Why “Frozen’s” Story Is Even Better Than Its Songs

Critics have lauded Disney’s latest smash hit, “Frozen,” for its music and visuals, but not enough critics have pointed out perhaps its greatest strength: the story. It’s time to give some credit to Jennifer Lee, the co-director / screenplay writer whose previous big-screen work was penning the underrated “Wreck-It Ralph,” whose many plot twists were both surprising and inevitable—the kind of smart, clever writing not often seen in children’s films. “Frozen” is even more impressive because it walks a tightrope between genre subversion and convention, and it does so while presenting a cohesive and entertaining narrative.

Some critics have pointed out that as a story of two sisters, the two sisters don’t share enough time on screen. Such criticism is ill-founded because it overlooks what the story is really about: the individual journeys of two sisters, who begin the story close together, drift apart to a near-breaking point, and then find reconciliation. Their personal struggles are not the same, yet their ultimate resolution necessitates their reunion, setting up the basic narrative arc that fits precisely with the story being told.

Elsa’s story is the one with literal subtext: consumed with fear for the powers she possesses, she flees her home and seeks solitude in the mountains. Viewers have interpreted her plight as a metaphor for anything from reaching adolescence to coming out as gay, and that’s why her story has been so relatable and popular: all of us have had some anxiety about who we are and how others view us.

Anna’s storyline, though, is just as resonant. Jennifer Lee understands the Disney trope of true love and its tendency to be based on a single interaction (see “Snow White” and “Sleeping Beauty”). This genre trope is obviously flipped on its head with the manipulative Prince Hans and the early song “Love is An Open Door,” yet its placement near the beginning of the narrative doesn’t shock moviegoers who have become used to Disney’s expedited romances. Anna’s quest to find true love is ultimately one of a transformation from passive waiting to active doing. She spends nearly the entire movie waiting for an act of love to just happen to her. Even after Olaf explains what true love is (“You put someone else’s needs before your own”), she thinks she needs Kristoff to kiss her. It’s only when she saves her sister that she realizes love isn’t something that happens to you, but rather it’s a choice you make. The revelation isn’t that Anna chose her sister over a man—it’s that she made a choice to act rather than to be passive, and that led her to what was most important.

Some have pointed at Olaf as purely marketing material for toys. Olaf, though, is so important, because he is the literal manifestation of the compassion between sisters. As he sits on Sven’s back and points out that “the sky’s awake,” he echoes toddler Anna speaking with her elder sister. He always puts others’ needs first because he is made from true love, just as the large snow monster is Olaf’s foil, made from fear and anger. Olaf is the clue for how to solve the entire plot—his dream is to thaw the ice and bring back summer, and how could it not be? That is the dream of both Anna and Elsa, after all.

The middle of the film—Anna and Kristoff traveling to Elsa’s castle—is important because it reinforces the notion that you must get to know someone before knowing what kind of person that someone is. Both Anna and Kristoff discover this—neither particularly likes the other at the outset of their quest, and the issues that they discuss (“You got engaged to someone you just met that day?”) are nonetheless relevant and poignant.

Jennifer Lee sets up a tightly written narrative arc, but she cleverly masks it by subverting the audience’s expectation of how a Disney princess movie should be. In doing so, she retains the strong traditions of the genre while offering something fresh and new, something important that speaks to its time. So next time you’re belting “Let It Go” in the shower, remember to salute the screenwriter who gave the film its heart.

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Review of CHAMPION by Marie Lu

Champion concludes the Legend Trilogy by Marie Lu, and if you’ve read and enjoyed the first two entries, then you’ll want to read this final installment. It’s a fitting and satisfying conclusion to the series, though Lu’s unwillingness to take many risks inhibits it from soaring to great narrative heights.

Once again, readers are treated to the alternating dual-POV protagonists of June and Day, and once again they must deal with their personal drama as well as the pressure of being heroes to the people of the Republic of America. One of Lu’s strengths is her ability to keep the plot moving and keep the characters moving through different settings–the narrative never feels stagnant like Insurgent/Allegiant or even to some degree Mockingjay. Another strength is that the protagonists have distinctive voices and views of the world; by now we’ve come to like them and enjoy their relationship, so we genuinely hope that they succeed. The strongest part of the book for me was the final chapter. I won’t give it away, but I do wish the rest of the book–and series–had the same dramatic tension and sense of unfulfilled longing.

