If we go by Disney’s in-house lore, the idea of making a movie of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen had been kicking around for more than 70 years by the time it was green-lit. Andersen’s chilly fable, brightened for a modern audience with original songs and a narrative spin that put the relationship between two sisters at its core, was renamed Frozen. At its premiere in 2013, Disney’s chief executive, Bob Iger, wept behind his 3D glasses. And why not? Within weeks the movie had made more than $800m in worldwide bums-on-seats. Its soundtrack was No1. The DVD sold 3m copies in a day. Though a sequel has been slow in coming – Frozen II is in cinemas later this month – it has been an absolute inevitability, ever since somebody, somewhere, bought the clinching ticket or disc and Frozen moved past The Lion King to become the most successful animated film of all time.
I was the father of a new baby girl when the Frozen madness began, back in 2013. In the tiny gaps between ninja nappy-wrapping and sprinting out on emergency Persil runs to the shops, I was vaguely aware of the arrival of a cultural phenomenon. I didn’t know the specifics, nothing of the heroine-princess Elsa, her younger sister Anna, their gang of comic friends or their quest to save a frozen Scandinavian kingdom from ruin. I hadn’t heard any of the songs which, people said, were wilier and more mischievous than the straighter, soapier, we’re-in-love-now ballads that defined Disney movies past.
My first exposure to the curious potency of Frozen’s soundtrack came that first summer after its release. I had been sent to interview a footballer. When I arrived at his home he was running late, and I was parked in the kitchen with his children, who were playing the soundtrack on a loop. And I mean loop. This music, plainly, was as much a fixture of the home as the unliftable art books and nice rugs. One of the tracks, For The First Time In Forever, caught my ear. In the song, the two sisters consider a glamorous upcoming ball from two perspectives. Anna, the fun sister, can’t wait: “Don’t know if I’m elated or gassy,” she sings, “but I’m somewhere in that zo-o-o-ne!” Elsa, secretly cursed with the power to shoot ice from her hands, is terrified: “Conceal! Don’t feel! Put on a sho-o-o-w!”
I was amazed at how much character was packed into one short, pert song; how touching and unself-pitying it was. I went away intrigued, though not expecting to find out much more about Frozen for at least another 15 years, at which age my daughter, having been raised on a diet of leather-bound Dickens and Bunraku mime, would be allowed to watch her first Hollywood film.
We trick ourselves, any time we think we can curate a careful menu of things our kids will obsess over. Before my daughter was born, I had this idea it might be neat if I chose a pop song for her. The first piece of music her little ears would hear! I would play it as soon as we got her back from the hospital. As it was, in the cab taking us home, the driver slapped on the radio, we got Fuck You by Cee-Lo Green, and that was that. Frozen was also my fault. We were days into a rained-off holiday in the countryside and the place had a DVD player plus a copy of the film. What could it hurt?
I brought in snacks. Arranged cushions. We sat and watched the thing, and she surprised me, when the baddie did an embarrassing bad-guy dance, by gurgling out a laugh. I could almost see the mental connections fusing, that weird human delight taking shape in the interplay between humiliation and amusement. Before long we had watched Frozen a second time, then a third. It became one of our things. “Fer-zen,” she called it.
Recently I spoke to the movie’s co-directors, Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, about this. I was not the first to offer “Frozen dad” feedback: Lee described the gruff, unimpressible, fortysomething men who would come bounding up, “breathlessly, saying things like, ‘Anna loves too much. That’s her problem. And that’s her strength.’” Buck said: “Fathers and daughters are the fans I find most fascinating. The dads enjoy the movie on its own merits, but it gives them a connection with their daughters they may not have had before. A way in.”
Ten viewings, 15. In these early innocent stages (mere foothills of a coming obsession), my daughter seemed to like the wacky supporting characters best: a brought-to-life snowman, Olaf, waddling about at waist height; a lonely mountain-man, Kristoff, who gets a little song about preferring his pet reindeer to people. The film’s final song features musical trolls who band together for a topsy-turvy dance number about learning to tolerate people’s flaws. These trolls, I eventually noticed, somewhere around the 20th or 25th viewing, had been snuck a cheeky line in which they speculated that Kristoff and his reindeer enjoyed a relationship “a little outside of nature’s laws”.
Of all the un-Disneyish subjects: bestiality. I must have gasped. “What? What?” my daughter asked, while I winced and bit my tongue. Here was that flattering sense, well known to parent-chaperones at Pixar movies, of a gag aimed over the heads of the kids for the grownups. Elsewhere in Frozen, in a patch of apparently innocent repartee, the film-makers slipped in a penis joke. Anna is asked about a prospective boyfriend’s foot size, and snaps back: “Foot size doesn’t matter.” I asked Lee and Buck whether there’d been any debate about this and Lee roared. “Did not debate it at all. We were improv-ing in the room and the line just came out… You’re the first person to bring that up.” I could hardly bring myself to admit just how many times I’d seen the film. Forty? Fifty? I knew it backwards. I had half the dance moves.
