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Disney princess movies revisited: Frozen


Disney's Frozen 2 arrives in Cineworld on the 22nd of November, and we're counting down the days by revisiting all the classic Disney princess movies in chronological order of release.

In honour of Anna and Elsa's imminent return, we're taking a nostalgic trip back through time. This week: we're returning to the release of 2013's Frozen.

What's the story of Frozen?

In the magical kingdom of Arendelle, young sisters Anna and Elsa grow up in harmony inside their mother and father's castle. That is, until the magical Elsa's snow-creating abilities badly injure her sibling. After Anna is healed by the leader of the trolls, Grand Pabbie, her memory is wiped so she has no memory of the incident.

Afterwards, the two girls are separated within the wings of the castle, until the day when Elsa will emerge to become the new Queen of Arendelle on her 21st birthday. In the interim, their parents die at sea in a storm. The day of coronation goes without a hitch, but a later confrontation with Anna causes Elsa to unwittingly reveal her powers in full view of the congregation.

With Arendelle now cloaked in a perpetual winter, Elsa then flees to an isolated fortress sculpted out of snow and ice. Anna follows in pursuit, leaving new love interest Prince Hans in charge of the city. En route to bring her sister back, Anna teams with ice harvester Kristoff, his reindeer Sven and living snowman Olaf, all of whom seek to restore the sisters' bond and get Arendelle back to the way it was.

How did Frozen get made?

By the time Frozen arrived in 2013, the legacy of the traditional Disney princess movie stretched back a good 80 years, to the days of the seminal Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Released in 1937, the pioneering movie was a watershed moment in feature-length animation, even if the central character is uncomfortably winsome and passive in hindsight.

In many ways, Frozen was the spirited and brilliant reaction to the more typical 'wallflower' Disney princesses of the early 20th century. (See also the likes of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty.) One of the oft-derided conventions of such movies was the need to have the main female character rely on a man to save the day – but Frozen effectively stirred the pot by removing the need for such outdated attitudes.

At the same time, the movie remains cloaked in that familiar Disney spell, mixing lush animation, memorable songs and well-drawn characters to honour the spirit of its predecessors, even while the gender politics are refreshingly updated. Truthfully, the central characters in Frozen owe more to the go-getting, independent spirit of Belle from Beauty and the Beast, but the movie goes one further by suggesting that sisterly love is of infinitely greater value than another throwaway romance between a man and a woman.

It is this deep bond between Anna and Elsa that pervades Frozen – the equivalent of a bracing Arctic wind that blows through, strengthens the senses and leaves one feeling crisp and energised. That said, the story of Frozen is an archetypal one, owing itself to Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen. (Back in 1989, the hugely successful The Little Mermaid also drew on Andersen's mythology.) And this particular story had been knocking around the Disney animation department for years.

In fact, Walt Disney had harboured desires to adapt the story way back in the 1930s, before Snow White had even been released. Further delays occurred throughout the 1940s and 1950s, before the concept of the Disney princess movie was pretty much shelved until The Little Mermaid. Emboldened by that film's success, the Disney animators once again sought to bring The Snow Queen to life in the late 1990s, but the project again hit the skids.

The latest delay occurred when lead animator Glen Keane left to spearhead his own project, which subsequently became 2010's Tangled. Even an attempt to get the project off the ground via a collaboration with Pixar proved unsuccessful. Undeterred, the new chief creative officer of Disney animation, John Lasseter, managed to enlist the services of director Chris Buck (responsible for 1999's Tarzan) in 2008, to craft Anna and the Snow Queen.

Buck's aim was to subvert the conventions of true love as seen in previous Disney princess movies, and wanted to use traditional forms of animation. However, this was yet another project to enter so-called 'development hell', and in early 2010 Anna and the Snow Queen had stalled. Despite that, the project had attracted the involvement of Josh Gad, who would eventually be cast as talking snowman Olaf in Frozen.

Following the success of Tangled, interest in the concept was revived, Songwriter Robert Anderson-Lopez, best known as the co-creator of The Book of Mormon and Avenue Q, along with his wife Kristen, began writing songs in early 2012. At the same time, it was announced that the traditional Disney princess template would be updated a la Tangled, resulting in a 3D CGI animation.

Buck was announced as director of the project, now called Frozen (as of December 2011), with John Lasseter and Peter Del Vecho producing.  Del Vecho spoke openly of the challenges of adapting The Snow Queen, which had tripped up Disney so many times before. He said the project was unlocked when the central Snow Queen character, known as Elsa, was given a sister – this proved an effective way of humanising a mythological character who seemingly possesses few relatable qualities.

