by Eric Anderson
Disney has taken a lot of hits over the years for “Princess Culture,” although the princess archetype predates Mickey Mouse by centuries. The Tale of Genji has princesses in it, right? Still, Disney has supported the archetype, cast it in various guises through its movies, and merchandised the heck out of it. Trust me, having two young daughters, they have merchandised the heck out of it. Some revel in it, some show abject disdain for it, with the “it” being either the idea of a girl feeling special and adored or the idea of a girl being a condescending, entitled hellion. The Disney princesses really do come in a variety of forms, although they are overwhelmingly white Europeans (Tiana, Jasmine, Pocahontas, and now Sofia being outliers. And lest you think I’ve forgotten Mulan . . . not a princess). You have the hard-working-and-finally-rewarded lives of Cinderella and Tiana, the fierce independence of Merida in Brave, the bookish smarts and loyalty of Belle in Beauty and the Beast, and the slapstick fish-out-of-water antics of Ariel (who, although not a European by birth, gets honorary status due to mermaid-ness). I am sure you can find some characteristics of each that you might wish to impart to your daughter, but I am partial to Merida’s self-reliance and insistence that she does not need to marry to fulfill her destiny.
Now, though, say you have TWO daughters. Outside of the stepsisters (boo!) of Cinderella and the cypher-sisters of Ariel, you don’t see a lot of sibling relationships in the Disney films. This is one of Frozen‘s first triumphs for me, and for our family: Two daughters, a couple of years apart, mirroring nicely the makeup of our family. The writers made the wonderful choice to not make one of the sisters a villain, thus preserving them both as excellent role models (although, to be honest, my wife does have a Vinylmation of Maleficent on her desk, so villainy is not necessarily a disqualifier, I guess).
SPOILERS after the jump
OK, Elsa, the older sister, turns out to have amazing ice/cold generation powers. If she were an X-Man, she’d be an Omega-class mutant. As a result of some horseplay and the kind of completely accidental pain that siblings can cause each other, Anna, her younger sister, gets seriously injured. She is nursed back to health, but Elsa is shut away, understanding that even accidents can cause serious harm when that much power is in play. The scenes of the sisters, a door between them, are heartbreaking as you feel the thwarted sisterly love. It’s a basic human bond that is denied these two, who deal with it in different ways. It is also mirrored in the kingdom (as in all good royal stories since The Fisher King), as the royal family retreats behind palace walls and distances itself from the subjects.
Of course, this being a Disney movie, the parents meet their doom. The two princesses are left on their own. Upon Elsa’s majority, it’s party time. Coronation party time, to be specific, as Elsa will become queen and ruler of the land. Before the party, Anna happens to run into a princely sort in your standard “meet cute” scenario, and a whirlwind courtship song later, they are ready to announce their engagement.
I’d like to pause for a minute here to laud Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez for the songs. A few days after the movie’s release, I heard four girls under the age of 10 singing “Let It Go” from memory. I am sure that the Demi Lovato version on Radio Disney helped this, but these two sets of sisters clearly had some emotional connection to it and the movie. I was hooked with the work song that opens the movie, which reminded me a bit of the “Volga Boat Song,” but had much more profound imagery. In short, I can’t wait until this gets a stage show at Disney, like the couple’s Finding Nemo, or goes to Broadway.
Now, this is the part where things diverge from the classic Disney formula. Elsa’s powers are discovered, and in a scene reminiscent of Beauty and the Beast, she is run out of town. Anna leaves her new beau and heads off to find her sister, bring her back, and fix the eternal winter Elsa seems to have brought upon the kingdom. On her own. She does pick up a guide/transportation in the form of a strapping lad, but it’s her show. Elsa gets her own go-it-alone empowerment song and a stunning showcase of her power, as well. The climax of the movie does not hinge upon romantic love, or a guy saving a female character, or even a magical snowman. It’s the sibling relationship that saves the day, and I cannot think of a better take-home message for my daughters – even if they can’t create ice out of thin air.