Frozen: Musical Cinema ≠ Musical Theatre

Well, I finally saw Frozen and my brother and I pretty much agreed that, while it’s nice, it does have significant flaws.

What’s really interesting, though, is the kinds of problems it has: They all fundamentally stem from Frozen being structured as musical theatre and then fleshed out with entertaining characters, rather than as musical cinema.

1. Narrative Flow

The first effect of this, though one of the more subtle ones, is that Frozen’s scenes feel somewhat disjointed when they should flow together. This is because it’s written as if constrained by the limitations of storing and exchanging sets on a live theatre stage while the viewers aren’t prepared to excuse that limitation. Cinematography and editing have advanced far beyond that and everyone knows it. (Too much influence from someone whose experience and training are in theatre rather than cinema, I’m guessing.)

Of course, this isn’t limited to theatrical writing. This lack of coherent progression also crops up in films like Wrongfully Accused and Dudley Do-Right… which are still good comedies. The problem is that, if you think back on them, it’s harder than it should be to piece together your memories of the movie into a complete flow from beginning to end. You’re likely to either miss some or put them in the wrong order.

The key point is that it’s a problem and that, just as writing for a cinematic video game isn’t the same thing as writing for a movie, neither is writing for the theatre and experience in one doesn’t translate perfectly.

2. Role of Songs

The other half of that problem is that the songs dominate the narrative when they arrive rather than complementing it, which makes the characterization feel weaker than it should. This is actually the same thing I noticed in The Princess and the Frog and, if you’re not used to picking apart your impression of a film, it makes it feel like there are too many songs or the songs are too eager to jump in.

Look at a song like In Summer. It feels unnecessary because it feels like it just comes out of nowhere, develops something not significant enough to merit the time taken, and drags you away from what you care about right here and now. In musical theatre, that would be more acceptable because it’s acceptable for a stage show to present a story as a compilation of songs tied together by non-musical introductions, similar to an album like Tanglefoot’s Captured Alive.

The problem is that movies don’t work like that. Movies may have a visual basis in theatre, but their narrative structure has more in common with graphic novels (which explains why storyboarding is similar in nature). Look at a more cohesive Disney production like Aladdin or Beauty and the Beast. Aside from being too contrived to happen in real life, the songs feel like they’re just a musical presentation of what would have been shown anyway and, if they take longer than the non-musical equivalent, it’s only because the music itself made the viewer willing to give that extra time.

Look at One Jump Ahead from Aladdin. Aside from the music, it’s an action sequence which establishes Aladdin’s and Abu’s characters, some minor characters, and their relationship to the setting. It’s basically the musical version of the chase/heist scenes you see in movies like Blue Streak to establish the main character(s). It tells you a lot about who they are and what they want in a nice, tight package and it doesn’t yank you out of the flow of events.

Now some of the songs in Frozen do do that. Let It Go would be an example of a song that does that well. Yes, it’s suddenly a song but, scene transition aside, both the content and the pacing follow naturally from what came before. Yes, it’s nearly four minutes long, but those four minutes are well-spent:

  • Conveying the isolation of the spot Elsa has fled to
  • Equating it to the isolation she’s felt for so long
  • Showing her view of a youth that, so far, had only been conveyed from her sister’s perspective
  • Showing her view on the decision she just made by fleeing
  • Demonstrating the versatility of her powers
  • Showing the degree of power and control she consciously wields when not actively wrestling with her emotions for control of the same manifestation.
  • Providing an origin story for her ice palace (while actually “building the set” in an appealing fashion. Something you could never do in live theatre.)

It also helps that it saves time and pleases the viewer’s sense of aesthetics by using the cold as a metaphor to simultaneously speak about both her relationship to the people around her and her relationship to the effects of her powers.

2. Depth of Character Exploration

Note that, “Depth of Character” and “Depth of Character Exploration” aren’t the same thing. The problem with Frozen is that, because of how much it takes influences from musical theatre, we don’t know how deep the characters are and we don’t feel what depth we can see because the movie never tries to explore them properly.

This narrative superficiality combined with the aforementioned differences in the role of musical numbers make for a style which reminds me of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. (For those who haven’t seen the Goblet of Fire film, they chopped down a very long book that really should have been a mini-series and produced a movie that skims over events so much that, without reading the book, it can be hard to follow.)

Frozen isn’t hard to follow, but scenes keep feeling like they either end or start winding down just as the character-exploring aspect should be starting to get going. As a result, they feel like they should either have been longer or had more happen in the time given. I found it left me see-sawing back and forth between laughing at the movie’s jokes and a perpetual sense of anticipation… waiting for deeper character pieces which never came.

