Monday, April 4, 2016

"Frozen," Story Structure, and the Art of Letting Go

We've gotten lucky here in Boston this year. You may remember the Winter-to-End-All-Winters last year, where snowfall broke every record on the books. We all dreaded it happening again. A chill ran down the spines of everyone in the Northeast U.S. as the leaves began to change in September, because we all knew what followed. It seems that the Snow Gods had been appeased, though, because it's now April and we've gotten by pretty unscathed.

Well, I mean, it's snowing as I write this, a few days into April, so that's weird. But it's too little, too late to make up ground at this point. Better luck next year.

Outside of my actual window right now
Something about a nonwhite Christmas, a Christmas of Color, if you will, just didn't seem right this year. I found myself getting nostalgic for the 47 feet of crystallized water we had to navigate last winter. I decided that I had to turn to the only people who would understand my plight. A people who knew the harshness of being buried by an unrelenting freeze, being shut in from their loved ones, and resorting to talking to annoying snowmen to keep their sanity; The people of Arendelle.

Ah, Frozen. The 2013 phenomenon that took every little girl's imagination by storm. I mean, a Disney movie with TWO princesses? How could they resist the allure? Frozen was lauded as Disney's return to form. A revival of the brand. A stepping out from little brother Pixar's shadow. A film that the world's children loved and the world's adults kind of tolerated because they had to. No more would Disney have to sheepishly admit that they had anything to do with Home on the Range, because they had Frozen, dammit. And everyone loved it, and it was the best movie ever, and Disney got all of the money.

Except it's not. Frozen is just not an exceptional movie. It's fine. It's pretty good. But it's full of glaring problems and outright oversights. The writing has no depth at all. Case in point: This movie likes to believe it is deep and metaphorical, but it contains exactly zero metaphors. The theme of love being represented by an open door comes up a lot. What could it refer to? Perhaps exactly that? Perhaps exactly the closed door that Elsa used to separate herself from her sister for years? That's not a metaphor. The closed door can't represent the closed door!

I have a theory that the script was written and submitted, and Disney's board of Money-Makers injected a bunch of ideas into the script that didn't quite mesh, but made it appeal to more kids. I want to be clear that this isn't meant as some kind of "takedown" of Frozen. It's my attempt to see where the story doesn't add up. I think the big problems with the script fall into one of two categories: Plot oversights and inconsistencies, and plot threads that lead to a climax that never occurs. Let's start with the oversights and inconsistencies.

When Anna gets blasted by Elsa's ice for the first time, how does the king know where to go? He just says "I know where to go," and then they ride out into the woods to meet the dumb trolls. How does he know this? Is this a family illness? Has every generation had to go to these trolls to get help at some point? If so, why are Elsa's parents so inept at this? Is there an uncle who could help her develop these powers? Some kind of Ice Gandalf? If this isn't an ongoing problem, how does he know where to bring her at all? Is this an innate skill all royals inherit, like cryomancy? Some kind of Stone Troll radar? It seems very specific. 

Also, why do we need the trolls at all in this movie? From a plot perspective, why are they here? They don't add anything but a forgettable song.

"Because, David," I hear you saying, "They're Kristoff's adopted family!"

Ok, but if we never saw little baby Kristoff, we'd never have to explain that he's an orphan or needs to be adopted. If Kristoff had just wandered into Oaken's shop as Anna was buying supplies, that would be a great introduction. We learn everything we need to know about Kristoff in that scene. He's an ice salesman who is a big, dopey, lovable oaf and he probably fucks his reindeer. There's no reason for him to witness the first scene with the trolls. It doesn't come up again. He doesn't mention it casually to Anna later. We don't even have to see him in Arendelle on Coronation Day because he gets one throwaway line. Kristoff's intro is fine at Oaken's. And why would these trolls bother to adopt this kid at all, if his future job is going to be harvesting ice, anyway? That's the path he was already on. Being adopted by these tumorous annoyances did nothing to improve Kristoff's station in life. Wait, did they even know he was an orphan? Did they steal Kristoff from his family? Hmm...

"Ok, fine," you say. "But without the trolls, Anna would have remembered that Elsa has powers! What about that?"

Well, if you remember, Elsa accidentally beans Anna in the head with the ice. If it's SO IMPORTANT to the plot that she not remember Elsa's magic, have her slip into unconsciousness for a while and have her wake up with no knowledge of it. Bam. Ice powers forgotten, Elsa still becomes a recluse. But even if Anna DID remember, wouldn't Elsa's constant need to push her away be even more dramatic? Wouldn't that make the reunion at the end that much more meaningful? But I digress.

I think baby Kristoff and Sven were inserted into that first scene solely so Disney could cash in on Baby Sven stuffed animals.

Hell, Sven may have been added to the movie only so Anna would have an excuse to have a carrot on-hand to give Olaf a nose when they met. And so that way your kids will want Baby Sven AND Adult Sven stuffed animals! But that may be a little conspiratorial.

There's also Marshmallow, the abominable snow-monster that Elsa creates to get Anna and Kristoff out of her ice castle. Why does she create him? Because she doesn't want to hurt Anna again and needs some muscle to bring her outside. So there's no reason Marshmallow would want to try to kill Anna and Kristoff shortly afterward, going against Elsa's wishes when she created him. It's like they just needed an action scene there.

I can already sense some of you muttering "It's for kids! Who cares?!" Well, please go tell Don Bluth or Roald Dahl or Maurice Sendak that stories for kids don't matter and I will be waiting here with a pack of frozen peas to numb the slaps you get across your face.