There was obvious pride, for these film-makers, that their Frozen should ever have ridden the zeitgeist like this. An initial pitch, in 2008 or 2009, that Elsa and Anna did not need boyfriend-saviours and might in fact save themselves, must have sounded pretty revolutionary in Disney’s Burbank studios. (I’m thinking Lenin pitching the Russians: no more tsars.) But Buck and Lee got the idea through and the resulting film turns on a moment of familial, not romantic, love. Kristoff and an oily prince called Hans yap about, gesturing at being the hero, before winding up as arm candy for Anna, an irrelevance to Elsa.
I had some beautiful chats with my daughter about this. As she grew up and changed, the world was changing, too. Often, when our larger talks stuttered, it was Frozen and its intimately known beats that we referred back to. The movie became something like a demonstration table, from which colourful examples from life could be picked up and placed down.
“So you know how Anna starts off thinking that getting married to Hans is the only thing that matters…?”
As with a great many Disney movies, the plot of Frozen requires that the lead characters be orphans. In order to keep the plot brisk and economical, the parents die early, in a shipwreck. This happens mid-song, their ship going down under a wave during a storm. Lee explained that they didn’t want to linger on a “Bambi moment”. Watching through adult eyes, I always found this a deft piece of storytelling. It never occurred to me that my daughter had missed anything, not til our 45th or 50th viewing came to an end, with the winter-struck kingdom returned to sunshine and prosperity.
There had been more and more talk, online, about a Frozen sequel. I asked my daughter, idly, what she thought would happen next to the sisters. She yawned, throwing out her lengthening limbs into a massive, contented, after-movie stretch. She said something about Elsa and Anna’s parents finally getting home from their sea voyage.
Silence on the sofa. The credits rolled. “Oh, baby,” I began. Deep breath. And so we had our first conversation about death.
Frozen mugs. Frozen T-shirts. Frozen Crayola. Frozen Lego. As of autumn-winter 2014, brides have been able to walk down the aisle in an authorised Frozen wedding dress, in ivory or in Elsa’s trademark turquoise. Around the time that Frozen’s turnover passed the $1bn mark, with Disney stock soaring, chief executive Iger went on an open call to investors and promised Frozen video games, Frozen theme park attractions, “not just new product but continued interest and continued impact on the bottom line for quite a while”.
Across America, a lottery system had to be introduced, to deal with the extent of shops’ demand for merch. Lee, who had cast her daughter in a small role in the movie (voicing a nine-year-old Anna), went out shopping one day and came across a miniature Frozen tandem. When you pressed a button on the basket, an excerpt of her daughter’s singing voice crackled out. At Disney’s Florida theme park they got an Anna and Elsa-themed log flume. In the California park, they got an Anna and Elsa’s Boutique.
After a couple of Christmases as a Frozen parent, I was living in what amounted to an Anna and Elsa’s Boutique myself. Pencil case. Indoor football. Bedspread with matching pillowcase. We had affiliated Frozen tat of every conceivable size, purpose and quality, from tiny, self-assembly characters out of Kinder eggs to solid plastic figurines, heavy as murder weapons, that presented Anna in two “looks”, her ball look and her winter travelling look. There was an official Frozen picture book and some unofficial Frozen lip salve.
Prized above everything, by my daughter, was a cloaked Elsa dress. It came with Elsa gloves, an Elsa wand and an Elsa braid. For her fourth birthday, we were able to find an inflatables guy who had painted a plausible Elsa on his bouncy castle and was touring it, one step ahead of the patent lawyers, I expect, around kids’ parties. My daughter came in character, as Elsa. A dozen other little girls came in character, all as Elsas. On the way home, I asked her what the deal was with Elsa: “She’s cursed. She never smiles. Anna’s the fun one! Why does nobody ever dress up as Anna?”
It made no sense. Anna was witty, gutsy. Elsa was surly. I asked Frozen’s songwriters, Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, a married couple who’d written the music and lyrics in a tiny office above a Greek bakery in Brooklyn. Kristen had noticed the Elsa-Anna imbalance, too, counting the kids who came by their house every Halloween and putting the ratio at 12:1. She shrugged. “Elsa is sparkly. Otherworldly. Anna is only human.”
