Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Movie Review - 'Frozen'

The opening credits are really classy. Like they're preparing you for an epic. The film begins with some guys singing about ice. I know the film's not about them but I love the theme setting going on. Like the intro during 'The Prince of Egypt'. It tells you what the film is going to be about. 

First Act

It then moves to these two sisters - Elsa and Anna - playing. Elsa can use magic, and she accidentally hurts Anna. I love the tone of this scene. Everything just works, the characters, the music, etc. And it gets more powerful on repeat viewing, as you know that this one scene sets off so much tragedy.

These trolls save Anna, removing her memories of Elsa's magic. I'm not sure why they do this, except to move the story forward. It seems like a pretty big deal to remove someone's memories. Tragic even. They also warn Elsa about her magic being dangerous, fear being her enemy and how she must learn to control her powers. The parents then decide to separate the girls, thereby ensuring a fearful Elsa, which is exactly what the trolls warn them against (*sigh*). Double tragedy. But a good setup for the film.

The following exposition through the song 'Do you want to build a Snowman?' sets an even sadder mood. It's like this film is a celebration of tragedy. The girls grow up apart. Anna wants her sister back. And Elsa is living in fear. The parents really screwed things up, with help from the trolls. And then they die. 

Though the song itself is good, it leaves a lot of open questions. What did Elsa do during her time alone in her room? Were the sisters separated completely during all these years? Did they not see or talk to each other at all? How does that affect their relationship? Do they even have one by the end of this song? The song gives us nothing. No interaction between the sisters. A real letdown after that good setup. Also, by the end of the song, we observe what Anna wants, but not what Elsa wants. This we have to infer. 

Then we see Anna today. There's a party. She's excitable. And wants more from life, including true love. Nothing about her relationship with her sister, which is weird. Is she over her sister shutting her out? And wait, was Anna shut up in the castle as well? For 13 years? Why? She doesn't have any powers. What did all these years of isolation do to her? Where are they going with this true love thing? This song 'For the first Time in Forever' changes the tone of the film for me, makes it feel a bit kiddish, more like 'Tangled' for some reason. But hey, that's the demographic they're going for. "We interrupt this seriousness to bring you a dreamy princess song about true love". Still, what's the real story here? Again, we observe what Anna wants, but still nothing about what Elsa wants w.r.t her sister. More unanswered questions.

Then Anna meets Hans. Elsa is crowned and continues to be nervous. We get a scene with the sisters talking (at last!) and it's delightful (Elsa reaches out to Anna, who reciprocates, and they share a few laughs) but is quick and doesn't touch on the past, so we still have questions about their isolation and current relationship. Did the girls really not see each other all these years? Is this the first time they're meeting and talking since they were children? We've not seen them interact since the start of the film, when they were toddlers. Do they even have a relationship? We need more context, Disney. Is this really a film about a sisterly bond with minimal interaction between the two sisters?

Then Elsa shuts Anna out again, and we see both the sisters are unhappy at this. Then a song with Hans. More 'true love'. Where is this going? The song is catchy, but the proposal seems silly. Then there's the argument between the sisters about marriage. We finally see Anna lash out. So the love angle was just a cue for the argument? So the story is really about the sisters? OK, but the love angle with Hans seems a bit forced. And the story still feels a bit shallow and one-sided. We have to assume we understand Anna's agony, despite not seeing any evidence of an actual sisterly bond at risk, and we still don't know what Elsa wants. We can observe she's sad, and we can infer she wants normality, but we don't see her do anything about it. Does she not have any goals at all?

Still, I love everything in this scene. There's finally some conflict to sink your teeth into, though it's short lived. Elsa accidentally reveals her powers and flees in fear & shame, accidentally freezing her kingdom in the process. Anna follows to fix things with her sister and the kingdom, leaving Hans in charge (lol wut?). OK so the story is definitely about the sisters, but what's going through Anna's mind right now? She's just seen her sister's powers for the 'first time'. She must realise this is why she was shut out all these years, but we're never shown her realisation of this or what this now means to their relationship.

Apparently it doesn't make a difference to Anna wanting her sister back. OK. Not much character development here. We weren't even sure if the sisters had an actual relationship, and now we have to suddenly assume that Anna's unconditional love for her sister is normal, without having seen them bond at all in the last 13 years? Bit of a stretch. Also, Anna doesn't think her sister is dangerous or would hurt her, which is kind of silly seeing as how she almost just did, and also that Anna seems so confident about this given that they've spent 13 years apart and don't really know each other. What does Anna know that we don't. Where is this confidence coming from? it would have been better for the character to show her as just a little bit fearful of her sister and doubtful of her own safety before rushing off after her sister.


Then we switch to Elsa, and there's the big beautiful song where Elsa comes into her own. It begins with sadness as she realises her loneliness, and that she's failed to hide or control her powers, and failed to be what 'they' wanted her to be. And with her secret out, there's nothing she can do now but flaunt it? She lets her magic lose, first tentatively, then with relief and confidence, creating a new home.

