Disney’s newest movie musical Frozen has been hitting high notes ever since its release over Thanksgiving. Just last weekend, it accomplished the rare feat of re-emerging as #1 in the weekend box office six weeks after its initial release, elbowing out other holiday highlights to steal the show. That same weekend, the film’s soundtrack hit #1 in the Billboard Top 200—one of only four animated film soundtracks to ever do so. A Broadway musical was announced just this week. Frozen‘s success cannot be understated.
Anyone who has seen the film can easily see why it’s so appealing. It’s sympathetic, dynamic main cast, ear worm songs, gorgeous animation, and break from Disney’s “traditional” princess narrative all make for a refreshing new film. But what most people seem not to know is how close this film came to being Disney’s latest lackluster showing.
You see, it all hinges on Elsa.
Elsa’s character arc is arguably the most compelling in the story. As a young child, she is blessed with cryokinetic powers that she cannot control. After an accident with her sister, Elsa’s parents isolate her, teach her that she’s dangerous, and demand that she emotionally castrate herself (“conceal, don’t feel”). Those lessons are so ingrained that she continues hiding herself away even as an adult and her parents die. It is not until her power is exposed and she runs away that she finds beauty in herself and her power. Her journey to self acceptance, and then acceptance by her sister and her people, is a powerful and much-needed narrative for today’s young people.
Originally, however, Elsa was slated to be the villain. According to the Internet Movie Database:
[W]hen the character’s major song, “Let it Go,” was played for the producers, they concluded that the song was not only very appealing, but its themes of personal empowerment and self-acceptance were too positive for a villain to express. Thus, the story was rewritten….
This, for starters, explains a lot of the clumsier parts of the film. Hans’ betrayal comes completely out of left field at the end; his character seems truly genuine from the beginning of the story such that his reversal seems contrived. It also explains a few lines from “Let it Go” that don’t quite fit in context, particularly, “Let the storm rage on/the cold never bothered me anyway.” There is no storm in Elsa’s “blossoming” scene. Originally, this line referred to the storm in Arendelle, and Elsa was proclaiming to not care about it even as it devastated the country. A very villainous line.
Make no mistake. Elsa was intended to be the bad guy, and re-imagining her is the best decision Disney made in this film.
Think of what Frozen would have been like with Elsa, sitting in her ice palace, letting (or actively making) a snowstorm ravage her homeland. The unique dynamic between the sisters, Elsa’s compelling conflict of what to do with her powers, and the climax where Ana saves her sister’s life, would have all been ruined or substantially tainted. Instead, we would have received a perhaps slightly altered princess movie that falls neatly in line with the canned narrative Disney had been churning out for decades. Yawn.
We also would have gotten a movie that was much less positive for women. Disney is no stranger to playing on harmful portrayals of women, and in this iteration of the film, they would have added the “Ice Queen” archetype to their list—quite literally, this time. In fact, the original title of the project was “The Snow Queen.” Given Disney’s penchant for creating one-dimensional villains for their heroes to defeat, I must say I breathed a retroactive sigh of relief when I realized Elsa was saved from a near-fatal character design.
Whether they realized it or not, Disney producers realized that women did not need more representations of them that showed them as heartless, unfeeling, and cruel. They need heroes like Ana, Elsa’s sister, who is forever optimistic, spunky, and awkward. But they also need heroes like Elsa, because there are girls out there who have been told their whole lives that they are dangerous and worthless, either directly or indirectly. They need to know that there are other options for them than becoming cruel, heartless, and, dare I say it, cold.
I believe that the richness of Elsa’s character and her struggles is the deciding factor in Frozen’s monumental success. Hopefully, seeing that fully realized female characters make for a successful movie, Disney and other franchises will continue to make films with them.