Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Frozen: A Fun Slice of Scandinavia

Right after the new Disney animated movie Frozen was released we took the family to see it because my wife had obtained discount tickets. I honestly wasn't very happy about it.

I knew nothing about the movie except that it was another Disney animated film. The first serious cold virus I have had in a couple of years was at its peak, complete with stinging watering eyes, ear pain, nasal discharge, congestion, and coughing. I had no desire to be in a crowded movie theater sharing my illness with others.

It was a work and a school night. I work long hours several days each week. The theater was 20 miles away, so I had to cut out of work a bit early to get there on time and it would be after my ideal bedtime by the time we got home. My condition called for extra sleep instead of an abbreviated slumber. I was chagrined that the kids would get no homework done.

But I decided to follow the counsel I received from a wise man before my wife and I were married. He said that I needed to learn and frequently employ two words if I wanted to ensure a happy marriage. Those words are, "Yes, dear."

We walked into the theater after the notoriously noisy and borderline assaulting previews and ads had already started. It was crowded enough that we had to split the family up to find seats. I was in a dour mood.

As the feature started I felt shivers down my spine as I heard the opening song, which sounded like Sami yoiking. Having lived in northern Norway, I have mixed with and heard the unique singing and chanting of Sami people. I was captivated by next scene, which featured ice cutters singing a song called The Frozen Heart that sounded deliberately Sami.

It soon became clear to me that the movie was designed to appear Scandinavian. The geography, landscape, architecture, settings, decor, etc. screamed Scandinavia. The Scandinavian blood that runs in my veins rendered me hooked from that point on.

Disney loves to kill off one or both parents of its main characters. I can think of exceptions such as MulanThe Incredibles, Tangled, and Brave. But most of the main characters in Disney's animated movies have lost or else end up losing one or both parents. Frozen is no exception, as the king and queen of Arendelle meet their demise early in the movie. I realize that knocking off parents makes it easier for the story tellers to place young people in situations and adventures that would generally be impossible or implausible if the characters were an integral part of a wholly intact family. But a plot device used too often can seem tedious.

Frozen is (very) loosely based on the Hans Christian Andersen story the Snow Queen. Characters, purposes, and plot lines are shifted dramatically from the original; although, Disney used the Scandinavian motif to honor Andersen, who hailed from Denmark.

Sisters Elsa (who becomes queen) and Anna are the main characters, although, younger sister Anna clearly plays the lead role. Both are very strong figures. Anna's memory of Elsa's magical ice capacities are lost in childhood after Elsa accidentally hurts Anna with her magic. Elsa spends years hiding from Anna for fear of harming her again. This fear eventually leads Elsa to take a number of actions that seem harmful and villainous; although, the audience understands why Elsa is doing what she does and she remains a sympathetic character.

In the meantime, Anna, who has been behind the castle walls for years, gets an opportunity to mix and mingle with more people. She immediately falls in love with Hans, a handsome prince. This event comes complete with a fun and quirky love song.

When Elsa delves into destructive behavior, Anna sets out to redeem her. Along the way Anna meets up with Kristoff, a handsome ice cutter. This develops into an awkward love triangle, even as Olaf, a snowman accidentally brought to life provides comedy relief. (Frosty the Snowman, anyone?)

The situation with Elsa left me feeling bereft of a traditional Disney villain — until later in the film when Prince Hans is suddenly revealed to be the actual villain. While this resolves Anna's love triangle, Anna and Kristoff do not marry in the Disney fairy tale tradition. Rather, by the end of the movie they seem to be starting to work on a dating relationship.

During Anna's attempts to rescue Elsa from herself, Elsa ends up wounding Anna in a potentially fatal manner. The wound can only be healed by an act of true love. The story tellers deliberately lead the audience to think this must be the traditional fairly tale kiss from a handsome prince, a la Sleeping Beauty. But instead it turns out to be the moment Anna gives her own life to save Elsa. Of course, this breaks the spell. The seemingly dead Anna comes back to life and Elsa gains control over her magic so that she can use it for good.

This is clearly a Christian theme. Hans Christian Andersen was a devoutly religious man. Christian religious themes are woven throughout his works and Christian redemption is the main message in his original Snow Queen work. In Frozen, Elsa plays the role of the fallen sinner who keeps doing wrong despite her desires to refrain from doing so. Anna plays the role of the Savior who continually works to redeem the fallen soul. She ultimately gives her life to save that soul before finally being 'resurrected.' (Harry Potter did something similar.)

While Frozen has been wildly popular with audiences, there is no shortage of critics that find fault with the movie. And really, there is plenty of fault to find, if that's what you're looking for. Success always begets much criticism.

Many claim to find all kinds of hidden messages throughout the movie. Both religious and homosexual activists claim that a briefly appearing character that operates a shop in the mountains is gay. Some angrily state that the movie smacks of "faux feminism," whatever that means, whining that there are no strong supporting female characters. Others are chapped that the story doesn't culminate in a marriage or that there isn't enough multiculturalism. (Hello, racial and cultural diversity were pretty narrow in Scandinavia at the time setting of the story.)

Whatever. Disney movie makers are famous for adding private jokes and cleverly disguised social messages to animated features. A professor of literature that I know says that the focus on these minor elements misses the whole point of the story. It's not the background messages that are important, he says; it's the big messages that audiences get. In the case of Frozen, I'd have to say that the big messages most viewers get are redemption and self sacrifice for the sake of others.

Despite its deficiencies, it is important to remember that Frozen is primarily a bit of entertainment aimed at children. It's not sacred writ or anything like that. So what if it has a few flaws? It is also useful to remember that the defects perceived by some do not seem like defects to others. Disney has apparently done a pretty good job of putting together a story that speaks well to modern audiences.

The main thing Disney is trying to do with Frozen is to make money. You don't make money like Frozen is making without pleasing your customers. Given that the show's music is already becoming very popular and that the story is well suited for a Broadway stage play, it seems that Disney will be able to parlay its movie achievement into success in other markets as well.

I suspect that Frozen will end up being a cultural icon for today's toddler and elementary school girls. At least, my daughter walks around the house singing tunes from Frozen. Once the movie is released for home purchase many more will do the same.

In the end I walked out of the movie theater quite happy to have seen the movie, despite the inconveniences involved. While that might by my Scandinavian blood talking, I think it's more than that.

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