Friday, March 21, 2014

Disney Debate: Tangled Versus Frozen

I thought I would be one of the few to avoid saying anything about Frozen, but I was intrigued by the reasons given for why Frozen was such a mega-hit while Tangled was merely a box office success.  So I decided to look at both movies and see whether I agree with some of the prevailing assumptions.

First, let me say that there is no loser in this race.  Both movies are good -- really good.  In fact, both even have identical ratings (89 percent) at Rotten Tomatoes.  The only way that these movies "lose," in my mind, is being CGI instead of 2D, but that's for later.

Some of the reasons given for Frozen's success include better songs, a deeper and more compelling story, and a rare female-centric storyline.

The Soundtrack.  Few would argue that Tangled has a better list of songs than Frozen.  While Tangled's "When Will My Life Begin" was clever, the Mother Gothel songs a blast, and "I See the Light" touching mainly for the visual sequence, none was a great song.  That said, Frozen's soundtrack is a bit overrated by comparison, since for the most part, its songs are not great, either.  They are a bit catchier (see "Love Is An Open Door") and the swelling music of "For the First Time in Forever" would be at home in a Disney film from the 90s, but otherwise, they just kind of get in and get out.  All except one, of course: "Let It Go."  While I'm not as wild about "Let It Go" as many, it is a bona fide show-stopper, the sort that Disney hasn't had since "Colors of the Wind."  I'm not merely talking about a show-stopper within the movie -- The Princess and the Frog had one of those -- but the type of song that jumps its movie boundaries and becomes a true pop cultural hit.  I had almost forgotten what it felt like to hear a good movie song twisted into a dull pop ballad (thanks, Demi Lovato!).

That said, I think that Tangled has the better score, most likely because it was done by Alan Menken.  There are some genuinely lovely moments that seem enhanced by the music, such as the moment when Rapunzel brings Flynn back to life.  I'm with one YouTube user who wishes that the "Anna gets frozen" moment had received similar treatment.

The Storyline.  First, I should say that both movies suffered equally for having inane trailers.  I wasn't at all excited to see Tangled until someone told me that the story was nothing like that.  When Frozen's equally stupid "Shrek Meets Ice Age" trailer came out, I was prepared.

Frozen is praised for having a psychologically rich storyline: a young girl taught to so fear her natural abilities that she shrinks from human contact, damaging her relationships with everyone, including her sister.  At the same time, it could be argued that Tangled has an equally twisted psychological core: Rapunzel has been kept in her tower not because thorns on the ground could impale her, but because her "mother" has taught her that she is too weak and helpless to survive in the horrible cruel world outside.

The extent of Rapunzel's disturbing relationship with Mother Gothel is glossed over, I think, because Rapunzel is so resilient.  If Rapunzel were as obviously damaged as Elsa, her relationship with her "mother" might resonate more.  But since Rapunzel seems to be almost supernaturally upbeat, the movie's overarching tone is bright and madcap, and that is what lingers long after the credits roll.

That said, while both movies are enjoyable to watch, I think that Tangled's storyline actually flows better.  Rapunzel's quest is pretty straight-forward: get out of the tower and go see the floating lights.  She remains the focus of the movie for the most part, and scenes without her (such as Flynn's escape) are fairly brief.

By contrast, Frozen can feel un-focused and overplotted at times.  Elsa's breakout song "Let It Go" raises the expectation that she will be a greater focus of the movie.  Instead, it turns into "Anna and Kristoff's Wacky Hijinks in the Snow."  Not that their journey isn't entertaining, but I would much prefer to watch Elsa design a snow village or otherwise test her powers.  Then after Anna visits Elsa, we get yet another development: Anna is dying and can only be saved by an act of true love.              

Female-Centric Storyline.  While Frozen has the obvious female-centric storyline involving two sisters, Tangled's is actually pretty female-centric as well, given that much of the meat comes from Rapunzel's relationship with Mother Gothel.

However, here is where I think Frozen distinguishes itself: the female relationship is not only dominant, but it also survives the end of the film.  Oh, and it's also seen as a positive.

While Rapunzel's relationship with her "mother" formed the psychological core of Tangled, it was seen as a poisonous negative that must be destroyed in order for Rapunzel to flourish.  Tangled had some elements that made it a bit more progressive than its 90s predecessors -- like in The Princess and the Frog, the male love interest signs on to help the female character achieve a goal that is completely independent of the relationship -- but is otherwise fairly standard Disney fare.  Stepmother is evil?  Check.  No strong bonds of female friendship?  Check.  (In this sense, I would venture that even The Princess and the Frog is more subversive than Tangled, given the friendship between Tiana and Charlotte.)      

