The following is an installment in an ongoing series of blog posts analyzing contemporary family films that the author has previously resisted seeing. This series is a sequel of sorts to a previous series called Finding Pixar: A Skeptics Journey, which applied the same treatment to the films of the Pixar Animation Studio.
It’s interesting, at this point I’ve watched and analyzed over 35 movies for this essay series and my previous series focusing on Pixar and yet there’s a certain mouse in the room I haven’t addressed: Disney. Well, that’s not entirely true. Pixar is a subsidiary of Disney, I guess you could count all of those if you wanted but the mouse house has been pretty adamant about treating that as a separate brand. Also, Time Burton’s Frankenweenie was technically a Disney release but I think everyone can agree that doesn’t really count either. So why have I avoided the mainline Disney movies in this little survey of contemporary family flicks? Same reason everyone else has, the movies they put out in the aughts are by all accounts sub-par efforts unworthy of most people’s attention. Maybe it was because they didn’t want to distract from the Pixar cash-cow, maybe it was because they just couldn’t adjust to CGI animation but for whatever reason Disney followed up their 90s renaissance with what is easily their worst era since the days of Oliver and Company. It was a decade that gave us disasters like Home on the Range, Meet the Robinsons, and Brother Bear. These were movies that didn’t even have the dignity to be memorable disasters, they were just sort of there, and they certainly couldn’t compete with what Pixar and Dreamworks were putting out.
Then something changed in the 20-teens. It didn’t happen overnight exactly but as Pixar has waned Disney proper seems to have stepped up. There are probably a lot of reasons for this, the most obvious one seems to be that John Lasseter took over as a creative chief after Pixar was formally bought in 2006 and that it took a little while for his input to manifest itself in the form of actual films. Lasseter seemed to have a handful of different ideas of how to restore Disney to its former glory and the first and perhaps most obvious was a sort of back to basics return to fairy tale adaptations. It’s a decision that was such a no-brainer that I’m not sure why it wasn’t done sooner. In the decade since Mulan was released in 1998 Disney had turned the female characters in their back catalog into a unified marketing brand dubbed the “Disney Princesses,” a canny business decision that boosted sales at the Disney Consumer Products division from $300 million in 2001 to $3 billion by 2006 and it was only logical that they would want to play into that success. Really though, it doesn’t take crassly corporate reasons like that to see why making more princess movies would be a good idea. The simple fact is that the studio had had clear success with fairy tale movies in the past and had found nothing by failure by moving away from them.
There was one major hurdle though: gender politics. Disney has always been in a under intense scrutiny because of their position as a media empire believed to have major influence over young people and has long been mired in the middle of culture wars. In the last fifteen years there seems to have been more debate about “Disney Princesses” than about Net Neutrality, the Patriot Act, and the Darfur crisis combined. As such, most of the talk about movies like Tangled, Frozen, and Pixar’s Brave have had less to do with the actual films than whether or not their protagonists are good role models for girls. Personally, I don’t care too much. I’m not going to completely ignore the gender issues going into these movies (the filmmakers certainly haven’t) but it’s worth remembering that my goals in analyzing movies for this essay series has never been to judge how the movies will work for their “intended audience” and it definitely hasn’t been to decide if these movies are going to mold young people’s self esteem. This series has always been about my own personal selfish response to these movies, to put them to the test and see whether they’re actually “for everybody.”
I don’t like to think back to this stage in my life but when I was working my way through college I had a soul-sucking job at a big box retailer which will remain nameless (it rhymed with Parget). The you tend to notice when you have a job like that is how much of a bubble you live in, especially when you hear your co-workers talking about pop culture in the break room. It certainly wasn’t lost on me that not everyone was into the kind of movies I liked, but it wasn’t until I worked at that place that I came to realize how many people’s viewing habits were completely subservient to what their children and in some cases grandchildren were into. Case in point, there was a middle aged woman who worked in that place (she was a high ranking employee actually, the head of HR on site) and anytime anyone in the breakroom brought up the topic of movies she’s suddenly say “ooh, have you seen Tangled? My grandchildren love it!” often seeming oblivious to the fact that twenty-something childless employee she was talking to maybe didn’t have a reason to be interested in such things. I always secretly rolled my eyes when I heard her say this, it just seemed like such a lame thing to get that enthusiastic over and not just because it seemed odd for an adult to default to a Disney movie as an exemplar of fine cinema. This particular Disney movie just sounded particularly… un-noteworthy. It had a lame title and… that’s about all I knew about it. I was getting some decent reviews but it certainly wasn’t getting the Pixar treatment and it didn’t even get the often perfunctory Best Animated Feature nomination at the Oscars.
