How retrograde are many of the core tenets of the Disney princess? Consider this: My daughter owns a book called Snow White’s Secret, in which Disney's royal archetype reveals her devilish hidden life: When the Dwarfs are working at the mine, she sneaks into their cottage and joyfully cleans the place! As a secret surprise! Seriously.
That's why Frozen may be the most important Disney movie ever made — and not because it has grossed more than $864 million at the global box office, which puts it ahead of all the Mouse House's other princess efforts. That haul is merely a heartening sign that audiences, and girls especially, have responded to the true trailblazing nature of Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee’s animated tale. And trailblazing it is, since Frozen stands as the triumphant culmination of a decade-long process by Disney to revamp its princesses for today's audiences, and to offer girls stories as legitimately empowering as the countless ones Hollywood makes for boys.
With this stirring retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” in which one princess sets out on an epic quest to reconcile with her estranged sister, Disney has finally made a tiaras-and-ballgowns saga with a progressive, feminist heart.
(And merch. It also has made heaps of merch.)
To appreciate Frozen’s accomplishment, some context may be necessary: You must understand the mesmerizing hold Disney’s classic princess films have on girls’ imaginations. The first time my eldest daughter (now 9 years old) watched Cinderella, she stared at the screen with a rapt attention that bordered on unsettling. She repeated this during each subsequent viewing over the next six months. That film's brew of glamour, romance, sidekick humor, and sweetly soaring music proved legitimately entrancing, and that spell is still cast by Disney’s other canonical princess offerings: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. Even Pocahontas and Mulan, the mold-breaking heroines whose movies have a whiff of homework about them, eventually made their way into the viewing rotation.
That generations of adolescent girls would find these films captivating is no surprise — aesthetically assured (if not all, like Sleeping Beauty, downright gorgeous) and simultaneously rollicking and romantic, they function as irresistible fantasies of idealized femininity. And, of course, as any thinking person realizes, they also present a worldview that’s stunningly regressive, if not downright sexist. In the traditional princess universe, women often are royal know-nothings without a vocation (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty’s Aurora, Ariel, Jasmine). Whether they’re servants (Cinderella) or heirs to the throne (Snow White), they’re exceedingly concerned with domestic chores. (Whistle while you clean, Snow White! But keep it a secret!)
Most of all, though, an archetypal Disney princess is always, always, ALWAYS defined by her search for — or fortuitous discovery of — a Prince Charming who invariably saves her from harm and, in doing so, provides the luxurious castle-in-the-clouds lifestyle she's always wanted.
In other words, Disney princesses have historically been nice, vapid beauties whose stories revolve around their desire or need to land a wealthy man. (Think How to Marry a Millionaire with tiaras.) It’s a winning-the-lotto dream in which the women are, no matter what specific feats they may perform during their sagas, passive participants in their own happily-ever-afters. Agency is reserved for the men, who deliver the awakening kiss, fell the gargantuan witch or kill the murderous boor in order to then properly sweep the lady off her feet.
Both 1995’s Pocahontas and 1998’s Mulan attempted to reverse this trend by giving their female leads more of an independent warrior–babe streak — and, in the process, somewhat marginalize the love stories. Unfortunately, the efforts were half-measures at best, and crucially, in making them, Disney ditched the very sparkly regality that so appealed to their core audience. Noble but misguided, they so disappointed their target viewers that the princess line went silent for nearly a decade.
When the princesses finally sang out again in 2007, it was via the pipes of Amy Adams in the live-action/animation hybrid Enchanted, a reasonably delightful vehicle for its star’s magnetism, which playfully riffed on princess tropes while making passing attempts to reimagine the royal daughter as an active player in her own story. Despite being the one who saves her Prince Charming (Patrick Dempsey) and slays the dragon, Adams’s Giselle was too ditzy and wholly fixated on “true love’s kiss” and marital bliss to register as truly forward-thinking. Things improved only moderately with 2009’s bayou-set The Princess and the Frog. While it boasted a career-oriented African-American princess (both firsts!), plus sterling animation and the best princess score ever, the picture again resorted to romantic clichés that made the film feel musty, old, behind the times.
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Significant progress only arrived with 2010’s Tangled. Jauntily sarcastic, vibrantly computer-generated and free of the backwards gender dynamics that had plagued its predecessors, this update on the Rapunzel legend understood that self-actualization must precede successful romantic fulfillment. Funny and fierce, it was fresh air in a genre as stale as Miss Havisham's sitting room.
Frozen, however, is the true pioneer. Buck and Lee’s classic dispenses with anything but the faintest pretense of romantic melodrama. While it’s preordained that sparks will fly between Anna (Kristen Bell) and studly mountain man Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) — who join forces to stop Anna’s ice-queen sister, Elsa (Idina Menzel), from ravaging their land with an endless winter — their amour is so secondary as to be a narrative footnote. Rather, the film’s guiding focus is the relationship between its sibling protagonists.
That Frozen is primarily about sisterhood — and about women forging their own identities through endeavors whose goals have nothing to do with men or achieving some standard-issue happily-ever-after — makes it the first Disney princess film to completely root itself in anything like the true feminine experience. That it does this while delivering excellent comedy (courtesy of the warm weather–pining snowman Olaf, and Kristoff’s reaction shot–friendly reindeer), as well as majestic fashion and grand musical numbers, all confirms that trademark princess tropes are compatible with more modern representations of developing womanhood — and as with Elsa’s elegantly glitzy performance of the Oscar-nominated song “Let It Go,” that they can serve the overarching portrait of women struggling to reconcile thorny issues of maturation and self-realization.
In other words, Frozen is an authentically glamorous princess film that’s not just for girls but also essentially about girls. And, mercifully, one that won’t spawn any cleaning-is-fun tie-in books, either.