Perhaps unexpectedly, I find clichés fascinating. See, in order to become a cliché, an artistic element generally has to have something going for it in the first place. And since it’s effective, everyone wants to copy it or react against it. And it’s this push and pull of imitation and reaction that embeds any given trope into our cultural fabric. But in doing so, it necessarily becomes familiar.
The trouble is that familiarity breeds contempt.
This contempt goes double for people who are in the business of making new art. The last thing that a serious artist wants to do is to merely spout what has become thoughtless cliché. If nothing else, it’s too easy. So one doesn’t get much status in the artistic community by spouting clichés. Therefore, at best, you get artists with aspirations to greatness who spend their time and energy playing with the conventions of their form. But by forsaking cliché in the search of novelty the artist has, almost by definition, abandoned all of the best stuff that’s been discovered by his forebears.
This is why I find kids’ movies and TV shows so neat. Of course, just like anything else, Sturgeon’s Law applies. 90% of everything is terrible. But art made with kids in mind has a higher ceiling for potential greatness, because artists creating for children are liberated to use their full inheritance. It’s OK to use all the clichés. After all, kids haven’t seen it all before. This means the art is free to just be itself. And, when skillfully and creatively done, the result can be something that resonates strongly enough to earn the title of myth.
This is why I found the movie Frozen to be so disappointing. It was a very successful movie by all measures: it earned both popular and critical acclaim; the merchandise has been selling like hotcakes; the centerpiece song has entered the public consciousness; and it certainly will make its production costs back over many-fold. And this success was largely earned on the merits. The movie itself is beautifully animated. The voice actors do quite well with their parts. The attempts at humor work quite well. There’s really almost nothing wrong with it at all, which is an astounding accomplishment for an artifact worked on by hundreds of people.
The only thing the movie lacks is the courage of its convictions.
As laid out in the first half of the movie, Frozen is a story about two sisters. The elder, Elsa, is a witch, born with the power over ice and snow. At the opening of the movie, Elsa accidentally wounds her younger sister Anna with a blast of ice to the forehead. Their parents, the King and Queen, take her to the nearby forest where they are able to have her healed by the leader of the magical trolls. The healing comes with a price, though. Anna’s memories of her sister Elsa are excised as part of the operation.
Because Elsa’s powers are so dangerous, her parents caution her to always keep her magic under control. Under wraps. To help with this, as well as to prevent any further accidents, the castle is emptied of all non-essential personnel and Elsa locks herself away in her room. Away from everyone. This includes, especially, her sister Anna, who remembers nothing about her sister except her feelings for her. All she knows is that Elsa has locked herself away for what seems like no good reason.
The opening of the movie concludes with Elsa’s powers getting away from her at her coronation. She runs away, abdicating her responsibilities, and builds herself a fortress of solitude in the mountains. As she does so, she loudly proclaims that she can finally be who she wants to be. Unfortunately, her unbridled use of her powers has caused the summer to become an endless frozen winter, endangering the entire kingdom. So the passionate, brave Anna sets out after her sister. She seeks to get Elsa to let her in, and in doing so, repair their relationship and the kingdom in one swoop.
The movie clearly wants to be about this relationship. All of the thematic elements established in the beginning of the movie surround and support it. But there are a couple of serious complications with this story that it is clear that the makers struggled with. First, if taken at face value, it means that Elsa is the antagonist. She doesn’t seek to be a villain, but her selfishness and lack of concern for her duties as Queen are precisely the reason why the day has to be saved. It’s Anna’s belief in and love for her sister, despite all odds and appearances, that’s supposed to redeem her. That’s real good myth. Hard core. But it means that the movie has to be willing to see Elsa as the bad guy in order for her redemption to work. And Frozen just can’t bear to go that far; it’s too openly sympathetic to Elsa.
But, for the movie to work at all, something has to replace Elsa as the antagonist. The replacement chosen is Prince Hans, Anna’s love interest at the beginning of the movie. He’s originally presented as a slightly silly Prince Charming type who Anna falls for in classic fairy tale fashion. During the second half of the film, he shows great courage against Elsa’s snow monsters. But Anna is mortally wounded by Elsa, struck in the heart by another errant ice blast from her sister. The trolls who healed Anna at the beginning of the movie say that only an act of true love can heal her. By fairy tale logic, that means a kiss from her love, Hans. So Anna is rushed back to Hans (by Kristof, a nice guy and potential love interest who ends up totally striking out), who callously reveals just as he is about to kiss her that he never loved Anna, and that he was just trying to marry her for political reasons. Then he leaves her to die, establishing his villainous bonafides beyond question, and heads off to kill Elsa (both to get her out of the way and because she’s dangerous).
In the end, Anna sacrifices herself to save her sister from Hans. It turns out that this act of sacrifice counts as the act of love needed to heal her. Then, Elsa comments that she sees now that “love is the answer”. Suddenly she has complete control over all of her previously terrifying powers. And we have the cheapest possible happy ending for all. It’s notable in particular for the lack of a romance for Anna, though she’d spent considerable time with two romantic interests.
The lack of romance leads to the second problem. The people who made Frozen were clearly responding to critics of previous Disney fairy tales. In particular, they were obviously sensitive to the feminist criticism that Disney movies teach little girls that they need to find their prince in order to be happy. So the makers of the film pointedly go out of their way to establish that Anna’s fairy tale head-over-heels instant romance was unrealistic; that most girls will have to settle for a boring, flawed guy like Kristof; but wherever they end up, they don’t need a man to have a happy ending as long as they have the love of their sisters.
The bitter irony is that if they had dispensed with the politics and the fear of being seen as clichéd, and just told the story they had, it would have been more feminist than the movie they ended up with. After all, it’s Elsa who has the great power in this movie. It’s Anna who serves as her last link to humanity and society. The tale of Anna redeeming Elsa is one in which, necessarily, male characters and concerns are decidedly secondary. In making the movie more feminist, they ended up cutting Elsa almost entirely out of the second half of what should be her movie, and in doing so, replaced her character development with a cliché stock villain and his lust for power.