Disney’s Frozen, which is as of this writing at the top of the box office, didn’t strike me as a particularly great movie when I saw it. Frozen was competent and in places adorable, and the little girl who sat next to me at the screening I attended quite liked it. And I thought: well, I passed a pleasant evening, I have no real objections, but I’m sure this won’t have any lingering effect. I left the theater secure in the belief that The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King, which were the ones released when I was in the just-old-enough-to-get-the-adult-jokes demographic, would remain undisturbed at the top of my Disney list.
And yet: in the weeks since, usually late at night or sometimes early on a bad morning, I find myself sneaking over to YouTube to watch the film’s big musical sequence. In it, Elsa, Disney’s bastardized (which is fine) version of the Snow Queen belts out a big number called “Let It Go” while she builds a castle out of ice. I derive some kind of weirdly primal comfort from this musically-pretty-simple song, and I think I know why: it’s a perfect distillation of the classic female coming-of-age dilemma.
A quick recap for those who’ll only watch the clip: Elsa has just revealed to everyone that she has the power to freeze things at will, and sometimes when emotion wells up in her it happens without her choosing. She had concealed the talent and curse for most of her childhood and adolescence by hiding in her room, afraid. (Her parents command her to do this, which seems a little dark for Disney, frankly, but others can write about that.) So when she sings, “Don’t let them in, don’t let them see / Be the good girl you always have to be,” she’s talking about how, for a long time, the only means of control she had was isolation. Literal isolation.
Elsa’s creators are picking up on a recurring theme in the girls’ coming-of-age genre as a whole. Obedience is required of all children, of course, but from Jane Eyre down to Elsa, the specter of the “good girl” is a major psychological ball and chain. Most of us aren’t locked in a room, of course, exactly; we just become lonely and angry because the thing is, being the “good girl” never works out in the end. You will never please everyone, because “everyone” doesn’t have the kind of clear desires you can reformulate into a personal set of rules. The only solution is to figure out what it is you want, and run after it.
In a better world, it would not take most of us until our early 20s to realize this. By then, because the path of the “good girl” is doomed to a million small failures, a lot of us are bottling up some serious anger about how hard we’ve tried and how it wasn’t good enough. We can’t fix the thing with a little pop-song belting and ice-castle building, so usually the catharsis of escaping the dilemma for the rest of us involves a bunch of eyeliner and ill-advised PVC/pleather/Spandex legwear. Or a more explosive show of rebellion — see, e.g., Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears, etc.
Frozen‘s problem — from my grown-up perspective — is that it doesn’t really follow this theme with Elsa all the way to its logical end. People have made much of the fact that the film’s central relationship is between Elsa and her sister Anna, because that was Disney’s somewhat awkward and conclusory attempt at making Frozen a “feminist” Disney movie. But I think it would have been far better to make Elsa more of a protagonist and have her liberation be a little less ambiguous. There’s something odd about how her liberating moment sees her shutting herself up again into a new castle. She tells Anna she’s perfectly happy alone there, and the movie only shakes her out of it by putting Anna in mortal peril at the end. It’s a moment of connection, but it’s only a brief one. And Anna is so perfect in the film, so full of spark and sisterly devotion, that she doesn’t present a resonant alternative. I was left wishing the whole movie had kept expanding that one song instead of moving off into the Sisters 4Ever plot.
It’s a shame, because, you know, there was a time when it seemed Disney movies were moving towards a sort of radical model of princesshood. After all, what I remember best about The Little Mermaid is not Ariel marrying the perfect Prince Eric but the “Part of Your World” sequence, which was not about dreaming of love above sea level, but about wanting a life beyond the constraints her father had set for her. “Bright young women / sick of swimmin’ / ready to stand,” remember that? There are echoes of it in “Let It Go.” If they make a Frozen 2, I hope they come back to that.