Up until now these have been minor complaints. Nitpicks. They make sure that the movie won't ever be as good as Aladdin or The Lion King, or Zootopia, but they don't ruin the movie for me. Suspension of disbelief and all that. But, no. My biggest complaint is that the plot seems to lead in a direction that it either abandons, or was changed at some point in production. This results in plot threads and implications that lead to the wrong climax. Let's go back to that part where Elsa and Anna's parents meet those trolls.

Anna is unconscious. Elsa feels terrible because she hurt her sister. The leader of the trolls sees the injured little Anna and asks if Elsa was "born or cursed" with her powers.

That's a small sentence, but it does a lot of world building. It says that there exist people in Arendelle and beyond that this troll has at least heard of who have had this power before. What's more, they can either be born with it in a completely random manner (as I'm assuming nobody else in their family can shoot icicles around), or be cursed with the ability by someone else. It implies that there are others out there, and by planting it so early in the movie, it suggests something large that'll come into play later. It plants a little nugget of expectation in your head.

Things progress as normal. Nobody wants to Build a Snowman, and before we know it, it's Coronation Day. Anna is excited to see people For the First Time in Forever, and the dreamy Prince Hans shows up and sweeps Anna off her feet. We learn later that Hans plans to have Elsa and Anna killed so he can inherit Arendelle and their booming ice harvesting market, or whatever. Everything is going well for him. Anna is into him, and she's playing directly into his gloved hand.

What a catch!
When he catches Anna at the Coronation Day dance, this is how it happens. Check that out. Look at what's on display here: A gloved hand. That's weird. Why would they show that? Who else would have caught Anna? The Duke of Weselton? It's no surprise when he's revealed.

But who else wears gloves?

Oh, that's right. Everyone but Anna. You got me.

Anyway, from here, Elsa freaks out and loses control of her ice powers, and after the crowd jumps back, we get this single-character reaction shot.
Is he scared? Surprised? Intrigued?
Anna and Hans follow her to the fjord where Hans notices that it's freezing. When the duo double back to Arendelle, snow begins to fall on the kingdom, and it does for the remainder of the movie. Anna assures Hans that she had no idea about Elsa's powers. Once in the courtyard, The Duke accosts Anna as Hans watches, demanding to know "Are you a monster too?"

"Is there sorcery in you, too?!"
And so we get Elsa's power ballad as she Dr. Manhattans an ice palace up in the mountains (Also, how can she create ice through her shoes when gloves were enough to inhibit it? Are her feet more powerful than her hands?) as Anna realizes that Elsa "wore gloves all the time" and that must be how she kept her secret hidden.

My favorite scene from Frozen
After a bit, Anna and Kristoff arrive to tell Elsa that "Arendell's in deep, deep, deep, deep snow," much to Elsa's shock. It's as if she's surprised the kingdom is, well, frozen. She managed to control her powers just fine in isolation up here in the mountains, after all. Have you seen the castle she built? That's some structural integrity. No foundation problems of self-doubt there, no sirree. That's weird. Huh.

From here, Elsa accidentally freezes Anna's heart and Anna runs back to her prince to get her cure. Hans dismisses the help, tells Anna it's all been a ruse, and a very interesting scene occurs.
Hans goes to the window and stares out at the frozen wasteland. In the reflection, his face is superimposed over the snow, suggesting some kind of connection.

He turns back to Anna, monologuing, of course, and removes his glove.

Remember earlier when I asked who else wears gloves, and you said "everyone"? Well, you're right. But only two people are shown having their gloves removed, let alone in a dramatic, story-heavy scene.

Hans slowly walks toward Anna and snuffs out a goddamn candle with his bare hands before dumping water on the fire.

And... nothing happens. Hans was going to marry Anna and have them both killed. End of reveal. It's a GOOD reveal, don't get me wrong, but I believe that everything about Hans sets him up to have the same set of powers as Elsa. The line from the troll leader, the fact that he directs Anna's attention to the freezing fjord that they just happen to be be standing on the bank of, the fact that he's in frame when Weselton interrogates Anna, to the fact that Arendell was completely covered in snow despite Elsa's ignorance, to this whole scene. Every little thing adds up. And the movie just, well, lets it go by without giving it a second thought.

When I saw Frozen for the first time and watched this scene, I thought it was brilliant. Hans has ice powers too?! What a reveal! Everything started to make sense! The uneven approach to Elsa's powers could be glossed over because SHE wasn't the one doing it most of the time! Hans manipulating the people from inside the kingdom to fear and hate the queen was a great power play! But no. Instead, we have a half-assed "well, I guess I know how to control them now" at the end for no real reason. Hans is punched in the mouth, and the nobles applaud, despite the fact that the last time anyone interacted with him, they were all under the assumption that he was behaving under the noblest of intentions.

The sisterly bond and the twist on the act of love are both wonderful ideas and something that really needed to be in a movie, but I just can't get over this buildup to nothing. I can't not see it as either an enormous oversight, or a purposeful rewrite that Disney forgot to erase all traces of. 

Overall, Frozen ends up being just an ok movie. Nothing special, despite the marketing blitz. The songs are pretty solid, for the most part. The way the dialogue is spoken sometimes, you can tell it was clearly written with the intent of being adapted to the stage the whole time, and that's fine. Vertical integration, and all that. And hey, Olaf turned out to be not nearly as annoying as I feared. On the other side of things, I can't help but to feel there was some meddling by the higher-ups going on. Kristoff's adoption still makes no sense and is shoehorned in. The trolls are a cutesy marketing idea that probably came from the fallout of 2010's Despicable Me and their ever-present Minion characters. However, I will argue til the day I die that "conceal, don't feel" is the most on-the-nose, transparent, trite, stupidest piece of dialogue I've ever heard, and this movie is sure to repeat it in part about eight times. If you tried to pass that off in any script workshop, you'd be laughed out of the room.

But Zootopia is great. You should definitely see that.