“Frozen” Partially Thaws My Cold Heart To Disney Princesses

The cast of "Frozen".

The cast of “Frozen”.

Over the Thanksgiving weekend my mom and I took the kids to see Disney’s new animated film “Frozen”. The kids had been excited to see it for weeks and the previews had me intrigued. This would be Disney’s first princess film made in the aftermath of the national backlash to Princess Culture and I was eager to see if they had taken any of these concepts to heart.

Maybe they did, maybe it was coincidence, but “Frozen” seems to be taking some serious steps towards featuring empowered princesses who are strong, smart, and adventurous.

Seriously, I just typed that sentence about a pair of Disney princesses.

Perhaps my cold heart towards princesses is thawing? We all remember my love fest for Merida. “Frozen” isn’t a perfect film, and I do not dig Princess Culture and the messages girls learn from it, but……

I really like Elsa and Anna, the princess sisters from the film. Following in the footsteps of Merida, these sisters are in command of their own stories, stay awake the entire time (major bonus!), and their main goal is not to find a prince. We see the sisters be funny, daring, stand up for themselves, care about each other, make mistakes, not back down from a fight, climb a mountain, build an ice palace, repel off a cliff and punch out a deceitful prince. Woohoo! While I am still epically tired of the princess narrative used as the vehicle to serve stories to girls, if I look at this movie by itself and let it stand on its own merit then I have to be honest and say that we really loved it and I think Elsa and Anna teach kids some great lessons.

“Frozen” is very loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen”. Very loosely based, so don’t spend too much time getting twisted up about the change in characters and story line.

The film begins as Elsa and her little sister Anna play in a castle ballroom until an accident leaves Anna hurt, the family racing to save her (great shot of the Queen charging out the castle gates on her horse as they speed into the forest to save her daughter), and ultimately the course of Elsa’s girlhood changing in order to reign in this great power growing stronger inside of her.

Elsa and Anna are separated and we see the strain that puts on the girls who dearly love each other. When their parents’ ship is lost at sea Elsa must prepare to become Queen when she comes of age. Anna is desperate for companionship and on the day of the coronation meets a handsome prince who promises a great many things. Anna decides a few hours later that is a great idea to become engaged to him — a move that is heavily questioned by Elsa and later by Anna’s new friend Kristoff.

An argument between the sisters during the ball leads to Elsa exiling herself from the kingdom, the kingdom falling into eternal winter, and Anna embarking on a great journey to bring her sister back. The film does a nice job of showing the love and complexities in a relationship between sisters, which is the note the film finishes on.

 

So, let’s start with what I didn’t like:

~ Elsa and Anna look like Barbie dolls, with giant, giant eyes. Great article about that here. As adventurous and independent as these gals are, the message is still that you must be beautiful while you do it.

~ In one scene we see Anna as a child singing about Elsa coming out to play with her and she flies in front of a great portrait of Joan of Arc and you think “Hey girl power!”  Minutes later in the film we see a teen Anna in the same portrait gallery, this time singing about meeting “the one” and falling in love. Doh! It didn’t bother me so much the idea of a teen girl wanting to find love, more so the idea that once a girl ‘comes of age’ she forsakes adventure and pursing her interests to marry and settle down. The song was an avenue to introduce the story line of the deceitful prince, but he could have shown up regardless after Anna sings a song about her life taking twists and turns and not knowing what her next adventure will be. I mean, Joan of Arc probably didn’t sing about boyfriends before riding off into battle….

~ When Elsa leaves the confines of the palace and can finally be herself on her mountain she gets sexed up quite a bit. My five year old even commented on it, saying she was too sexy. It would make sense for Elsa to let her hair down a bit, but there seemed to be an unnecessary focus on her sexuality. Also I could not stop thinking about Vanna White.

~ Again, for the story to unfold it makes sense, but the scene where the trolls meet Anna and immediately launch into a song and dance number about Kristoff being a fixer-upper but they can still fall in love……it sends the message that boy + girl = love. The song could have been about boy + girl = great pair for finishing their quest.

~ There is one scene where weapons are pointed and Elsa and my kids found that very upsetting.

~ And with films like this, there is always the disconnect between the feisty princesses we meet on screen and the tie-in merchandise that sells beauty and a narrow definition of femininity to girls. We had a big discussion about that here.

