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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Thoughts on Frozen



The Frozen dvd came out a couple of weeks ago. I didn't read any reviews of the movie when it was playing in the theater, but for whatever reason I came across a couple in the past day or two. Some of them didn't like the movie very much. Jill Pantozzi over at The Mary Sue seems to have articulated a common enough set of reasons why. The reason I wanted to respond to this isn't because I disagree--I wanted to try to express an idea that has been in my head for a while, about the difference between fairy tales and movies, and using this movie seems a good way to do so. I think Pantozzi's review is accurate in its critiques, but for me those critiques aren't what makes or breaks this movie. Here's the crux of her argument:

I felt Frozen was truly lacking in the story department. We quickly skim over Elsa and Anna’s childhood to get to what seems like should have been the more important, main story, but it left a lot open to the imagination which could have easily been focused on for a while (Did Elsa really just sit in her room alone, day in, day out, for her entire childhood?). Everything else just felt like it was trying to get from Point A to Point B, then C without taking time to stop and smell the roses.

Let me reiterate: I agree with everything she's saying. I noticed how odd it was that Elsa seems to sit in her room for a decade. (And it's weird that there's no closing musical number. Just throwing it out there.) But it didn't stop me from enjoying the movie. Here's why.

Frozen is a fairy tale. That's the key to understanding why certain things in it happen the way they do. Disney as an animation studio is the most popular disseminator of fairy tales since the Brothers Grimm. But it's important to understand that fairy tales don't work like modern American movies. As somebody who studied folklore, literature, and film, I paid a lot of attention to the ways stories change as they move from the spoken word, to prose and poetry, to film.

It's fairly common wisdom that short stories make for good film adaptations because the story has room to breathe. They can be expanded instead of reduced. In adapting a novel, a lot will always have to be left out. So to follow that line of thought, fairy tales, being like short stories, should make for excellent cinema.

But there are problems with adapting fairy tales--namely, that things in fairy tales don't make a lot of sense. In a fairy tale, a woman can give birth to a hedgehog. A witch can turn a young girl into an old woman. A boy can be turned into a deer by drinking in a stream. A princess can be turned into a snake, be transformed back when a man's head is cut off, and she can also possess a magical potion that returns the decapitated man to life. A girl can stay alone in a room for years. There's never a system to the magic (also a criticism of Frozen's treatment of ice magic). That's not the point of the fairy tale.

There's a huge literature devoted to the description of fairy tales as a genre. Max Luthi, Axel Olric, Bengt Holbek...the names are interesting in their own right. Consider the fairy tale as a story that includes flattened, two-dimensional characters, a story of events that lack a certain development, without any of the psychological depth we expect from the modern novel. That's how fairy tales work. And that's why the fairy tale works well as a musical. The lack of depth allows lots of time for singing.

The fairy tale plows forward. It's relentless. There are two important things to consider when thinking about a fairy tale: 1), that we sympathize with the main character. This often happens because the main character is downtrodden, treated miserably, or very much an underdog. 2) That we are emotionally uplifted by the ending. Fairy tales end happily, especially those coming directly from oral tradition. That's it.

So lots of criticisms of Frozen stem from the disjunction between the classical fairy tale and the contemporary movie.There's nothing wrong with expecting a movie to work differently than a fairy tale. I guess I've just read enough of them--thousands, really--that I'm used to it.

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