The Past Lives of Disney’s Frozen

Before I go on, let me be clear about this: I like Frozen a lot. It’s a good movie. The songs are catchy, the dialogue is well written, and from what I can tell, widespread audiences are taking serious interest in the wide appeal of animated films.

But here’s the thing about some of those audience members, critical and popular alike—for some reason, they act like they’ve never seen a movie before.

More than one critic has called Frozen a revolution, a feminist manifesto, and even the best Disney film since The Lion King. I don’t doubt that plenty of people like Frozen better than The Lion King, and I don’t intend to subvert anyone’s personal taste just because I don’t side with it, but I want to know: how can Frozen be the best Disney film in twenty years when, technically, Frozen has already happened before?

In my opinion, the vast majority of critics praise Frozen for distinct features that have been accomplished by at least one other animated Disney film in the past. In fact, I know exactly when it happened, because I witnessed it at least three times in the movie theatre, and then dozens of more times on promptly purchased VHS.

In my own personal history, I don’t believe that any other Disney heroine (except maybe Pocahontas) impacted the way I appreciate art and story with as much power as Mulan. After seeing the film for the nth time as a child, I even hacked off a chunk of my own hair with a pair of scissors in solidarity with my favorite movie hero. Perhaps, then, my selection of Mulan as the Frozen of 1998 stems from my childhood gravitation, but I still don’t think I’m wrong in saying that Mulan simply did Frozen as a concept…better.

First, on the theme of personal sacrifice in the name of family. In Frozen’s climactic scene on the fjord, Anna uses her own body as a shield to protect her sister Elsa from Hans’ sword, turning to ice at the exact moment the blade falls. This selfless act inspires Elsa to overcome her curse, and cinema-goers rejoiced at this novel take on “true love.”

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But it just isn’t new. Even against a film starring two sisters (so new, apparently, even with Lilo and Stitch‘s release over a decade ago), Mulan’s story still comes out on top as a film about the bonds of family and risking everything to preserve them. Unlike Anna and Elsa, Mulan cultivated relationships that can be practiced and witnessed. Her triumphant return to her ailing father resonates in a much stronger chord than Anna’s sacrifice for Elsa, a sister who has denied Anna a playmate and companion for years on end. Mulan, like Anna, is the savior of her homeland, and this time brings home the gifts of the Emperor to prove to her father how much she honors him. But when she presents the gifts, her father casts them aside without a glance their way, embraces Mulan, and says in a soft voice, “The greatest gift and honor is having you for a daughter.” To me, this can definitely be approached as the equivalent of Frozen’s absent “true love’s first kiss.” Despite war and incomparable tributes earned by personal accomplishments, the most powerful force between characters is ultimately the presence of family. Not just acceptance–but the natural act of simply being there for one another. In Mulan, the hero’s greatest achievement is not on the field of battle or against the blade of an evil prince. Despite being the most heralded soldier in China, she finds redemption and resolution not by the sword or by Shang’s approval, or even by the Emperor’s invitation to fame and prestige (which she refuses)—instead, she finds it on the metaphorical hearth, in the grace of a loving family. Not new. (Plus, Mulan still ends the day with both parents and a grandmother alive. That’s miraculous by Disney standards)!

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Another thing about that climactic scene. Anna saves the day by throwing herself into harm’s way, then nearly dying as a result. So does Mulan, only I think she risks much, much more. During the battle in the snow with the Hun army, Mulan receives direct orders to fire the last remaining cannon at the Hun leader, Shan Yu. But seeing another opportunity apart from what superiors tell her is the only option, she takes it, dashing past the front lines to fire the last shot into a towering mountain, causing an avalanche that destroys a significant amount of enemy troops. In the meantime, she receives what could have been a mortal wound at the hands of Shan Yu—an enemy she faced head-on, unlike Elsa ever does—that not only risks her life, but also the revelation of her secret identity, which… risks her life all over again. The fascinating part is that she does fall prey to that risk. Upon the ranking officers finding out that Mulan is a woman, Shang nearly slays her as punishment. Shang! The person she most admires! Eventually the law forces her male comrades to abandon her, denying Mulan every brave and selfless act she had since performed in their service. These people she loved and risked her life for leave her with nothing—in a much more stirring way than Elsa leaving Anna with no bonding-time—and yet she continues to use her own head and skills to do what she thinks is right. If that’s not a powerful message to send to girls (or anybody) dealing with discrimination in this day and age, then I don’t know what is.

And now for the song. The song. The song that catapulted Frozen beyond the English-speaking world and into the warbling throats of millions of people worldwide. Again, another opinion from my side of the field: Mulan’s “Reflection” serves the same purpose, but with more maturity and sensitivity, as Elsa’s “Let It Go.” Both women struggle with behavioral nuances (or… random ice powers) that the world around them deems unacceptable. Elsa’s failure to control herself almost ends the future for her sister; Mulan’s failure to control herself almost ends her own future in the Han Dynasty, failing to be matched with a husband and dishonoring her family forever. In the wake of disappointment, both just want to be accepted for who they are. Then they sing about it.