She's happy. And it's more than happiness. It's self-realisation, finding her spot in the world. Embracing who she is, something she couldn't do earlier. She's free. As beautiful as this moment it, you've got to wonder why this transformation is happening? Why is she using her powers, and why the happiness? Who exactly is Elsa? A daughter, sister, queen, ice queen?

Till now, we've seen Elsa as an obedient daughter, reluctant monarch, distant sister, an individual trying to be responsible, shutting people out, hiding her powers and trying to control them so as not to hurt people, and in the process turning into a fearful recluse. But now that her secret's out and she has fled in fear, and she's far away from people, why does she use her powers anyway? How do they help her?

Here's where we have to infer that her powers have been tied in to her identity more than we thought. Elsa's powers are not an irrelevant accessory. She is her powers. And when she was made to suppress her them, she was not suppressing an extra ability or a minor talent, but a core part of who she is. She was made to be afraid to be herself. And now that her secret's out and she's away from everyone, there's nothing to fear or suppress, she can relax and be herself. By using her powers now, she's not doing anything unusual, she's simply being herself for the first time in her life since she was a child. This is the only possible explanation for why she would choose to embrace her powers as her identity at this point.

This is a beautiful transformation, but it leaves the viewers with a lot to infer without any context. We've only seen Elsa use her powers freely once before, as a child, when she presumably considered it little more than a play thing. We're not given to understand that she thought of her powers as anything more, or that the way she perceived her powers changed over the years. And when we see her using her powers now, 13 years later, the film expects us to just assume, in a second, that her powers were tied to her identity all along, or became that way at some point in her adult life? This is a lot to ask of the viewers.

Also, why is Elsa so happy? Granted her earlier self was part facade, but not all of it. She still has a kingdom, a sister. She's still leaving them behind out of fear, not out of self-realisation. Shouldn't that reflect in the film? Nope. We just see happiness. Apparently being happy at her newfound freedom overrides the loss of family. Does this mean Elsa's previous life didn't mean all that much to her? What does she think of her relationship with Anna at this point? Or do we infer that this just a bitter happiness? Or that Elsa is lying to herself? So many questions.

After waiting an entire act to get to know Elsa better and find out her plans w.r.t her sister, the audience is left wanting as the film takes us in a completely new direction, showing us a side of Elsa we never knew mattered, and ignoring the one pertaining to the plot i.e. the sisters' relationship. What is going on with the story?

Nevertheless, this is the first we get to see of Elsa as an independent character, and not a character portrayed solely in the context of her sister. Also, this is the first real character development we get to see in her. Till now it's only been about Anna pining for her sister and then being excited at the party and pining for love. And here's where you really realise how much you like Elsa. She's way more interesting than her sister.

At this moment, you're happy that she's finally getting her moment of happiness after years of tragedy, sadness and fear. You're rooting for her, you want to see her happy, you're enjoying the transformation, you're emotionally invested in it, in her, even if it makes little sense and doesn't work for the plot. Also, this is a huge (and risky) transformation in a character that has played second fiddle till now, and opens up more questions, but you don't care, you're enjoying every moment of it. That moment that Elsa smiles for the first time and then later when she lets down her hair, that's when you fall in love with her. We're given something juicy at last, and hopefully it will pay off.

Second Act

And we're back to Anna, who's extremely good natured about the whole thing about her sister running away, and keeps playing the one-dimensional selfless sister, even blaming herself for Elsa freaking out. She teams up with Kristoff (a really likeable character) and meets Olaf (who's funny despite the irritating trailer but has a pointless song) and then finds her sister. 

Anna is just a selfless lover who's determined to find Elsa and doesn't want her to be alone, and claims that she is not in the least bit afraid of her sister. Again, this is strange given that we don't know how close the sisters are exactly. We simply have to take Anna's claim at face value, and assume that the fact that she wants her sister back and isn't afraid of her even after she's grown apart from her and discovered her powers, means that the events of the past night haven't really had much of an impact on her. Again, there's no character development with Anna. The scene where she hesitates before knocking on Elsa's door is beautifully thought out. "That's a first." The continuing use of doors as metaphors is good, but this moment seems to glide by too quickly. Why did Anna hesitate after all this confidence? I'd have liked to see more moments like this.

We finally see Elsa again (it has been over 20 minutes since we last saw the film's most interesting character). Her fear is still present, despite her transformation. A fear of letting people close because she might hurt them. Anna, despite seeing her new transformed sister, blindly and happily accepts Elsa's change and even apologises for setting it off (seriously?).

I expected a lot more conflict during this meeting. I was hoping the sisters would discuss the past, Elsa talking about who she really is, describing her new found identity, the years of repression, sharing her side of the story she's been hiding all these years, letting Anna know how much more difficult the isolation was for her, and telling her about her wiped memories. And probably have Anna show more shock and awe at Elsa's change, and get angry at Elsa's lack of trust in her despite her unconditional love, all the unnecessary secrecy, and having to bury their parents alone. But no, we get nothing. The sister don't talk discuss the past, Anna remains the same. 