Unfortunately, the book has its faults. Like its predecessors, the actual writing itself doesn’t stand out. In this entry more than the others, Lu relies too much on repetitive cliches. Both characters must have felt shivers run down their backs a million times. Sometimes the protagonists’ inner voices have too much distance and introspection to be realistic. In one scene, during the heat of battle in which she’s forced to kill, June reflects on how she doesn’t believe in killing and how she finds the situation undesirable–when she should be so full of adrenaline that she shouldn’t be reflecting at all, but rather relying on primal instinct. It’s as if Lu is worried the reader won’t understand her characters’ true natures unless she spells them out.

While not quite a criticism, another issue is the lack of risks the book takes. Scenes of physical intimacy between the protagonists are stripped bare of any detail, which makes sense given the target demographic, but why include them at all, then? Reading scenes that are obviously dancing around their subject matter feels like a cop-out. The final chapter and a half proves that Lu can shake up the repetitive formula of the trilogy, but most of the book feels like she’s going through the motions of presenting readers a safe and satisfying conclusion. Much of the book consists of quickly-plotted action sequences, and that’s fine, but during some of those, through Lu’s use of drawn-out moments of danger and the too-frequently-used single sentence paragraph shocker line, I didn’t feel like the characters were in real danger; instead it felt like the author was trying to trick me into being nervous. I think most young readers would rather see their favorite character challenged in a more meaningful way than a fist-fight with the boring and cliche-ridden lead villain at the climax to the final battle.

But, I don’t want to complain too much, because this whole trilogy is a great read. It’s well-plotted and its world feels fresh and imaginative. The characters are memorable–not just the two protagonists, but some of the side characters too, in particular Anden, the young Elector Primo who faces impossible challenges. Marie Lu has created a dark and broken world that is nonetheless filled with hope thanks to some of its extraordinary young people–and one can only hope that her message of empathy, love, and cooperation is heard loud and clear by all future leaders of our real world today.

3 out of 5 stars

Check out more of my reviews on Goodreads at www.goodreads.com/edelapp

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Why Disney’s Latest Move Could Ruin Star Wars

Michael Arndt is out. JJ Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan are in. Star Wars fans fondly recall Kasdan’s name as the screenplay co-writer for The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and of course, JJ Abrams is the sci-fi god of modern film and television, so this pairing seems great on paper. Nothing at this point has been confirmed about the story, so whether this change of writers is a good or bad thing is purely speculative. But I think that if Star Wars fans look a little more closely at the track records of these writers, they will find that this move could damage not only the next movie but the entire franchise.

For the last year, the Internet has been swirling with rumors about Episode VII. Many of the most prominent and widespread rumors have pointed to the idea that the protagonist for the new trilogy will be a young woman, possibly the daughter of Han Solo and Leia Organa. I found this idea immensely appealing: after focusing so long on whiney boys and their daddy/son issues (Anakin & Luke), it would be a breath of fresh air to move the franchise in a new direction and open things up to a more diverse and rounded cast. Most Star Wars fans seem to agree that the franchise needs new life; many feel this way because of a negative reaction to the prequel trilogy. I for one enjoyed the prequels, but am nonetheless ready and excited for a lead character more complex and interesting than the bland Anakin or his son Luke, and I think having a female lead would be good for the franchise.

