Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Let it Snow, or A Musical Analysis of Disney's "Frozen"

Na na na heyana / Hahiyaha naha / Naheya heya na yanuwa / Hanahe yunuwana . . .

The following blog post contains spoilers for the Disney movie FROZEN.

This is not a movie reviewing blog, I don't watch nearly enough movies to keep up with my schedule; I haven't the money to pay for the movies and I live in Australia, where movies come out about 6 months after the rest of the Western world, so it would be a little late for a review. But I heartily recommend that everyone goes to see the movie Frozen. So, if you haven't yet seen the movie . . . then stop right there! No, stop reading!
Did you NOT see the big, bold text up there that says "this contains spoilers"? because that's not a joke, and these are major spoilers. Go and see the film before you read this. At best, you won't understand what I'm talking about, and at worst, you'll spoil a major twist in the movie for when you do see it (which you need to do), and I will not be held responsible for that. Now go and see it before you continue reading this blog post. Don't worry, this post isn't going anywhere . . .

Are they gone? Okay, let's talk about Frozen. The Word of the Day is: 'OPERETTA'

Operetta /opə'retə/ n. a short opera, usually of a light character and generally having a substantial amount of spoken (not sung) dialogue; a light opera. Also, Musical Comedy.

So, why am I talking about Frozen today? Well, because I blog about what's on my mind. And ever since I saw Frozen (for the first time last week) it has been on my mind a lot. Unfortunately I went through a dark slump not soon after, but now that I'm thankfully over that, the film is on my mind a lot. Because, I think it's a great film.
But that's not why I want to talk about it, I've seen a lot of great films, rather I want to talk about why it's a great film, because I love stories, and I think it's worth discussing what makes Frozen great, as I understand it.

See, before Frozen, Disney made Tangled, Brave & The Princess and the Frog; and while they weren't terrible movies (except for Frog, that was kind of stupid), they just didn't seem to know what to do with their music. After the abortive attempt at reinvigorating classic "Disney Princess" movies and Animated Musicals with Frog, I think Disney Animation Studios got a little flustered. Brave didn't have any songs at all (beyond ambient/background music) and then with Tangled, Disney was trying so hard to be Pixar, that they forgot that Pixar movies don't work with singing.
I don't hate the film but, as my Beloved puts it, "Tangled was a Pixar movie, with singing". I personally don't feel that "I See the Light" belongs in that movie, it seems out of place which sucks, because it's important to the plot. I like Tangled, but it needed more Disney.

But this isn't about those movies, it's about Frozen, and I think that what sets Frozen apart as not just my favourite Disney movie, but also the best movie I've seen all year is that they get the music so very right. I mean, the story is amazing and that plays no small part. The story, to me, is basically awesome in that it's Disney learning how to be self-aware; they can see what's "wrong" with Disney, and the story is, in part, commenting on their whole "A Woman Needs a Man" Unfortunate Implications. But without the music, this wouldn't feel as 'Disney'.
The reason I love this is so much is because I think that Disney has finally figured out the formula for putting relatable characters + family-oriented comedy + awesome story music all in one movie.

Everyone talks about Let it Go - and I will as well, that's kind of a prerequisite for a Frozen blog post - but the other songs serve just as well at both being Disney, and evolving Disney.

The very first song in the movie is "Verulie", the lyrics to which started this post, and I think it, as well as the second song, serve an important purpose. Whereas Tangled seemed scared to admit that it was a musical, Frozen doesn't pull any punches. And a few seconds after the title, we get "Frozen Heart", and I think that, although the song is short and sweet, it serves a few important purposes. First, yes, it establishes that this is a musical. But if you listen closely, the lyrics are reminiscent of the drama at hand. It's a story about how ice can be beautiful as well as dangerous, it's basically setting up the story to come. Exciting stuff.

It's the next song, "Do you Wanna Build a Snowman" however, which really sets this movie in the right direction.
I like the movie Up, and a lot of people love the beginning vignette, the "Carl & Ellie" scene at the beginning of the film, because it's such an emotional story; beautiful, lovely and sad. But to me, "Do You Wanna Build a Snowman" is a Disneyfied improvement on that, because Pixar doesn't do musical, and I was always a little bothered that they went the "silent movie" route with it. Yeah, it works, but I believe that music works better at conveying emotion, so I believe Disney took such a story, a happy beginning, comedy & eventual tragedy and played it to music, improving it exponentially.
And the part that always sticks in my mind, is the last line, right at the end:
"We only have each other, just you and me, what are we gonna do?
Do you wanna build a snowman? . . ."