The only change we see is in Elsa, where despite her freedom, she's not truly happy and is still living in fear. And we finally see her become aware of her frozen kingdom and her inability once again to control her powers. OK, that's something. But it seems we're back to square one. Anna is still selfless and wants her sister back, and Elsa is still afraid and has no idea how to control her powers. Pretty much the same thing we've been seeing for the whole film.

So it seems Anna's character arc is really simple, and Elsa's major transformation in 'Let it Go' wasn't really that relevant. All that self-empowerment turns out to be a damp squib, since it counts for nothing. Elsa achieved some happiness at not hiding her powers anymore, but it doesn't really move the story forward since she's still afraid and can't unfreeze her kingdom. Kind of an anticlimactic let down after 'Let it Go'. Would the film have worked better without it? Plus, the whole self-empowerment thing in 'Let it Go' diverged from the storyline to begin with, Elsa's character arc so far seems to be only about learning to control her powers, when it should also have involved her relationship with her sister at some point.

Anyway, Elsa throws Anna out of her castle when she refuses to leave, accidentally fatally injuring her. This would have been a perfect time to let the viewers know what the point of the film is. We know by now that Anna is uni-dimensional, so the rest of the plot has to be about Anna's journey continuing till she gets her sister back, and Elsa learning to control her powers, but the story diverges from this point onwards.

Anna meets the trolls, who tell her how to get cured. There's an irritating unnecessary song. Neither the trolls nor Kristoff tell Anna about her past and her memories being wiped, which is weird as that would let Anna know why her sister wants to be alone, and maybe make Anna more fearful of her sister, and their eventual reunion tougher to achieve. And the focus now shifts away from her relationship with her sister to her love triangle (this story is jinxed). In the meantime, Elsa is captured and brought back home, but she's still scared and wants to run away (surprise!).

Third Act

There's this sudden plot twist with Hans, which I'd normally love given that we get so few animated films with sudden twists. But in this case it just seems to further muddle the plot. So what if Hans is evil? I don't really see a point to it, except to teach Anna a lesson about love, which seems to be more of a minor plot point. We know that the real story is Anna-Elsa (roughly), and Anna is one-dimensional, so the Hans romance angle was always going to be an unnecessary distraction whether he was evil or not. Anna learning a lesson about love isn't going to change the equation she has with her sister. One thing it does do is remove that one distracting notion we all had in our heads about Anna resolving this love triangle, as the story now leaves us with only Kristoff.

I love this tender scene between Anna and Olaf. It's a good way to remind the viewers what love is. Anna then realises it's Kristoff who loves her and is going to save her, which is by far the most pointless arc in this film. The filmmakers can't expect an audience to buy into love between Anna and Kristoff in the one and a half days that they've been together as friends, when the film has already mocked the true love between Anna and Hans happening in the less than one day that they've been together. 

I get that Anna might not love Kristoff back at this point, but still want to kiss him if there's a chance it might save her life, but I don't get why she suddenly ignores Elsa's safety. Anna put her quest to get Elsa back on hold to come back to be saved by Hans. When that doesn't happen, and Hans reveals he plans to kill Elsa, Anna is concerned for his sister. Then when Olaf rescues Anna, she suddenly forgets her sister and focuses only on herself. I fail to see why. Anna has been mostly selfless till now. She might have wanted to let Kristoff heal her before trying to stop Hans, but that's only if she planned another quest into the mountains, in which case she could have at least alerted someone to Hans' plan. Also, what is Anna thinking as she's trying to escape and the castle begins to freeze over? For all she knows, Elsa is still in the mountains. She must be concerned about the sudden storm.

Anyway, Elsa has run away again (yup) and we finally hear some concern for her sister. Finally! We've had to wait till the end of the film for this revelation that belonged at the beginning. It doesn't mean much now. Too little too late. Where was Elsa's concern for her sister in the previous two acts? Where was it when she threw Anna out of her castle Moving on, in the process of finding Kristoff, Anna sees Elsa in danger, wherein she sacrifices herself for Elsa, thereby saving her own life as well. I get the 'self sacrifice as the ultimate act of true love' part, I just don't know why they had to create a love triangle to make it happen. Surely there could have been less confusing ways?

Also, the self sacrifice part seems kind of tacked on, like the film makers knew they wanted this scene in the film and worked the rest of the film around it. It seems to just happen. It works for Elsa, since she has no goals and is just a victim, but not for Anna, since she's one-dimensional and this decision (her sacrifice) doesn't reflect anything she learned about her sister or true love during her journey.

Anyway, Elsa is so grateful and relieved to have her sister back, she doesn't seem to be afraid of hurting her anymore, her fear seems to have disappeared, but for some reason she's happy. I don't get this. Elsa's a victim. Like a concentration camp survivor. Her freedom from fear after 13 years of isolation should leave her confused and uncertain, not happy, just as freeing a prisoner after years of isolation won't have them jumping for joy. To buy into Elsa's happiness, you have to assume this is what she wanted all along, but we never observe this in the film. We only observe fear. We can infer she wanted normality and a relationship with her sister, but she never expressed a desire to do anything about this, no goals. Therefore, her happiness just seems tacked on, like a kind of reward for no goals. 

