Tuesday, March 11, 2014

My special little snowflakes (Frozen)

Monday morning I clearly got up on the wrong side of the productive-member-of-the-working-class bed, but I also greeted the new day with popcorn stuck in my teeth and Disney songs stuck in my head. I had taken the little guy and little girl to a Sunday afternoon matinee of Frozen, which was … quite an experience. (Slight spoilers ahead, eventually, which I call attention to mostly for my wife’s sake, since we will no doubt buy the movie on DVD for the little girl’s birthday and my wife will get a chance to watch it soon enough.)

I’m not going to say anything snarky against the movie, which I was rather charmed by. I’ve already admitted the not-so-secret shame of my deep and abiding affection for musicals, so it should come as no surprise that I’m an easy mark for a classic Disneyfied fairy tale full of showstoppers. (Side observation: I always roll my eyes at people who are dismissive of musicals because they can’t get past the superficial fact that In Real Life people don’t just break into spontaneous song in mid-conversation. By and large these are the same people who have no problem whatsoever with non-musical mainstream movies where people take turns speaking in complete, witty, hyper-articulate sentences, which is also something which never happens In Real Life. I do not understand why people quibble over the degree of verisimilitude in cinematic fantasies. Anyway.) I’ll get back to the movie itself momentarily, but the elliptical pause in describing the trip to the multiplex has everything to do with being there with my two small children.

It started out well enough. Frozen’s been out in theaters now for, what, four months or something? When my son, my daughter and I arrived in the theater about 15 minutes before showtime, there were only two other people there, a couple of teenagers sitting all the way in the back row. So we claimed three seats in the very middle, although that in itself took some doing, as the moment we were in the presence of the giant silver screen both my kids were incapable of doing anything but standing and staring in wonder. But I herded them into proper chairs, and we shared some popcorn, and soon enough the previews started, and those were fun (although I’m pretty sure that neither Captain America: The Winter Soldier nor the live-action Maleficent movie are really targeted at 2-to-5 year olds. The How To Train Your Dragon 2 trailer was rad, though.) and then the Mickey Mouse “Get a Horse” short accompanying the feature was a treat, as well. And finally, the main attraction began.

I’ll start by saying that the little girl was great. She was silently mesmerized and just stuck her hand out and waved it when she wanted me to pass the popcorn. Give or take a scene featuring a terrifying snow giant, which made her turn sideways in the chair and curl up and close her eyes, she was a trooper. Her brother, on the other hand … still a bit over-sensitive to drama.

All kinds of drama, I should explain. It’s completely understandable for a small child to be frightened, even beyond all reason considering it’s all make-believe, by things that are supposed to be scary, wolves and witches and whatnot. What I think makes my little guy a special case is the fact that he gets disturbed, beyond the point of being reassured and talked down, by much more abstract things, like the ratcheting up of dramatic tension. The stakes of the story do not have to be as explicitly nightmarish as “avoid getting eaten by the dragon” with the fearsome dragon roaring around the screen, there simply have to be stakes and a hint that the outcome of the story is in doubt, and that is enough to send the little guy over the edge. (The go-to reference between me and my wife recalls a time when an episode of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse put him in a panic, because gentle as that show is, it did set up a narrative where Mickey had a goal to accomplish and the mere suggestion he might not succeed had our boy gasping, “Is Mickey gonna make it back to the clubhouse in time???”)

And it goes even farther than that, I think, and here’s where it verges into “I really hope for his own sake he outgrows this” territory. The music in Frozen is wonderful, arguably formulaic but then again very, very polished and good at doing what it’s supposed to do. And one way you could characterize it is “emotionally manipulative” which I’m not even saying in a cynical and judgmental way. The problem is that my little guy is ultra-sensitive and easily overwhelmed and when the music starts to work on his emotions it freaks him right out. Even if it’s happy music, it’s just entirely too much. It may very well be that this will always be the case for my son, and he’ll have this kind of selectively anhedonic attitude toward music where he likes it all right as long as it isn’t too much, and if that’s the way it is so be it … but I admit that, from my self-centered perspective, that sounds like a life that’s missing something crucial. I should be more open-minded than that, but it’s hard.

So the little guy spent a lot of the movie with his ears covered, and either sitting on my lap or trying to walk out of the theater (although, thankfully, he lacked the gumption to actually do so without me getting up and coming with him; if he had bolted, I would have had to carry the little girl as I chased after him). There were parts he liked well enough, mostly involving Olaf the funny little snowman, but it was a battle of wills between us for most of the running time. We’ve talked many times about how children’s movies always have happy endings and even when he’s never seen a movie before (he vastly prefers movies he has seen before because he knows how they end, not a general rule of thumb that it will all be ok but specifics, the conundrum of course being how do you ever get into a new movie?) he can rest assured that it will all be all right, but putting that into practice is far easier said than done.

And then (here come the spoilers) we get almost all the way to the end and there’s that climactic moment where the sword is coming down on Elsa and Anna intervenes and simultaneously turns to solid ice and all I could think in that split-second was “Goddammit, Disney, I just spent the last like 88 minutes telling my kids everything was going to be OK and if this is the movie where you all decided to start giving the stories more downbeat endings hearkening back to their folklore origins, I swear …!!!” I was genuinely terrified that Anna was going to be shattered into a million pieces, not so much for my own sake and my emotional investment in these fictional characters (although, sure, there was a good quantity of that in play) but mostly because I could not even imagine how traumatizing that would be for my kids. And here I thought all I had to do was keep them away from Bambi.

Of course it’s the sword that shatters, not Anna, and of course she is restored in short order and the happy ending unfolds as it should (and my faith in Disney is similarly restored). But even with that deference to traditional storytelling, I’m still deeply impressed with how subversive Frozen really is. I can barely find the words to express how exultant it felt (probably an extreme compensation after the above-described terror) when Anna punched Hans in the face. And again, not only was that satisfying for me personally, but for me on behalf of my kids, specifically my daughter. This may seem twisted, but hear me out. I’m a peaceful person, I don’t particularly advocate violence as a solution to any kind of problem, but if my little girl were a bit older I might have very well leaned over to her and said “There, did you see that? If any boy ever treats you the way Hans treated Anna? PUNCH HIM IN THE FACE.” It might seem like a minor moment of comic relief in the grand scheme of the film, but it occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, Disney is finally getting what it means to have a proactive princess. Granted, I haven’t seen Tangled or The Princess and the Frog or even Brave, so I’m operating with a basis of comparison from a generation ago. Not too long ago I would have said that Belle was my favorite of the Disney princesses, because she has a mind and an inner life of her own. But in the end, it’s Beast who gives Gaston his comeuppance, fighting him, humiliating him and throwing him off the castle tower. Belle’s still pretty passive. Anna gets to break Hans’s sword and then clock him one. Go Anna.

Really I could keep going with a whole list of things that critique or at least call into question the typical gender roles in the fairy tales. I thought it was cool that they didn’t shoehorn in any romance subplot for Elsa and she ends the movie happy and back on the throne but without a marriage in sight. And how about how the act of true love that breaks the spell on Anna is one of sisterly devotion, not romantic fulfillment? I mean, granted, to a large extent the subtext of the movie came across to me as “Parents can do extraordinary damage to their children, but siblings can help them recover from it.” Maybe that’s just me projecting? Either way, probably a subject for another post.

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