Here’s a short list of, not just my favorite movies, but movies that I can rewatch obsessively, dozens of times.
- The Big Sleep
- Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy
- Blade Runner
- Princess Bride
- The Incredibles
- Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension
- Pulp Fiction
- Mulholland Drive
… and now …
One of these things is not like the others.
Because I live in a pop culture cave I had no idea that Frozen was so good. About a month ago Jenny suggested we rent it for “date night.”1 I knew it had some kind of popular song (won an award, maybe?) and thought it might be one of those stupid Sassy Animal movies like Madagascar. Then it started and it was a Disney Princess Musical which is like three of my least favorite words all together. So: not predisposed to like it.
By the end … geezus was that a heckuva movie.
That was a month ago and I still can’t stop thinking about Frozen. I must’ve seen it seven or eight times by now.2 I watched like fifty translations of “Let it Go.” I’ve been hunting down interviews with Jennifer Lee — John August’s Scriptnotes podcast has a fabulous one. If I’m not thinking of other things, I’ll replay random snippets of dialogue in my head. I wish I were watching Frozen right now and I just saw it again with the kids on Saturday.
Part of me — the part that spent weeks drafting timelines for Primer — is a little ashamed about this. It is a movie for little kids, right? If I’m obsessed with Frozen, does that make me some kind of Frozen Brony? (A Frony?) What’s next? Fan fiction? <shudder>
I don’t care what they’re going to say. Demographics be damned, I love Frozen. Well now they know.
But I am nothing if not self-reflective and so I gotta wonder, given my short list of other movie obsessions, why this Disney Princess Musical appears alongside the replicants and giant sharks. I mean, I’ve seen Aladdin, Little Mermaid, Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, and Pocahantas, and I couldn’t repeat a single line of dialogue or sing more than one bar of any song in any of them. They just didn’t stick. It isn’t even that I hate Disney Princess Musicals; I don’t like them enough to hate them. They just haven’t been — until a month ago — anything that gained any traction in my brain.
So I gotta wonder: why all of a sudden am I obsessed with Frozen? Some working theories:
1. My testosterone is for shit this past decade.
Or something like that. I filled my movie obsession list entirely before having kids, at a time in my life when I enjoyed punishing myself with pop culture. (Seriously: can you tell me what actually happens in Big Sleep? I can’t. And I watched in five times in a weekend.) I’m mellowing as I age, and maybe Disney Princess Movies have finally crossed into my horizon.
2. It is an impressively tight piece of art.
This is what drew me back to Frozen. After the first viewing, I went about two weeks thinking only intermittently about it. But I was struck with the adept way Lee and Buck brought the story through a minefield of tropes to a conclusion that worked so well, you hated yourself for missing it all along. I knew I had to watch it again, to see if there was anything in the first two acts suggesting the remarkable place it would end.
And upon rewatching, I realized it’s better than “subversive” or “twisty,” it presses those tired tropes into service for a story that is powerful even after it loses its ability to surprise. Every line has a place, and does double or triple duty advancing the story, the characters, and the theme. And in those places where dialogue couldn’t do it, they use a fucking song. It’s downright dastardly. As Jennifer Lee said: “it’s the maximum it can be without being more.”
3. It makes me feel things.
Things that make me cry. Things that make me wish daily life had the resonance of a cartoon with talking snowmen. Things about love and sacrifice and family and fear and the triumph of the human spirit. I realize that Disney has a long track record of manipulating emotions but in a life chucky-jam full of grinding responsibility I appreciate being manipulated like that. I appreciate inhabiting, for 90 minutes, a world of such simplicity and clarity. I want to live in that world a little bit every day.
4. It has a postfeminist message.
This one is tricky. There are good feminist critiques of the movie, and I think they all bear a seed of truth. Elsa is (perhaps) unnecessarily sexualized, which felt out of place to me.3 No one in this movie has a consciousness moment — the closest we get is “Let it Go,” which upon first viewing I thought would be Elsa’s villain song. And the trolls take inappropriateness to weirdly disturbing levels. So it’s a movie without any feminists in it. It is, like every Disney movie, a fundamentally conservative movie. Wandering Oaken and his putative husband notwithstanding, no one in Frozen (unlike, say Brave’s Merida) smashes any paradigms.
But when I say postfeminist, what I mean is that the characters earn their endings — almost everyone has complete narrative agency. Even Elsa — arguably the most victimized, indeed she appears at one point in actual shackles — turns out to have as her worst enemy a lack of faith in herself. My (admittedly privileged) view of feminist utopia is “all individuals can pursue self-actualization with full social approval regardless of demography.” Which all of Frozen’s heroes and villains do.
5. Characters have relatable motivations
I can’t quite reckon if this is related to the above point, but I appreciated it. All the characters do bad things, but for the reasons real people usually do bad things. Fear. Greed. Prejudice. Naiveté. Impulsiveness. The Good Guys mostly do bad things accidentally and the Bad Guys mostly do them intentionally. But no one twirled their mustache and kicked a puppy. This made the stakes palpable instead of fantastic. It was easy to suspend my disbelief about trolls and magic snow and breaking spontaneously into song4 when the people acted like real people.
6. The songs are Ceti Alpha-grade earworms.
I don’t even like this kind of music and I can’t stop singing it. How the hell do they do that?
7. I actually have been living in a cave.
Since 2007, I see like one movie a year in the theater — in a good year. Maybe two or three more on video. So maybe Frozen isn’t actually all that good, and I’ve just lost my basis for comparison.
- “Date night” = Kids go to bed early, we order Thai, and rent a movie on iTunes. ↩
- And not because of my kids — they only saw it for the first time Saturday. ↩
- My almost-four-year-old daughter had a surprising alternative read on Elsa’s makeover scene: “she’s going back to being a little girl again.” Which does make a striking visual parallel. She wears the same colors and has approximately the same hairstyle she had as a child, the last time she was truly happy. Iris also intuited, when Elsa began using her powers in the song: “she’s making beautiful things because she’s not afraid.” ↩
- This is what dooms most musicals for me. When someone starts singing, the fourth wall simply collapses. ↩