There were still a number of these little fragments of glass floating about in the air, and now you shall hear what happened with one of them.
I wasn’t going to see it. —The ads looked atrocious: more of the same grim bonhomie that’d soured me on Tangled, and do they even give a damn about how ugly this participial trend in titling comes off? Like they’re steering into what otherwise would’ve been an unavoidable Tony Awards skit, Neil Patrick Harris shouting Frozen! Tangled! Tattered! Feathered! Sorcelled! Fired!
I wasn’t gonna see it, and then I saw this:
So, yeah. Well.
This snow-flake grew larger and larger, till at last it became the figure of a woman, dressed in garments of white gauze, which looked like millions of starry snow-flakes linked together. She was fair and beautiful, but made of ice—shining and glittering ice. Still she was alive and her eyes sparkled like bright stars, but there was neither peace nor rest in their glance. She nodded towards the window and waved her hand.
“It was the best movie ever that I ever saw,” pronounced Taran as we left the theater. We’d talked beforehand, to let her know how it was going to be in a theater, and loud, and there would be scary bits, and she promised to be as brave as a bumblebee and not yell. She did yell: “I want to watch something else!” which is what she says at home, whenever a show gets too intense. —Not so much at the spills and thrills, the wolves or the roaring snow-beast; these she took in stride. But when actual stakes were on the line, however quietly: Anna, betrayed by clever Hans, left to die by the unlit fire. —You know this won’t be allowed to happen, and so do I; there are Rules. But Taran’s only five. She doesn’t know the Rules yet, and can’t bear what knowing the Rules makes bearable: the possibility of what might happen, if. What might be lost if not. —She wants to watch something else.
You know this, and I do, and for sure and certain they know the Rules: that Good, imperiled, will recover, restored with the help of True Love; that Evil will be vanquished, and if not plunged to its death will at least be roundly humiliated, kicked in the butt on the way to the brig. Way of the world. Well, a world. This world. —Oh, there’s some little flexibility to the Rules, changes that might be rung, and they are, most notably in the form and fashion True Love takes (though they telegraph their punch with constant emphasized references to it as an Act thereof). But: Good, triumphant; Evil, vanquished; swell to the chorus of the theme and: credits.
He told her he could do mental arithmetic, as far as fractions, and that he knew the number of square miles and the number of inhabitants in the country. And she always smiled so that he thought he did not know enough yet, and she looked round the vast expanse as she flew higher and higher with him upon a black cloud, while the storm blew and howled as if it were singing old songs.
You know this, and so do I—but I’d seen that song, remember?
A mostly generic new-model Disney princess belts through a radio-friendly rip of “Defying Gravity” (it’s okay, they got Idina Menzel to sing it) and blows her way through a magical-girl transformation into something of a different genre, if not richer and more strange: something of an actual, maybe, antagonist? (—Not that the Snow Queen is all that much of an antagonist in her own story; not that her own story even has that much of an antagonist, aside from cosmopolitan sophistication, or maybe atheism; any given intellectualism, really, and also robbers.) —But: a Disney princess? An antagonist? —She sheds her cloak, her glove, her tiara, her (as the lyrics make painfully clear) past, but: look at the joy, as she finally lets it go, unleashes the magic that’s been leaking frightfully from her all along thus far, learns what she can do with it, and how far it can take her, and how (through that scrim of Disney CGI) beautiful it is—but also how cold, how inimical, inhuman, how—therefore—villainous? —And the transformation, the (yes) sexualization, through that same scrim—a sure sign of villainy, in Disney. —But the va-va-voom slink, the precisely flawless makeup under the artfully touseled hair, it’s all a bit too studiedly much, isn’t it? A Disney, a Barbie-doll idea of sophistication, a perfectly realized burst of adolescent excess, of someone trying something new, of trying the very act of trying something new, of succeeding wildly in that first wild flush, giddily heedless of the cost they know they don’t, can’t know.
I may have watched it a few times.
So I knew, but I was starting to think that maybe, this time, I didn’t, I wouldn’t know. A glimpse of a possible if, a might-maybe. The Rules were creaking, bending, those serried ranks of Good and Evil muddling, confused: would she be triumphant? Or vanquished? I didn’t know! Or thought maybe I didn’t, anyway.