Because in my mind, there's a missing line, the song rhymes, but there's no couplet for "What are we gonna do?". I think that the omission is there because this is meant to be a duet. At least, Anna wants it to be; she's asking a question after all, and was hoping the answer would be "Yes, I do", to continue the metre and rhyme, but instead, only silence . . .
Disney isn't just including music in this story, the music is telling part of the story, and in this part of the story, it's about how this duet has become a solo act . . .

Then we continue with "For the First Time in Forever"
Just like with the beginning of "Do You Wanna Build a Snowman" we're being introduced to the impulsive, socially-awkward weirdness of Anna. And I love this song for that, but also - in my opinion - I think that this is something of a parody of Disney songs.
Personally, I like to believe that Anna is singing while running around and talking to the paintings, swinging and playing with little ducklings not because this is a Disney film. But, because, as she says herself: "For the First Time in Forever, I won't be alone".
It's as though Anna has been singing to herself this whole time, and that's why she's talking about feeling gassy, eating chocolate and being excited all while making a mess of the castle while she's dancing. I like to think she's gone a little kooky, stuffed up in the castle all alone, this whole time. She really does talk to the paintings on the walls, after all . . . so to me, it's a parody like: "What kind of a weirdo actually runs around singing to themselves?"
The answer is, someone like Anna, someone cooped up inside a castle for about three years with little to no contact with the outside world, and someone that's a little bit crazy.
But it also introduces us to the grown up Elsa, the picture of a fearful, self-disciplined, ice queen.

Then, the self-awareness continues, in my eyes, with "Love is an Open Door"
Okay, here are the spoilers, if you ignored me before, skip to the next paragraph . . .
See, this is played like the We-Are-Made-For-Each-Other Song, a Duet Bonding moment, if you will. And it's an adorable song, but the thing is, Hans doesn't love Anna. If you've got a whole lot of time on your hands, you might want to dive into the Hansalysis which purports that Hans isn't such a bad guy, and I agree with it on a few points, but consider this my counterpoint - I don't believe Hans loved Anna, because he didn't kiss her before he left her to die. Maybe he thought she was pretty, a trophy wife at best, but if he ever felt anything, he would have kissed her, it's that simple.
So, that re-evaluates what this song means, in the story. Despite the fact that that's exactly what Tangled did wrong, it's now as though Disney itself is saying "What? Fall in Love during the course of a song? That's not what love is."
In fact, the wonderful Ms Sridhar points out that even Disney characters don't fall in love during a song these days, most of them actually have a courting period. So this song is actually a rebuttal to the interpretation of Disney as anti-Feminist.

Now, the one we're all waiting for "Let it Go"
Absolutely everyone freaking loves this song, and yeah, I do too. I can't help it, it's about being free and throwing off the shackles of self-doubt and being yourself. But when I heard it for the first time, do you know what I was thinking?
Wow, this sounds a lot like a Villain Song . . . and you know what? Apparently, it was supposed to be. According to Word of God, Elsa was originally a blue, spiky-haired villain that commanded an army of evil snow monsters; however, when the composers created "Let it Go" - one of the first compositions they successfully wrote for the movie - the creator reconsidered her characterization, and rewrote the story to make Elsa more sympathetic. And that explains why it still sounds like a villain song to me . . .
Elsa isn't the villain, but she is sort of the antagonist, she causes most of the problems that occur so she is the closest thing that we have to a major villain (since Hans' evil twist was localized to the Third Act). But Elsa isn't evil, the best fit for her is that she's an unwilling Anti-Heroine. But the song is still coded like a villain song:
Like with all villain songs, she is singing about how freaking awesome she is, despite feeling cast out by society (the fears that once controlled me, can't get to me at all!); it's about showing off the almighty power of the character and why they're a force to be reckoned with (my power flurries through the air into the ground; my soul is spiralling in frozen fractals all around!); it's the song that exposes the villains modus operandi (Well, now they know! let it go, let it go . . . can't hold it back anymore.) & is sometimes the first step in their evil plan (Let the storm rage on! The cold never bothered me anyway . . .).
My favourite song in a lot of Disney's Musicals is often the Villain Song. My favourite song is "Poor Unfortunate Souls"  from The Little Mermaid; my Beloved adores "Mother Knows Best" & it's reprisal from Tangled & I admit, I even love "Friends on the Other Side" from Princess and the Frog.
So I believe the reason why this song is popular is because it's a Villain song that's also about a sympathetic, benevolent character, it's a powerful combination.

