Posted by: dave | December 28, 2013

Film: Frozen

There was always a decent chance that Anya’s first cinema experience was going to be a Disney film about princesses, but I’m stoked that the film in question turned out to be kinda feminist, enough to pass the Bechdel test and even hint at queer rights.

It was Boxing Day, it was hot and we didn’t really have anything planned. I took Otis out for a walk in the morning and went past the local cinema, which had an afternoon showing of Uncle Walt’s latest movie. Well, Anya hasn’t been to the cinema yet: a feature film takes a fair bit of attention, and it’s dark and noisy and potentially scary, so it’s only in recent months that we’ve even thought about doing this. Kate tried to take her to one before Otis was born, but she quickly declared “I want to get out of here!” after the lights went down, and that was that.

This time was different. We had a great afternoon, and not just because Anya got to eat popcorn. She loved it, and was dancing with excitement as we left, with what looked to me like that sense you often have after seeing a good film: that it’s still alive, that you’re still inside it, and that the characters now exist in your world.

Anyway, the film. It’s basically an extremely loose adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘Snow Queen’. I think they call it “inspired by”, which is about right: the only thing in common really is a protagonist who controls ice and winter. Even the Scandinavian setting is moved to a sort of Hanseatic-Sami Norwegian fjord, from the urban Danish setting of the original.

I’m not going to give too much of the plot away because some of the things that delighted me about it were wrapped up in the way it twisted preconceptions. You expect a Disney film about princesses to be heavily focused on their relationships with the male protagonists, but what I loved about this was that it repeatedly flipped those expectations.

The Bechdel test thing is a good example. This is a nice little litmus test which shows how weird the emotional landscape of most cinema is: basically, a film passes the test if there are at least two female characters in it who are seen talking about something other than a man. Obviously, that’s an extremely common everyday scenario so the test should be an incredibly low bar to hurdle. But, according to some estimates I’ve seen, about half of Hollywood films fail the test — including bona fide classics like Modern Times, Citizen Kane, Chinatown, and Goodfellas, as well as films you might have thought of as a bit more feminist: Metropolis, the Princess Bride, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Run Lola Run

I don’t think I’m giving too much away to say that the plot turns on what looks very like a sly reference to this test. The emotional break between the two sister-princesses who are the principal characters creates an eternal winter that can only be repaired when their relationship is healed. In other words, the Magic Kingdom is rescued by two women having a meaningful connection that’s not about men: Disney is saved by managing to pass the Bechdel test.

I don’t think I’m just imagining this reference — once you think about it, the film is full of references which are almost panders to an audience of gender-aware Twitterati. A character played by “Veronica Mars” actor Kristen Bell namechecks Joan of Arc in Bell’s Veronica Mars voice; the theme song is basically a pastiche of Tori Amos (half the chord changes seem to be lifted from her early single “Winter”)

And then of course there’s the Snow Queen Elsa’s origin story, explored in that theme song, which is pretty hard not to read as an allegory about closeted sexuality: the heir to the throne, she’s born with special powers she’s urged to “conceal, don’t feel”; when she turns 18, the repression becomes unbearable and her powers are revealed to the townsfolk, so she runs away to a liberating solitude; only love and acceptance brings her back. None of this is spelled out explicitly, but there’s certainly no hint of a male love interest for Elsa at any point, even though she’s heir to a presumably hereditary monarchy. Again, I don’t think I’m overinterpreting it: the reference has been left there for those who want to uncover it, but you could easily miss it.

Good for Disney and the scriptwriter/co-director (Jennifer Lee, Disney’s first female feature director, apparently) who show the skill and wit needed to flip 80 years of Walt’s own history at the same time as honouring his legacy. That last point is important, because it doesn’t feel like an earnest gender studies thesis: above all it’s just a rollicking, entertaining story with a powerful emotional core and great songs — all the things Disney films are meant to be about. Go see it!

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