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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Fixing Up Frozen

Let's talk about the most important song in Disney's hit cartoon Frozen.

Yes, indeed, let's talk about "Fixer Upper."

Alright, alright, claiming that this is the most important song in the whole movie is a little ridiculous, considering that this is a film that includes "Let It Go," which I'm pretty sure even strange frog people living beneath the seas of New England think is basically the best thing ever, but I wanted to start things out dramatically to effectively counterbalance the opinion I've seen expressed about this song before: that it's the least important song in the film, and should probably have been cut entirely.

In sharp contrast, I think the song has an important function within the narrative that makes its inclusion logical, even if the action and tone both take a hit as a result. In the process of picking this scene apart, I want to untangle, to some extent, what makes a particular narrative beat successful and how that success can come at a cost to other elements of a film. Every film is a bit of a fixer-upper, and the way we deal with the problems of this, and all other, art forms decides to a large extent how much we get out of our experiences.

It's interesting to look at this in Frozen, in particular, because much of the criticism has been so starkly divided into absolutes. The film is either Oscar-worthy, or a complete travesty; there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of middle ground. And while I do think the film fundamentally works and is a good film, there are tradeoffs and compromises in its structure worth examining.

For a really obvious, tangible example, take a look at this image:

Notice the problem?

Elsa's hair in this bit passes through her arm. It's strictly speaking an animation error, and it made the rounds on Tumblr as a pretty remarkable error, considering that this is Disney and their animation quality is expected to be through the roof.

But the thing about this moment is that allowing for this error lets the movement of the hair be significantly more fluid and dynamic than it would be otherwise, which does make sense from a choreography standpoint. I mean, it means that the whole motion her is almost dancey, and is far less restrained than her movements elsewhere. It does a lot to sell the idea that she has broken free of the anxieties oppressing her. Of course, obviously we know that she hasn't, but in this particular moment it feels that way, and I think the fluidity here is part of that sense of freedom.

She's so free that even the animators can't contain her!

Now, I'm not necessarily saying that this means the cheating going on here is acceptable from a formal standpoint. But what I am suggesting is that it makes sense for a particular goal set to allow this error to exist, even if from another particular goal set it does not.

This is the situation driving the presence or absence of "Fixer Upper." The song makes some formal tradeoffs to achieve other ends.

Let's start with what is traded away. Well, for one thing the tone is pretty dramatically shifted in this scene compared to that which lies around it. In fact, this is a sharp tonal swerve away from the escalating seriousness of the narrative into a hyperactive and joke-filled big musical number. And I think the result for myself and for many others is that this scene feels not just tonally different but tonally off. It seems intrusive and out of place here.

Not only does it stall the forward momentum of the film's snowball-roll towards the series of dramatic highpoints that conclude the film, it snows the actual momentum of the narrative by clogging up the quest to save Elsa with what amounts to a bunch of enthusiastic shippers intruding on the plot to push their OTP. Which, in typical shipper fashion, became their OTP literally seconds earlier. And while the ludicrousness of it is funny, it's also undeniably a distraction from the main plot at a critical juncture.

You might even say that it's so intrusive that they're... trolling... the audience.

It's interesting to me because it wouldn't have felt out of place earlier in the film, and while there's a continuity reason to have the trolls appear at this point, there's no reason why a song about a romance between these two characters couldn't have, with a bit of finagling, come earlier, with a return visit to the trolls coming later to convey the information about Anna's worsening condition.

Or at least, it would be easy if that was all the song was trying to do. But the song conveys another crucial piece of information here:

The point of the movie.

Yes, buried in this goofy troll song is essentially the whole point of the film.

Check it out:

Notice what happens at the end there? Through the whole song we've got the trolls discussing Anna and Kristoff and their various faults, asserting that these faults can be seen past and fixed up. And then we get to this bit:

We’re not sayin' you can change him,
‘Cause people don’t really change.
We’re only saying that love's a force
That's powerful and strange.
People make bad choices if they’re mad,
Or scared, or stressed.
Throw a little love their way
And you’ll bring out their best.

So on one level this is about Anna and Kristoff. The trolls here are saying that Kristoff isn't necessarily going to stop being kind of a huge smelly dork, but the implication at least is that love can allow Anna to see past these problems, even if he is kind of... Kristawful. (The real question is whether love will allow you, dear reader, to see past these terrible, terrible puns.)

But the second half of this verse doesn't seem to really apply to them at all! Or at least not without a little of thought. There's one character it does apply quite strongly to, though. Elsa. Elsa, who in a panic accidentally froze an entire country. Elsa, who just injured her sister in another moment of lost control. Elsa, who seems to spend the vast majority of her time mad, or scared, or stressed, or some combination of all three is the subject of this section.

And, of course, this message is actualized at the climax of the film. It is Anna's love for her sister that ultimately saves them both--a love that allows her to understand and forgive Elsa's mistakes. She does as the song says, and brings out Elsa's best.

The song's placement here is significant because it comes after Anna has been injured by Elsa. The argument implicit here--that Anna should still love her sister despite her erratic behavior--comes at the point in the narrative when Anna has the most reason to walk away from her sister. She's been hurt deeply, emotionally and physically, by her sister, a sister who has kept her literally locked out for most of their lives. And yet, she is here urged to move past that and understand that Elsa is, herself, upset and scared of this power that she can barely control. The argument comes at the very moment when the argument is the hardest to believe and accept from Anna's perspective.