Now, I have to be honest in saying that, because I don’t watch movies that often anymore, I did read the Wikipedia summary before deciding to see it. However, I think that the contrast between what I expected and what I got is also telling.

First, the interaction between Anna and Elsa when Anna visits Elsa’s ice palace. It felt like a huge disappointment for me because of how little was actually accomplished, character-wise. If you actually look at it, the entire scene can be summarized as:

Anna: Come home.
Elsa: No. [walks away]
* Anna follows Elsa and asks again.
Elsa: I have to stay here where I won’t hurt anyone.
Anna: You didn’t know? Even here, your powers are hurting people.
* The knowledge makes Elsa lose control and she freezes Anna’s heart.

If any relationship is central to the film, it’s theirs and, just by how the dialogue was phrased, it ruled out a whole continuum of easy ways to explore it. Possibly worse, aside from recognizing Olaf, the movie is never clear about whether Anna has regained any of her memories or inferred that they’ve been changed.

If only Elsa had just said something like “I already hurt you once. I won’t do it again,” this scene could have had a much deeper interaction between them. Even without some more time between Anna’s arrival and Elsa losing control, that would have made for a much more satisfying scene.

(Speaking of which, of all the contrived plot devices, that’s probably my #1 most hated: When a story relies heavily on a character remaining silent about something when there isn’t sufficient reason to believe they would. Given how often it pops up in stories that are otherwise OK on that front, I think it’s probably the worst kind of “the plot is obviously driving the characters when it should at least appear to be the other way around” mistake.)

As is, we’re left with a film where one of the central focuses of the film is the least explored. Even if we stick to the extraordinary and avoid ordinary human interactions, we don’t even have a clear idea of what Anna thinks of Elsa’s powers without her childhood memories, let alone their origins. Given how monumental it would be if I discovered that my memories had been tampered with, I can only assume that she didn’t get them back and thinks Elsa’s powers manifested spontaneously on the day when she was hidden away and the castle closed to visitors.

Another similarly strange piece which I found underwhelming after reading the Wikipedia summary is Olaf’s origins. Aside from the brief cameo during Let It Go when Elsa is showing off her powers to the viewer, he just comes out of nowhere. It would make much more sense from a storytelling standpoint if she’d built him after the ice palace as a way to have someone to talk to.

Making a “Wilson the Volleyball” provides an easy way to drive home that her apparent joy in isolation stems from being “too relieved to grieve” (Let It Go, credits version), not from truly wanting to be alone. However, it would also give a chance to show the nuanced nature of her powers. She gives Olaf form out of a desire for a companion but then she’s surprised when her powers act on her emotions and give him life. Most importantly, it would set the foundations for her realization of how to control them in the end.

Speaking of which, that is another scene that could use work: Elsa’s realization of how to control her powers. The more I think about it, the more I’m reminded of the phrase “Show, Don’t Tell” from prose writing. Whenever the characters’ actions are “plot” rather than “flavour text”, they are much more likely to “just do” something without adequately exploring the thoughts and emotions under the surface which drive that action.

…which brings me, finally, to Hans. I didn’t notice this initially, since I was enjoying the movie enough to not see it at first, but, if he just wanted to marry into the crown by killing Elsa anyway, why did he put so much effort into saving her at the ice palace? Was he that driven to have her approve of their marriage before he killed her? Did he think that “Elsa falls to someone else’s crossbow bolt, he consoles Anna and eventually marries her” had too much risk of Anna changing her mind while mourning? Regardless of what his motivations were, his reveal feels too abrupt. Again, it feels like he’s being driven by the plot rather than by complex scheming. (In which case, until the plot called for it, he literally was a good guy. Hence the surprising disconnect.)

Given how our tribal gossip-seeking instincts drive us to care about people, all of this makes for a film where it doesn’t feel like much was accomplished along the way to the resolution because the viewers don’t have strong associations between the events and the characters’ thoughts and emotions.

(Even in stories that are clearly about the setting and the humour, like the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series of novels, we need an uninteresting everyman character like Arthur Dent to give us a frame of reference, act as a lens, and tie things together. Even in stories with no people, we require characters so strongly that we must ascribe human characteristics to things like the wind.)

The end result is a movie that, when you finish it and look back, feels like you were watching for thirty minutes rather than an hour and thirty.

CC BY-SA 4.0 Frozen: Musical Cinema ≠ Musical Theatre by Stephan Sokolow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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