Monday, December 22, 2014

Tangled vs Frozen: How Disney finally learned how to ruin a fairy tale the right way

          Urban legend has it that the protagonists of Tangled appear briefly in the movie Frozen among the guests at Elsa's coronation, and some try to use this as evidence of deeper connections between the two stories. It's fun to try and find the little hints that point to a broader picture of Disney's reworked fairy-tale world. In fact Tangled and Frozen are closely related. They are sister movies with almost identical themes, and they both aim to put a thoroughly modern spin on an old story. The difference? Tangled failed to overcome the power of moral symbolism, and what was meant to be an iconoclastic revolution against the princely hero and damsel in distress, accidentally became a traditional, original fairy-tale. On the other hand, Frozen beat moral symbolism and achieved a victory which Disney has been pursuing for decades: the creation of a modern fairy-tale.

Step #1: The Origin of Magic
          At the beginning of each movie, we are introduced to the magic which is so pivotal to the rest of the story. Rapunzel's magic hair motivates Gothel to steal the princess, and Elsa's snow magic accidentally freezes Anna's mind. The magic is closely tied to the problem situation which must be resolved. This problem could be named "What do you do with a special gift?" But the makers of Tangled had already made a fatal mistake on this point: they had explained where the magic came from. The magic came from a drop of sunlight that fell to the ground and became a flower. That flower was used to heal Rapunzel's sick mother and its power was transferred to Rapunzel herself. Let's think for a moment what the Sun symbolizes: Truth, Hope, Health, Warmth, Giving, Unity. The hair's magic derives from the ultimate source of light and life, and while it's a power unique to Rapunzel alone, it's never portrayed as something that belongs to Rapunzel. The magic is essentially a gift from the Sun, which is meant to be used unselfishly and even resist selfishness to some extent. The healing power cannot be taken, as Gothel discovers when she tries to cut a strand of Rapunzel's hair, it can only be given. So at the very beginning of the movie, battle lines have been drawn between selfishness and selflessness. This is a huge mistake for a plot writer to make if his goal is to make a modern fairy-tale, and not a traditional fairy tale.
          That mistake was fixed in Frozen. The plot writers simply gave no explanation for Elsa's powers, beyond that she was born with them, and thus avoided a Pandora's box of moral symbolism. This allowed them to insert their own modern symbolism later on.

Step #2: Dealing with Isolation and Freedom
          Both movies deal with a very powerful theme that resonates well with people all over the world. It's the desire to be free. And in both movies, freedom is associated with getting out and seeing the world. But the stories differ when it comes to the Isolation theme that proceeds Freedom. Rapunzel is isolated because of Gothel's greed, who clearly has evil motives. The Frozen sisters are isolated by concerned parents following the advice of a kindly troll. No one could accuse the parents or the troll of bad intentions, so the motive for Elsa and Anna's isolation can only be described as good but misinformed. What is really peculiar is that the troll seems to miss the truth in his own words when he says "Fear will be your enemy". If this is the case, why does he force Elsa into a position of fear by recommending that she keep her growing powers a secret from her sister? The plot offers no explanation, and the theme of Isolation is coupled with the theme of Misunderstanding. Elsa's Freedom, and the entire kingdom's Freedom from debilitating ice sheets, depends on Elsa being understood. But here Elsa faces an insurmountable problem: she cannot understand herself, because there is no explanation for her special powers. No one knows why she has them, why they can only hurt other people and not herself, or why they are so hard to control.

