Thursday, 12 December 2013

Reasons I liked Frozen even though that one thing happened

The end of 2013 is upon us, and with it a greater than zero number of movies that I actually want to see in cinemas. Having missed most of the worthwhile films of the past two years (apart from Pitch Perfect, which obviously was the must-watch film of 2012 and which I will hold in the deepest place in my heart forever), it's been nice to be in range of an english language cinema with films I really want to see, and have a schedule flexible enough that I can go for early afternoon adventures any day I choose. In the last couple of weeks I have seen Catching Fire and Frozen, and hopefully I will even get to see the Hobbit in 3D glory when it comes out... which is tomorrow, how did that happen? Where is the year? Oh well.

The Hunger Games movies and Frozen have both quite rightly taken criticism for being films which, despite ostensibly subverting trends and putting feminist themes into the mainstream, made some indefensible decisions in production which put people's backs up for the finished product. The decision to whitewash Katniss Everdeen and District 12 from their initially described "olive" skin is one which no amount of sublime acting from Jennifer Lawrence can ever make up for - yes, Jennifer, you are magnificent, I want you to make well-acted movies opposite slightly-shorter leads all the time and then back them up with your brilliant interviews, I just don't want you to play POC characters ever again please. And Frozen, which claims its origins in Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen, was called out for also being unnecessarily full of white people, as well as changing the original's majority female cast into a set of predictable male supporting characters. It's not a great start.

In all its incarnations, though, the Snow Queen is a love story between people and reindeer.
However, in their own right, both Catching Fire and Frozen turned out to be fantastic movies. Catching Fire, indeed, is plotwise pretty much the perfect film adaptation, although part of this does ride on the white-knuckle speed of the first movie in introducing most of the necessary characters and plots (and the first movie correspondingly suffers). Every character in that movie down to the most minor part is absolutely spot on, and the adaptation itself is thoughtful and clever, including some really nuanced aspects of the book that in creative ways. This doesn't make it any less disgusting that they whitewashed the film, and I can fully understand why some people don't enjoy the films purely on that basis, but hating one aspect of a production does not automatically reflect on everything else that happens, although it may undermine it.

So onto Frozen. The brilliant feminist fangirl blog over on Tumblr has been vocal for months about the problems with Frozen compared to its source material. Although the film itself is as far from the source material as it can possibly get without being a totally separate story, it's pretty obvious that at some point in the production process, somebody read a story that is full of old women and robber women and women with eyebrows down to their knees and women writing coded messages on fish, and said "you know what, this needs instead? Insidious masculine political authority, a Swedish stereotype and some male-voiced animal sidekicks. Oh and my goodness noooo body hair, disgusting." I'm not sure if it's better or worse that I don't think they ever had a meeting about "oh let's just make everyone white except some random people in the ballroom scene" (were Tiana and Naveen there? Flynn and Rapunzel definitely put in an appearance). Point is, the powers that be that made this movie clearly seem to have started off at the same gross place that it would just be wonderful if our pop culture could avoid. God forbid we ever have a Disney movie where the majority of characters are female! Especially since we got this unfortunate gem from the film's head of animation:
"Historically speaking, animating female characters are really, really difficult, ’cause they have to go through these range of emotions, but they’re very, very — you have to keep them pretty and they’re very sensitive to — you can get them off a model very quickly. So, having a film with two hero female characters was really tough, and having them both in the scene and look very different if they’re echoing the same expression; that Elsa looking angry looks different from Anna (Kristen Bell) being angry."
You heard the man, it is very hard to have more than one female character when they all have to look the same! I have seen this quote read as frustration by the animator at having creative limitations imposed by higher-ups, who need saucer-eyed snub-nosed pretty girls to go on lunchboxes at the Disney Store, but it could go either way. Some other enterprising fans coupled this with early leaked pictures which used Anna and Elsa's colours on Rapunzel's character model, to prove that Disney was in fact animating the same face over and over again. While this would be pretty awful if true... it's not.