Also, Elsa is still not sure how to fix things, until Olaf reminds her it was 'love' all along. And that allows her to suddenly manipulate snow into disappearing and return summer to her kingdom. Then she's suddenly comfortable using her powers in public again. And the film ends. A quick emotionally unsatisfying cop out ending. Elsa's final transformation does't feel explained. How do you go from 13 years of suppression to 2 days of using your powers to suddenly learning to reverse their effects? Elsa's story doesn't seem coherent.


On Elsa

Here are the problems I have with Elsa's depiction in the film.

First, Elsa is ignored despite being the more interesting character. 

The best parts of the film involve Elsa - Elsa playing with Anna, talking to the troll, shutting people out in 'Do You Want to Build a Snowman?', being a nervous wreck during her coronation, talking to Anna, fleeing, singing, transforming, being scared again, struggling, fighting and running. On viewing the film again, I found I only wanted to watch it for Elsa. Both her character and journey are more interesting than Anna's. 

Elsa is this beautiful, powerful, troubled, fearful, damaged, refined, tragic character, someone you can't help falling in love with. I'm not sure why I love Elsa so much. Maybe it's because of the qualities above, or that she could have worked so well in the story and yet doesn't, or maybe it's because she's the mature counter to Anna's clumsy self. Trouble is, Elsa is never really given much screen time compared to Anna.

Elsa spends most of act one being scared. We're then shown part of Elsa's change about 1/3rd into the film during 'Let it Go', at which point she has a sense of self-empowerment and you empathise most with her, but everything from then on is mostly Anna's love triangle with Elsa relegated to the background. At this point you wonder why she's ignored for so long. When she finally reappears it's only to have her get scared again, get captured, and give up, until she's healed by Anna.

There's no relevant internal change on Elsa's part, nothing remarkable in the film w.r.t self healing. All her actions only serve to propel Anna's journey forward. This is fine for a supporting protagonist, but it doesn't work since Anna's story isn't as interesting, raising expectations from Elsa's storyline. Unfortunately, Elsa comes across as more of a non-villain antagonist, but so poorly presented that she ends up being more of a plot contrivance for Anna, rather than the complex protagonist that 'Let it Go' and the rest of the film try to make her out to be. And again, this would be fine if Anna's story is more interesting, but as I've said earlier, it isn't. Which is why Elsa should have been given more screen time.

Second, Elsa's character arc is not coherent.

Elsa was always a doomed character. Nothing she tried was ever going to work. She couldn't help herself. She needed Anna to save her. And she didn't know this. This is her true storyline. To try and fail in ignorance until Anna saved her. 

On the contrary, what the first act of the film does is make Elsa responsible for finding a way to control her powers. Nothing is said w.r.t Anna's role in this. Then 'Let It Go' establishes a new powerful identity for Elsa as an individual, without Anna. This arc leads us to expect something even bigger from Elsa towards the end w.r.t healing, an even bigger transformation where she finally achieves control of her powers, inner peace, true happiness, a sense of comfort with herself, with help from her sister. So when the film then shifts to Anna's journey and her love triangle, reverting Elsa to her fearful state and then having Anna heal her of her fear in a second, without explanation, that ending is just too quick given what we've seen and come to expect from Elsa, making her character arc seem like a sham, an emotional roller coaster ride that's just a plot contrivance for Anna's character arc.

There's nothing wrong with having Elsa as a doomed character or having Anna heal her. What's wrong is playing up Elsa as the more interesting movie character and then ignoring her story arc for Anna's less interesting one, and having Anna heal Elsa too quickly, without any context.

This is partly the fault of the ending being too quick, leaving viewers with too many questions and a lot to infer about Elsa, but part of the fault also lies with the content and purpose of the song 'Let It Go' itself, and how it was played up within the story. It deviates from Elsa's original character arc as a supporting character, and gives her more personality than the previous parts of the film did, making the jump in character too large, and which the rest of the film doesn't pick up on, making the jump a waste. More importantly, the song deviates from relationship building between the sisters, and takes us in a new direction by introducing a new angle to Elsa. This puts a lot of pressure on the rest of the film to tie up these loose ends, which it fails to do at the end.

Third, Elsa's ending leaves you with a lot to infer.

The film ends with Elsa not being scared anymore, and learning to control her powers. She's filled with happiness and relief after her sister comes back to life. We presume that this feeling replaces or overrides her fear of hurting her sister, as she's not afraid to touch her anymore. Additionally, her knowledge of love thawing what's frozen allows her to reverse or manipulate her powers to remove winter somehow, and presumably, with her fear of hurting her sister replaced, she can now wield snow and ice without fear of hurting anyone anymore, and is fine using her magic again.

