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Thursday, April 20, 2017

April 20, 2017: Animating History: Frozen and Expectations

[On April 17th, 1937, Daffy Duck made his debut, in the Warner Brothers cartoon “Porky’s Duck Hunt.” In honor of that foul-tempered feathered friend, this week I’ll AmericanStudy five animated histories. Share your thoughts on them, on Daffy, or on animation or cartoons of any kind for a weekend post that’s sure to draw a crowd!]
On challenges to our expectations, less and more successful. [SPOILERS for Frozen follow, if you’re one of the lucky non-parents who haven’t seen it many, many times by now.]
If the subject of yesterday’s post, The Princess and the Frog, significantly revised the existing canon of Disney Princesses, one of the newest and now most financially successful Disney animated films of all time, Frozen (2013), went further still. The film overtly seeks to revise a number of the tropes and myths at the heart of virtually every prior Disney animated film, including romantic narratives and their reliance on the concepts of love at first sight and true love, heroines/princesses and their arcs and goals, and even the relative importance of familial vs. romantic relationships in our storytelling. We’re not talking Who Framed Roger Rabbit? level meta-textuality or subversiveness here, exactly—but for a Disney animated film, I was struck by just how much Frozen comments on and challenges those traditional tropes.
All of those challenges are interesting and meaningful, but it’s also instructive to note which ones work and which, to this viewer, don’t. In the latter category I would locate the film’s challenge to romantic narratives, which it achieves by first linking its princess heroine Anna with the dashing Prince Hans and then eventually revealing him to be a heartless villain instead. It’s true that Frozen foreshadows that character shift through multiple characters’ reactions to Anna’s instant love and connection; she is repeatedly, incredulously asked, “You’re engaged to a man you just met?!” But it’s also true that much of the early section of Frozen makes happy use of the romantic tropes, including the extended, treacly song and dance number “Love is an Open Door.” So if Hans’ sudden shift feels somewhat unbelievable (and to this viewer it did), the film’s own heavy earlier reliance on those romantic tropes would have to be seen as contributing to that effect.
On the other hand, I found Frozen’s challenges to the traditional heroine arcs and emphases very successful and quite moving. That’s true for the two individual characters, as both Anna and (especially) her sister Elsa have journeys that are far more about their perspectives, experiences, and identities than about finding a romantic partner. But it’s even more true for them as sisters, as their stories are deeply intertwined and come to a powerful conclusion that remains more about them, individually and as a pair, than it is about the love interest character or indeed anyone outside of this complex duo. To see a pair of complex, interconnected women whose relationship is rich and evolving and multi-layered, and whose most powerful emotional notes depend on that familial history and bond—well, I don’t know that I was ready for a Disney animated film that could pass the Bechdel Test. But I’m very glad that this one does.
Last animated history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other animation or cartoon thoughts you’d share?

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