As Anderson-Lopez recalls, “Let It Go” was the first song she and her husband wrote that ended up staying in the movie. Its composition also led the film’s team to rethink its entire approach to the character of Elsa, a.k.a. Frozen‘s take on Hans Christian Anderson’s Snow Queen. In previous drafts, Menzel’s character had a villainous bent. Once the couple penned “Let It Go,” though, they finally began to understand what really made Elsa tick: She’s a scared, repressed teenager, not a malicious ice queen. “As the movie got rewritten and rewritten around ‘Let It Go’ to earn that moment,” Lopez explains, “she became more and more the protagonist along with Anna” — Elsa’s younger sister, voiced by Bell.
If I’d read that before I’d gone to see the movie, I would’ve.
The very idea that a scared, repressed teen could ever become the most malicious of wintry metaphors. That a malicious ice queen could ever be identified with, could possibly be sympathetic, could be a protagonist. I mean really.
X’s first novel, title, was rejected by a publisher because its female protagonist didn’t “triumph over all adversity,” thereby providing the requisite happy ending. XX’s title sold to a German publisher for six figures, but American publishers refused to buy it unless she made her lead character “more remorseful” for having a passionate fling. An editor of XXX’s title said that although readers would be “haunted and moved” by her protagonists, she should turn them into characters that readers would regard with “genuine affection.”
The original soundtrack album for Frozen includes a number of demos, drafts of tracks that didn’t make it into the (currently) final version, that suggest directions and misdirections in the revising and rewriting Kristen Anderson-Lopez refers to, herrings kippered and otherwise. —One of these demos is for “Life’s Too Short,” and in its introduction, Robert Lopez tells us, “One of the songs we knew we had to write was, the song between Elsa and Anna, at the end of which, Elsa had to freeze Anna’s heart with a blast of magic.”
Anderson-Lopez chimes in: “This first attempt was more confrontational than what ultimately ended up in the movie, but we enjoyed going to that drama place.”
It’s an oddly sprightly track, for a confrontation—
—but there’s still a charge there, an anger, on the parts of both our protagonists: a drama: they sing at each other, to each other, and what they want—who they are—is set in direct conflict: Elsa, terrified she’s the prophesied unending winter, giving in to her frozen power anyway, hiding her fear with spite and rage; Anna, who in another cut song refers to herself as the spare to the heir, eager to save their little realm, even if it’s from her own beloved sister—until the song climaxes with that magical strike: “I’m not the prophesy!” cries Elsa, as she fulfills it.
But conflict is confrontational; people get hurt, and people do hurt, and when it’s over someone will have won, however provisionally, and someone will have lost, something. Unless it’s muddled, confused, someone will be triumphant, however muted; someone will be vanquished. The story will have chosen, because there are Rules, and the logic of them works backwards as well as forwards: someone will turn out to have been Good, and someone will have been Evil all along.
And so in the revising, and the rewriting, to soften, remove, erase her villainous bent, to make her more likeable, to earn that moment—of sympathy, of identification, of grace—the conflict is ducked, dodged, leashed, concealed, not revealed:
They sing past each other, now, in this final version: choruses and recitatives that interlock musically, but don’t respond to, don’t struggle with, don’t even acknowledge each other. When Elsa learns that in letting go she’s released enough power to freeze the realm, she doesn’t retort; she crumples into a muttering despair that Anna’s soaring refrain doesn’t even notice. And when Elsa lashes out, the blow that freezes Anna’s heart, it’s unconscious, accidental; she doesn’t even notice. —No intentional villany, here—just misunderstanding: regrettable, yes, but once explained, easily enough forgiven. Swell, and: credits.
(It’s not just our Snow Queen’s possible-maybe villainy that’s softened, of course. In that unused demo, Anna’s insisting Elsa put her gloves back on, to stop eternal winter—the gloves she’d let go. And this is a demand more specific, more actionable than her vague if plaintive cries of don’t shut me out, don’t live in fear, just unfreeze it, you can do it ’cause I know you can! —A stifling, smothering, repressive demand, a frightening demand that directly opposes what Elsa wants, what we’ve been told Elsa needs, and thus a hurtful demand—and while a protagonist, a hero, can deliberately hurt a proper villain, a malicious ice queen, with no mark or stain or blemish to her character, hurting a fellow protagonist is, well. Tricky. Not likeable. So soften; so leash; conceal, don’t feel, don’t reveal. Rewrite. Revise.)