How exactly is Elsa different now compared to at the beginning of the film? She isn't. She's back to square one. Both girls are. Anna has her sister back. And Elsa not only has her sister back can also use her magic again without fear. 

Here's when you infer that the real villain in the film was fear all along, and that all Elsa needed was to not be fearful. She never needed to control her powers by suppressing them. She simply needed to use them normally, which she was never given a chance to do because of the accident that made her parents make her suppress her powers in the mistaken hope that this would control them. The accident was just a one off event, but her parents made her fear it, made her believe that that was a sign that her powers were out of control and needed to be controlled and suppressed, which was wrong. She has been doing the wrong thing for 13 years. Living in unnecessary fear for 13 years because of her parents. A horrific thought.

You have to infer all of the above in hindsight, that Elsa never needed to do anything special or learn of any technique or trick to control her powers. Her powers were fine as they were, but she needed to let go of her fear and replace it with love instead. A pretty complex inference to be made by the viewers at the end of the film. 

I mean, the trolls themselves ask Elsa to find a way to control her powers at the start, hinting at the dangers that await her if she doesn't. This and the fact that her story involves unfreezing her kingdom leaves us to think that Elsa needs to do something different to control her powers than she did as a child. We think the film will involve her discovering a way to control her powers at some point. To end the film by saying that this was all wrong, she never needed to find a way to control her powers, she was fine all along, the only thing she needed was to not be fearful by using love, or accepting someone else's love, is a bit of a cop out, leaving the viewers underwhelmed, since we've been expecting something else. Your reaction at the end when Elsa ends winter is "wait, that's it?, that's all she had to do to control her powers, she couldn't have figured that out for herself in 13 years?" Why didn't the trolls just tell her? Why did they mislead by asking her to control her powers instead of just being herself and using love?

FourthElsa's ending leaves a lot of open questions.

Elsa suppresses her powers for 13 years because she's scared of hurting people, undergoing who knows what kind of psychological damage, then suddenly transforms into an ice queen for 2 days, where her identity is inexplicably shown to be defined by her powers (though her fear is still present), and then suddenly lets go of her fear in a second with 'love'. 

Elsa's fear disappearing doesn't feel explained. How do you undo 13 years of fear in a second? Is this only a temporary phase? Will she be afraid again? What if she accidentally hurts someone again, like she did when she was little? Another trip to the trolls to get that person healed? It's not like she has the power to heal people.

All we get to see is Elsa is not scared anymore and the film ends. I think it's all too convenient. We're supposed to take Elsa's healing for granted. A little more explanation would have been great instead of making the audience infer or guess at what might have happened in her mind, how exactly love replaced fear.

Fifth, Elsa's ending isn't as impressive as 'Let it Go', leaving the film imbalanced.

Elsa's power ballad is simply a work of art, something I keep going back to. The best bit of the song is at the start when her other glove comes off, and her loneliness gives way to her initial joy at being free to be herself. It's even better than her full transformation towards the end of the song because there's just so much realisation on her part at that initial point w.r.t her freedom. And this is the first time since her childhood that we see her happy with her powers. A powerful moment. Her transformation works emotionally for the audience because it's so out of place, so out of character within the context of what we know about her and the story so far. It's a leap of character development. That's what hooks us to this one scene, and makes every other scene inadequate and wanting.

Sure the song placement is wrong. Anyone who flees in fear after years of isolation isn't going to celebrate a new type of loneliness. Elsa might not be repressed anymore alone in her ice castle, but she's still afraid. Physically, she's free, but in her mind, she's still in a cage. So the best part of Elsa in the film is actually one of her worst parts, where she's still living in fear, but thinks she's free. But this isn't a bad thing as long as what follows in the film manages to reconcile this contradiction, and do better than the song. 

Sadly, nothing does. Nothing following 'Let it Go' comes close to matching it in entertainment value, or in logically progressing Elsa's story. This was the high point of the film, and everything else is downhill from here. This wasn't the end of Elsa's character arc. You would expect the actual end to be better, more satisfying. Which it isn't. This is one of the reasons the film doesn't work for me.

Sixth, Elsa doesn't get closure.

Elsa's realisation of her final transformation where she lets go of her fear, and of the implications i.e. her parents were wrong, the guilt, all those years of unnecessarily shutting people out and living in fear, find no mention at the end of the film. Also, there must be a lot of stuff she needs to talk about with her sister. Apologise. Tell her about her wiped memories maybe. 

As a kid, Anna loses a sister. But Elsa not only loses a sister but also knows why, and has to keep this a secret for 13 years. I imagine this is even more frustrating and tragic. The only people who share her secret are her parents, and they're really her only emotional support for 10 years. When they die, we get to see Anna sing about being alone, but we have to infer that Elsa's situation is now even more difficult, lonely and tragic, because she's lost her only crutch. Which is what makes her transformation in 'Let it Go' so satisfying to watch. It's been Anna's journey till now, but we finally get to see a bit of who Elsa is. And when that transformation doesn't work either, and when Elsa finally learns not to be afraid after all the running away and shutting people out, imagine the kind of emotional baggage she has left over. We really need some of that to be portrayed.