"Hans Christian Andersen's original version of The Snow Queen is a pretty dark tale and it doesn't translate easily into a film," he explained. "For us the breakthrough came when we tried to give really human qualities to the Snow Queen. When we decided to make the Snow Queen Elsa and our protagonist Anna sisters, that gave a way to relate to the characters in a way that conveyed what each was going through and that would relate for today's audiences.

"This film has a lot of complicated characters and complicated relationships in it. There are times when Elsa does villainous things but because you understand where it comes from, from this desire to defend herself, you can always relate to her. 'Inspired by' means exactly that. There is snow and there is ice and there is a Queen, but other than that, we depart from it quite a bit. We do try to bring scope and the scale that you would expect but do it in a way that we can understand the characters and relate to them."

To that end, Disney undertook a 'sister summit', at which women from all over the studio who grew up with sisters were asked to discuss their relationships with their sisters. Art director Michael Gaimo credits Lasseter with making Anna and Elsa sisters, subtly altering the emphasis from romantic to platonic, and crafting a universal story of sibling rivalry and love to which millions could relate.

"That was the game changer," Giaimo recalls. "John sat down at this long table. And his first words were, I'll never forget this, 'You haven't dug deep enough'. And I remember John saying that the latest version of the Snow Queen story that Chris Buck and his team had come up with was fun, very light-hearted. But the characters didn't resonate. They aren't multi-faceted. Which why John felt that audiences wouldn't really be able to connect with them."

Wreck-It Ralph writer Jennifer Lee was drafted to help Chris Buck develop the story; she eventually took on the credited role of co-director. As far as the look of Arendelle was concerned, they drew inspiration from the beautiful landscapes of Norway, although the development of the narrative was unclear. Lee understood that the notion of 'frozen' was the centre of the story: "That was a concept and the phrase ... an act of true love will thaw a frozen heart." Getting to the resolution, however, was unclear: "Anna was going to save Elsa. We didn’t know how or why."

In the original script, Elsa had been written as the villain, kidnapping Anna and forcing love interest Hans into a heroic rescue attempt. The success of the finished film lies in its subversion of these elements: Elsa is not the antagonist but an ostracised individual with no conception of her powers, or whether they should be used for good or ill. In a further bold move, Anna's seeming love interest Hans is in fact a scheming sociopath with designs on the throne – a feministic undercurrent, maybe, but one that helps distinguish the movie from its predecessors.

Lee initially struggled with Anna's character development, trying to find an emotionally resonant yet coherent arc. She ultimately decided on a version of the story "where [Anna] goes from having a naive view of life and love – because she's lonely – to the most sophisticated and mature view of love, where she's capable of the ultimate love, which is sacrifice". Far from being a naive reduction of the character, this emotional clarity helps Anna emerge as a likeable and believable individual, aided enormously by Kristen Bell's warm vocal performance.

Bell had been cast in 2012 when the film-makers came across a series of vocal tracks she had recorded as a young girl, including The Little Mermaid's 'Part of Your World'. Bell said that she had long "dreamed of being in a Disney film". Her opposite number is Broadway star Idina Menzel as Elsa – their performance of 'Wind Beneath My Wings' at an early script reading is said to have convinced the film-makers of her and Bell's chemistry.

Said Menzel: "Frozen is a bit of a feminist movie for Disney. I'm really proud of that. It has everything, but it's essentially about sisterhood. I think that these two women are competitive with one another, but always trying to protect each other – sisters are just so complicated. It's such a great relationship to have in movies, especially for young kids."

Josh Gad had been hovering around the project since 2008, when it was known as Anna and the Snow Queen, and was eventually cast as Olaf. However, Olaf was originally conceived as a more irritating sidekick character, eventually blossoming into a more innocent presence via Lee's script revisions.

"The thing about Olaf is he was by far, for me, the hardest character to deal with," recalls Lee. "And I say that because when I came on, when I went to see a screening, people are going to hate me, when I saw the screening — I wasn’t on the project yet — every time he appeared I wrote, 'Kill the f-ing snowman.' I just wrote kill him. I hate him. I hate him.

"And so what happened with him is we really had to start over and we said sort of how does a snowman think? You go that, like snow is pure, so we started thinking innocence. And that’s what led us to him being sort of a representation of the girls when they were little. That they create this, 'Hi, I’m Olaf and I like…' They create the snowman together when they’re the happiest."

Production designer Michael Giaimo and his team drew on the majesty of the Norwegian fjords, to which the animators travelled on several occasions. "We had a very short time schedule for this film," recalled producer Peter Del Vecho, "so our main focus was really to get the story right but we knew that John Lasseter is keen on truth in the material and creating a believable world, and again that doesn't mean it's a realistic world – but a believable one. It was important to see the scope and scale of Norway, and important for our animators to know what it's like."

