Frozen

OH MY GOD, THIS IS THE…

most… adequately satisfying…

ANIMATED MOVIE I’VE EVER SEEN IN MY LIFE!

Beautiful, powerful, dangerous, SPOILERS!

There’s this girl born with the power to control ice.

She’s called Katara… no, wait, Elsa.

Oh, and she’s a princess, the heir to the throne in fact.

(How groundbreaking for Disney!)

And her life is all well and good until she accidentally injures her little sister Anna with an icicle.

So Elsa becomes afraid and ashamed of her powers.

So the king and queen contact Professor Xavier to help her embrace her nature and use it for the greater good.

…Nah, actually they don’t.

They just wipe Anna’s memory and lock Elsa from the rest of the world.

Because that always ends well!

What, they have no psychotherapists? And no group of people like Elsa who could band together and share stories about how the society shuns and misunderstands them?

Well, that doesn’t matter because the parents soon die in a boat crash.

And the moral of this story is: don’t be a dick to your children and don’t isolate them from each other, because… wait, that’s only the prologue?

So the real story begins on Elsa’s coronation day.

She is still hiding her powers and wearing gloves to avoid freezing everything she touches.

Meanwhile, Anna falls in love at first sight with Prince Charming.

And over the course of like two hours, they go from the castle to a waterfall to a balcony to the top of a mountain and back before everyone notices.

That’s some really powerful love montage!

Or maybe they just changed the backdrop a few times. Like Julio Scoundrél.

And Prince Charming also wears gloves. They’re in like every single shot.

GEE, I WONDER IF HE’S HIDING SOMETHING TOO!

(Maybe he has fire powers?)

So Anna and the prince want to marry right away, but Elsa thinks it’s not a good idea to propose to someone you just met.

…Wait, WHAT?

Not that I don’t completely and utterly agree, but let me get this straight. A Disney princess has just said that marrying a complete stranger over love at first sight is not a good idea.

[dials the phone]

Hello Mr. Beelzebub, how’s weather in Hell?

Sorry, can’t hear you over the sound of the snowstorm!

[hangs up]

Guess Elsa got them too.

So the townsfolk find out about Elsa’s powers, call her a freak and a monster, and she runs away and builds herself a fortress of solitude in the frozen wasteland.

(Ask me what it means, ask me what it means!)

But by accident it also summons an eternal winter over the whole country.

Because… MAGIC!

But Anna wants her sister back, so she chases her.

In a thin evening dress. In a snowstorm.

But it’s okay because she’s saved by a rowdy peasant guy. And despite him being sarcastic, dismissive of her and her love for the prince, and smelly, she grows to kind of like him too.

That sneaky two-timer!

And they’re also joined by Jar Jar Binks!

Except he’s now a snowman.

Hmm, I kind of wish the original Jar Jar Binks was a snowman too.

He’d melt as soon as he first stepped into that lake, reducing his total screen time to about five minutes!

So Anna meets Elsa, who, despite just learning the hard way that keeping secrets from your best friend is bad, decides once again to hide the real reason she’s hiding from Anna, and banishes her.

And accidentally wounds her with an icicle again. In the heart. Making her slowly turn to ice.

But it’s okay, because the living rolling stones [rimshot] say a display of true love would heal her.

So what’s the matter? The peasant guy is right there! Kiss him already!

But no, he carries her back to the town so she can kiss the prince instead.

And walks away.

Oh, he definitely won’t have a change of heart and return. Definitely! Just like Han Solo!

But then the prince refuses to kiss her… because he was evil all along! And he only faked his feelings!

WHAT A TWEEEEEEEST!

Wait, what? Prince Charming — in a Disney movie — is actually the bad guy?

So the prince wants to kill Elsa and inherit the kingdom from Anna — with or without her.

Wait, if he wanted to kill Elsa, why didn’t he just deliberately fail at saving her from that crossbow shot in her ice palace?

Instead, he tries to kill her directly when she’s back in town.

And meanwhile, the peasant guy comes back to save Anna with his kiss of true love.

But before he reaches her, Anna gets in the way between the prince and Elsa and completely freezes over.

So Elsa hugs her and starts crying.

And it heals her!

Hooray for a sisterly display of true love!

(You know, I always shipped Hawke/Bethany…)

And then she realizes that love can help her control her powers.

Because… MAGIC!

So she suddenly unfreezes the kingdom and they all live happily ever after.

HOORAY!

So I found this movie good, if not as good as BioShock Infinite: The Disney Movie.

It was a really faithful adaptation of The Snow Queen!