Seventh, the sister's reunion at the end (where they hug and then skate) seems incomplete and one-sided. 

We're shown Anna's longing for her sister. That's her want. That's why she goes on an epic journey. To get her sister back. The journey is her need. This is Anna's goal. This is how she attains emotional fulfilment and learns about love and saves a kingdom in the process. This is clear. But Elsa's arc seems to be more about controlling her powers rather than being reunited with her sister. We're never explicitly shown a direct account of Elsa's longing for her sister that can be translated into a goal.

The sisters were great friends at the start of the film, but they grew apart, and Elsa goes on to want different things, and the film never reconciles this gap. Elsa's situation during 'Do You Want to Build a Snowman?' is more about sadness, during her coronation it's about control, sadness and frustration, during and after 'Let It Go' it's about being free and embracing her inner self, and the scenes after this all involve fear and sadness. The viewer could infer that that Elsa's sadness is due to an unfulfilled desire to have a normal relationship with her sister, but this doesn't translate to an overt actionable desire for a normal relationship with her sister.

We can infer clearly that Elsa wants to control her powers and not be afraid, but we aren't shown her need i.e. how that might happen, or what she wants to change exactly w.r.t this or reuniting with her sister. Put simply, Elsa doesn't have any goals, she's just a victim. So when Anna's arc crosses over with Elsa's, and Anna 'heals' Elsa, we're just supposed to accept it, without having anticipated it. This works for Anna's story arc (in retrospect we understand that Anna's only power is love, and that this was the answer to Elsa's question to her at the ice palace - 'what power do you have to stop me?') but it doesn't work for Elsa's arc, because we have no idea if this is what she needs. We're just shown that it works.

Which is why the film's end i.e. Elsa being reunited with her sister, is incomplete, because we can't appreciate her happiness at being reunited with her sister because she has spent most of the film pushing her sister away. We're constantly shown Elsa being afraid and running away, we aren't really shown what might help her, or what her desires or motivations are that might lead to a resolution. Sure, Elsa needed love, but we only see that in hindsight. There was no context, no foreshadowing indicating that this is what she needed all along. So when she's finally happy at being reunited with her sister, isn't she really just happy about being able to control her powers at last? Shouldn't Elsa's reunion with Anna leave Elsa uncomfortable and guilty?

The bond between sisters is more one-sided, and playing it up at the end of the film doesn't really mean much for the viewers. It feels empty. The story is more about Anna, who gets what she wants, and Elsa, who get what she needs, which turn out to be two different things. The reunion at the end feels inadequate, like it's missing Elsa's thoughts and emotions.


On Anna

I understand that the director Jennifer Lee wanted the film to be told through Anna's journey. She called it 'Shawshaky' at one point. Where Elsa and Anna are both protagonists but you're watching Elsa's story through Anna's journey. Or that Elsa is the one driving the protagonists's (Anna's) actions. 

Ms. Lee says at one point, "Yeah and we knew her journey, we knew that Anna was an ordinary girl that’s got love as her only “superpower”, really. And that her journey is going to go from not understanding love (because like all of us at eighteen, growing up, we don’t), to mature love and the ultimate kind of understanding which is, you know, the sacrifice you’re willing to do for love." Which is all fine, but here are some problems I have with this portrayal of Anna in the film.

First, Anna is just not that interesting compared to Elsa, intrinsically. She's perky and optimistic, but we've seen this character in other films. She does mellow down towards the third act, but that's more due to her being struck by Elsa than any internal change, and she's back to her normal upbeat self at the end of the film. 

On subsequent watching I found myself skipping or fast forwarding through most of the scenes that involved Anna talking or singing. The only scenes with Anna that I felt were worth watching again were the ones with Elsa in them, or the main one with Olaf, or her self sacrifice one. This is just a personal preference though.

Second, Anna's journey isn't as interesting as Elsa's. Elsa's story is more interesting, because her conflict is internal - coping with fear. Anna's conflict is mostly external - her relationship with Elsa - which is less interesting. Sure Anna resolves her conflict herself, unlike Elsa, but she doesn't have to change to do so, so it's less interesting (more on this later).

Anna, despite being likeable, having this heroic quest to suffer through, achieving her goals, getting her sister back and saving her from herself, understanding what love means, and saving her home and kingdom, takes a backseat compared to what's happening with Elsa. This could be partly due to the fact that Anna doesn't have a very interesting or unique personality, as mentioned before, but it's also partly due, I suspect to the fact that Elsa's story and character development are more interesting.

Third, Anna doesn't change much, or in any relevant way. Yes, she's fun to watch, and goes on this incredible journey and learns about love and changes everything, but she doesn't exhibit much personal growth or character development relevant to the story.

