Frozen, The Little Mermaid, and Moral Complication

I don’t write a lot about pop culture on this blog, but I’m following up my last post on Catching Fire with some thoughts on another recently-released film: Disney’s Frozen. (If you haven’t seen it, Kevin Fallon’s review at The Daily Beast gives a clear summary, with spoilers). The film is loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” and I’m especially interested in its relationship to Disney’s earlier Andersen adaptation, The Little Mermaid, and Waller Hastings’s 1993 article, “Moral Simplification in The Little Mermaid” (available from Project Muse). I’m teaching Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” this spring in “Disney’s Victorians,” a junior-level seminar for English majors. We’ll be reading a number of Victorian texts (including Oliver Twist, the Alice books, Treasure Island, and Sherlock Holmes) that Disney adapted. We’ll also be reading a bit about Walt Disney himself, and a lot of criticism, with an eye towards how historical eras like the Victorian period get reinvented by modern adaptations, and how those adaptations rewrite and replace the originals.

We’ll read Hastings’s article, which I’ve taught before, toward the end of the semester (the last couple weeks bring us up to the “Disney Renaissance.”) Though two decades old, the article still teaches well: it makes a fairly straightforward point, comparing Andersen’s tale to Disney’s and linking the comparison to broader political concerns. Here’s the gist of the argument:

In the Disney adaptation, the elements of the fairy tale remain recognizable, but superimposed are typical elements of Disneyfication and a happy ending that contravenes the moral intention of the original tale … Disney’s animated films do not so much deny the reality of evil as present a Manichean world of moral absolutes in eternal warfare, from which—in the Disney version—good always emerges triumphant. This is especially true of The Little Mermaid … the Disney version accentuates the most sentimental and romantic aspects of the story at the expense of its moral and psychological complexity.

For Hastings, the most marked change between Andersen’s version and Disney’s is the mermaid’s relationship to the “villain.” Andersen’s sea hag plays a small role: the mermaid seeks her out, and is warned about the dangers of her transformation. In Disney’s adaptation, Ursula actively plots against Ariel. Evil is thus encapsulated in a single, easily-identifiable villain, obviating any moral reflection on the viewer’s part.

Which brings me to Frozen. Andersen’s tale is changed so as to be almost unrecognizable, though he still gets a nod in the credits and the film retains the original title in some overseas markets (where presumably Andersen resonates more than he does in America). Jim Hill explains the long relationship between the Disney company and Andersen’s “Snow Queen.” As early as the 1940s Disney animators recognized the story’s cinematic potential, but they struggled to come up with a full-length film (a Disneyland ride and a stage production were both considered). The problem is that the story is kind of flat — there’s no final showdown, no major villain, no characters the viewer can connect with. The solution (Hill reports a conversation among Jim Lasseter and the Frozen production team, confirmed by an interview with Del Vecho) was to make the two protagonists sisters, playing up the Snow Queen’s childhood relationship and humanizing her rather than making her a villain.

In other words, their solution was to eschew the moral simplification Hastings complains of and reject a Manichean worldview, instead emphasizing that relationships are complicated. The “villain” turns out to be Hans, the at-first-sight love interest (is there another Disney film in which the heroine falls romantically for someone who turns out to be the villain? I can’t think of one). And the “true love kiss” trope we associate with Disney films like The Little Mermaid, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Beauty and the Beast, gets turned on its head.

Frozen is still very much a Disney movie, and Scott Mendelson is on to something when he calls the film a “triumphant of reaffirmation Disney’s cultural legacy.” But Disney also seems to be rejecting a certain part of its cultural legacy. Mendelson’s reading of the film contrasts starkly with Hastings’s reading of The Little Mermaid:

There is a refreshing lack of overt villainy to the film as well, as Elsa is never truly painted as evil, rather someone choosing to hide from the world after she accidentally uses her frightening powers and does harm in a fit of not-unjustifiable anger … Frozen’s arc, of a girl told to hide away what makes her special even by those who would claim to love her with the resulting collateral damage, is rife with subtext. It operates as a parable for homosexuality as well as a commentary on how women are constantly condemned and punished for not conforming to ever-changing and contradictory standards of femininity.

Mendelson finds a complexity in Frozen, and precisely the same kind of complexity that Hastings argued was missing from The Little Mermaid.

Back in 2004 Christopher Healy lamented Disney’s Princess branding in Salon. Criticism of Disney princess culture is now so familiar that Catherine Gee’s review of Frozen in the Telegraph puts the film in the context of earlier Disney fairy tales, and ends with mention of the Bechdel test — which Frozen passes. Mendelson’s claim that Frozen is “genuinely feminist in the best way” might be a slight exaggeration; Disney hasn’t abandoned the stereotyped feminine visuals that caused them such strife over the summer. But the fact that the sentence could even be uttered shows the company’s shifting portrayals of gender, continuing progress made with Tangled and Brave. And the abandonment of an overly simplistic moral worldview seems to me a step in the right direction.

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