Frozen: Disney’s icebreaker

Oaken in Frozen

How the 'House of Mouse' and the box office-busting Frozen put gay rights and feminism back on the agenda

 
They say every cloud has a silver lining, and for Disney, the storm clouds that dumped record amounts of snow across North America have also helped create its biggest animated hit.

As the continent continues to suffer under a winter freeze, Frozen has made more than $376m (£225m) at the US box office since it opened at Thanksgiving and is snowballing towards $1bn (£600m) globally. Its co-directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee won the Oscar for Best Animated Film, and picked up the equivalent prize at the Baftas.

“I hate to say it but the bad winter has been a good thing,” admits Buck, speaking to The Big Issue the day after their Bafta triumph. “At first we thought people wouldn’t be able to get to the theatres but there’s that bit of cabin fever. People have to get out and do something, so I think it helped in a way.”

Loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, the film adds extra girl power to the traditional Disney princess archetype. After Elsa, the newly crowned queen of Arrendelle, freaks everyone out with her supernatural ability to control ice and snow, she casts an eternal winter across the land. It’s up to her feisty little sister Anna, along with sun-worshipping snowman Olaf, to thaw her sister’s heart and in turn the kingdom.

Women take the lead and don’t wait around for a handsome Prince Charming to do the rescuing. It was the same behind the scenes. While Chris Buck has worked at Disney since the early 1980s, Jennifer Lee, who also wrote the screenplay, became the first female to direct an animated Disney film. Of the 289 films eligible for Oscar consideration, Frozen is one of only 25 directed by a woman.

How has Frozen enchanted the world? Like a magic mirror, the audience see themselves in the characters, especially during the sharp, snappy musical numbers. The songs were written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, who along with the South Park boys Trey Parker and Matt Stone, composed the hit musical The Book of Mormon.

One is dedicated to explaining that the male lead, far from being perfect, is a bit of a “fixer upper” (aren’t we all?) and Elsa’s signature song Let It Go, belted out by stage legend Idina ‘Wicked’ Menzel, has become an instant anthem of empowerment, hailed by both sosogay.co.uk and thegayuk.com as the ‘coming out’ tune for a new generation. According to musicnotes.com, Let It Go is the most downloaded sheet music of 2014 so far.

But are some reading too much into a kiddies’ cartoon? There’s almost an entire industry around the search for hidden meanings in Disney films by those who confuse the House of Mouse with the House of God (though admittedly both Mickey and Jesus were offspring of somewhat narcissistic creators).

Gene Fant in First Things – ‘America’s most influential journal of religion and public life’ – declares Frozen to be, “an astoundingly clear parable of the Christian Gospel, perhaps even superior to that of the first Narnia film in terms of simplicity and clarity”, while one of Frozen’s animators Mark Henn told the Christian Broadcasting Network:

“Families can use it to talk to their kids about honest, sacrificial love. They can peel back the layers and have conversations about that.” However, start peeling other layers and entirely different discussions about the film’s subtext might be generated.

Meet Oaken, the burly purveyor of a trading post who Anna encounters on her adventure, equally acclaimed and shamed for (possibly) being the first homosexual character in a Disney animation. He introduces Anna to his ‘family’ and the scene cuts to another strapping chap enjoying a sauna with four kids. Oaken would not only be Disney’s first gay man but its first gay parent.

Although open to interpretation, it’s proved to be a moment outrageous enough to cause some commentators including Steven D Graydanus (not a made-up name) – film critic at the National Catholic Register: ‘America’s most complete Catholic news source’ – to toss out sentences including:

“The heteronormativity of traditional children’s entertainment has been problematised… in Obama’s post-evolutionary America.” 

Debate rumbles on, so is Oaken gay? “We know what we made,” Lee says. “But at the same time I feel like once we hand the film over it belongs to the world so I don’t like to say anything, and let the fans talk. I think it’s up to them.

“Disney films were made in different eras, different times, and we celebrate them all for different reasons but this one was made in 2013 and it’s going to have a 2013 point of view.”

Buck continues: “People also relate to Elsa being such an outsider and the struggle she has. We get sent very heartwarming stories about how watching the movie helped them through a hard time and to discover the magic within themselves.”

Frozen is out on DVD and Blu-ray on March 31

So what do you think, is Oaken Disney’s first gay character? Let us know at editorial@bigissue.com

@stevenmackenzie

 

The Big Issue no 1133
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