We see Anna growing from not understanding love to understanding that love is putting others before yourself. In the ballroom, Elsa asks Anna what she knows of true love. In the ice palace she asks her what power she has over her. These are fantastic clues telling us how Anna's journey will end (Anna herself doesn't know the answers to these questions but her eventual actions reflect an understanding of true love). Anna does change in this respect. She learns about love. The problem is, none of this is relevant to her journey. 

There's nothing in the film that indicates that Anna wouldn't sacrifice herself for her sister if her quest hadn't happened. Indeed, Anna seems constantly unwavering in her love for her sister throughout the film. So the love triangle and having Anna learn about true love seem like more of a plot of convenience to make it seem like her choice to sacrifice herself for her sister is based on what she learned during her journey rather than her own intrinsic qualities.

Now this wouldn't be such a bad thing in itself. Yes, it's always nice to have your main character undergo internal change, but lots of great films work without this. Like 'Wall-E'. There's no character development or personal growth. The film is about a goal, and the hurdle-filled journey the lead character goes through to reach that goal. And it's a great film. 'Frozen' would have been the same if the film was just about Anna. But like it or not, Elsa steals the show. Elsa's character and journey are more interesting, making Anna's seem bland in comparison. In view of this, it would have been better to give Anna a better personality, or relevant character development.


On the Plot  

The film fails most in not creating a simple straightforward plot. The big epiphany of Anna's sacrifice doesn't feel earned. We're supposed to assume the girls love for each other hasn't changed in 13 years, without being shown this at any point of time in the film. We're shown Anna's want w.r.t this, but not Elsa's. When the payoff/resolution happens, we feel nothing, no emotions, except on introspection and repetitive viewing, so the resolution feels a bit superficial. You see that the sisters are happy, but you don't feel happy, because the whole relationship seems to be underdeveloped and one-sided.

So essentially the film's final resolution with the self-sacrifice bit involves one protagonist (Anna) taking a decision that more or less doesn't reflect much growth and is more of a 'right place at the right time thing', cueing a change in the second protagonist (Elsa), who isn't really a protagonist, after a lot of misdirection, and this change in her (her loss of fear), though internal, is not because she wanted or expected it, and no one knew that's what would help her anyway. It just happens that way. And the audience is pretty much once step behind during this final resolution and are left underwhelmed.

Disney just didn't manage to pull it off. Almost, but not quite. They created a troubled character and then decided to tell a story about her less interesting sister instead. It's a film about sisters without any actual relationship building between the two sisters, leaving you with an incomplete story, making it a mediocre product overall. 

The characters are extremely likeable. Anna is adorable. Elsa is captivating. The animation with snow and ice is beautiful. The humorous sidekick is good, despite a misleading trailer. The music is fun. But the plot just doesn't work. The viewers are always one step behind. The story is incomplete and meanders. There's at least one unnecessary song. You don't really know why things are happening with these characters you love, specially at the end of the second act and most of the third act up to the final resolution. And the payoff doesn't feel earned. When the sisters finally find happiness, you're not sure what to feel. 

They might have improved the film by making Elsa less interesting, continuing to portray her as a sad brooding scared person rather than have her achieve a false sense of self-emowerment at the end of the first act. Of course, this would have meant changing 'Let It Go', which is why we all love Elsa to begin with. Or they could have broadened her character arc, giving her more background context for her actions. Or made Anna a more complex character, with more anger perhaps. 

I can forgive everything else, the trolls, the misdirection, everything, for just a little more Elsa in the film, for just a couple of scenes during the first act (during 'Do You Want to Build a Snowman?' and Elsa's coronation) and second act (a scene in her ice palace after having thrown her sister out) reflecting her desire for a normal relationship with her sister, and also at the end of the film, during the final resolution, reflecting an understanding of how she has come to control her powers and the implications of this. This would have given Elsa enough context to make the final payoff and reunion seem worthwhile.

[this book, part of the story canon, gives you more context on the sisters' relationship. it would have been great to have more of this in the film. I understand the first act was already heavy, but more context would have only made the film better.]


Why Care Anyway?

Most poor films are poor for good reason. Nothing tends to resonate with you. You don't care about the story or characters. 'Frozen' is different. It may be a mediocre film on grounds of a poor plot and character development. But it works thematically and emotionally, and how! It manages to somehow successfully play with mature themes and extremely likeable characters that hook you, reel you in, and leave you wanting more.

Most people, me included, don't mind watching a film without much character development as long as we get likeable characters and a plot with a resolution. We just love sinking our teeth into a character, even a simple one, as the film takes them on this torturous journey. We love this kind of emotional fulfilment. This is exactly what most action movies do. Think back to all the Marvel movies you've seen. Characters don't really develop. They simply blow stuff up and achieve a resolution. But 'Frozen' doesn't even do this. It doesn't even have a real plot or satisfying resolution. 

What 'Frozen' does instead is capture and transfix us with these incredible themes, characters, moments, music and silences, to the extent that we don't initially care about the story or flaws anymore. They seem minuscule compared to this new world we are now a part of. And that could be why we look past its flaws and still enjoy the film.