At first glance the film just seems like yet another in a long line of fairy tale adaptations by Disney, but if you think about it that’s actually kind of unusual. As heavily associated with fairy tales as Disney is, it’s interesting that before they made Tangled they’d done a pretty admirable job of not going back to that well for the longest time. In fact, they hadn’t made a movie based on a traditional European fairy tale since 1991’s Beauty and the Beast. In the time since then they certainly made some movies adapted from non-European folk tales (Aladdin, Mulan), as well as certain European novels (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Treasure Planet), and a handful of other sources like Greek mythology (Hercules) and even historical stories (Pocahontas) but never a regular-ass prince charming saves a motherfucking damsel fairy tale. In fact, for most of the movies they made during their not so beloved stretch during the 2000s had abandoned source material altogether in favor of telling original stories, usually to less than stellar ends. So, with Tangled they decided to take a back-to-basics approach and adapt the German fairy tale of Rapunzel. Kind of an odd choice of story given that much of the original Rapunzel story is set at a single tower, and that the original Grimm version involves such pleasantries as unplanned pregnancy and eye gouging, but this adaptation has been expanded with extra adventure elements and as is often the case with Disney movies is quite different from the folklore.
Going into this I expected it to be a very conscious attempt to recreate the magic of those Disney Renaissance movies and while there is some of that going on here there is a key difference: irreverence. Now I may be completely misremembering those older Disney movies but I remember them being fairly sincere efforts that played things straight more often than they didn’t. There was certainly comic relief in those movies, but I feel like it was mostly contained to certain silly side characters like Iago the parrot or Pumbaa and Timon. These were annoying characters to be sure, but they were just individual characters. I might just be misremembering this and some of the stuff in those movies might have just felt less silly to me as a child than it would if I was watching the movies today, but that is the impression I’m left with. This movie on the other hand seems to bend over backwards in order to produce a dumb laugh ever ten seconds. Some of this was done through dedicated comedic characters like Rapunzel’s lizard, a seemingly sentient police horse, and a gang of thugs led by a ruffian who really just wants to be a concert pianist. The humor isn’t just contained to those characters though; the whole movie seems to be filled with silliness, including a number of scenes where the movie plays with editing in order to get laughs. It doesn’t quite descend into Shrek levels of tomfoolery but I really disliked these comedic elements, which were more stupid than funny and which really robbed the movie of the classical feel and epic sweep that they should have been going for and kind of cheapens the whole experience.
An interesting side note about the film is that it had a somewhat troubled production which ended up going way over-budget. The movie is thought to have cost over $260 million, which would make it the second most expensive movie ever made up to that date (fifth most expensive of all time today) and to this date the most expensive animated film ever made. To put that in perspective, Brave only cost $185 million and freakin’ Avatar only cost $237 million. I find this fact kind of staggering if only because the film’s animation mostly just looks kind of average. The character models have the same basic style and fidelity of most CGI animated films and the backgrounds don’t look that much different than most medieval set animated flicks. The one standout effect that must have cost all that money was Rapunzel’s hair, which does indeed look pretty good. In fact this hair effect is one of the more memorable aspects of the film beyond its technical fidelity in that it’s simply an interesting image even though the movie frequently cheats and makes it shorter or longer depending on the needs of a given scene. The hair tech in Pixar’s Brave was probably better, but that movie had an extra two years to develop said hair tech so I guess that’s to be expected.
Speaking of Brave, watching this has maybe given me a better appreciation for that movie and perhaps for the Pixar approach in general. At the very least that studio seems to know how to integrate humor in a slightly more dignified way and it also doesn’t feel some need to integrate musical numbers. This film is a full-on Disney musical, which I believe does differentiate it from most of what they were making in the 2000s and likens it more to the Disney Renaissance material. The film’s music was written by Alan Menken, who did the music for a number of famous Disney movies in the past, with lyrics by the frequent Andrew Lloyd Weber collaborator Glen Slater. That would seem like a pretty heavy hitting team for this sort of thing but they really didn’t seem to weave that much gold out of it. Admitedly, I’m not much of a fan of this kind of broadway style music in general but I do know a memorable song when I hear it and none of this stuff is memorable in the way that previous Disney showstoppers like “Can You See the Love Tonight” or “A Whole New World” have been. The one song that did sort of stand out was the song “Mother Knows Best,” and while I know next to nothing about Broadway music even I can tell that that song is a blatant ripoff of the song “Master of the House” from “Les Misérables.”