Honestly, I don’t know a lot about Michael Arndt other than that he won an Oscar for Little Miss Sunshine and that he also wrote Toy Story 3 (which I still haven’t seen) and is adapting the screenplay for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. I don’t have particularly vivid or fond memories of Little Miss Sunshine, but I know that it was a solid character drama focusing on family dynamics and not action—something the Star Wars franchise could definitely use. Any screenplay writer with Oscar credentials would be an upgrade from the bland, monotonous dialogue of the last couple of movies, particularly the awful sweet talk between Anakin and Padme. And although I haven’t yet seen Toy Story 3, I know the movie was a huge success commercially and critically, with viewers and critics alike lauding the film for re-igniting a franchise thought to be over, which to me indicates that Arndt might be the right choice for a franchise like Star Wars. And finally, the second Hunger Games movie, which isn’t out yet, was written by Arndt—which, assuming the movie is decent, indicates that he’s capable of writing a high-profile sci-fi/action movie with a strong female lead. So as far as I was concerned, all the ingredients were there: the man can write award-winning character drama, can re-invigorate old franchises, and can handle sci-fi movies with a female protagonist. Good choice, Disney!

But not so fast. Just recently, Lucasfilm announced that JJ Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan have taken over for Arndt. Producer Kathleen Kennedy issued a very positive statement thanking Ardnt for doing a “terrific job getting us this far”—whatever that means. Of course she’s positive—she’s the face of the company. Meanwhile, fans are content knowing that big-name, well-credentialed writers are taking the reigns. But let’s stop and think about this a little more carefully.

First, Kasdan. Yes, he co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back (the best of the franchise) and Return of the Jedi. But let’s begin by putting an asterisk next to that credential, because (1) The Empire Strikes Back was co-written by female sci-fi writer Leigh Brackett, and (2) Return of the Jedi was co-written by George Lucas. Given fans’ mixed reaction toward Jedi, is it possible that Brackett’s influence with shaping Empire helped it become the strongest entry to the franchise? Let’s also consider the immense and invaluable impact of Empire director Irvin Kershner. For example, in the famous scene in which Princess Leia says, “I love you,” and Han Solo responds, “I know,” the original Kasdan-penned screenplay called for Solo to respond, “I love you, too” before Kershner encouraged Harrison Ford to ad-lib on set. Or another original-script scene on Cloud City in which Han Solo says to Leia, “You look beautiful. You should wear girl’s clothes more often.” This was later changed thanks to the involvement of sensible minds. The point is that Kasdan wasn’t the only reason Empire was the best of the Star Wars movies, and there’s no guarantee that his involvement will improve the new movie. Kasdan became famous for penning the first Indiana Jones film, a male-centric macho-driven film that’s great fun but certainly no blueprint for Episode VII—and since Jedi, what has Kasdan done that’s noteworthy? A quick visit to his Rottentomatoes.com page shows a long list of critical and commercial duds. Kasdan had a terrific string of successes in the 1980’s—and now, an entire generation later, the man is in his sixties and hasn’t written anything noteworthy in at least twenty-five years. Is this really the man who should be given the keys to a franchise he hasn’t touched since 1983?

Then there’s JJ Abrams, King of the Nerds. I’ll admit that Abrams is a competent, if sometimes overly flashy, director. I truly enjoyed his film Super 8, and I thought both his Star Trek films were fun if not particularly memorable. But throughout his career as director, his films have had a motif: male-centric action films that, while sometimes quick-witted and fun, are also almost self-consciously trying to be cool. RedLetterMedia’s review of the 2009 Star Trek pointed out that the movie made a highly conspicuous attempt to portray all its male characters as straight, woman-loving, macho men—even when doing so seemed irrelevant for the story. The boy in Super 8, Joe, loves makeup and models, but is also conspicuously infatuated with Elle Fanning’s character—it’s as if JJ Abrams feels he must make it clear that his movies are about straight men with a strong sense of masculinity. Consider the scene from Star Trek Into Darkness in which Alice Eve’s character strips into her underwear so that the camera can give us a full frontal shot of her body—a shot that did raise eyebrows with many critics (and for which screenwriter Damon Lindelof later apologized, though it is ultimately the director’s responsibility for what appears on screen) due to the sheer conspicuous nature of it, given that the shot was completely unnecessary to further the plot or provide an important detail for the story or her character. JJ Abrams is obsessed with cool boys who love hot girls. His writing credits include the film Armageddon—a movie which I loved as a kid, but again, is not a blueprint for Episode VII—although it’s fun, it’s also crass, stupid, male-obsessed, and forgettable. If you haven’t seen it, just read Roger Ebert’s review.

