Why Frozen is a bad movie
Broadly speaking, this is going to be like that time when you were a kid and heard someone say that childbirth was a beautiful miracle and then saw footage of it on TV and realised that was a lie, a terrible traumatic lie. I’m going to be that metaphorical birthing footage. Because despite the almost overwhelming positive reception for Disney’s latest, Frozen is a bad film, and I want to explain to you why.
(This is the most spoilery article ever, so if you haven’t seen Frozen and want to then go, watch it and come back with your opinions. You have been warned.)
Problem 1: There’s No Bloody Prologue
I am not saying that every Disney film that is based on a fairy tale NEEDS a prologue, but they are usually utilized because in a fantasy world, you need to set out the worldly rules. Disney has done this time and again with a lot of success, in various forms. In Sleeping Beauty, the movie takes place at the birth of Aurora, setting up the curse and blessings she was given before the action takes place 16 years later. In Beauty and the Beast the prologue is an incredibly beautiful and creepy stained glass window montage with a narrator. In Aladdin, an old merchant lays out the riddle of the lamp. In Hercules, the gospel singing muses set the scene. Even in Tangled, a smartass Flynn does a quick-fire round up. Now you might argue that Frozen does have a prologue of sorts – after all, the film starts years before the action – but unlike all the above examples, it misses out one very important detail. The magic.
Elsa (on whom MUCH more in a minute) has cryokinetic powers. She just has them. We don’t know why Elsa has them instead of her sister, or if that’s just something that happens to blondes in Sweden. It’s just left to the viewer. Now this may seem an oversight on my part as a critic because often in people just have powers, but not in Disney. In Disney people have powers because they were chosen, or because of a witch, or because they’re a diamond in the rough. I NEED SOME KIND OF VAGUE REASON WHY SHE HAS SNOW POWERS, DISNEY.
Problem 2: Elsa Is Awful
As well as having completely unexplained snow magic, Elsa is Frozen‘s natural villain. She is also its natural hero, but despite this promising set-up she doesn’t actually achieve either distinction. She is a lump that sits in the film, too good to do any bad and too stupid to do any good. She is a character in no-man’s land.
In fact, Elsa is helpless throughout the entire duration of the film, did anyone else notice that? ELSA, YOU’RE THE BLOODY SNOW QUEEN! Can you do something, can you please do something other than some (pretty sweet, I’ll admit) home decorating? In the original Snow Queen, the antagonist doesn’t just sit there, she is a character that takes what she wants, and the only glimmer we see of that in Frozen is in the excellent number Let It Go. This movie could have been what Wicked was to The Wizard of Oz, with Elsa the new misunderstood, complex Elphaba character. This film could have shown us that the Snow Queen isn’t a mere one dimensional villain, bent on ruining and then stealing children, interested only in anarchy and misery, but a real person with justified motivations, desires and insecurities. But it doesn’t bother.
The opening minutes of Frozen hint at a deeper analysis of Hans Christian Anderson’s iconic villain. We see a young and vulnerable Elsa repressed for years by loving (if misguided) parents who then die tragically at sea. Surely, in the grips of grief and under the enormous pressure of being a royal figurehead at such a young age, it’s feasible that Elsa would lash out in justifiable, glorious anger at her lot? One of the biggest mistakes this film makes is that the deep freeze Elsa puts her kingdom under should not have been an accident, but an unadulterated emotional reaction spurred by the introduction’s fraught – and eventually shattered – family dynamic; a huge, icicle-fringed THIS IS NOT FAIR. That is motivation, that is drama and it would have made complete sense given the context that her frightened kingdom would think her a villain, but we the audience would know otherwise.
In fact, Elsa’s motivation is perpetually underdeveloped; a trait she shares with the rest of Frozen‘s motley cast. Take Anna, the protagonist, who conveniently manages to purge her own orphan angst by the end of the Do You Want to Build A Snowman? montage. For the most part, Anna’s job is to offer hollow declarations of trust in Elsa. How are we, as viewers, expected to buy Anna’s faith when she and her sister have been estranged for ten years? The more compelling storyline would have been to cast Anna as uncertain, even afraid, of Elsa, so the stakes are meaningfully raised when she sets off after her sister. It would have allowed room in Frozen‘s dramatic climax for the scared and lonely Anna to get through to the equally scared and lonely Elsa, which would have been incredibly touching. And yet, again, Frozen fails to live up to its impassioned potential.
Problem 3: In Fact, Every Character Is Awful
Frozen’s emotional emptiness is, at least partially, due to the chronic underuse of any and all side characters who could actually add to the story’s depth. A shining example of this is Olaf. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love Josh Gad and I think he is charming and hilarious as Olaf, one of the most compelling characters in this movie. But here’s a question, pretty fundamental to his character: why does Olaf want to see the summer? Why? Does anyone know? It’s a great idea, but why? This film does absolutely no work to explain this.
Had Disney utilised Olaf, who only appears momentarily at the beginning of the film, during Do You Want to a Build a Snowman?, they could have offered a proper insight into the relationship between the sisters and given him some very real layers. Picture this: if we had seen Anna building Olaf over and over in her loneliness, having him as her friend and then dreading the summer because he would no longer been around – or, dare I say it, even say to the inanimate Olaf that she wished he could see the summer – then not only would we have had a real appreciation of Anna’s loneliness, but also character motivation for Olaf wanting to see the summer and a walking, breathing representation of the isolation of two orphaned little girls.
