As the COVID-19 pandemic forced distributors to decide which films should shift to streaming services, Frozen II was one of the earliest to swiftly move to Disney+ after its theatrical release. I had only watched the first film once when it came out, and found myself utterly confused at how it became such a cultural phenomenon. In the same vein, I felt the sequel was a cash grab made to address questions about Elsa’s origins and slap a band-aid on the issue of Hollywood’s lack of diversity. Unsurprisingly, although audiences gave the sequel positive reception, many noted it was not as good as the first film. But was the first film so deserving of critical acclaim? Or did I just set my expectations too high in response to all the hype? Sadly, I still agree with my initial assessment.
After years of hearing praise for the film for having strong female role models and portraying themes of sisterhood instead of romance, it pains me to say its supposed feminism is little more than pandering sugarcoating. In its attempt to draw attention to its deviation from the standard Disney Princess formula, Frozen fails to show any real complexity and development in its characters. Its plot twists and jabs at fairy tale conventions present shock value and humor to the audience but, when viewed without knowledge of previous Disney Princess films, make no logical or narrative sense.
Perhaps the most notable way Frozen chooses to separate itself from its predecessors is to constantly mock Anna’s decision to marry a man she has just met. However, in drawing attention to this, the film creates a slew of holes in logic audiences would normally dismiss in more traditional fairy tale films. Who ran the country when the monarchs died? Why is it ridiculous for Anna to marry a man in a day, yet depend on true love’s kiss from a man she knew in even less time to save her life? Did none of the dismissed servants spread rumors of Elsa’s powers? While previous Disney films wholeheartedly embrace their fairy tale settings, Frozen is selective about where to interject modern day logic and where to demand viewers accept its fairy tale status, forsaking consistency to appear tongue-in-cheek. Magnifying one logical failing of fairy tales while expecting audiences to accept everything else at face value is exactly what prompts viewers to nitpick parts of the story they were not inclined to for other fairy tale films.
For a film that prides itself on female empowerment, it is also hypocritical that, pre-villain reveal, nobody berates Hans for proposing to Anna so quickly. In fact, Anna and Kristoff’s romance doesn’t have believable foundations either. Kristoff condescends and belittles Anna for being out of her element for most of the film, until his character makes a complete 180 and he suddenly decides he has feelings for her. No intimate conversations, no indication of them even being friends. The love interest who acts kind and understanding to Anna reveals his manipulation, whereas her actual love interest demeans her until he inexplicably falls in love with her. Anna’s realization that Kristoff loves her centers around his feelings, not her reciprocation. Frozen so desperately wants to convince its audience it stands out from its predecessors, yet it does a lackluster job at depicting genuine romantic chemistry and choice.
One of my biggest grievances with the film is the aforementioned Prince Hans, the twist villain. His antagonism is obsolete considering all conflict in the story; Elsa’s anxieties over her powers and casting eternal winter stand well enough alone as the main obstacle. What purpose does a last minute villain serve, other than to shock the audience? Why, in scenes where Hans is alone and has no reason to feign kindness, does he continue to smile serenely and defend Elsa’s character? Ironically, Hans fulfills his duties as stand-in ruler better than Elsa does as Queen, as he opens castle doors to shelter Arendelle citizens and regularly defends Elsa. Neither Elsa nor Anna make political decisions or express concern for their kingdom’s people.
Frozen‘s theme of sisterhood, though promising, falls flat. The film excellently depicts the bond between the sisters slowly deteriorating, as Anna’s attempts to reach out to her sister are repeatedly turned away and culminate in her lashing out at Elsa at her coronation for keeping her in the dark and isolated. However, after Anna’s memory wipe, nothing suggests the sisters have any kind of relationship or lingering love. They never have a normal conversation, share happy memories, or deal with each other’s negative emotions; Anna never even expresses missing Elsa when she runs away, only that she wants to end the winter. Certainly Elsa’s self-isolation causes strife between the two, but in that case, what reason does the audience have to believe their love is born from years of bonding and not familial obligation?
Moreover, neither characters show growth by the film’s conclusion. Elsa and Anna decide “love is the answer,” but Elsa never confronts her fear that her powers make her monstrous. Anna remains static; she shows frustration once at being forbidden to leave the palace most of her life, but when retrieving her sister never expresses anger or pain about the rift between them. While I appreciate themes of “true love” applying to platonic and familial love, the sisters’ declaration is unearned, and neither truly resolve their issues of fear, secrets, and mistrust, making them passive characters.
Although Disney once again boasts impressive animation technology, I found myself disappointed with the bland character designs and backgrounds. Elsa’s ice dress is culturally confusing; much of the clothing is based on Scandinavian garb, yet her outfit is akin to something worn at a stage performance or red carpet. The backgrounds felt barren and empty, and I have to agree with criticisms of Disney’s “same face syndrome” for female characters—Anna, Elsa, and their mother are completely identical, with variations only in their hair and eye color.
I think Frozen likes to scream in our faces that it’s a feminist subversion of the Disney formula more than it actually implements that in the narrative. In the writers’ eyes, shock value and subversion are one. I believe if the writers wrote Anna and Elsa as characters who deal with their emotional trauma and work to fix their relationship, the themes of the film would be much more substantial. They could exclude the gimmicks of a twist villain and remove the love interest altogether to carry the point of true love, and different types of love (friendly and familial), home. I think with a few more rewrites, the themes and character development has the potential to be conveyed much better. As is, the only appeal I can find in this movie are the pretty princesses and catchy tunes.