So these are the two guys that Lucasfilm decided to pair together to re-write Episode VII. It’s worth noting that my entire opinion and argument is based on speculation and intuition—for all we know, Abrams and Kasdan are just polishing Ardnt’s script; or maybe Ardnt’s script truly was a train wreck, and the two new guys will make it great. My feeling of disappointment and dread might be entirely unjustified. And maybe looking at this situation from a more feminist perspective is the wrong way to do so—after all, Star Wars has always done fine with its male leads at center stage. But I just can’t shake this feeling from my gut that something may have been lost—a chance to bring Star Wars into a new era that would match Empire in its depth and complexity, deepening the mythology by finding new ways to explore it, focusing on characters over action, and perhaps having a female lead, with story and drama taking priority over the writers’ or director’s obsession with showing off just how cool boys can be.

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May the Fourth Be With You

In celebration of Star Wars Day, I’ve decided to rank the six films from my least favorite to favorite, with a brief explanation of why. Do you agree? Do you disagree? Sound off!

 

#6. Episode II: Attack of the Clones

Great Scene: An early chase through the skies of Coruscant shows a rebellious Anakin, a grumpy Obi-Wan, and images filled with visual splendor, all setting up great expectations that aren’t ultimately met.

Worst Scene: Anakin and Padmé frolicking through the fields of Naboo, talking about childhood crushes and imperial dictatorships.

Why it’s #6: The film’s central role in the saga is to show that Anakin’s path toward the dark side was precipitated by his star-crossed romance. The problem is that the star-crossed romance sucks—in fact, it’s the worst part of the movie, and most of its scenes were removed in the final cut to allow for more action sequences.

 

#5. Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Great Scene: A tie between the pod race scene, which is one of the best high-speed chases in all of film, and the epic battle between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Darth Maul, which is one of the best lightsaber fights in the saga.

Worst Scene: Anakin flying the Naboo fighter and unwittingly destroying the droid control ship crosses the line from exciting action into silliness.

Why it’s #5: This is the most underrated Star Wars movie. Fans give it flak for Jar Jar and midichlorians, neither of which plays a significant role in the story. Its only failure was not meeting unreachable expectations.

 

#4. Episode IV: A New Hope

Great Scene: Escaping from the Death Star. Sure, the space battles are fun, but the escape sequence is more entertaining today because it succeeds from its tight plotting and quirky, bickering characters. As Han Solo so eloquently puts while the heroes are trapped in a trash compactor, “One thing’s for sure: we’re all gonna be a lot thinner.”

Worst Scene: Luke hanging out at the farm. Sitting in chairs. Drinking blue milk. Talking about power converters.

Why it’s #4: This film gets off to a slow start—mainly because it has the task of providing exposition for an audience unfamiliar with Star Wars. Still, it holds up pretty well today because of its fun, wacky nature.

 

#3. Episode VI: Return of the Jedi

Great Scene: The Battle of Endor. Three story threads interwoven: an eye-popping space battle, an epic ground battle, and an emotionally satisfying climactic duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader—this film wrapped up the original trilogy beautifully.

Worst Scene: I don’t hate the Ewoks as many fans do. But some of those middle scenes do drag on. C3PO as a god to teddy bears is funny—to a point.

Why It’s #3: Despite a slow start, wasting time at Jabba’s Palace, and a slow middle, wasting time in the Ewok village, this film has the sarlacc pit and Endor. ‘Nuff said.

 

#2. Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

Great Scene: Rescuing the Chancellor from General Grievous, Anakin and Obi-Wan crash land onto the Invisible Hand, fight their way to the bridge, and battle Count Dooku. This sequence foreshadows Anakin’s turn to the dark side and does a good job balancing light-hearted adventure with a sense of impending doom.

Worst Scene: “Hold me. Like you did by the lake on Naboo. So long ago when there was nothing but our love.” Gag.