Step #3: Correct Iconoclasm
          At this point the songwriters of Frozen had the brilliant idea to write Let it Go. Apart from being a well written song, it finally explains the symbolism of Elsa's snow magic. Elsa's magic simply represents Elsa's self. Elsa is happy and free when she is able to be herself, which means leaving the kingdom and creating a world in her own image. Even after Anna shows her selflessness by putting herself between Elsa and Hans' sword, Elsa does not lose her own selfishness. She only loses her fear. At the end of the movie, Elsa continues to project her icy powers over the kingdom, albeit in a less dangerous way. This was the monumental victory that Disney won: the victory of selfishness (a modern virtue) over selflessness (a timeless virtue).
          The writers of Tangled tried but failed to achieve this victory. The rough crew of the Snugly Duckling were portrayed as misunderstood outcasts who just wanted to be themselves. The problem was that in their zeal to make the barbarians cute and pitiable, the writers actually made them selfless. The barbarians' "Dreams" are all about serving other people with music, love, cookies, entertainment, etc. Further, there is a line drawn between the barbarians as they are and as they would like to be. When Flynn Rider confronts the barbarians, he treats them like they are: thieves and ruffians, and is in turn treated like a thief and ruffian (which he is). But when Rapunzel appeals to their "humanity", the barbarians admit that their condition is not consistent with their aspirations, but they have hope nevertheless. And it's the reminder of hope that transforms them into heroes by the end of the movie.
          Another attempt at Iconoclasm in Tangled was the apparent lack of a prince. Alas, Disney forgot a lesson it should have remembered from Aladdin: the male protagonist of a fairy-tale is always a prince at heart, if not a prince in fact. The longer Flynn stays with Rapunzel, the more he rejects himself, or rather, the persona that he has created for himself. Ultimately his true, princely nature (and his real name, Eugene) is recovered when he chooses true love (an act of selflessness) over riches (a selfish desire). The character Hans fixed this problem in Frozen. Instead of being a villain with a prince's heart, Hans is a prince with a villain's heart. Frozen completely discredits the fairy tale prince and renders him unnecessary to the story's resolution. The other male protagonist, Kristoff, is useful when he's needed, but is quietly pushed to the background with a new sled for a consolation prize when his presence becomes inconvenient.
          Tangled's final message is about selflessness. Eugene is willing to die so that Rapunzel can be free, and Rapunzel is willing to be Gothel's captive forever so that Eugene can live. Each denies the self in favor of the other, and both are saved. They return to the castle, where Rapunzel is reunited with her true parents, the king and queen. Eugene, ennobled by his sacrifice, is quickly welcomed into the family. The Sun's magical gift has been lost, but, what is more important, the protagonists' ability to give of themselves has been regained.
          Frozen ended by glorifying the self at the expense of selflessness. What do I mean? First, Kristoff's selfless attempt to save Anna is portrayed as irrelevant and unnecessary. Second, the fact that Anna turns into solid ice just in time to stop Hans from killing Elsa, is a direct result of Elsa's selfishness earlier in the movie. In fact, if Elsa had not struck Anna's heart with an ice blast during a fit of despair and self-pity, Anna could not have blocked Hans' sword with her bare hand. Elsa is saved by the harmful effects of her own selfishness.
          There is one more question that needs clearing up: precisely what fairy-tale did Disney so skillfully disembowel and re-stuff with shallow modern morals? It was Hans Andersen's The Snow Queen. In this story, a hobgoblin makes a mirror that reflects beautiful things as ugly, and vice-versa. The mirror is accidentally smashed, and the tiny shards fly all over the world. Some of these shards fly into the eyes and heart of a boy named Kay. Kay's vision and conscience are distorted, and he falls into the icy hands of the evil Snow Queen (doubtless this character inspired the White Witch of Narnia) and is taken to the North Pole. But Kay's best friend, a girl named Gerda, goes off in search of him, and braves many dangers to save him. Gerda's innocence and love overcomes the power of the Snow Queen, and Kay is set free.
          Apparently it wasn't Iconoclastic enough for the girl to save the boy. After all, it didn't fix that little problem of self sacrifice, which real fairy tales always insist on. Now that Disney has the perfect recipe for the modern fairy-tail, we shouldn't have to worry about any more unintentionally revitalized, traditional fairy-tails like Tangled dragging us into the profound realization of absolute truth...

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