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Tuesday 23 September 2014

How Frozen is warming the planet

Disney's unconventional fairytale has already earned a cult following. So what is its secret?

Judith Woods

Published 02/07/2014 | 02:30

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Frozen
Snowman from Frozen
Frozen sisters: Elsa and Anna.

The world's top footballers are playing for Brazilian glory in temperatures of 30 degrees, but in my house – and in family homes from Killarney to Kyoto, Thurles to Tirana – the atmosphere is chilly.

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"Let it go, let it go/I don't care what they say/Let the storm rage on/The cold never bothered me anyway!"

This Oscar-winning anthem is blasting through my sitting room like a polar vortex, top notes soaring high as a crystalline mesospheric cloud. On-screen, it's snowing. And snowing. And snowing.

Meanwhile, on the sofa, cuddled together and frozen beneath a fleecy throw, my children aged five and 12 are transfixed by the travails of brave Princess Anna and her ice-queen sister Elsa as they struggle through adolescence to find themselves and their place in the world.

And, this being Disney, they find true love, of course. But with a twist; and such an iconoclastic, refreshing twist that it is utterly impossible not to be charmed.

At least if you are a little girl. Or a little boy. Or their mother. Or (whisper it) their father.

But how to convey, and indeed explain, the unprecedented, record-breaking success – and unstoppable world domination – of the movie Frozen? You could quantify its success in box-office sales; since its release in 2013, it has become not just the highest-grossing animation of all time, but the fifth highest-grossing film ever, earning more than €515m worldwide, and rising.

You could look at its two Academy Awards (one for its empowering Let it Go torch song; the other for best animation), a Bafta and a Golden Globe. Or note that the Frozen DVD is Amazon's best-selling children's film of all time, and that the album has clocked up seven million Spotify streams.

You could marvel that Disney is running sold-out tours to Frozen country in Norway this winter, and that at Disney World in Orlando, normally-hyperactive children meekly wait for five hours just to meet an employee dressed as Elsa.

You could observe that, on this side of the Atlantic, 'Elsa' has leapt 243 places up the baby name league table, according to global name-tracker, BabyCentre.

As of last month, it had reached 88th place, and continues to ascend.

You could cite the homages and fan videos – some sweet, some slushy – on social media. #TheColdNeverBotheredMeAnyway Twitter mania is cross-cultural, cross-generational and cross-gender.

You could book tickets for the new Broadway version, tune into the forthcoming US TV take on the story – or simply shake your head at news of the bewildered Danish man who is being divorced by his Japanese wife on the grounds that he doesn't like the film and must, therefore, have antifreeze running through his veins.

Or you could go straight to the consumers and ask my two daughters why they passionately adore this tale, set in a harsh winterscape featuring estranged royal siblings, wisecracking snowman Olaf, lovable moose Sven, reluctant sidekick Kristoff, and an awful lot of the white stuff; falling, drifting, swirling and blanketing.

Unique as a single snowflake, paradoxically, it's also as heartwarming as chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Even in the height of a strawberries-and-cream summer.

"I like Elsa because she has powers," is the verdict of my younger daughter, Tabitha, who appreciates a strong role model and would watch her all day on a loop if she could. While, of course, wearing her Frozen bracelet and Frozen pendant and rearranging the characters in her Frozen sticker book. (If she finds out there's an Elsa dress and matching wig, there will be hell to pay.) "I like Anna because she's funny. And so is Olaf because he keeps losing bits of his body."

All very true. But it's her sister's critique that pinpoints exactly why Frozen has captured the planet's imagination. "It's the first Disney cartoon I've seen where the heroine isn't saved by some handsome prince or other," observes Lily crisply.

"It's a love story between two sisters, and it feels so real because relationships are complicated between girls, even sisters. Usually, in films, the girl can only be saved by a kiss from her one true love, but in Frozen, the prince kisses her and nothing happens. It's when Elsa kisses Anna that she's saved. You can always rely on your sister and she lets you be who you are, even if it's not what people expect you to be."

So there you have it; Girl Power in the 21st Century isn't shouty and aggressive. Emancipation comes in the form of self-determination (Elsa defies convention), strong family ties (Anna journeys to find and bring her home) and a belting soundtrack, written by American husband and wife duo Robert and Kristen Lopez. He, incidentally, was also a composer and lyricist on the excoriating religious satire The Book of Mormon, currently taking British Broadway by storm. But he was clearly the right man for this job, as the Disney studio didn't come up with a modern classic by accident. It has long been established that a cracking theme song gives a film reach far beyond its core audience.

Yet why has Frozen surpassed expectations and outstripped the likes of Finding Nemo, The Lion King and its nearest rival, Toy Story 3?

"There are quite a few marketing factors at play but, ultimately, Frozen is a very good film that stands up to repeated viewings and close scrutiny," says Chris Pallant, senior lecturer in film studies at Canterbury Christ Church University and author of Demystifying Disney.

"The storyline is tight and quite progressive, and there's an attempt to show why characters become bad and how they can redeem themselves."

In that sense, the plot compares with Angelina Jolie's film, Maleficent, and the play Wicked, both of which introduce elements of complexity to the usual fairytale opposition of Good (pretty) versus Evil (ugly).

"The male characters don't come across as particularly sympathetic and they are also deliberately simplistic," adds Pallant, "which shows that Disney is aware that, in the past, its stock male and female characters have always been portrayed in an old-fashioned boy-meets-girl way."

Disney's animated offerings have come a long way since its major animation, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, was released in 1937. As the decades passed, the stories changed and the drawings became more sophisticated.

Evolution turned to revolution when, in 1986, Pixar, now its daughter company, released its first short computer-generated animation, Luxo Jr, about an anglepoise lamp (the one that now appears in the credit sequence of all its films).

But it was the studio's first full-length animation, Toy Story, in 1995, that marked a new era in animation, ushering in such gems as Monsters Inc, Despicable Me and Brave. As a result, modern children are likely to identify hand-drawn animation or the stop-motion technique employed by Aardman for the Wallace & Gromit series, as old-fashioned in feel. Adults, too, have embraced the change.

"Adults, who would regard a hand-drawn cartoon as childish, have come to associate computer-generated animation with a high-quality experience," says Pallant. "They feel relaxed about going to the cinema to see an animation, whether they have children or not."

But box-office sales alone don't really get to the bottom of why adults are so moved by Frozen.

Bittersweet though its depiction of adolescent rite of passage may be, surely there is something else at play?

"The film shows a world going through tough times when Elsa casts it into unending winter, which could, at some level, be a metaphor for the economic downturn," says social psychologist and life coach, Gary Wood.

"But even in the midst of despair, there is hope – and when redemption comes, the movie delivers a feelgood factor that really has punch."

Wood also points to the sophisticated scripts of modern animations, which hark back to a very old tradition indeed.

"There's something pantomimesque about a film like Shrek, which can be read on many levels, and appeal to adults and children, who will be laughing, but at different things," says Wood. "That smart approach flatters grown-ups who feel they are in on the joke."

One such moment in Frozen occurs when Anna gaily tells Kristoff that she met and got engaged to Prince Hans on the same day. Instead of expressing pleasure, he is horrified; especially when he quizzes her and discovers she doesn't know his surname.

"You mean you got engaged to someone you met that day? Who does that?" he cries, subverting the entire Disney genre in one fell swoop.

My five-year-old barely notices the line.

The 12-year-old laughs like a drain at the knowing reference.

And me?

I hope that the spell of Frozen doesn't thaw any time soon.

Irish Independent

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