Spoiler aIert***(the article contains text that may make you upset with me had you not read this first line to know I will be telling you how this story ends; although most Disney stories have largely happy endings with the caveat of parental death of lead characters which seems to be a prerequisite for many of such stories. Hence, this may not be a spoiler after all. In either case, you were warned or at least laughed, or rolled your eyes...)
It has been some time since I’ve bought into Disney’s newest waves of films. Having been fortunate to grow up during the franchise’s glory days, my childhood was filled with numerous viewings of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and even one tearful viewing of The Lion King. Over time, Disney evolved as do smart businesses who recognize that their audiences are also maturing.
Then we started to see what I would dub the “multicultural era” of Disney. As Aladdin was a bit of a flop as far as multicultural sensitivity is concerned (see NYT post on racism in Aladdin here), we had Mulan, Pocahontas, and then Tiana, the first Black princess for the brand in The Princess and the Frog (fully noting all of these films have also been criticized by scholars due to further racial stereotypes and historical liberties taken among other things). But for the time being, we will give Disney some credit for trying.
Then we moved into Pixar and animation took on a whole new look and story line away from the traditional fairy tales. Over time, the actual images of these Disney characters also seemed to morph into something more anime than the classical beautiful drawings of earlier days…but I digress.
Hearing much buzz about Disney’s latest film, Frozen, my interest was piqued. It was supposed to be a return to the fairy tale that so many young girls are drawn to, but with a different twist. It is a story about a princess who rescues a kingdom without the happy ending being exclusively about her prince charming coming to the rescue.
I have written extensively about film and how the fairy tale image is in many ways misleading, creating false expectations, and in essence, ruining modern day romance. As such, I was interested to see how Disney, the creator of the overwhelming bulk of such stories, was going to alter the narrative. In Frozen, several plot twists do in fact make a movement toward this aim of modernizing the age-old fairy tales.
First, after the protagonist of our tale, Anna, falls in love with a man she has known for only a few hours, another more rugged “unconventional” (for Disney) male lead questions her judgment. In the end, we realize the first guy is basically a total jerk. At the moment he is supposed to deliver “true love’s kiss,” to heal her, he tells her how unfortunate it is that she doesn’t have someone who loves her and walks away, leaving her to die. Is this Disney’s attempt to teach young girls a first and important lesson about love? “Girls, men will break your heart, and some will be just plain lousy. Let’s learn this lesson early on in life.” Certainly not what I’d expect out of Disney, but I am somewhat intrigued.
Second, the act of true love that breaks the curse in this film does not end up being between a man and a woman. It is between two sisters. This I found to be rather touching. It was a first Disney tale where the family bond was more central to the story than one of romantic (typically lust-driven) love.
Finally, a central theme in the story seemed to touch upon deeper allusions toward the dualistic nature of power, both good and bad. Typically Disney stories have featured a “villain” who possesses supernatural powers. Here, we see a queen whose powers have the ability to destroy. Where she first learns that being cold (metaphorically speaking) to the outside world is what will ultimately protect her, she grows lonely and more frustrated. Interestingly, this does not mean she is beyond saving. She creates a castle of magnificent beauty out of ice. She learns to embrace solitude and the freedom to be herself. And yet in the end, through love and family comes to achieve the highest levels of Disney nirvana. All of that singing about "let it go" during the film was rather reminiscent of Buddhism and Taoism if you ask me. Surprisingly deep for a children’s tale.
So does Disney succeed in re-writing the narrative of fairy tales? Does it lose the damsel in distress themes so prevalent in other stories? Almost. For the girl who was deeply saddened by the scene where Ariel had to wave goodbye to her family on her wedding day (“why must she leave them!?” I asked deeply troubled), I can attest to the power of these narratives and the impact they have.
From my The Little Mermaid lunchbox in kindergarten to my Disney credit card and silverware with the stamped out Mickey head, Disney still inspires a sense of awe in me. And for any kid who grew up in California or Florida with frequent access to the parks, it was simply a way of life. Yet all this despite my understanding of the biased, sexist, racist, heterosexist, patriarchical messages so often conveyed in their stories. After all, can all this “princess” behavior be truly healthy for any girl’s ego and sense of self growing up? Probably not.
But as the girl who once ended a relationship after a heated debate about Disney (insulting Disneyland, a sacred space, is simply unacceptable), I can say wholeheartedly that I look forward to seeing what the franchise comes up with next. With each move however strategic or business-minded as it may be, it seems to be inching closer to stories that weave magic and love with more profound concepts such as inner strength and courage. Who knows maybe Disney’s next “princess” will actually be a yogi.
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