But perhaps I’ve gotten into the weeds too quickly, let’s step back and take a look at the story itself. Like the original fairy tale, this is a story about a princess being held captive by a witch named Mother Gothel who needs the princess’ magic hair in order to keep her from aging. The exact rules of how this magic works are poorly explained and not logically consistent throughout the movie, but we’ll get back to that later. There is a kernel of a good idea in this setup because Gothel keeps Rapunzel in the tower not through force but through manipulation and claims that the outside world is too dangerous. I’m pretty sure this is supposed to be a metaphor for the parental fear of the empty nest, but that would have been a lot more interesting if it felt for a minute like Gothel actually believed some of her bullshit and had actually formed some kind of real bond with Rapunzel but instead her motivations are almost entirely selfish and she’s a pretty unambiguously villainous. The whole concept of parents refusing to allow their children to leave a single building was explored much better that same year by Yorgos Lanthimos Dogtooth, and in the realm of children’s film parental over-protection was also addressed better in Pixar’s Finding Nemo.
The film also really begins to fall apart in its final thirty or forty minutes or so when its many logical leaps come back to bite it in the ass. The fact that Rapunzel’s birthday is a big clue about her identity is a little ridiculous to begin with (why the hell would Gothel let Rapunzel know her real birthday if the king and queen are going to use it to release lanterns?) but the way she uses some sort of subliminal sun symbol to firmly realize her identity is simply ridiculous. The way she’s also able to resurrect her dead soon to be boyfriend with a single tear post magical hair cutting is also completely out of nowhere and inconsistent with everything we’ve learned about this magic so far. Finally, it’s not clear at all how Rapunzel is able to so easily be re-united with her parents at the end who don’t seem to do much of anything in order to verify her identity.
But I’m getting lost in the weeds again, let’s take another step back and look at the characters. Despite her questionable captive keeping abilities I would say that Mother Gothel is a pretty decent twist on the evil stepmom character given that she’s manipulative rather than openly nasty. I also sort of see where they were going by making the main male protagonist a roguish thief rather than a valiant prince but I don’t really think they go far enough with it. This guy is so tame and has had so many edges removed that it’s hard to really think of him as having ever been a criminal at all and he may as well have been a prince charming the whole time. Had he actually had some real danger to him at all that would have made his interactions with Rapunzel a lot more interesting. Of course the main thing that many commentators are going to be interested in is the main character and whether or not she qualifies as a Strong Female Character™. The short answer is: not as much as the feminists want her to be but moreso than the story really merits. The film does go out of its way to give Rapunzel a lot of spunk and to not just make her a helpless character that needs to be saved over and over… but I’m not exactly sure if that makes a lot of sense for a character that’s been stuck in a damn tower for eighteen years. If she was such a Strong Female Character™ this whole time why did she stay in that tower for so long? I get the desire to put stronger women in these movies but there seems to be a certain degree of helplessness baked into this character’s DNA and the attempts that Disney makes to fit this square object into a round hole just kind of come off perfunctory and half-assed.
So, for the most part I’d say that Disney kind of stumbled coming out of the gate in trying to bring their patented Princess format to the Digital age, at least from an artistic point of view. With the general public the film seemed to be liked but not loved. Granted, the movie did make $591 million dollars worldwide and that’s a lot of money any way you cut it and does qualify as a hit but compared to the $1 Billion plus that Toy Story 3 made that year it seemed a lot less impressive and it was also outgrossed by Shrek Forever After in the world market that year and domestically by How to Train Your Dragon and Despicable Me. In short the movie just kind of seemed like another fairly successful family movie that earned moderately respectable reviews and got an Oscar nomination for a song. What we didn’t know was that this was planting a seed for a Disney comeback that would grow into a major hit a few years later just as Pixar was about to start showing signs of weakness.
Moderate hit though it may have been, Tangled did not leave much of a cultural impression. That is most certainly not the case with Disney’s next princess movie: Frozen. Critically the movie was really well liked but never quite hit Pixar levels of affection. It wasn’t a top ten list fixture come year end and there weren’t too many people demanding that it become a Best Picture nominee, but boy oh boy did the public go for it. The movie made over 1.2 billion dollars at the worldwide box office making it the fifth highest grossing movie of all time by the time its theatrical run finished. Of course Iron Man 3 made almost as much money and even outgrossed it domestically, but Frozen clearly left the much bigger cultural impression than it or any other movie that year. For proof you need not look any further than the fact that you could not go anywhere without having the song “Let it Go” shoved in your face. The song managed to reach the top five on the Billboard charts despite not getting any radio airplay outside of children’s music stations and propelled the film’s soundtrack to go Quadruple platinum (no easy feat given the state of album sales). The bigger testament to the song’s immese popularity though is the sheer number of interpretations and parodies were inundated with that year. We saw versions of the song about driving in inclement weather, about the polar vortex, about taking final exams, about Game of Thrones, about how there are too many “Let if Go” parodies… almost always sung by people with none of Idina Menzel’s vocal abilities and with an endless craving to get attention by jumping on a pop culture fad.
