You can emerge from a great movie in any number of frames of mind: stirred to action, moved to tears, smiling ear to ear or even enraged beyond words. And then there are those movies that have a different and in some ways, more profound effect. They come along at just the right moment, when you’re a bit discouraged by a recent course of events, when the well is drying out and replenishing itself with doubt instead. Movies that embrace your simmering creativity and stoke your desire to tell stories, because they remind you of the possibilities inherent in the blank canvas by pushing the limits of what can be done with it. They disarm and enchant the cynic and turn him into a dreamer again, fingers twitching to fill hard drives with a wealth of new words. Frozen, Disney’s magnificent animated retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, did that for me.
The story of a bond of sisterhood tested by fate, magic, misunderstanding and a heck of a lot of snow and ice, Frozen is visually sumptuous, befitting the pedigree of its studio, and uncommonly emotionally profound. The two princesses of the vaguely Nordic realm of Arendelle are the playful young Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) and her elder sister Elsa (Idina Menzel), who possesses the power to create ice and snow. They are inseparable until Elsa accidentally injures Anna with her magic, at which point their well-meaning royal parents decide that the two would be better off kept apart, for their own safety, and Anna’s memory altered to remove her awareness of her sister’s abilities. Years later, after the girls have been orphaned, Elsa is poised to be named Queen of Arendelle until a confrontation with Anna over a rash decision to marry a handsome prince she’s just met results in Elsa’s long-suppressed powers bursting forth and blanketing Arendelle in eternal winter. Shunned by her people, Elsa flees to the distant mountains, pursued by Anna who has faith that her sister can be convinced to bring summer back to the realm. I’d prefer not to say more at the risk of being spoilery, but despite some red herrings dropped early on that suggest you’re in for the typical schmaltz about princesses in towers and the conveniently available square-jaws they always fall for, and despite the prominence in advertising of the goofy living snowman Olaf (Josh Gad), the story goes in a much more mature and welcome direction, keeping the relationship between the sisters as the emotional linchpin – while dazzling your eyes with some breathtaking animation work, especially in any scene involving Elsa’s magic.
Given what I’ve discussed at length here before in terms of the onscreen portrayal of women, how refreshing indeed to find a story that both passes the Bechdel test and gives depth and complexity to a female character with supernatural powers! The clip I’ve linked above is my absolute favorite moment in the movie, because not only is it a terrific song belted out by a sublimely talented Broadway veteran at the top of her game (even calling back a little to her famous interpretation of Wicked‘s “Defying Gravity”), but it’s a scene of a young woman embracing everything about who she truly is and reveling in the wonders of what she can do with her amazing gifts. A triumphant coming out of a sorceress, if you will, and a scene of unbridled joy. We don’t get to see that very often, if ever. Women with powers in movies are usually punished for them – they have to give them up to attain the life they really want, or, they choose to use them for evil and must therefore be destroyed (usually by… sigh, a virtuous man). While Elsa does cause some inadvertent mayhem that must be undone, the resolution of the story thankfully doesn’t require her to abandon what makes her unique. She adds to her life instead of taking something away.
As a man writing a novel in first-person from a woman’s point of view (a fantasy about a woman with magical powers, no less), those issues are always top of mind for me. It’s too easy to venture down the well-trodden, familiar path at the end of which lies the execrable Mary Sue; the collection of cliches guaranteed to please no one, least of all the author. Experiencing Frozen, though, shows me that it can be done, and done extremely well, and the positive response to the movie by both audiences and critics proves that these kinds of characters can touch hearts. Magic has always had a lingering visceral appeal, and too often literature and cinema adhere to the conservative religious view that there is something fundamentally wrong about it, forever at odds with how the world is supposed to function. Yet it’s something that we all still seem to want in our lives – in the first encounter with a new love, in the twinkle in the eye of a child waiting for Santa, in the wish made on the shooting star. Why can’t the world be magical? Why can’t we make it that way?
Writers have our own magic to offer. We have these crazy ideas and wild emotions that we are somehow able to transmogrify into a collection of permutations of 26 letters that cast spells upon those who read them, with the very effects I mentioned off the top. When we’ve suppressed that nature for too long, because day jobs and other obligations have gotten in the way, or we’ve just been too downright lazy to keep doing what we’re supposed to be doing, we risk not a catastrophic explosion like Elsa, but a gradual withering away of our spirit. We get mopey and find little to be happy about in what should be fulfilling lives. What we need to do is have a “Let It Go” moment instead and revel in what we love and what we know we’re meant to be. Sometimes it takes a reminder; a movie like Frozen that assures you that storytellers are capable of some wondrous things. And then you want to get back to your own fictional universes and start pushing your own limits again, typing until your fingers fall off and you’ve created magical palaces of skyscraping prose. Hoping somewhere in the back of your mind that one day your story will have the same impact on somebody else – and the cycle of creativity will continue, forever unfrozen.