By contrast, Frozen's sisterly relationship is not just a necessary good, but the entire point of the movie.  If Anna can rekindle the bond with Elsa, then a kingdom is saved.  Even better, Elsa actually remains human the entire movie, something that poor Elinor in Brave never got to enjoy.

There are other pluses to the way the female leads are portrayed in Frozen.  As has been pointed out numerous times, Elsa is the rare queen who isn't evil.  Yet at the same time, she's not all buoyant irrepressibility like the other Disney princesses.  She's tense!  She's repressed!  She's moody and anxious!  Meanwhile, Anna fits the mold of typical Disney princess better, but even she deviates somewhat.  While intelligent and compassionate, she is also impulsive and awkward, traits that might not be uncommon among female movie leads in general, but are definitely uncommon among Disney heroines.  For all that Belle was accused of being "odd," could you see her doing anything remotely undignified?  (Mulan might be more Anna's soul sister in that respect, but even her awkwardness seemed confined to specific situations.)

It just so happened that when Frozen premiered, Hollywood was making the earth-shaking discovery that moviegoers will go in droves to see movies starring female protagonists.  What seems like common sense to you or I had to be drilled into the great minds of Tinsel Town, so caught up in their received wisdom that "gurlz will see boyz, but boyz won't see gurlz."  The change in thinking began with Twilight, but was certified by the monster success of The Hunger Games.  And audiences everywhere rejoiced!  Frozen premiered at the same time as Catching Fire, and I think got caught up in the same wave of jubilation that greeted the former: "Hell yes, we actually have a good movie starring interesting female characters who deal with problems that don't just involve romance!"  So while Frozen itself is not a great movie, it contains elements that are immensely appealing, especially at this time.  Had Tangled premiered in its place, I don't know if it would have received the same reception due to its slightly more conventional package.

The Biggest Loser.  That said, I think that both movies are losers in one respect -- in relying exclusively on CGI, they have given up some of the beauty and nuance of hand-drawn animation.  Don't get me wrong: there is some impressive nuance in the character animation.  But it's impressive for CGI, not in its own right.

Many have criticized the character designs for being uninventive, pointing out how much Anna and Elsa look like Rapunzel.  (This has even launched several theories that Anna and Elsa are, in fact, Rapunzel's cousins, which has credence given that Rapunzel attended Elsa's coronation.  Never mind that Tangled clearly seems to exist in an earlier era -- make it happen, Disney!)  Elsa's character design is perfectly fine, but I could see animators of 2D being inspired to give her a slightly more elegant, refined look.  Something a little more stylized that would work for 2D, but look strange in CGI.

Then there are sequences that would have been stronger had the character animation been 2D.  "Let It Go" is the highlight of the movie, but as Elsa moves, she seems curiously unaffected by the elements around her.  While "the cold never bothered [her] anyway," her hair would still be affected by the wind.  Her bangs barely flutter as the wind somehow yanks at her cape and pulls it out into space.  I could see a 2D animator really driving home how harsh the elements were: the wind so hard that Elsa's bangs are flying back and individual hairs are straining to be free; the cape would be flapping wildly this way and that; Elsa would be pushing onward, her face creased with lines of concentration that would make her look like an old woman if transferred to CGI.  "Let It Go" as it was looked great.  "Let It Go" with hand-drawn character animation could have been amazing.

Though CGI has been progressing, you can't escape the fact that while the scenery looks so fantastic and real, the human characters still look like rubber toys.  At least Tangled tried to experiment with CGI's possibilities, creating a CGI landscape meant to look like a deep version of a 2D landscape (though to me, it still looks like a prettier Shrek).  Frozen has so many gorgeous ice shots, but just okay character shots.

Regardless, I will say this about both movies: they're both better than The Lion King.  Never got the hype about that one...

 The above images are used under the Fair Use Doctrine.


  1. I agreed with the entire article, until you got to the last two sentences. No no and no. The Lion King is BY FAR the best Disney movie to ever exist. This, in my mind, is unrefutable. Elton John music + Best hand-drawn anatoons I've ever scene = best Disney movie ever.

    1. You're free to think that if you want, of course. ;) To me, the Lion King is really tepid. Gorgeously drawn, definitely, and with a haunting score. But I didn't care for the songs or the characters, and didn't really like the message: "Get with the Monarchy, Simba!" Beauty and the Beast remains the best "modern" Disney animated movie, IMO.

    2. Timon and Pumba ruin the whole movie.