Funny thing is, for all I heard about “Let it Go” I feel like I knew very little about the actual movie that it came from and wasn’t really sure what to expect out of it. I wasn’t expecting much out of it and as the film started I was actually pretty pleasantly surprised by what I was watching and by how successful the movie was at using its musical sequences to advance the story. The first forty or so minutes of the film are actually quite good. The film grabs the audience early on with a musical number called “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” that really effectively sets up the strained relationship between the main characters and sums up the passage of time much more interestingly than the narrated opening of Tangled did. It also does a pretty good job of establishing an adult Anna as the film’s protagonist and actually finds a semi-believable if slightly satirical means of setting her up with a prince charming named Hans via a pretty well written song called “Love is an Open Door.” This in turn leads to a fairly natural freakout by Elsa leading her to flee into the mountains, culminating in now iconic “Let it Go” scene.
That is a hell of a setup and minus a couple of forgivable family movie moments the movie more or less had me at that point. Unfortunately, I don’t think the movie ever really lives up to the promise of its first third and quickly starts making some pretty big missteps from there. Actually, I wonder if “Let it Go” itself is kind of the first misstep. Honestly, I kind of liked the song better when I was hearing it out of context. Idina Menzel certainly belts out the notes well on the song but she also doesn’t really sound much like Elsa while she’s singing it. She no longer sounds as young as she does in the rest of the character and kind of seems to drop the voice. She sounds less like Elsa the princess on the mountain and more like Idina the Broadway star in a soundstudio. That’s a nitpick though, the bigger issue is that the film itself almost seems to be intimidated by the song and almost concedes that it’s peaked early. Even though there’s another hour left of movie there are really only two more musical sequences after “Let it Go” and one of them is purely comedic (more on that stupid shit later).
The film’s losing steam at this point is hardly confined to the sudden downtick in musical numbers (that’s just a symptom). The movie also really seems to rush this whole middle section. One problem is that Elsa’s curse doesn’t really seem all that onerous. The movie appears to be set in a facsimile of Scandanavia, a place that isn’t exactly unaccustomed to a little snow and having them stuck in a perpetual winter just doesn’t seem like it would be all that devastating, at least not for the incredibly short time that this curse seems to last. I feel like the movie would have been a lot stronger if it had flash forwarded a couple years at that point so that the kingdom would be more desperate, the sisters would become more estranged, and Elsa would have more time to stew and go into isolated hermit mode up on the mountain. This would have made the twist about Hans and his scheme impossible, but that whole sub-plot was misguided (for I’ll get into later) anyway, so that’s no big loss. Instead we have Anna rushing right away on her own to find Elsa and talk her down from the mountain, even though as a princess she probably would have had the means to bring a whole host of guards and guides in order to make her journey less perilous.
Along the way she runs into a talking snowman named Olaf and… oh boy did I not like this character. When I looked at Tangled I mentioned that my memory of previous Disney movies was that they often funneled all their comic relief into designated “comedy characters” like Pumbaa and Timon, and Olaf the snowman is certainly part of that tradition. I also said that Tangled would have been better off if had contained its dumb joke to a single character rather than letting to pervade the whole film and I do still think that. Frozen definitely benefits from the fact that it mostly restrains its silliness when dealing with the main characters, so if they absolutely had to put some stupid shit into this movie to entertain some of the dumber kids in the audience I guess I’m glad that Olaf is there to bear that burden but that doesn’t make him any less annoying and in some ways it’s actually worse because his antics feel so out of place. What’s more, the character seems completely unnecessary outside of his role as a designated comic relief character. He seems to add almost nothing to Anna’s journey to the castle and the pretty much just pick him up because the Disney execs knew that kids would enjoy his antics.