As a movie, Frozen is possessed of a wonderful tactility and beauty – the animation has a palpable physical sheen that engulfs the viewer. To that end, the team studied the practicalities of costumes in frozen environments in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, while the effect of lighting on snow and ice was examined in detail in Quebec. Head of Animation, Lino DiSalvo, said, "The goal for the film was to animate the most believable CG characters you've ever seen."

However, the shooting script was only finalised in November 2012, very late into the production process, and leaving the animators fewer than 12 months to realise their ambitious concepts. The intensity of the production schedule, not to mention the sheer breadth of the project, meant a complex, interlinked network of animators who were assigned to specific characters.

"On this movie we do have character leads, supervising animators on specific characters," Del Vecho explained. "The animators themselves may work on multiple characters but it's always under one lead. I think it was different on Tangled, for example, but we chose to do it this way as we wanted one person to fully understand and develop their own character and then be able to impart that to the crew.

"Hyrum Osmond, the supervising animator on Olaf, is quiet but he has a funny, wacky personality so we knew he'd bring a lot of comedy to it; Anna's animator, Becky Bresee, it's her first time leading a character and we wanted her to lead Anna."

Because this is a Disney movie where the landscape becomes an all-encompassing character, authenticity and visual grandeur was imperative. Several Norwegian landmarks actually appear in the movie, including Akershus Fortress in Oslo, the Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, and Bryggen in Bergen. Arendelle itself was inspired by Nærøyfjord, a branch of Norway's longest fjord Sognefjorden, which has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, while a castle in Oslo with beautiful hand-painted patterns on all four walls served as the inspiration for the kingdom's royal castle interior.

Giaimo says that he drew inspiration from celebrated British cinematographer Jack Cardiff, who worked on Powell and Pressburger movie Black Narcissus: "Because this is a movie with such scale and we have the Norwegian fjords to draw from, I really wanted to explore the depth. From a design perspective, since I was stressing the horizontal and vertical aspects, and what the fjords provide, it was perfect. We encased the sibling story in scale."


What songs are on the Frozen soundtrack?

The aforementioned Robert and Kristen-Anderson Lopez worked on the project for 14 months, working remotely from their New York home, and although they infuse the movie with several memorable numbers, it's arguably the show-stopping 'Let It Go' that embodies the film's spirit. In fact, the song directly informed the story's change in direction as far as Elsa was concerned.

"'Let it Go' came in about 15 months from finishing," Lee recalls. "It was the first song that landed in the film and was in the film. And it was an amazing moment. I remember, you know, we had spent a lot of time talking about Elsa and we were still going on the villain journey, which was killing me to try to figure out how to make that work and then redeem her. And have a love story. I was dying. [laughs] And we just said, 'Let’s talk about who she is. What would it feel like?'

"And Bobby and Kristen said they were walking in Prospect Park and they just started talking about what would it feel like. Forget villain. Just what it would feel like. And this concept of letting out who she is that she’s kept to herself for so long and she’s alone and free, but then the sadness of the fact that the last moment is she’s alone. It’s not a perfect thing, but it’s powerful. And they came in with the demo of Let it Go and it’s exactly word-by-word the exact song."

Just as the shift from romantic narrative to platonic sibling intimacy had unlocked the Frozen storyline, so too did the enormously successful soundtrack invest it with added life. The film's reliance on broadly appealing, Broadway-esque show tunes is Frozen's clearest concession to the 'Disney renaissance' period, which started with Howard Ashman and Alan Menken's Oscar-winning work on The Little Mermaid.

'Let It Go' was astonishingly successful, even by the standards of Disney anthems. As of September 2019, it's one of YouTube's 50 most-viewed videos with more than 1.8 billion views to its name. Dubbed into 41 languages worldwide, and covered by artist Demi Lovato during the end credits, it was less a song and more a cultural phenomenon. To this day, parents worldwide resign themselves to another airing of the song with their children, inviting a mixture of comical exasperation and delight as the Disney magic again proves a powerful bonding factor with families.

Truthfully, however, every song in Frozen adds up to a wonderfully rich listening experience. The soundtrack covers a host of different tones, from the portentous yet catchy ice harvester number 'Frozen Heart', to the sweet Anna/Elsa bonding tune 'Do You Want To Build A Snowman' (a neat foretelling of the story to come), and the delightful Olaf ditty 'In Summer'.