Even though there was no shattered mirror, or Kay, or Gerda, or gratuitous Biblical passages, or anything else whatsoever from the book, really…

But there’s snow! And there’s a queen! So they at least got the title right!

Even though they renamed it, too…

On second thought, why did they market it as an adaptation anyway?


Okay, here comes the Serious Part™. Unlike apparently most viewers, I actually don’t mind the part where Prince Hans reveals his plan in a Bond villain fashion. That’s right, I actually have no problem with the most controversial part of the movie. I can understand why they really needed to hammer this point home: this is a Disney cartoon, after all, and anything more subtle could have failed to capture the author intent. Even with that scene as is, viewers are already acting in denial and insisting that the prince “really” has the best of intentions, despite the clues being obvious in hindsight.

So yes, Frozen continues the trend started by Tangled — the trend of Disney looking back and critically rethinking their much-maligned stock characters and plots. Even Tangled played love at first sight mostly straight, while Frozen deconstructs it. Sorry kids — you know those movies of ours your parents watched when they were themselves children? Well, they sent the wrong message! We apologize for the inconvenience!

What’s interesting here is how, perhaps for the first time in its history, Disney has executed a genuinely surprising twist. Prince Hans was not Anna’s true love — we were supposed to catch that. But his revelation as a manipulative sociopath? So perfect, and yet so obvious only in hindsight.

And they introduce a second twist! Kristoff’s return was inevitable the moment we saw him go, sure. We all know how these stories end — the good guy has his doubts and leaves, only to have a change of heart and steal the girl from the bad guy right in the end. But it’s not his true love’s kiss that cures Anna, not his romantic love, but rather Elsa’s sisterly love.

Which brings me to another point: people who insist on seeing subtext and metaphors in everything.

No, there is no incest subtext. You can throw “death of the author” arguments at me or whatever, but there is no way that was actually the author intent, even as Parental Bonus. Just to be clear: I see no problem with a consensual romance between siblings, I’d cheer at a work that portrayed one openly, but come on, it’s Disney. A somewhat-reformed Disney, sure. A Disney that is learning from criticism and actually improving its reputation compared to the usual stereotype… But Disney nonetheless. Safe, unquestioning, and rebellious in a conformist sort of way. Heck, they’ve yet to introduce an openly LGBT character.

Which brings me to the second point. Even if Elsa’s powers actually are a metaphor, it’s most likely not a metaphor for what you think. The idea that people with special powers must either keep them secret or be locked away from society is not exactly new, and common in recent works too. And societies hostile towards people alleged to have special powers go back at least to medieval witch hunts, to which the hunt for Elsa is compared in the actual story. There’s no need for subtext here when you have the text-text.

So, as an LGBT person, I don’t think it’s a metaphor for LGBT issues, or rather, not a metaphor only for LGBT issues. And considering I once posted a reading of The Little Mermaid as a gender transition tale (heck, you can interpret even James Cameron’s Avatar as one if you squint just right), you know how I like to overanalyze these things. But no, the much broader, more timeless archetype of “being shunned for being different” applies equally well to many other situations, and limiting the interpretation to issues floating in the zeitgeist of the early 21st century, in my opinion, trivializes the work.

Maybe if, instead of running away to live as a hermit in the mountains, Elsa ran away to a society of perceived “freaks” like herself, or at least a society where they lived openly alongside petty mortals, and they — not a sudden deus ex machina epiphany about family love — taught her self-control, and not hating herself, and helped her adapt and socialize, and then she returned to her kingdom with a renewed sense of self-worth and told her haters to suck it up… maybe then I could admit the writers were making a metaphorical statement. But as presented? Nah.

My one real complaint about Frozen is that despite its success of subverting the crap out of the Disney formula, and avoiding stock aesops that invariably make the audience groan, it offers nothing in their stead. The pacing is problematic and the story is lacking a distinct character. It’s well-made, in the sense that a generic mass-produced toy is well-made, but it’s empty and detached, like Elsa in exile. Though perhaps this feeling can be blamed on Tangled setting the bar too high; a work that I would otherwise endlessly praise instead fails to properly impress me because I’ve already seen Disney do better than that.

Tangled, Redux

So I wrote a long post about a Disney movie, at the expense of staying up late and not sleeping enough. So what do I start this morning with? Another post about the same Disney movie, because I’m probably out of my mind and giving children’s escapist entertainment more attention than it deserves. Or something.

