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.