And what's most interesting is that the argument comes alongside an acknowledgment that Anna has no reason to expect Elsa to suddenly change her behavior and personality. It's not that there's any hope that things will magically all work out (although, because this is a Disney movie, they of course do, which might undermine this part of the song a little bit... See? All kinds of moving parts here that can get jammed) it's that love can help Anna see past that which makes Elsa different and love her all the same.

This is deeply significant to a number of different readings of Elsa. I tend to default to a reading of her as someone who suffers from deep anxiety (and I mean... literally speaking she does spend a lot of time having panic attacks essentially; the ice just works as a tangible metaphor) but I've also come across queer readings of her character, and reading this particular moment from a queer perspective is pretty deeply meaningful, as essentially the argument here is that Anna should accept and love Elsa despite all that makes her different and maybe even a little strange.

So, the song at this point provides the argument that drives the film's final moments and serves as a reaffirmation of Anna's goal at a dark moment in the narrative, a moment when she is most likely to give up on her sister.

Why put it in the context of a goofy musical number about Anna and Kristoff? Well, I think the idea here is to draw a parallel between an idea that we see often in popular media--that romantic love allows us to see past flaws, and that's part of its power and magic--and another far less common kind of relationship. It's kind of metatextual, in that sense--it's the Big Fun Romance Music Number, but the actual point is ultimately to comment on Anna and Elsa rather than Anna and Kristoff. It's deliberately playing with and then subverting narrative beats that we know.

As a result, we have the Big Fun Romance Music Number thing sort of awkwardly shoved in where it tonally doesn't quite fit, but what we gain, as a result, is a stronger sense of Anna's mission and of the message of the film.

In that sense, the song also acts as a perfect encapsulation of how we as an audience relate to the film. It's not perfect, and privileging some concerns over others means that inevitably there are flaws! This careful juggling act of theme means that for the moment tone and pacing take a hit, just like strict formal animation quality takes a hit in order to facilitate Elsa's fluid hair swoop moment. As an audience, we can choose to make those inevitable flaws deal breakers, or see past them. The film itself, like all art, is a bit of a fixer-upper, and that's how we interact with it. I'd even argue, like Eliot does about Hamlet or like Eco does about Casablanca, that it's the problems that make it, and perhaps all art, fascinating.

Of course, remember that at the end of this film Hans is hauled away in chains! He may have his own reasons for doing things, and perhaps we can find some sympathy for him, but there are limits to what kind of treatment someone can tolerate, even with love in the mix. There are lines you just don't cross. One of them being regicide.

And maybe there are lines that this film, or even just the production and fandom that surround it, crosses. Maybe for you the comments about women being hard to animate push things too far over the line to be enjoyable. Or maybe the lack of people of color (and the blithely racist and badly argued rabid defenses of Disney that emerged in response to criticisms along these lines) sour things for you. Hell, maybe you just really don't like this song and you think it fouls up the film! That's ok.

But what this song suggests is that within those limits it is possible to understand the forces driving what might seem like a bad decision. It's possible to see and understand the internal logic driving decisions and still enjoy or love a thing despite its faults. It's not a compulsion, but it is a possibility, and in that possibility, and the possible ways in which we deal with flaws and gaps and incongruities in art, lies the creative, dynamic dialogue between text and audience, between the beloved and the one who loves.

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  1. I'm not sure I can see past that punny moment of yours.

  2. To speak to your ultimate point, I've always found this FILM CRIT HULK bit absolutely wonderful.


    Also, you are completely and totally on point about Fixer Upper. Frozen's ultimate tool is the bait-and-switch based on our expectations of old Disney princess stories. Love at first sight is actually an asshole trying to manipulate a girl fed the wrong messages, the "love that can melt a frozen heart" is actually the one shared among sisters. Fixer Upper pretends to be a throwaway number about the lovey-dovey couple, but it's actually the meaning of the movie spelled out for you in show-stopper Broadway fashion. I love it.

    Also, after the video, you spent a couple of paragraphs writing "Elsa" where you obviously meant "Anna". Sorry! Otherwise, great great post and I love that you're once again writing about things I've seen so I can properly enjoy your posts.

  3. The meta message does a little to redeem the song, but I’m surprised you didn’t comment at all on the the squickiness of the actual surface message. The “flaws” that are listed? Mostly aren’t. They’re examples of things the trolls are puzzled by, or lists of why he doesn’t conform to Disney-esque standards of masculinity. Her “flaw”: engagement (her active choice) is dismissed as something they will intervene to fix. Elsa finally finds freedom in solace because being around people is so exhausting and stressful, but the same trait is derided in Kristoff. And of course, the overall ickiness of a whole crowd of people trying to intervene in a deeply personal decision. The whole song had me squirming uncomfortably in my seat.

    And that’s a shame. There’s so much in favor of this movie: the way Kristoff doesn’t touch Anna without asking (actually, at one point, catches himself about to, then stops), the constant reinforcement that romantic love is not the only love that matters, the fact that the central relationship is non-romantic, the subverting of SO many busted tropes.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

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