In fact for a film full of lonely characters, Frozen does a dreadful job of actually making that loneliness apparent. This is most obvious with Kristoff, the male lead. Kristoff is a poor, wise-cracking orphan – the gold standard of Disney heroes – but with none of the complexity or appeal of Aladdin or Simba. For instance, when he is introduced as a little boy and witnesses the interaction the Royal family has with the trolls (don’t get me started on the trolls), the viewer is led to believe that Kristoff’s knowledge of Elsa’s powers and her efforts to conceal them will come into play later (you’d be wrong) or that he will reveal to/or perhaps hide this information from Anna, perhaps causing a dramatic rift in their burgeoning trust and friendship for an emotional payoff (you’d be wrong), or that he will play an important part in having to save the kingdom (you’d be wrong).
None of this is the case. Kristoff could be completely lifted out of this film and it would have zero impact on the plot. Seriously, think about it. I have, and the only thing I could come up with was that he took Anna to the trolls; but since Anna’s parents knew where to look, they probably aren’t that hard to find. But how did Kristoff find out where the trolls live? Oh yeah, three quarters of the way through the film we find out that he was adopted by them. Despite having ample opportunity to set up a background story for Kristoff at the beginning of the film, THREE QUARTERS of the way through the narrative a big steaming pile of exposition is dumped on the audience in a terribly transparent move to cover up a hole in the storytelling.
Problem 4: Let’s Just Talk About The Trolls For A Minute
Nothing in this film represents lazy storytelling better than the Trolls. THEY ARE SO STUPID. WHY? WHY ARE THEY THERE? Their only part in the movie is to say “Bummer, ice in her brain. We fixed it. Blergh, ice in her heart. Can’t fix it.” And that’s it. I’m so glad Disney wasted thousands of man hours animating them. But oh wait, don’t worry viewers! We’ll make them Kristoff’s adopted parents, that way their involvement in the movie won’t feel so stupid. Oh Disney, how could you?
But this is a film that consistently deals its audience lazy plot devices. Take, for instance, “You can’t marry a man you just met.” What an excellent sentiment, both a nod to our times and a wry self-aware jibe at Disney’s own catalogue of instant romance. But here’s the thing Disney, here’s the crux of the matter: if you make a big song and dance about how silly it is to fall in love with someone you just met, then don’t make the protagonist literally fall in love with the very next guy she ‘just’ meets. Anna swaps the redhead for the blonde, and we’re supposed to sit back and praise Disney for being progressive. But I’m probably just being picky, right? I mean, she did after all spend the whole day with Kristoff.
The most frustrating thing about this, of course, is that Anna doesn’t need a love interest at all. Kristoff serves no narrative purpose, and the romance drastically slows the film’s pace. In fact, so much screen time is wasted on it that Disney resorted to using one of my most hated shortcuts.
Problem 5: Attack Of The Last Minute Villain
I imagine the filmmakers were sitting in a circle after they decided to veto Elsa, the film’s natural villain (or misunderstood antagonist, but whatever) thinking: “Damn. So what we have is a movie about a girl that doesn’t mean to do anything, and then she doesn’t mean to fix everything and then the film ends. We need a bad guy, but where can we get one from, damn it! WHERE?” So, since Hans had already been written and then made entirely useless by the ‘wait-for-guy-number-two’ motif, they opted to make him the villain instead. Since this was just the last cut corner in a TWO HOUR montage of narrative corner-cutting, I was desensitized to the ludicrousness of the big Hans reveal. He was neither scary nor intimidating because without foreshadowing or motivation or just plain, simple presence, Hans did what all paper-thin villains do: get defeated instantly, because they were never a threat. Which leads me onto my final gripe.
Problem 6: No Stakes, No Emotional Payoff
Nothing really happens in this film, did anyone else notice that? There’s never actually anything really at stake. You don’t fear for Elsa’s soul, because she is never tempted to lose it. You don’t fear for Anna’s life because Elsa never threatens it. You don’t fear for the people back in Elsa’s kingdom, because you never see any suffering. There doesn’t seem to be any kind of pressing time limit on anything that happens in this movie. And we, as viewers float along with this narrative aimlessly, because things are slightly bad, and then they return to normal.
It’s a shame, because there is so much potential in Frozen but none of the dramatic situations are fully realised. A great example of this is the extraordinary amount of time the filmmakers spend on building on Olaf’s desire to see the summer; something which as viewers we know can only end in tragedy, which thereby engenders an emotional investment in Olaf. Disney is an expert at bringing its audiences to tears, even when we know deep down that things will get fixed later. But it only works if a favourite character is brought right to the brink of destruction, so that when they’re finally saved we can breathe a sigh of relief and exclaim that THOSE AREN’T TEARS, I HAD DUST IN MY EYE, I KNEW HE WOULD LIVE THE WHOLE TIME! But there’s none of that. Olaf melts for half a second, and then Elsa fixes the problem instantly, because she is back to being good – except, oh wait, she was never bad. Elsa is the same, so why were we ever worried guys, really?
I can accept that people like Frozen, I can even accept that people love it, but I don’t think a movie that has spent so little time on solid storytelling is anything but a bad film. Especially one that at the time of writing has just won Best Animated Feature at the Golden Globes and is sitting pretty with two Oscar nominations. Slick animation and a transparent attempt at being modern, and perhaps even feminist, just isn’t enough for this film to push itself out of very tepid waters. As a person who hotly anticipates every Disney animated release, Frozen just left me cold. YES, I JUST USED THREE TEMPERATURE ADJECTIVES IN EIGHTEEN WORDS. CHILL OUT.