In the previous post, I insisted on calling Rapunzel “Elizabeth”, and while that was a joke © EDI, I just can’t get the similarities out of my head — as while Elizabeth is clearly visually based on Belle, her personality and backstory are strikingly similar to Disney’s Rapunzel, specifically Disney’s rather the original fairy tale version. There are even some visual similarities, like the big eyes and the small, almost childlike torso unfitting for her age. And beyond that, I can’t stop thinking where the similarities could have come from.

So Gothel/Comstock steals baby Rapunzel/Elizabeth from her birth parents for selfish purposes, causing some minor body damage in the process, and raises her locked away for life, valuing her for her unique abilities, but otherwise not interfering with her independent thought and pastimes, letting her grow up as a person in her own right rather than a brainwashed minion. So naturally, the captive jumps at the first opportunity for Faustian Rebellion and, once given a taste of freedom, can only be dragged back by force (or an unfounded feeling of betrayal by the male lead). Oh, and the antagonist rapidly ages from continuous exposure to the same kind of power that our heroine wields.

But here’s a kicker: BioShock Infinite was announced before Tangled was even released, with a developer interview speaking of Elizabeth’s characterization, and was secretly in development for two and a half years by that point. So what is this — some kind of weird convergent thinking, or did Irrational substantially rework their story mid-development in the wake of the success of Tangled?

I’m probably reading too much into it. When I see similarities between recent, overhyped mainstream works, I usually assume that they didn’t borrow from each other, but from an earlier common ancestor I’m unaware of. It may well be the case here that Disney didn’t invent this specific character type for Irrational to borrow. But I can hope that it is convergent thinking. That both Disney and Irrational, when they needed a “princess locked in a tower” archetype, looked at the pitfalls and Unfortunate Implications of both the passive-saccharine Princess Classic and the green-skinned farting ass-kicking anti-princess, and decided to go in a different direction this time. Perhaps they were both doing their original spin on the Rapunzel tale and just happened to be going in the same, zeitgeist-tastic direction.

Great minds think alike, after all.

Tangled

WHAT A COPOUT!!!!

Seriously, what a lame deus ex machina. The movie was perfect until the last five minutes ruined everything. And there were so many other ways to keep him alive yet have a happy en–

Wait a moment, that’s spoilers!

Ahem…

OH MY GOD, THIS IS THE GREATEST ANIMATED MOVIE I’VE EVER SEEN IN MY LIFE!!!

It has, like, everything!

The action, the visuals, the humor, the characterization, the continuous lampshading or outright avoidance of common genre tropes that came under heavy fire in the recent years…

I cried when Booker took Elizabeth out of the tower and she first saw the outside world.

And I cheered when she rescued Booker from the Handyman and they escaped by that skyline!

And I also cheered at the dance scene on the streets of Columbia…

…Oh, and there was something or other about an evil stepmother and magical hair. It was in, like, one scene.

So there. I liked it. Sue me.


No, seriously. Surprising as it is, Tangled is the first Disney production not to leave me scratching my head with a heap of Unfortunate Implications. The first one that avoided the sickeningly saccharine sweetness and the feelings of, “Wait, what just happened? And that’s supposed to be a good thing?”

This, by the way, is how you do self-awareness well. Self-awareness today is generally tricky because it has itself become a repetitive trope, especially the cheap, shallow kind of self-awareness. Constant lampshadings and subversions and anachronistic references are old hat by now. But to actually heed to the criticism of your earlier works, to show that you’ve learned, that you’re sincere in applying the lessons, and to avoid all the unintended emotional responses the work could generate if not done just right… that, my friends, takes far more skill.

To quote Rich Burlew of The Order of the Stick fame…

Fantasy literature is ONLY worthwhile for what it can tell us about the real world; everything else is petty escapism.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the best kind of fantasy is the kind that speaks to your gut, by evoking feelings embodied in our collective consciousness. And by that, I don’t mean dreams of secretly being a princess, or of a handsome boy on a literal white horse, perfect wedding and a “happily ever after”. Or how Rapunzel — oh, to heck with it, I’ll just call her Elizabeth, because that’s who she really is1 — is everything that the classic Disney princess isn’t.2

Ignoring the obligatory male swashbuckling action hero, I’ll focus on some chords that Tangled struck with the audience. Many viewers have noted how Elizabeth’s upbringing and parental issues reminded them of their own, and it’s honestly not surprising. It is taken from real life. Our comfy-ish post-industrial real life that would feel alien to the authors of the original fairy tale, but real life nonetheless.

