairytale character. She’s an ordinary hero, not magical. She’s optimistic. Whereas Elsa is the perfect mythic character. Mythic characters are magical. They carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. In fact, the mythic characters often meet a tragic fate.”
Elsa’s self-empowerment and ability to overcome the potentially tragic fate of giving in to her fear is the backbone of Frozen and makes Elsa a worthy icon. But as with any human character, she needs love and support…
Sisters are doing it for themselves
Before Frozen, many Disney animated movies centred around a female protagonist, but very few of those leading ladies succeeded without a gallant man rescuing them at some point in the story. Even on the rare occasions when they did – in Mulan, and Pocahontas for example – they had to struggle alone against a patriarchal society to do so. Frozen breaks this mould with ease, by simply introducing a second female character to support the first.
Having Elsa and Anna on an equal footing gives Frozen a completely different dynamic to other Disney movies. Instead of either character being rescued by a prince, the two women support each other to the finish line.
While Anna and Kristoff spark a romantic relationship throughout the film, this is not essential to the plot, which is 100% driven by familial love. Not only does this inspire little girls to trust their own instincts and support one another, but it exemplifies what healthy romantic relationships look like. Kristoff helps Anna in her quest, but at no point does he try to take over or assume her own needs.
“It really boils down to Anna and Elsa and their relationship… and the struggle between siblings and people who are very close… every time we would stray we’d always go back to Anna and Elsa and use them as the core.” — director Chris Buck
As well as showing a rare example of sisterly love on screen, Frozen makes sure to round out the family dynamic with Olaf, the comedy hit of the movie. Olaf is the little brother, naive but energetic, appealing directly to the youngest viewers and making older audiences melt with his sentimental heart. Plus, his musical number ‘In Summer‘ is a delight, partly due to the expertly goofy vocal performance of new Disney regular Josh Gad.
Since Frozen, other Disney films like Zootopia and Moana have featured multi-layered stories, starring complex, empowered female protagonists who create their own families of supporting characters – and have been solid hits. The former is Walt Disney Animation Studio’s second highest-grossing film worldwide, after Frozen.
“To have two daughters who can so easily relate to the relationship between Anna and Elsa [says everything], to share that familial love is something that I think had never really been represented in that way in a Disney film.” — Josh Gad.
Frozen has enraptured this current generation of kids – whose parents were likely brought up on Disney’s ’90s renaissance – by providing comfort and inspiration in a world that is more turbulent than ever. It’s helped move Disney into a new age of animated movies that retain the music, magic, and humour they are famous for, but usher in more complex, human challenges, and strive to represent more aspects of ourselves. Which sounds pretty good to us.
Frozen 2 hits screens in the US and UK on November 22 and Australia on November 28.
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