Now, my final song for this post, actually my favourite song in the movie:
"For the First Time in Forever (Reprise)"
That's right, my favourite song is not "Let it Go". Shocking, I know; instead, my favourite song is actually a reprisal of that silly little "isn't Anna weird?" melody from Act 1. Why?
Well, as I said before, Disney isn't just including music in this movie, the music is telling part of the story, and a huge part of the story is the way that Elsa's fear is what makes her so dangerous. She won't listen to reason because of her fear, fear that she could very well hurt people with her powers just like she did to her sister back when they were little kids. And as I also said, I believe that music is a great tool for conveying emotion and this is the emotional conflict of the film.
If this were any other Disney movie, then this song would be another Duet Bonding moment, Anna and Elsa would sing together and everything would be alright again. But that doesn't happen. Elsa is trying to sing that song:
"We can head down this mountain together, you don't have to live in fear;
'Cause for the first time in forever . . . I will be right here . . ."

But Elsa doesn't believe her, she doesn't believe in the Disney fairytale and starts singing a different song. A darker song about how she's a danger that needs to be left alone "Just stay away, and you'll be safe from me . . ."; then when Anna tells her that Arendelle's in danger, that's what breaks Elsa and begins the final act of the story . . .
Anna continues singing her song of joy, optimism, hope and love; but she's up against Elsa's self-despair, fear and doubt, and sadly it can't compare. Especially because hurting Anna is what made Elsa so afraid of her powers in the first place. Elsa's self-doubt and her song about self-doubt drowns out Anna's hopeful song, to the point that she can't even hear her through the song and blizzard. And anyone who has been in that place of self-doubt can attest that this is a relatable experience, even those that love us the most have trouble reaching us through those moments of utter despair.
Elsa rejects her sister, ending with that final line: "I Can't!"
It's a heartbreaking moment, in so many ways, as she casts her sister out and tries to face the storm inside of her alone . . .
There are some great songs, some uplifting songs and some comedy songs in this film that I adore, but my favourite has to be this heart-stoppingly relatable story of how, sometimes, Hope and childish optimism isn't enough to get through to someone, in the real world it takes more than a song - or a kiss - to thaw a frozen heart.

Frozen is a powerful movie, with great characters, amazing songs, not to mention fun and comedy, as well as a story that actually holds meaning in this day and age, about fear, love, family, doubt & trust.
If you haven't seen it, you really should. Just be careful you don't listen to too many "Let it Go" parody/cover songs . . . it might just make you go a little insane.

I'm the Absurd Word Nerd, and until next time, the cold never bothered me anyway . . .


  1. It's fun to watch others go insane over the "Let it Go" parodies, but you're right in that the music ties into the narrative seamlessly. That reprise also shows ample character development, of Anna finally thinking of her sister's well-being and realizing that Elsa needs love and support. It's a shame that "Love is an Open Door" doesn't get a similar reprise, because Frozen needed a musical finale to make it perfect as an operetta, but "For the First Time in Forever" certainly takes our breath away as we see Elsa's voice rise in timbre and pitch.

    1. Exactly! That voice is amazing.
      That's one of the reasons I don't understand the obsession with parodies and covers, Nothing truly compares to Idina Mendzel's portrayal of Elsa (not even Ms Mendzel herself, singing live). That mature, deeper, ever-so-slightly husky voice, with so much power behind it. There's a reason they chose someone who was previously the Wicked Witch of the West (in Wicked), she sounds like she's on the cusp of villainy, it's perfect casting.

  2. Correction!!
    Tangled is also a Disney movie, so Brave is the Pixar movie........
    Will be watching Frozen very soon in DVD...Even though,I really like Tangled too,as it was my fave all the way!!!

    1. I know Tangled is a Disney movie, I just mean that it was coded like a Pixar movie; in retrospect, I think it's more akin to something like Dreamworks, but I'm saying it didn't FEEL like Disney. But I agree that it's a good film, even though there are some bits that I personally cringe at, it was a great ride and a good story.
      But you're very right in that Brave is a Pixar movie, moreso than Tangled, but I'm more critical of Tangled just because although I like Tangled more, I believe it has more flaws.


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