 

What I liked:

~ “Frozen” had a female director, and I think it shows in many parts of the film. This princess tale is a departure from the Cinderella/Sleep Beauty we grew up with and the guy-dependent Little Mermaid/Princess Jasmine/Belle and continues to take the modernization of that franchise forward, expanding on the independence we saw in princesses from “Tangled” and “Princess and the Frog”.

~ Elsa is powerful, she knows it, and she owns it. She never backs down to the men trying to control her. She cares about the people in her kingdom and struggles with the responsibility of how to be a good leader.

~ Anna is confident, determined, learns from her mistakes, is quick on her feet, and on the journey to find Elsa we see her rescue Kristoff just as many times as he rescues her. She never backs down from a fight, whether it is snarling wolves or a giant snow monster.

~ There are two love stories in this film, the central one being between Elsa and Anna. But Anna and Kristoff end up falling for each other and while I don’t like a girl’s story ending with the finding of a man, we see their relationship grow over time and Kristoff is a good guy (unlike, say, the princes Merida is introduced to).

~ Olaf the snowman is really funny!

~ Kristoff is shown as a full human being with emotions and complex thoughts, which is the most admirable “prince” we’ve ever seen Disney produce. Kristoff isn’t a prince by birth, but by actions. He is the kind of character I would like Benny looking up to. Benny thought he was really cool and Amelia said she would want to be his friend but definitely NOT do any kissing.

~ The animation is incredible and the songs are fantastic. It felt like watching a gorgeous Broadway play. Disney does this kind of film very well and in that sense, “Frozen” is a masterpiece.

~ Family, above all else, is the moral of the story. The sisters save each other, the guys in the story are the side kicks. Even the romance that blossoms between Anna and Kristoff at the end is a subplot.

~ Elsa and Anna are the authors and heroines of their own story and that is all I ask for in tales about girls. As tired as I am of princesses, these are two princesses I can fall in love with. Merida, Elsa, and Anna are on my A+ list. None are perfect, but I think it is imperfect characters that can sometimes make the best media role models.

Frozen is a tale about two sisters, their love for each other, and the adventure that love takes them on.

Frozen is a tale about two sisters, their love for each other, and the adventure that love takes them on.

 

7yo Amelia reviews the movie Epic

Amelia helped with my movie review of “Epic”…….(my blog coming shortly)

“Smalls, I’m writing about ‘Epic’. What should I tell the people about the movie and what we thought about it?” -Me

“Let me answer your question with a question. Who do you like better, MJ or MK?” -7yo Amelia

“Um, MK was the girl in Epic, but who is MJ? Michael Jackson?” -Me

“What? Honey. MK is the hero in Epic. MJ is Spider Man’s girlfriend. Who do you like better?” -Amelia

“Right right. Um, I like MK better. She was strong, adventurous, kind, and smart. She was the hero of the movie. I guess I don’t really know who MJ is.” -Me

“Exactly you don’t know who she is because all she does is care about makeup and catching boyfriends and being like ‘Ooh Spider Man, here I am come and kiss me’. For reals. But MK was all about running and protecting the pod and flying on birds and helping her dad with his science and fighting bats and boggins and she saved Nod more than once let me tell you and in the end she is a girl who can take care of her own shit.” -Amelia

“Amelia! Watch your mouth!” -Me

“Well, that’s what Dad said when I told him about the movie and that I want to be MK when I grow up and he said I would grow up to be a girl who can take care of my own shit and let me tell you, when I’m at college? And boys try to sit by me and make me kissey faces? Oh. Oh ho ho. I’m just going to grab my books and take my lunch and go somewhere else and say ‘I have science and adventure to do, boys’.” -Amelia

“That’s….okay. So…. *sigh* So, first off, we don’t repeat stuff Dad says, yes? And second, overall you liked the movie and the characters, the action, and the story?” -Me

“What? Yeah, I just said that. The movie was really pretty to look at but MK wasn’t about being pretty she was about being brave, like Merida! And MK was the brave hero and was good to her friends and the forest. Finally they are listening to me about making movies the right way for girls. Have you seen my cape and my cockroaches?” -Amelia

“Thanks for your help, Smalls.” -Me

:head desk:

MK, the fiesty hero of Epic.

MK and her dad as she learns about the potential secrets held within the forest.