Why it’s #2: In many ways, this movie is the heart of the saga. It contains everything that was hinted at in the originals—Anakin’s turn to the dark side, the fall of the Republic, the purge of the Jedi—and while it’s not always perfect, it’s a critical chapter in the series.

 

#1. Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

Great Scene: A tie between the asteroid chase (some of the best film music ever) and Yoda lifting Luke’s X-Wing from the swamp (Dagobah: the soul of the saga).

Worst Scene: I don’t have much to complain about with this film, but could have done with a few seconds less of Chewbacca wrestling goblin men for C3PO’s parts.

Why it’s #1: This movie introduces Yoda, Lando, Bobba Fett, and the Imperial March. It establishes that the Force allows its users to move objects and see the future. It re-characterizes Luke, Han, and Leia, giving them more depth and nuance. It establishes Darth Vader as the ultimate movie bad guy AND reveals his identity as Luke’s father. And it does all of this while being even more entertaining and visually interesting than its predecessor.

 

What do you think? How would you rank them?

 

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Teens Are Dumb: “Writing Down” to a Younger Audience

It’s something I think about whenever I read or write YA fiction: does the writer respect the intelligence and psychological complexity of young adults? The obvious answer is “duh, Idiot. How can you connect with young adults without empathizing with them?” But I don’t think it’s always so simple.

The YA market is booming. More and more writers—most of them full-fledged, alcohol (legally) buying, car-renting adults—are writing first-time YA novels, novels about teenage love, the awkwardness of puberty, the social dynamics of school, etc. Even books like Divergent and Hunger Games, set in speculative / futuristic worlds, deal with many of the same subject matters / themes/ motifs as their literary / realistic counterparts. But can a writer long past the angst-ridden teen years successfully capture a teenage point of view?

Point of view, in my opinion, is the crux of YA; it determines if the story will succeed or not, regardless of how exciting the plot is or how funny/tragic the central characters are. Take John Green’s bestseller The Fault in Our Stars: it’s about kids with cancer (trite topic, anyone?) and doesn’t have a particularly dynamic plot. But it succeeds in its point of view: the protagonist, Hazel, is so smart, funny, sarcastic, and emotionally complex, that the reader falls in love with her voice. Mr. Green is a unique example because his young-adult characters speak with the linguistic sophistication usually only seen in an Aaron Sorkin screenplay. Could teenagers be so comfortable in their speech, so precise in their use of irony and metaphor? Maybe not, but it’s clear that Mr. Green respects the intellect of young adults, and he trusts his readers to understand and be entertained.

Where some YA fails is when writers try to “write down” to the audience, presuming that the writer is more experienced, more educated, and overall superior to teenagers. If you’ve ever read a YA book that didn’t move you, didn’t excite you, and felt like it was “written for” young adults, then take another look at the point of view: do you get the sense the writer thinks young adults are less intelligent than adult readers? Good YA appeals to young adults; bad YA is “written for” young adults.

The difference often lies in the subtext, the general authorial presence throughout the book, which undoubtedly finds ways to surface.  Usually, books like these contain young-adult protagonists who figure things out slower than the reader or the adult characters. This type of book contains a love story that feels like it was sterilely placed into the story to meet the genre quota. And this type of story relies too much on action sequences / violence / general mayhem to work out its plot because the characters don’t have enough weight to drive the story (after all, young adults are action-obsessed and have short attention spans!). Whether it’s the plot, the characters, the voice, or the tone (or a combination of all of the above), you can tell that the writer doesn’t respect or understand the reader.

It’s no coincidence that many of the most popular YA books are popular among adults as well as teens. That’s because young adult readers are in many ways smarter and more open-minded than the crotchety white-haired English professors who denounce sci-fi/fantasy (Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children), dystopian (Hunger Games), or experimental forms (Thirteen Reasons Why) because they’re all different from the standard realistic literary style.

So thank you, YA, for being everything that adult literature refuses to be. When I write YA, I will write stories that appeal to young readers, and hopefully those stories will appeal to others readers, too. But I will not write stories for young readers, for to do so implies that I’m writing down to them, and the only people I will write down to are ex-lovers and dishonest politicians, and only if they are being rude.

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