Then there’s the three-quarter twist that Hans has been a malevolent force the whole time. This is a twist that is somehow both eminently predictable and also kind of disappointing when it happens. The second that Anna and Hans “fall in love at first sight” I had a pretty strong hunch that he wasn’t all that he seemed, but I will give the movie credit: for a short brief moment it had me doubting that first impression. In fact, during the scene where Hans leads his men into Elsa’s ice fortress and goes out of his way not to have them kill her on sight I even wrote down “wow, they aren’t going the clichéd route of making the first prince an asshole.” Not ten minutes later they revealed that they were going to do just that and it was pretty disappointing. What’s more, Hans proves to be a rather inept usurper and generally isn’t much of a threat to either of the Strong Female Characters™ that Disney has set him up against. His scheme (to pretend to marry Anna before leaving her to die and then execute her sister) seems pretty convoluted and reliant on certain coincidences. That he reveals it in one of those movie scenes where villains explain their evil plans for no reason is forgivable, but the fact that he leaves Anna alive before going out and claiming she was dead makes no sense, and neither does the fact that the rest of her court just takes his word that they exchanged wedding vows when the goddamn throne is on the line.
When Hans finally does start simply going after Elsa with a sword at the end just doesn’t seem all that threatening, but really the bigger issue with that scene is the film’s rather jumbled take on the rules behind Elsa’s powers. The film’s plot is based around a rather convoluted spell requiring Anna to lose her memory for some reason. When put in this “frozen heart” spell Anna’s physical state seems to behave exactly the way the script requires it to, particularly when forces her to turn into ice at just the right moment to block Hans’ sword blow before it can fell Elsa. Then she’s magically resurrected by love at the perfectly convenient moment, which is dumb firstly because it’s saccharine bullshit and secondly because it’s basically a deus ex machina that lacks internal logic and the fact that it seems to solve both Anna’s death and Elsa’s emotional trauma for no particular reason really seems like a big cheat.
Now, having said all of that, I actually don’t want to come off too negatively towards this film. If nothing else this is a huge improvement over Tangled. CGI animation technology noticeably improved in the three years between but more importantly the team making this clearly had more of a cinematic eye than the ones who made that previous Disney effort. Tangled was a movie that was very comfortable being a mere cartoon, but Frozen clearly aspires to be more and you can tell by the “camera moves” and detailed “sets” and “costumes” that they want this to be something a bit more akin to a “Game of Thrones” style fantasy environment than the more fairy tale-ish world of Tangled. The film also has a notably restrained voice cast with Kristen Bell as the only celebrity voice in the whole film, a stark contrast to the M.O. of Dreamworks and even Pixar to some extent.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m not mad at the film so much as I’m disappointed. There seems to be some special talent being put into the film and that first third of the film really seemed to be setting up something and I could see this rather dark story beneath the surface that the movie seems to be running away from as fast as it could. If the movie hadn’t gotten bogged down by stupidity like talking snowmen, singing trolls, and lame twists it really could have been something. As it is, it’s still a pretty good movie for what it is and I do think it more or less got the reception it deserved. If people had been giving it the Pixar “oh my god, this thing must win Oscars!!!” treatment I would have balked but it does fit pretty well in this sort of middlebrow between Pixar’s best and Dreamworks’ nonsense.
So between these two movies and this decade’s other main princess text, Pixar’s Brave, what have we learned about princesses in the 21st century? Probably not that much. Honestly the women in these movies don’t really seem all that different from the princesses in the 90s. Mirada from Brave is objectively the strongest of these Strong Female Characters™ and the film she was in is the only one that’s really engages in the roles that existed for women in medieval Europe, but she’s also arguably only strong in so much as she was a tomboy and the whole film kind of felt like it was trying a little too hard to be the opposite of the traditional princess story when it was in fact not really doing much of anything that the Mulans of the world hadn’t already done. Rapunzel in Tangled by contrast just felt like a standard helpless princess who was given a bunch of extra spunk in some late draft of the screenplay so that they wouldn’t get yelled at by people on the internet. It’s actually the ladies in Frozen who seem like their relative strength was actually come to organically rather than out of some sort of obligation to create good role models for girls.
That’s probably a big part of why Frozen is probably the best of the three overall. Brave is probably the most mature of the three films and makes the fewest obvious missteps involving lame comic relief and confused writing but Frozen has higher highs to go along with the lower lows and just generally seems like the most memorable of the three. As for Tangled, well, the less said about it the better. That movie seemed lame when I watched it and even lamer when I had a much better Disney movie in Frozen to compare it to. If that movie is remembered at all ten years from now it’s only going to be as a stepping stone for a studio trying to get its footing after a difficult transition. All this having been said, I don’t think any of these movies are homeruns and I kind of feel like the Disney princess formula is never really going to be my cup o’ tea and given how much money it’s made the company over the years I don’t think the Disney executives are going to be losing much sleep over that.