Now more than any other animated film in history, “Frozen” has resonated with global audiences like a cosmic tuning fork, lightening parents’ wallets as of this past weekend by over $1.072 billion.
The Disney picture just surpassed the box-office intake of “Toy Story 3″ ($1.063 billion) and has cracked the top 10 worldwide highest-grossing movies of all time.
The film’s astonishing success has come as a surprise to most, but on closer examination, we can discern at least five standout ingredients to Frozen’s alchemy. Although the movie is a four-quadrant success (it appeals to males and females over and under 25 years old), the same can be said for most Pixar and Disney studio films. Where Frozen really works its magic is with Generation Z, called The Pluralist Generation by research firm Frank N. Magid Associates. These are the young-uns born between the late ‘90s and mid-‘00s.
Naturally, Disney is moving quickly to leverage this unprecedented success. A Broadway musical, theme park attractions, video games, and feature film sequels are all in the offing. But if any of these are truly going to reach the heights of the original—and if other studios are intent on trading in on the movie’s amazing success—producers would all do well to carefully consider why audiences keep returning for more “Frozen.”
Warning: Spoilers follow.
1. Disney lured in boys with a little white lie
Early teasers and trailers for “Frozen” didn’t feature princesses in tiaras, instead opting for boyish hijinks between snowman Olaf and reindeer Sven, as well as an emphasis on the film’s action sequences. It was an interesting gamble, but not without precedent.
Disney pulled the same sleight of hand with “Tangled” in 2010, effectively packing theaters with testosterone-fueled half-pints, who then were subjected to a picture about a very longhaired princess. That still leaves the question, why are even boys coming back for seconds and thirds with “Frozen”?
2. Real Darkness but no real evil villain
With values and ethics in flux around the world, kids are growing up in a world colored by shades of gray. Gen X’ers and adult Millennials are teaching their Gen-Z progeny that it isn’t about Good Vs. Evil, it’s about trying to figure out why they’re yelling at you.
“Frozen” cleverly taps into this on many levels, most of which are easily identifiable to kids. A bad accident and injury between siblings provides the film’s inciting incident. Helicopter parents make poor decisions, and then are killed (off-screen) in an accident themselves. Most pointedly Hans, ostensibly the film’s central villain, lures heroine Anna into a false relationship in order to gain the throne.
However, as excellently described in TrilbeeReviews, Hans is actually a pretty good leader, and handles a myriad of situations rather heroically. Yes, he is following a selfish and deceitful agenda, but that makes him a crappy boyfriend, not diabolical.
3. Dispenses with sexist love tropes once and for all
On a recent edition of the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, NPR’s Linda Holmes observed that Disney feature animation has spent the past decade or so making up for the hoary sexism of the previous 40 years. By refuting the notion of love at first sight, and by subverting the salvation heroines can receive by love’s first (male) kiss, “Frozen” drops the cherry on the sundae.
There is a new realism, according to Magid, a toning down of the American Dream being passed down to kids by young parents. “Your Prince is not coming, so don’t wait for him!” they seem to be saying. “Frozen” provides us with positive reinforcement of these notions blithely, delightfully, and without Shrek-like cynicism.
In fact, gender roles are either blurred or tossed altogether, and that’s pretty much how huge swathes of the Pluralist generation sees things. In the film, true love’s kiss comes not from a strong, handsome man, but from the love of a sister.
4. New discoveries on repeated viewings.
Some critics have read “Frozen”’s structure as overly simplistic, almost vacuous, but kids seem to be singing a different tune after returning to theaters based on Starlight Runner’s tracking. On a second viewing, they’re realizing the dippy Hans/Anna romance in the first half-hour is going to be subverted, and that the love tropes of the songs are really being made fun of.
They are also realizing Elsa’s awesome power has a negative impact on the people she loves, even though she’s gone away. Sure, these are subtle nuances, but we are apparently raising a generation of savvier and more sensitive kids. On top of that, they’re really digging the songs.
5. “Let It Go.”
Within a couple of weeks of the film’s release, Disney dealt a masterstroke by posting the entire “Let It Go” music sequence online. The finest animated number in decades, it started flooding Facebook, and generating covers on YouTube by the thousand. If we listen to the song itself, it’s fine, a kind of Broadway anthem. Demi Lovato’s version peaked at 38on the Billboard Hot 100. But the combination of song and visual is another thing altogether.
Gen-Z kids, starved for a female superhero lead that Marvel and DC Comics have refused to provide on the big screen so far, finally get one with Elsa. Two super heroic things are happening in the sequence at the same time: First, a girl is wielding power, the likes of which we’ve never seen before, and her actions are conveyed with a true visual splendor.
The second, equally as important, is Elsa’s transformation from uptight teen to the majestic Snow Queen. It seems the one thing we still can’t seem to resist—even all the little Plurals—is a makeover.
Check out the Oscar-winning “Let It Go” song below.