'Frozen' Co-Director Jennifer Lee Helps Disney Subvert Some of Its Own Gender Conventions

Here’s a pair of cold facts for you: Frozen is the 53rd animated feature to roll out of the storied Walt Disney Animation Studios since 1937, when Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs became the highest-grossing sound film of its time.

It’s the first to be directed by a woman.

It would be nice if that didn’t warrant mention, but, for an entity that has assumed such a huge role over the years in how young girls define themselves, it seems important that the studio has finally handed the reins to a female creator. Well, one rein, at least. As has become the trend with these massively demanding animated productions, directorial duties were divided between two filmmakers, with Wreck-It Ralph screenwriter Jennifer Lee sharing the workload with Surf’s Up director Chris Buck.

Most of Disney’s signature tropes are here: dead parents, a pretty princess (two, in fact), a gallant prince, a charmingly goofy sidekick, and a kingdom in peril. The kingdom in question is Arendelle, a lovely Scandinavian land whose king and queen are killed in a shipwreck, leaving eldest daughter Elsa (the voice of Broadway star Idina Menzel) to inherit the throne. This is problematic, because Elsa is a bit of a shut-in. She was born with a magical ability to freeze anything around her with the wave of a hand; since emotion exacerbates her powers, Elsa and her younger sister, Anna (Kristen Bell), have grown up in isolation. Elsa hides herself away in her bedroom and lives by the mantra “conceal, don’t feel,” while the outgoing Anna pines for human company—mostly her sister’s.

When Elsa comes of age, Arendelle’s gates are opened for her coronation ceremony. It’s an eventful day: Anna falls in love with a prince named Hans (Santino Fontana), the newly-crowned Elsa does not approve, and, one emotional outburst later, Arendelle has become a frozen wasteland. It’s up to Anna to fix things, with the help of a handsome but smelly ice salesman called Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his reindeer, Sven, and a dopey little snowman named Olaf (Josh Gad). There is much self-discovery, and many Broadway-style musical numbers, along the way. (For the purposes of this review, “many” = eight, but they’re quite long.)

The set-up is straightforward to the point of being perfunctory, and there’s never any doubt where it’s all going, but Frozen packs a lot of surprises. Most of the twists come from the film’s willingness to subvert the clichés we’ve come to associate with Disney movies and with fairy tales in general, particularly their heroines and villainesses. Elsa is a thorough shake-up of the wicked character that inspired her (Hans Christian Andersen’s eponymous Snow Queen), and it’s hard to imagine that she and her sister would have much patience for the milquetoast princesses who came before them. They’re never the objects of princely rescue, but there’s more to it than that; the sisters go further than any of their predecessors in terms of challenging notions about romance, domesticity, femininity, and all-around gender politics. They are complex and extremely likable; thanks in large part to their ever-evolving relationship, Frozen is always engaging and surprisingly suspenseful.

There are a few wrong notes, sometimes of the literal sort. There’s a pack of kind-hearted trolls—another topsy-turvy nod to the Andersen tale that inspired the film—that would be more at home in a lesser movie. None of the elaborate musical numbers in Frozen are bad and a couple are quite clever, but songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez don’t manage to create anything truly memorable.

Whatever Frozen lacks in its soundtrack, though, it makes up for with stunning visuals. If you’re ever inclined to spring for 3D, this is a perfect candidate. The omnipresent graphic motifs of snow and ice offer the animators endless opportunities to play with prismatic depth, lighting, and color.

The real reason for the 3D glasses, though, is the six-minute short that precedes the feature. “Get a Horse!” boasts some of the coolest and most inventive uses of 3D to date. Starring Mickey Mouse (the voice of Walt Disney, thanks to archival recordings and some digital wizardry) and essentially offering a crash course in the history of animation, the film combines hand-drawn art with computer-generated images, and the results are fantastic. It starts off as a 2D, black-and-white cartoon, but things go bonkers once Peg-Leg Pete shows up. To say anything more would be spoilery, but know that it’s as much of a draw as the main attraction.

Directed by Simpsons veteran Lauren MacMullan, “Get a Horse!” also marks the first time in the studio’s 90-year history that a woman has received sole directorial credit on a Disney animated film. Maybe it’s a coincidence, and maybe it isn’t.

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