by Danielle Owen
|Sorry Olaf. Give it to the minions!|
Before I begin tearing apart something that makes small children happy, let me say that I enjoyed Frozen quite a lot. From the stunning visuals to catchy tunes, funny moments to seamless animation, I left the theater pretty okay with having paid an exorbitant amount of money to see it. So far, the film has won the Annie Award, the BAFTA, and the Golden Globe for Best Animated Film — it will most likely win the Oscar as well. Does it actually deserve it? Yeah, no. Not really. Any First-Year English or Film Studies major armed with a copy of Story by Robert McKee could point out the movie’s glaringly obvious flaws — its weak and superficial plot, its unnecessary amount of characters (all of whom go underdeveloped), the forced romantic relationships, the “cheap trick” out of nowhere Hans plot twist, the fact that all of the speaking characters in a fictional place are white, etc. Dani Colman has written a fantastic article pointing out why Frozen is a “faux-feminist” film, which you should definitely take the time to read.
Should Frozen win the Oscar even though it fails to tell a decent story? Why does good storytelling even matter? Why do the rules of good storytelling even exist?
The film’s exposition is lazily montaged together — it tells the audience how characters relate to each other through song, as opposed to showing the audience the characters interacting. The protagonist’s conflict is external, rather than internal, which emotionally distances the audience from the film. Superfluous and unnecessary characters (Olaf, Kristoff, and Hans) take up too much space in the story, leaving little room to see our main characters (Elsa and Anna) develop. When the climax occurs, the audience is left simply watching events happen without being emotionally invested in them or in the characters involved — the plot’s resolution then feels shallow, superficial, and a little bit cheap. Take a look at this scene from Lilo and Stitch. If the writers of Frozen had penned this scene, the dialogue would have sounded something like this:
Stitch: Wow, look at that duck. It has a family. I totally have no family. This is causing me some serious internal conflict.
Nani: Lilo, your weird blue dog has ruined our lives. I can’t find a job and I have no means with which I can take care of you. You are going to be taken away from me tomorrow. I am sad. You are sad.
This is how you do a story about sisters.
Instead, the audience sees that Nani is trying to communicate with Lilo, but she simply can’t. There are some things that are too painful to say and some emotions too complex to portray in simple dialogue. The writers of this scene are trusting that the audience can make their own inferences about what’s happening and how it escalates the emotional substance of the film. We feel an emotional connection between two characters, as opposed to simply being told about a character’s feelings. Compare this scene to Frozen’s “Do You Wanna Build a Snowman,” a montage-song that attempts to stand in for actual relationship building (and fails). Some lyrics:
Anna:We used to be best buddies
And now we’re not
I wish you would tell me why!
Or as in “Fixer Upper,” a song and dance that literally pushes Anna and Kristoff together in order to make up for the complete lack of relationship building or character development either character gets in the film.
All Trolls:But we know what to do
The way to fix up this fixer-upper
Is to fix him up with you!
In the Aloha O’e scene from Lilo and Stitch, we (the audience) don’t even know what Nani is saying, and yet we’re left at the end standing in a pool of our own tears with mascara running down our cheeks. Nani and Lilo both face internal and external struggles: their relationship and the external forces that trouble them have been well-written and well-developed so the audience sees them struggling, as opposed to being told about their struggles. This scene from How to Train Your Dragon (which, by the way, is the best animated film of the last five years) also serves as an excellent example of the power visual storytelling. By trusting that the audience is intelligent enough to think about the film’s protagonist and come to their own conclusions, they empathize with their struggles and feel emotionally invested in their goals. When the conflict gets resolved, we actually feel joy as opposed to seeing the characters feel joy. In Frozen, Anna acts as the protagonist of the film, although the only conflict she faces is external: her sister, Elsa, is the character who needs to grow emotionally in order for the conflict to be resolved. And yet, Elsa is basically relegated to non-character status: she isn’t a protagonist or antagonist, but is simply a plot device. In order to feel emotionally invested in a story, the audience needs to empathize with the internal struggle the protagonist faces. Because that aspect is missing in Frozen, the conflict’s resolution involves the audience seeing our main characters feeling joy, but not actually feeling any of it. The resolution and accompanying happy ending feels convenient and emotionally unfulfilling.
If the point of telling stories is to make the audience feel something – to have a cathartic experience – they need to empathize with the internal struggle of the protagonist, be allowed to make inferences about relationships between characters, and see characters develop instead of being told through simple dialogue and montage. In the case of Frozen, I paid $16 to sit in a theater with a ridiculous pair of 3D glasses on my face so that I could have a story told to me. Through my ears. Totally great. Yep.
So why does it even matter that Frozen is actually really bad? It’s a movie for little girls!
|Disney’s character design department taking some serious risks.|
Quality shouldn’t be what designates a family film from an adult film. I don’t care who the intended audience of your movie is, lazy writing and weak storytelling is unacceptable for a film with a $150 million budget. This is especially unacceptable in a universe where films like Lilo & Stitch and How to Train Your Dragon exist, neither of which won an Oscar by the way. Both of these films manage to be well-written with interesting and complex characters. They are “family films” because of theme, not quality. Disney has created well-paced and well-developed stories in the past, such as the A+ film Tangled, which is one of the many reasons why I’m so confused by Frozen’s quality. Did they just… not care? Or did they simply decide that a movie marketed towards little girls would get a pass for being poorly written? The film’s success is more saddening than it is confusing. I sincerely hope that it doesn’t lead Disney to believe that they can put out mediocre films that will inevitably succeed just because they’re “marketed towards little girls.” I hope we can all agree that recognizing a film’s flaws doesn’t mean you have to hate it entirely. The point of this article wasn’t to make you stop belting “Love is an Open Door” in the shower: I certainly won’t. But I think it’s fair to demand quality storytelling with well-written characters who are flawed, interesting, and complex, even if the Academy disagrees.
Frozen underestimates the intelligence of the audience and makes us waste $16 so that it can tell us a story through our ears, as opposed to showing us a story through a visual medium. The film leaves us confused and emotionally unfulfilled, but it will win the Oscar because it’s a movie “for little girls” and was made by Disney. Go rent How to Train Your Dragon or Monsters University and bask in the glow of a well-paced, well-written story instead.
Danielle Owen is a first-year at Barnard and a staff writer for The Nine Ways of Knowing.
Images courtesy of Danielle Owen.