One day, recently, I called up Elsa herself – the actor Idina Menzel, a big-voiced Broadway veteran (Rent, Wicked) who was in her early 40s when she was cast as Frozen’s lead in 2012. Menzel was in the middle of recording an album of Christmas songs when we spoke. She admitted that, growing up, she wasn’t much of a fan of Disney princesses. “But don’t tell them that. I think Disney’s gotten a lot better, since then, at making empowering female characters.” As for Elsa’s strange magnetism, Menzel puts it down to the fact that Elsa, as with many young women, has too often been told what not to do.
Casual and funny, a fortysomething with dark hair, the actor does not share many surface qualities with Elsa, a buttoned-up Scandinavian ice-teen. But, Menzel says, “I can relate. When I was young, I had this bi-i-i-g voice. People would talk about it, say I had a gift, yet I didn’t want to show it off, in case people thought I was bragging. So you end up taking a strength and burying it. That’s not something that goes away. As women we work on it all the time. We’re always wrestling with, ‘How much is too much? How big is too big?’ When you speak your mind, your anger, your ferocity – when is that OK, when is that allowed, as a woman?”
In the first half of Frozen, audiences watch Elsa suppress her ice powers until a supreme second-act song called Let It Go. At this point she abruptly stops giving a hoot and, whipping off her gloves, letting down her hair, she conjures up an ice fortress, a snow demon, plus a cool new frosty disco dress. From the earliest screenings, it was clear to all that Let It Go was Frozen’s centrepiece triumph, its money-maker and access-all-areas pass, eventual winner of an Oscar for Best Song and a Grammy. The Lopezes told me they first wrote it under the working title of Elsa’s Badass Moment, while walking in a Brooklyn park.
The song had to express a release of pent-up, unsayable truths. Kristen channelled some of the frustrations she had at the time, “raising a two-year-old and a six-year-old, trying to have a career, trying to have a good marriage, trying to stay skinny. Expectations can be so high, for what we are allowed to be. I thought, what would happen if I just let all that go?” Days after Frozen’s release, at a time when the lunatic power of Let It Go was starting to become plain, Disney fed a coming craze by putting the unabridged song on YouTube. It has since been viewed 675m times. A month later, a singalong version went live, complete with lyrics and bouncing snowflake. An absurd 1.8bn views.
Taylor Swift covered Let It Go on tour, as did Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, another Frozen dad. Every night on Broadway, before curtain-up on Frozen The Musical (which opened in 2018), audiences have to be patiently reminded not to hum along. The karaoke company Lucky Voice said that Let It Go was its most-sung track of 2015. And 2016. And 2017. The song has become a gay anthem; Elsa, in turn, has been taken up as a (possibly) gay icon.
You suspect this rather caught Disney off-guard, the studio having been timorous, to say the least, about representing a diverse sexuality in its family movies. In the summer of 2016, an online campaign began, calling on Disney to #GiveElsaAGirlfriend in any future sequel. The studio had been praised, in 2013, for letting a princess off their conveyor belt without an attached boyfriend. Clearly there was an opportunity to break new ground in 2019, with Frozen II, and a small hint seemed to be dropped when Disney publicised a still from the sequel during Pride month, showing Elsa in a purple dress.
Accustomed to using Frozen as a launchpad for all sorts of parent-child discussions, I pencilled in an opportunity for another landmark chat with my daughter. So, I asked co-directors Buck and Lee, what was the plan? How had they responded to Elsa becoming a gay icon? There was a pause. “Well, y’know,” Buck began – and I sensed a careful workshopped answer coming. “For Elsa, it’s all about the importance of family and, y’know, the strength of that. And we’re just – we’re staying in that lane.” He meant, in the sequel, Elsa would #NotBeGettingAGirlfriend. Lee cut in: “But what we love is that people see themselves in her, [especially] anyone who feels that they have a part of themselves that needs release.”
Who knows? Future instalments of the franchise might go to braver places. There have been plans to keep taking the story further. When I spoke to Menzel, she had just been on a night out with her co-star Jonathan Groff, the voice of mountain-man Kristoff. Groff had described the first movie as a seed and the second movie as a sprout. Something like that. Menzel couldn’t quite remember. She paused our conversation and took out her phone. “I’m gonna text him right now. Hold on there. I’m texting Kristoff while we speak.” After many journeys on the fixed rails of Frozen’s plot, there was something so thrillingly off-book about a text pinging between Elsa and Kristoff that I could hardly sit still.
I wondered what my daughter would make of it. Menzel chuckled. “Tell your daughter ‘Hi’ from me. Tell her some old lady with dark brown hair says ‘Hi’. That’ll freak her out.” I said I would.
The Lopezes have a story about how they were once in a Disney store before Christmas, queueing to buy Frozen toys with everybody else. Their songs were playing on an endless loop out of a speaker and when the Lopezes got to the front of the queue, hoping to curry favour with the server and perhaps get some sort of discount, they mentioned they’d written Let It Go. The server looked at them, as the songs played and played, and asked: “Why?”
