Why? What is it about this movie that has so captured the culture?
The film’s success transcends the commercial realm. The wait time recently at Disney World to meet Elsa: 5 hours. “Frozen” birthday parties, high-school boys leading “Let It Go” choruses, college students arranging movie nights. Adults, too, have been hit hard—many of them without children of their own to spur them on. “Frozen” has a Twitter hashtag that spans all age groups—#TheColdNeverBotheredMeAnyway—and fan videos that include adolescents and adults along with toddlers and teenyboppers. Jennifer Lee, one of the film’s directors, has documented “Let It Go” interpretations that touch on autism, cancer, and divorce. Even people who haven’t seen the film feel its constant presence. “I haven’t seen it but I know all the songs,” Molly Webster, a producer at Radiolab, told me. How? “There isn’t a single time I’ve walked down the street in N.Y.C. the last two months and some kid isn’t singing it.”
On the one hand, the movie shares many typical story elements with other Disney films. There are the parents dead within the first ten minutes (a must, it seems, in Disney productions), royalty galore, the quest to meet your one true love, the comic-relief character (Olaf the Snowman) to punctuate the drama. Even the strong female lead isn’t completely new—think “Mulan” and “Brave.” But “Frozen,” it seems, has something more.
George Bizer, a psychologist at Union College, first became interested in the “Frozen” phenomenon when his seven-year-old daughter requested that they watch it… and when he started seeing “Frozen” fans cropping up around the college campus, he realized that there was a potentially more powerful force at work. Together with his fellow Union psychologist Erika Wells, Bizer decided to test possible theories on every psychologist’s favorite population: college students. They organized an evening of “Frozen” fun—screening and movie-themed dinner—and called it “The Psychology of Frozen.” There, they listened to the students’ reactions and tried to gauge why they found the film so appealing.
While responses were predictably varied, one theme seemed to resonate: everyone could identify with Elsa. She wasn’t your typical princess. She wasn’t your typical Disney character. Born with magical powers that she couldn’t quite control, she meant well but caused harm, both on a personal scale (hurting her sister, repeatedly) and a global one (cursing her kingdom, by mistake). She was flawed—actually flawed, in a way that resulted in real mistakes and real consequences. Everyone could interpret her in a unique way and find that the arc of her story applied directly to them. For some, it was about emotional repression; for others, about gender and identity; for others still, about broader social acceptance and depression. “The character identification is the driving force,” says Wells, whose own research focuses on perception and the visual appeal of film. “It’s why people tend to identify with that medium always—it allows them to be put in those roles and experiment through that.” She recalls the sheer diversity of the students who joined the discussion: a mixture, split evenly between genders, of representatives of the L.G.B.T. community, artists, scientists. “Here they were, all so different, and they were talking about how it represents them, not ideally but realistically,” she told me.
Another strong point of appeal: the story keeps the audience engaged because it subverts expected tropes and stereotypes, over and over. “It’s the furthest thing from a typical princess movie,” Wells says. “The handsome prince is evil. The person with the magical powers is good. It spins Disney on its head.” It also, unlike prior Disney films, aces the Bechdel Test: not only are both leads female, but they certainly talk about things other than men. It is the women, in fact, not the men, who save the day, repeatedly—and a selfless act of sacrifice rather than a “kiss of true love” that ends up winning. “Frozen” is, in other words, the strong, relatable, and nuanced story...
Still, story is only part of the picture. Plenty of nuanced, relatable, boundary-pushing films don’t do as well as “Frozen” has.
The other element, of course, is that intangible … “buzz” and “information cascades,” the word of mouth that makes people embrace the story, want to pass it on, and persuade others that they actually want to see it.
Part of the credit goes to Jennifer Lee’s team, for the choices they consciously made to make the screenplay as complex as it was. Elsa was once evil; Elsa and Anna weren’t originally sisters; the prince wasn’t a sociopath. Their decisions to forego a true villain—something no Disney film had successfully done—and to make the story one driven by sibling love rather than romantic infatuation have made “Frozen” more than simply nuanced and relatable. They’ve made it more universally acceptable.
Disney has had a history of being accused of one form of social slight or another, with criticisms including racism, overly stereotypical gender roles and the princessification of society, and gruesome and unnecessarily psychologically disturbing content. In contrast to other recent Disney films, like “Tangled,” “Frozen” isn’t politically fraught or controversial: you can say it’s good without fear of being accused of being a racist or an apologist or an animal-rights opponent. It’s pre-approved for admiration by adults, not just children. Part of the movie’s success, then, may have just as much to do with parents as with kids. Kids aren’t just liking it more; parents are taking their kids to see it more.
And part of the credit goes to Disney’s strategy. In their initial marketing campaign, they made an effort to point out the story’s uniqueness. “Disney worked very hard to make it appeal to everybody,” Bizer says, from the trailers to the posters to the title of the film itself. And their lawyers allowed the music to spread naturally through social media. “The fact that Disney didn’t crack down on the millions of YouTube tributes, the fact that it’s been played everywhere, feeds back into the phenomenon,” Kaufman says.
And even if you aren’t a “Frozen” convert, it may not matter for the film’s ultimate success once that word-of-mouth tide begins. Wenjing Duan, a professor at George Washington University who studies Internet marketing and online user-generated content, has found that, in the online world, awareness itself, not positive or negative slant, is the key issue. The greater the volume of postings and reviews, even if the views are nasty—and “Frozen” hasn’t been immune from those either—the greater the awareness of the movie all around and the higher the box-office returns.
We should be cautious, though, about over-interpreting anything. I can explain “Frozen” all I want, but that doesn’t mean I’ll have found a formula for reproducing its success. “I think that the things that work for ‘Frozen’ are the things that aren’t as easily copied,” Kaufman says. “I think you’ll see in the next few years films picking up the wrong elements. And if you see movies with strong female characters, great. But what’s at the heart of ‘Frozen’ are the relationships, the very adult emotions that you can’t easily knock off. ‘Frozen’ got Tony Award-winning songwriters, Tony-level singers. But that’s just a shortcut, not the whole story.”
The New Yorker