I won’t point out how Elizabeth’s passive-aggressive parent figure subverts the traits of traditional Disney villains by giving us an anti-villain (well, until That Scene) with a believable motivation. Of course, Disney wouldn’t actually put in the family-unfriendly message that sometimes birth parents cam be like that, and that finding her birth parents may not be for the best, so instead of an actual mother, we have a kidnapper who raised the kid as her own. Fine, it’s Disney, I can live with that. The true horror is that from Gothel’s perspective, everything she does probably is for the greater good. After all, the outside world is a scary and cruel place, and anyone who would claim her daughter’s precious hair would use it for the same selfish reasons as she would, right? (Projecting, by the way, is also a common trait of abusive parents. They think everyone else is like them.)

Keeping the fragile child on a tight leash may have made more sense back when the original Rapunzel was written. Parents like Gothel may have actually come off as sympathetic and caring back in the day, damned if I know. But to a modern audience it comes off as barbaric. Or at least, I hope so. The abusive parent-child relationship reproduces itself for a reason: children who grew up under bullying control-freak parents believe this is the only viable way of parenting, and later in life, lash out on their own children in return. It takes a reflection and a wider context to understand the hidden horror of one’s own upbringing, and most people hate to think.

Even at the start of the story, Elizabeth is already smart, skilled, self-sufficient, and implausibly competent. (Gee Disney, overcompensating much?) Her only crippling flaw is emotional immaturity, making her a literal ivory-tower intellectual. The actual tower, by the way, is an Epiphanic Prison. She could leave at any moment — heck, when she does leave, she does it entirely on her own — if she just had the mental strength to cut off the ties with her mother, and she just can’t bring herself to that step. And the mother is good at keeping her an emotional wreck by playing up her insecurities, deflating her self-esteem, and guilt-tripping her into staying with the supposedly-sensitive parent who clearly loves her so much — just look all those things mommy dearest has done for you! Wouldn’t leaving her be selfish?

It’s why this story strikes a chord, because it’s every bad parenting story ever written. The closest Disney can get away with such a family-unfriendly message, anyway.

In observing Gothel, I see — in exaggerated form, obviously — ways my own parents asserted control of me in the past. A form of emotional abuse that I only recognized after looking at it from a detached perspective, and from comparing my story to those of people who actually had happy childhoods.

It’s only in hindsight that I realize that my parents didn’t and still don’t care about me as a person — but rather as a possession, decoration, piece of work if you will. I know it’s unfair to say, considering they did care a lot for me, and still support me in a way that suggests some linger of genuine care. (So, I guess, they deserve the “not as much of a jerk you could have been” award?)

Yes, they cared about me — but only as long as I conformed to their idea of what their child should be. As long as I was “like everyone” and didn’t “dishonor” their good name in the eyes of their peers. (Back in primary school, whenever I started crying, mom later whipped me at home for “bringing shame to her”. They got better.) As long as they could feed me tall tales about how life is pain, how might makes right, and how my life would be ruined if I didn’t follow all their advice to the letter. My intellect, my educational achievements were only something to brag about in front of their friends. (Elizabeth was only valuable to Gothel because of her magical ability, and not as a person.) They kept it subtle, often at the level of the same kind of “lighthearted” demeaning jokes that Gothel did.

And the true horror comes from the realization that they actually thought it was for the best. That a controlled child afraid to make even a single step without their overprotective parents would actually be the ideal scenario. That they actually, sincerely, entertained the idea that they could “buy” my approval with gifts, as if I was an NPC follower in a BioWare game, instead of really trying to understand what I wanted all along. That no money could replace the emotional connection I longed for. And that even now they probably convinced even themselves that they’re selflessly spending their money to buy me a separate apartment — while in reality they’re likely driven by the selfish desire to cut their losses. They want me to change my surname so that I wouldn’t “stain” their family business, and their emotional treatment of my decision reeks of a GLaDOS “want you gone” scenario.

I’ll finish with a single observation. Some people considered it unrealistic how quickly Elizabeth adjusted to the outside world once she was off the leash and the initial sense of wonder wore off. That she didn’t end up a broken sociophobic wreck after an entire life in isolation. But that’s actually a case of Reality Is Unrealistic. I certainly know people who longed so life for a more active social life that when the restraining factor — financial dependency on their parents — was taken away, they adjusted relatively well to living alone and making their own decisions, more than even their parents expected.

I like to think that I’m one of them.


1 Yes, I’m aware that Infinite came later. My point stands.
2 The “classic Disney princess” being somewhat of a Dead Unicorn Trope, really. Even Ariel was fairly progressive for her time, especially compared to the original, and only the big three — Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty — came close to that stereotype. But given the time period and usual social context of works back in the day, can you really blame them?