MK and the forest adventurers she encounters and helps in Epic.

“Brave” Definitely Takes Some Brave Steps

Merida, the Scottish princess and expert archer.

Yesterday marked the release of Pixar’s first film starring a female protagonist, a historic turn for a franchise steeped in the male gaze with its other films (fantastic though they may be).  The story comes to life over the gorgeous Scottish highlands, and introduces us to the royal family of Castle DunBroch. “Brave” is a story of family and the love that binds, being courageous in the face of fear, and of a young woman speaking her truth when her freedom comes into question and letting no one but her decide her fate.

We see Merida expertly command her giant horse and shoot arrows (never missing her mark), wield a sword, climb the face of an imposing cliff to drink from an enchanted waterfall, and never back down or cower when she is scared. When it is called for, Merida is always brave in the face of danger. Merida is thrown from her horse and accidentally cut from her father’s sword, but both times she shakes off the injuries and gets back to business. When Merida follows the will o’ the wisps (said to lead a person to their fate) and finds herself at an old witch’s cottage, she asks for a spell to help change her mother’s mind. She is given a cake that holds the magic that as it plays out, demands Merida use all of her skills and courage to set things right. The wisps indeed lead Merida to her fate, a change that shifts how the clans view their children and their right to be who they are. We see time and again both Merida and the regal Queen Elinor use their minds and their physical strength to defeat challenges. The empowerment around the female characters in the film is honest and meaningful.

Merida and Queen Elinor struggle to communicate with each other.

The secret to the witch’s spell and setting the kingdom right again is to “mend the bond torn by pride”. Queen Elinor finds it difficult to let go of royal tradition, despite the fact that these customs are making her daughter miserable and suffocating a part of who she is. She is unsure of how to talk to Merida because Merida is so different from what she is expected to be. Merida must find a way to express to her mother that she isn’t ready for marriage, and wants to determine whom she will love for herself in her own time and on her own terms. Merida doesn’t know how to speak the words that honor what she feels in her heart. It is clear she loves her mother but feels trapped by the life that is planned for her. Merida is desperate for her mother to accept her for who she is. Merida and Elinor take turns saving each others’ lives in several scenes. In the end, the relationship is mended by listening to each other and showing each other respect and love.

 

As Merida says at one point in the film, “Legends are lessons.” I think Pixar’s princess story centered around a princess with a wild heart, teaches us some important lessons about the legends we’ve been teaching our children. I’ve read that people think this story was not Pixar’s best work as it wasn’t original enough of a tale. I disagree. We didn’t need a tale never told before like Toy Story or UP. This time, Pixar understood what we needed was a different version of a story that had been told in such a narrow way so many, many times. Pixar took some brave steps with this movie, showing strong female leads that act and look different from the princesses this country has been gorging themselves on for the past decade. Pixar gave us a new legend for our kids, one that retells a fairy tale with a different kind of hero and a different kind of happy ending. We now have a story with a hero that is a brave and feisty princess whose passion for adventure in life leads to a change in the fate of an old legend and in turn changes the way the clans live. In Pixar’s “Brave”, the princess rescues everyone with her wit and valor, and in our culture that overwhelmingly values superficial, sexualized, and dumbed down females, I’d say Pixar took a bold step to makes us think. “Brave” challenges us to change the way we think about girls. I know first hand how hard that is to do, and I am thrilled with the retelling of a tale that was long overdue.

Merida prepares to give a speech that will stop the warring of the clans.

My family went with a large group to see the film, a mix of mom, dads, girls and boys. We ranged in age from 4 years old to 44 years old. We ALL loved the film. My six year old daughter was sitting on my lap during most of the movie, and she was completely enraptured while watching the story unfold. There were many funny parts, and she did some deep belly laughs a couple dozen times. She cheered for Merida, and at the end, turned her face to mine and said, “Mom, she did it. She saved all of them.”

Pixar gave us a story last night that confirmed for my daughter what she already knew about herself: There is a hero inside.

Pixar put the challenge to Hollywood to do things differently. Hollywood studios make movies to make money, so I hope that other families speak with their dollars and give Hollywood the message that this is the media we want for our families. That is worth the price of admission.

 

Pixar creators wanted Merida to be a regular looking girl that all girls could aspire to.