A special mention must go to the soaring 'For the First Time in Forever', an anthem of empowerment and liberation as Anna steps out of her Arendelle castle to engage with the outside world. It's songs such as these which proudly continue the Disney renaissance tradition, pieces that wear their heart on their sleeve with memorable musical hooks and strong vocal performances.

However, it's not just the songs that define Frozen. One must also recognise composer Christophe Beck's stirring and beautiful score, which reflects both the wintry Arendelle landscape and also the Scandinavian influences. Mixing in speciality instruments such as Norwegian fiddles and bukkehorn (essentially a ram's horn), Beck also deploys chimes and glockenspiels to evoke the delicacy of a snowflake falling from the sky – ironically enough, this is truly a score that envelops the listener in a warm blanket.

Fittingly enough, given the mythological and folk influences lurking in the background of the story, Beck also deploys Norwegian choir Cantus in vocal track 'Vuelie'.

Following in the tradition of past Disney composers such as Alan Menken and Jerry Goldsmith, Beck also opens the action taps on several occasions. Courtesy of the composer's music, we're dramatically invested in the climactic fight for Arendelle, especially in thunderous tracks such as 'Summit Siege'. It's a fine example of how songs and score work hand in hand during the finest Disney movies.

How successful was Frozen?

Successful is an understated word when describing the impact of Frozen. The movie's attention to detail in the characters, landscapes, music and story saw it hailed as the finest Disney princess movie since the heyday of Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, and this was reflected in the phenomenal box office results.

Against a $150 million budget, the movie grossed $1.274 billion worldwide, making it one of the most profitable Disney movies ever made. Such was the monumental impact of Frozen that multiple articles were written examining its success. One such piece came from Vulture writer Bilge Ebiri, who identified several factors.

He thought Frozen managed to capture the spirit of the Disney Renaissance films and early Disney features such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Cinderella. He also wrote that the film has Olaf, a "wisecracking, irreverent" sidekick with mild humour which is "a requirement of modern animated kids' movies," and its "witty, catchy" songs were "pretty good."

Clearly, the movie's progressive, feministic undercurrent, in which the female characters are liberated from the needs of romantic attachment, struck a massive chord with global audiences. Director Chris Buck said: "There are characters that people relate to; the songs are so strong and memorable. We also have some flawed characters, which is what [Jennifer Lee] and I like to do – we essentially create two imperfect princesses."

The reviews were largely ecstatic. On reviews aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, Frozen ranks among the highest-rated Disney movies with a 90% rating, summed up as follows: "Beautifully animated, smartly written, and stocked with singalong songs, Frozen adds another worthy entry to the Disney canon."

The Hollywood Reporter's Todd McCarthy was enthusiastic: "This smartly dressed package injects a traditional fairy tale, Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen, with enough contemporary attitudes and female empowerment touches to please both little girls and their moms."

And further plaudits came from Time Magazine's Richard Corliss: "It’s great to see Disney returning to its roots and blooming anew: creating superior musical entertainment that draws on the Walt tradition of animation splendour (this is the first wide-screen feature cartoon since the 1959 Sleeping Beauty) and the verve of Broadway present. The impact of this sisterhood fable on viewers should be as warm and rapturous as Olaf the snowman’s dream of summer. Child, teen or septuagenarian, you’ll warm to Frozen."

Released in November 2013, Frozen went on to achieve success at the 2014 Oscars, winning for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Song ('Let It Go'). The movie also triumphed in Best Animated Feature category at the BAFTAs and Golden Globes, while the soundtrack won a Grammy for Best Compilation Soundtrack For Visual Media.

Of course, the real sign of a successful movie is how much it seeps into popular consciousness after the initial box office and awards interest has died down. Frozen passed this with flying colours: in a 2014 report of America's 100 most-used baby names conducted by website BabyCenter, Elsa was ranked 88. It was the first time the name had appeared on the site's chart.

Many celebrities claimed to have Frozen-obsessed children, including Oscar nominee Amy Adams, herself the star of Disney princess movie Enchanted. In May 2014, Disney CEO Bob Iger announced that Frozen was "probably" one of Disney's "top five franchises, and just prior to that he confirmed plans for a stage musical based on the movie.

It was all a sign of the Frozen's staggering success: a beautiful distillation of the Disney renaissance spirit, and also an exciting example of how Disney animation was embracing progressive, contemporary attitudes. Six years on, we still can't let it go.

What is the next Disney princess movie?

Moana, released in 2016, is the next movie in our Disney princess retrospective. Keep your eyes peeled on the blog for a full breakdown.

When is Frozen 2 released in the UK?

Frozen 2 is released on the 22nd of November, so check out the trailer and tweet us your favourite Disney princess movies @Cineworld.