I'm not saying I don't want them MORE different, but credit where credit's due guys.
Of course, the crime of having a quite similar character model was nothing compared to the issues of enormous magnitude which later picked up on. Perhaps unhappy about having to boycott a possibly good film over appalling production decisions, there seems to have been a significant drive to find every single thing that is wrong with the film and use it to prove how unremittingly awful it must be. For example, introducing a talking snowman as a cute character for kids? AWFUL. Inventing a program to create unique snowflakes but not inventing a program (?) to create unique woman faces? RIDICULOUS. But the worst crime, the biggest flaw in this film, the achilles heel which should bring the entire thing crashing down, is a moment in Elsa's song "Let It Go", which is also the best song in the movie and not really a spoiler if you know anything about plot structures and you should watch it:

Did you think that was fun, well-sung and visually interesting? Well you are wrong, because in this split second her hair goes through her arm:

That's right, folks. The film is ruined. There are other instances of animation not being exactly like physical reality as well, and they completely negate the idea that this could possibly be a film worth watching. This is so much worse than the lack of diversity or other female characters guys. Her hair went through her arm.*

What this movie is actually about, if you can tear your eyes away from that gif for a moment, is two sisters who love each other but through the actions of their equally loving but sadly misguided parents, have a really strained relationship. Elsa, the older one, has magic ice powers and is constantly trying to protect her sister and those around her from being hurt, having to repress her own feelings in the process. Anna, the younger, is playful and silly and has no idea why her sister won't spend time with her any more. Parents die, Anna falls in love in about 5 seconds flat at her sister's coronation, and then shit goes down and she ends up letting her super-new fiancee take charge while she goes off to find her sister with the help of Kristoff the reindeer-loving ice merchant. Hijinks and subversions ensue! The overriding message of the film is about the importance of accepting and loving people for who they are, even when they have flaws or are a reindeer. Although there are some heteroromantic bonds forged - including enthusiastic consent in the final kissing scene how awesome is that - the end of the movie makes it pretty clear that the two great loves here are between sister and sister, and man and reindeer.

If big corporations like Disney are going to take steps to make their films more progressive, Frozen is pretty acceptable in its end product. It's not raging radical tear-down-patriarchy good, but I don't think I cringed at a single scene, and it's a better film than Brave. This doesn't mean we should not criticise or even boycott for the enormous mistakes the production did make, because one day I want an animated film where women are just casually the majority of supporting characters, or voice the creature companions (has there ever been a female creature companion in a Disney film? I can't think of one), or fall in romantic love with each other, and the only way those films will happen is if people early in the process don't stop them. On the flipside, this means accepting that the mistakes made in production might not stop films from being good films. Frozen is a great film, even though Olaf the snowman is designed for children, even though the women are the same body type as Rapunzel and each other, even though yes her hair clips for a millisecond please guys come on. That does not mean that everyone will personally like it, and it does not invalidate the critique on how it was made and how it could have been better. But given how much scrutiny patriarchal media places on any female-led media and how much we already have to fight (just look at the superhero genre! Ever think we will see a Wonder Woman film if her appearance in Batman vs. Superman isn't FLAWLESSLY received?) I think it's high time we separated good, feminist critiques of films from "things we make up to make ourselves feel better about missing out on a good film."

APPENDIX A: Other miscellaneous things I liked about Frozen.

- I'm not actually that interested in fairy tales in general but I really like that this is a youngest sister story! It both confirms and subverts the trope by having the older sister be magical, but giving the younger one the "adventure". Good stuff.
- Enthusiastic consent in the end!
- The lack of villainous characters. It's not quite Studio Ghibli, but... well, I won't spoil it.
- The finale is not quite as good to its heroine as Enchanted was to Giselle, but it's close.
- There's a really interesting range of background women animated in the ball sequence. I would have liked to see them more prominently in later crowd scenes, which rely too much on militaristic men.
- Enthusiastic consent, seriously that was the best romance confirmation since Shang's "You fight good" in Mulan.
-  Kristoff gets a much better deal of the whole "accompany the sheltered offbeat girl to do a task!" deal than his predecessor Flynn. He gets to remain the same crotchety nerd from start to finish, whereas Flynn had to go through that tiresome moral awakening. THIS WAY IS BETTER.

And a miscellaneous thing I really, really didn't: It'll be hard to time, but if you go to see this film try to go late enough to avoid the Mickey Mouse short they put at the start. Apparently Disney can draw Mickey and co. in 3D colour now, but they couldn't think up a story to demonstrate this that didn't involve sexual harassment, a damsel in distress and mocking sexuality in unattractive women. 2013, folks!


*According to the animators, it was on purpose and everything!