To address some concerns raised in our Facebook community:

-There are some very intense and scary parts that get very loud. I would say in general it might be too intense for kids under five or six. You know your child best, but go in prepared that for young children, there are some nightmare-inducing scenes that are integral to the story but might not be best for little ones. I talked to Amelia ahead of time, we knew there were going to be some intense scenes fighting the evil bear Mor’du. When she got scared during the movie I would remind her that it has a happy ending, so if it isn’t happy then it isn’t the end.

-There is violence. The story’s cast are the warrior clans of the Scottish Highlands. They find each other in big wrestling brawls in several scenes (there little to no violence showing people hurt with weapons). There is also violence against the bears, which might upset little animal lovers. I would liken the violence to that of Lion King, if Simba shot arrows at bears and threw punches at kilt-wearing hooligans.

-I have read comments that Merida is a rude or bratty teenager. I completely disagree. She is headstrong and independent and voices her opinion, which I’m sure for people not used to seeing girls that way might be disconcerting. To me it is completely normal and I saw Merida as a young woman who needed to find a way to speak her truth and when she wasn’t being heard, she rebelled in desperation. She stood up to her mother but was never rude or insulting. I think the film opens some good discussions on how we can disagree with someone we love but still respect them.

-Amelia commented many times how happy she was that the females were not wearing makeup.

Merida's clever little triplet brothers Hubert, Hamish, and Harris.

-While I think boys will also love this movie, I have mixed feelings on how males are portrayed in the film. King Fergus is impulsive and silly, but also fiercely protective of his family and loving and respectful to both his wife and daughter. The triplet brothers are rascals, but also extremely clever, particularly how they maneuver through the castle during a big chase sequence. They are like a medieval Mission Impossible. The clan leaders each have quirky personalities and make mistakes, but also remember their loyalty to each other and come to fight as one joined force when they put friendship above bickering. The clan leaders also change the way they regard their sons and become more accepting of each of the boys. Men don’t play an important role in this story, and I can see where someone would say there aren’t good role models for boys. I might suggest they consider the measured and wise Queen Elinor who is also shown to be fiercely protective of her children when they are in danger. And of course Merida, a heroine from Disney and Pixar the likes of which we have never seen.

-I’m told the extra money for the 3D viewing was not worth it. I thought the movie in 2D was visually spectacular.

-Body Image: Merida is shown as athletic and strong. Her legs and bottom are thick and muscular. She shows amazing feats of strength in the film. There is a curve to her lower belly that shows she is not a waif or as some people were concerned, “skinny”. She is lean and athletic and strong.

-Merida, her spirit and her hair, are never tamed. She remains true to herself throughout the film.

-Those of you that are Scot-Irish like my family will definitely feel transported home and you will be most proud of your heritage and values.

-The music in the film is absolutely gorgeous, as is the animation and views of Scotland. I want to go back by myself and be able to take it all in again. It was magical.

-All of the preview preceding the film feature all male protagonists and mostly all-male casts. While Brave may not be a perfect movie, please see its significance in Hollywood at this moment in time.

-While there is discord between Merida and Queen Elinor in the film, the overwhelming message of the film is that there is nothing family won’t do for each other, and that love is the tie that binds us, even if we strike out on an independent path to follow our fate.

“We saw it last night with our daughter who was thrilled beyond measure to see a princess who fought her own battles and rescued others, who was the hero and the author of her own story and who learned that it is just as important to listen as it is to be heard.” -Ali Crehan,PPBB Community Member

Throughout the movie, Merida loves and protects her family.

 

Last night after the movie we had a bonfire and while the adults sat and chatted, our wild girls rode their imaginary steeds as they raced around through the yard, turned the tree fort into a castle they defended themselves, protected us from imposing bears, brandished swords and bows, and searched for will o’ the wisps in the darkness of a beautiful summer night. The only time the action stopped was for a s’mores break, and they were right back at it. There was no waiting for a prince to show up, no cries for help. At one point I heard Amelia yell, “THIS IS THE WAY TO OUR FATE!” as she and her buddy tore around the house on their horses one more time. As they came around the corner of the house, her friend yelled back “YOU GO ON TO THE CASTLE, I’M GOING BACK FOR THE BEAR!”.

They were rescuing themselves and writing their own tale, which is what Brave is all about.

If you had the chance to change your fate, would you?

*All images via Pixar.