Robert told me: “At first our friends and neighbours used to say, ‘Thank you for writing these songs, you’ve brought our family together.’ And then…” He laughed. “And then it started to shift.” His wife, Kristen, referred to something she called “mini-van fatigue”: too many road journeys, too many restarts of the CD. When I asked Lee about the most common parental response to her movie now, she answered drily: “Frozen has cost me a lot of money.”
Rising levels of parental ennui present a challenge, as these film-makers prepare to release their sequel. “We had to start with a question,” Kristen said. “Why do Frozen II at all?” When she said this, an answer sprang to my mind, and it ended with nine zeros. But the Lopezes said they were most intrigued by the challenge of ageing a group of obsessed-over characters. Lee told me that, before writing the script, she plunged into books about Elizabeth I’s reign, seeking ideas about where to take Elsa next. She was looking over the heads of the kids who might have come and gone as Frozen fans, eyeballing the next generation. “Before the first Frozen, I asked myself: what did I wish had been there for me as a child? And it was a heroine who was not perfect, who struggled, who wasn’t good or evil, and wasn’t pitted against other women. Same with Frozen II. I sat down and thought, what would have helped?”
Lopez mentioned geopolitics in this context. “We’ve all been through crises in the last few years,” he said. “There’s an anxiety level we all share. We wanted to show how our characters would deal with that, too.” I wasn’t able to see the sequel but – just a guess – look out for set-piece songs in which Elsa refreezes the melting icecaps. Anna votes Elizabeth Warren. Olaf gets Brexit done.
Or maybe not. Disney will not want too many risks taken with its golden franchise. In spring this year, the company announced that Frozen The Musical would open around the world, in Sydney, Hamburg and London. Meanwhile building work was under way on a Frozen realm at Disneyland Paris, a deal that elicited an excited tweet from President Macron. Plans were announced to sell Frozen coding kits. A Frozen quad bike. Back on Broadway, they sold their millionth ticket.
I went along, ducking in to see the musical during a work trip. While a real-life Elsa roamed the stage, her ice powers simulated with flashing lights and dry ice, I did my best to watch it through my daughter’s eyes. I wanted to remember all the tiny details, to ferry them back to her in London. I could hardly wait.
She had just turned six. We’d been Frozen nuts, together, for more than half her life. I used to think that, because of her, I had seen Frozen more times than any other movie. More recently I’d begun to wonder if I’d seen Frozen more times than all other movies put together. There was no longer a question of irritation or fatigue: Frozen was simply a fact of parenting life, same as getting up early, having a sore back, worrying.
It was while I was away in New York that my daughter was taken to see Matilda in London. Her first West End show! This came after a summer of fascination with the Women’s World Cup, reading The Worst Witch books and liking Wonder Woman. When I got home, she listened politely to my stories about Frozen The Musical, then went back to recreating the big number from Matilda, the one about kids who are desperate to get on and grow up.
One day she came to find me, with the air of someone who’d been sitting on a big confession for a while. Deep breath. She admitted she’d started to find Frozen boring. Babyish. She would come and see the sequel with me (a concession to my feelings). But the fact was she had other favourites. We hugged. I thought of the time she first teetered away, walking, or spent a whole morning at nursery by herself – fantastic new beginnings that also marked, unequivocally, an end.
I needed to vent some of this to wiser ears. Who better than the songwriting Lopezes, emotionally nimble enough to stuff one single film with the biggest pop song of the decade (Let It Go), a masterpiece of musical storytelling (For The First Time In Forever) and a sneaky joke about bestiality? I explained that my daughter had pushed through the other side, gone post-Frozen. Was it weird that I felt so distraught?
“It’s inevitable,” Kristen said. “We had the same. Our daughters were so in love with the first movie. Then they grew up. They got obsessed with Hamilton. Our eldest is 14 now and into Billie Eilish and YouTube ukulele stars.”
They tried to write some of these anxieties into songs for the sequel, Robert said. “About growing. Going into the unknown. Facing some of the fears we all have around change.” The family had just that week been to a screening of Frozen II, Kristen said. It turned out that even the 14-year-old Billie Eilish fan could get back into Anna and Elsa for a night.
“We talked about it the whole car ride home,” Kristen said. “They’re kind, sweet girls. But, yeah, they’re on their own paths now. And the fact that we got 45 minutes of their warmth, again, that was… That was a very nice thing.”
• Frozen II is out on 22 November.
With thanks to Ana Sofia, Rodrigo, Charlotte, Penelope, Catalina, Ava, Finley, George, Penelope, Margot, Victoria and Mila.
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