Like I said, “Reflection” departs from the tonalities of “Let It Go” beyond the sound of the notes. “Let It Go” is a fantastic song—probably one of the best in all of Disney’s musicals—but I feel that the context in which the song appears is often completely ignored by critics. Elsa sings her ballad after an astounding burst of fear. She runs away from her home, her kingdom, and her own sister, and believes to have finally found freedom in her newfound ability to make snow castles and beautiful dresses with nobody watching. Many reviewers consider it to be a song about release and empowerment, and it does seem to be. I mean, I sing it all the time and can’t say I feel worse afterward. But viewing the song from a distance, in the presence of the scene and character it accompanies… it’s a strange pairing. Elsa has just abandoned every responsibility in her life, and now sings about all the possibilities that await, building ice rooms and blue dresses in the wasted wilderness where no one will see her. She’s only recreated the existence she already led in Arendelle, and what’s so great about that?

Also...magic dress-making powers?
Also…magic dress-making powers?

“Reflection,” while also a song about seeking acceptance, goes where “Let It Go,” wasn’t prepared to go. Mulan sings her song while returning home ashamed, not escaping it in crazed bliss. She, like Elsa, sees in the mirror of life a person she does not recognize as herself, and she mourns not being able to be “a perfect bride, or a perfect daughter,” while still wanting to hold on to the things that make her unique. It’s a tragedy everyone deals with, I think. Instead of running away like Elsa, Mulan asks herself when she might ever look in the mirror and see a person she is proud to be. But what I think is most stunning about Mulan’s approach is her song’s final line in the temple of her ancestors—inside the physical record of her family history, the watchful deceased of the noble Fa family surrounding her and literally reflecting the image of her own face. And what I find fascinating is that, instead of procuring a new, elaborate image like Elsa does in the dress-creation scene, Mulan removes her makeup, seeing—although not realizing—her true reflection among generations of family who love her. It’s who she is inside, figuratively and literally. The sequence illuminates with great subtlety what “Let It Go” completely overlooks to make room for a power ballad. I guess Mulan’s sensibility wasn’t exactly what Frozen’s songwriters were going for, and I realzie that Mulan and Elsa are two completely different characters, but I just think “Reflection” captured Elsa’s sentiment with the vulnerability Elsa’s creators couldn’t make real on the screen.

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Having thwarted, perhaps not on purpose, a lot of deeper potential captured in other films like Mulan, Frozen ends up as one of the least subtle films in the Disney canon. Not that being bold and forward is always a bad thing, but in Frozen’s case, or in the way Frozen approached me in the theatre, it didn’t lend any favors.

Actually, Frozen began its metamorphic life almost 70 years ago, looking noticeably different from its current presentation, this time under the original name of the Hans Christen Andersen story it meant to recreate—The Snow Queen. Through the years, it continued to transform.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.
Elsa, is that you? Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.
Elsa, is that you?
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

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Somewhere around the time of Tangled‘s end stages, though, The Snow Queen’s production team seemed to kind of give up. Or at least run out of time to make the production(s) they seemed to have been heading toward for past decades. The project eventually became what we know now as Frozen, and at this point, it started to look a lot like Tangled’s recycling bin. They even reused the magic hair thing, which, all else aside, somehow bothered me most of all.

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Tangled‘s Flynn Rider even used to look a lot like…
FROZEN
Frozen‘s Kristoff.

This little bit from the film comes directly from a piece of Tangled concept art, when designers were originally inspired by The Swing, by Jean-Honoré Fragonard. I’m sure designers knew that fans would catch this and be amused, but it does also kind of qualify as jacked material from other Disney productions.

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Frozen’s team may even have recycled hints of a memorable tune from another popular Disney film, even if they didn’t mean to. After playing both songs on the piano several times over, the Finding Nemo theme starts to sound a lot like (though not, I admit, excatly like) the main tune in “Do You Want to Build a Snowman.”

I don’t mean to say that Frozen is without any aesthetic of its own. The “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” sequence, mentioned above, is a particular storehouse of gorgeous frames and powerful images toward the end, as are some of the film’s climactic moments.

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What I mean to say is that Frozen can certainly be considered a quality addition to the Disney family. I don’t personally think that it’s the best by a long shot, but I like it just fine. I just want to know who it was that first convinced every media outlet in the world that Frozen was a momentous occasion for people everywhere. I just want to know who decided to ignore all of the other equally great, “empowering” messages already spun by other Disney films. Not that I would have necessarily wanted it this way, but why wasn’t Mulan heralded as the great Disney salvation of womankind kind like Frozen seems to have been? I guess Brave was a little, but not this much. Why not Pocahontas? Because she risked her life for a good man? What misogynistic fiends!

I don’t doubt that Disney knew this would happen. Honestly, had I not heard the film hyped so much as some sort of neo-feminist fairyland of perfect perfection before I saw it myself, I probably wouldn’t have even anticipated the film’s big twist as Anna freezes beside the fire. But I think too many people savvy to the marketing caught the drift early on, and Hans’ transformation, instead of being the shock it meant to be, was only a matter of time.

Plus, Paolo did it first. But probably not even first.
Plus, Paolo did it first. But probably not even first.

My wish is that more members of the critical audience take into account that a good message can appear in several different ways. A man can star in a “feminist” movie. So can a woman. So can two women. So can a queen who turned into a bear. I wish we could all say that feminism isn’t just about the ladies anymore, that it’s about treating everyone–every kind of person there is–with respect. That’s called “being a decent human being,” and it shouldn’t have to be special or rare.

So yeah, I have seen the future of the critics’ Frozen. I’m just saying that I’m pretty sure it’s been here since the Han Dynasty, that’s all.

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