Right from the background score during the opening credits (setting the mood for the film), the opening song with the ice harvesters, the scene with the girls playing (notice the silence), the trolls and the introduction of fear, the serious narration over events as the king speaks, the sad exposition by song, the initial conflict, Let it Go, the darkness, the beauty, the animation, Elsa's sheer presence, Kristen Bell and Josh Gad's extremely likeable voice overs, the facial expressions, Olaf's tender conversation about love with Anna, the powerful self-sacrifice scene on the frozen fjord, and again the use of silence throughout the film, all these elements simply work at an emotional level and work together to do something few animated films do - they make you feel. Feel for characters and themes so much that you forget the film doesn't have much of a plot, and leave you wanting more. One could say 'Frozen' is not so much a film as a collection of likeable characters and beautiful powerful moving moments with a plot loosely thrown in to connect them.

Is this why Frozen transfixes us so much? I would still say 'no', not exclusively, there's more. Consider other recent well-made and well-written films like 'Spirited Away' or 'Wall-E'. Not only do I respect them technically but I 'feel' them as well. They fill me with awe and wonder. I recognise them for the epics they are. They all have the same elements that I enjoy in 'Frozen', the same mature themes, silences, music and likeable characters. Yet they don't transfix me in the same way that 'Frozen' does. What's so different about 'Frozen'? The only difference I see is the lack of a plot and character development. Maybe that's it. Maybe it's these flaws that make this film move us so much.

The film keeps torturing the audience with questions about the plot and by Elsa, but never answers them, leaving the audience to infer the answers for themselves. This process of filling in the gaps coupled with the mature themes and likeable characters leads to you having a more personal connection with the film than if it were simply a good film. 

You're not sure why Anna's memories are erased, but you go along with the plot, you don't know what kind of relationship the sisters have after 13 years apart, so you skip over the gap, but it's still there in the back of your mind. It's the same with the sister's relationship from Elsa's viewpoint, which is non existent, and from Anna's view point, which is incomplete. Ditto with Elsa's inconsistent character development, the unnecessary misdirection with the love triangle, and the quick one-sided resolution. All of these are inconsistencies that stick in your mind to some extent, but the most important one, IMO, is the lack of context for Elsa. 

Elsa's story is just so incomplete, it hurts. More so because Elsa as a character is simply mesmerising. Anna, Kristoff, Hans, Olaf and Sven are merely forgettable comic relief compared to her, they're your standard Disney animated cardboard cutout characters. Spunky, optimistic, extroverted, grounded, evil, confident, funny, innocent, overly anthropomorphic. We've seen them all before. They're stereotypes. 

Elsa is different. They broke the mould with her. Elsa's wants have nothing to do with her relationship with her sister, which is what the film is about. Elsa's only want is to not be afraid. This is incredibly dark, mature and tragic, making her a unique character like no other. Combine this damaged part of her character with her other refined qualities, and we're hooked. So when the film then proceeds to give us this tantalising transformation where she turns into an ice-queen, we're more than hooked, we're part of her self-realisation. We are Elsa. Of course, this character change can't sustain itself without support from the story, which never happens and so the ending sucks, leading to you feeling empty after watching the film. A lack of closure. Disappointment in the story. But you still worship the character. You want to see more of her.

So what the film does is it gives us this character, Elsa, who is just so far ahead of all the other characters in terms of how interesting she is, lets us fall in love with her, and then never really give us a satisfying story about her, leading to an even greater desire to see more of her. Do you see my point? Do you see how ironic this is? The same reason why Elsa doesn't work well for the story is the same reason she works so well for the audience.

Do you see how crazy this is, how unintentionally brilliantly exploitative this is? You want to see more of Elsa, more exposition from her. You expect more about her tragic past, her relationship, her guilt. And the film builds this up by dangling Elsa in front of you every now and then without really giving you enough of her. It's like they're practising 'less is more' with Elsa. Which actually works. The audience is left wanting more of her, expecting more from her, right till the end, which turns out to be disappointing, and even after the film ends.

You let all these inconsistencies and gaps gather at the back of your mind as you watch the film, as the characters grow on you, as you hope for a final resolution which never really comes. The ending is infuriating in it's inadequacy, but the inconsistencies are still there. And you care about them because the film's elements are so powerful, and you identify with the characters. So you can't wish away the gaps. You're aware the film has flaws and open questions, and you need to reconcile them. And as you try to do this, you admit that the film was powerful enough to makes the gaps stick to begin with. They're embedded in your mind, they're a permanent part of your psyche. You try to fill in the gaps yourself, by inferring what you must, in order to regain your peace of mind, leading you to form a connection with this film like no other.

Other animated epics are compelling emotionally fulfilling perfectly crafted stories about likeable characters. Which is why we praise them and enjoy watching them. 'Frozen' on the other hand is a compelling emotionally unfulfilling incomplete story about likeable characters, leaving you wanting more. That makes 'Frozen' a worse film technically, but might also make you connect with it and the characters and in the long run become a bigger fan of the franchise in a way no other film can.


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