One day, when he was in a merry mood, he made a looking-glass which had the power of making everything good or beautiful that was reflected in it almost shrink to nothing, while everything that was worthless and bad looked increased in size and worse than ever. The most lovely landscapes appeared like boiled spinach, and the people became hideous, and looked as if they stood on their heads and had no bodies. Their countenances were so distorted that no one could recognize them, and even one freckle on the face appeared to spread over the whole of the nose and mouth. The demon said this was very amusing. When a good or pious thought passed through the mind of any one it was misrepresented in the glass; and then how the demon laughed at his cunning invention. All who went to the demon’s school—for he kept a school—talked everywhere of the wonders they had seen, and declared that people could now, for the first time, see what the world and mankind were really like. They carried the glass about everywhere, till at last there was not a land nor a people who had not been looked at through this distorted mirror. They wanted even to fly with it up to heaven to see the angels, but the higher they flew the more slippery the glass became, and they could scarcely hold it, till at last it slipped from their hands, fell to the earth, and was broken into millions of pieces.
Protagonist, antagonist, villainy, Good, Evil, Rules—I hope the soaring refrain hasn’t misled you as to whatever point it is I think I’m making with these muttered divagations. —I’m not, mind, arguing that Elsa should more properly have been a villain, any more than I’m pleased with Anna as a plucky, fiesty-pants protagonist. I mean, Good, Evil, anti and pro—what are we really on about, here?
Frozen is a fantasy, which means (broadly, crudely) it’s about restoration and return: of proper summer, undone and overwhelmed by the unnatural winter that Elsa embodies, had been holding back by force of will and gritted teeth and gloves, and closed doors now thrown open, now relaxed, now, at last, herself—and there, right there, that’s the kernel: in threatening what’s seen as natural, usual, expected, Elsa’s turned against what’s Good; in trying to restore and return, Anna’s doing the story’s work, fixed against Evil, as ineluctably as the tide. The efforts the movie must go to, to face them both in the same direction, as jointly likeable protagonists, according to the calculus of these Rules; the Evil the story requires, thus unmoored, has only clever Hans to bear its weight, and while his heel-turn’s admirably, literally chilling, he’s far too slight for the existential threat of eternal winter, of summer forever forgone. —No, that’s resolved almost as an afterthought, an accident: “Of course!” cries Elsa. “Love!” —And just like that the power she’d let go, the existential threat, is leashed; can now be let out, on holidays, and state occasions, as lovely sheets of skating ice and charming flurries, rather than snow-beasts and threatening, phallic spikes.
That’s all it took; that’s all the conflict required: the restoration, the mere expression of a love that was never really in jeopardy. Elsa’s rejection, her letting go, her moment, her song, the one I saw, up there, is all undone; was undone, when she crumpled at the first sign of opposition, the first indication of hardship. In an older version of the story, in an earlier draft of this story, she’d’ve been a proper villain, and fought for what she wanted. It would’ve meant something, to her, to the story, to us. It would’ve been earned. —But in that story she would have to lose, would have to have been vanquished, would have hurt someone, would not have been likeable, could not have been a protagonist, or a Disney princess.
Good, this Good, according to these Rules, because there can be no real dissent among its partisans, is necessarily univocal: we all of us good people want the same thing, right? Essentially? The restoration of the natural order, the return, undisturbed, of the safety of our realm. And so there is no contest. There can be no contest. Not if you want to be triumphant.
And the buttercups sparkled gayly, and looked again at Gerda. What song could the buttercups sing? It was not about Kay.
But that’s according to those Rules. —What I’d seen? That moment, above, the one they wanted to earn? What I’d hoped that maybe this time I wouldn’t know? That maybe this time the Rules themselves were being questioned? The kernel, cracked? That more than one vision of Good was in play, on the surface, explicitly, rather than desperately read into the cracks and fissures, the what-ifs and the mightabeens? And none of them wrenched into the role of villain, of antagonist, of Evil, despite their differences? That—instead—forged somehow between them some actual forgiveness, however fleeting? One that meant something because of what it cost, to give, and to receive? That this might be the 102 minutes’ traffic of our screen?
I mean, I guess what I’d been hoping for was a post-Brave princess movie, and what I got instead was post-Wicked. —And this, this wandering argument, this glib anti-climax, none of this is meant to take away from what Frozen manages to accomplish, and even do well; there’s good stuff in there for you. Go, see it, if you haven’t.
But still. —I wanted to watch something else.