The last two Disney princess films have been popular and commercial successes, although clearly Frozen has come out on top. This article will attempt to explain why this is in terms of the contents of both films.
The aspect which really separates the two is that Tangled is based on a pre-existing fairytale, Rapunzel, just like many other Disney Princess films are. This tends to limit the protagonists’ development and depth, a sparkling anomaly being The Princess and the Frog. Not only is Frozen original (or at least more original than Rapunzel), but it arguably features two protagonists.
Frozen is the story of Anna’s quest to reconcile with her sister Elsa, but this in itself seems to reveal the plot’s revolving around the character of Elsa. She is distinctly other to all fictional princesses (or queens in this case) you will have come across. She possesses fantastical powers, but these could easily be seen as a metaphor for a personality who’s greatest virtues can also result in great pain for its possessor. As an adult or adolescent watching Frozen, one definitely absorbs much more of the sadness of Elsa’s position than a child does, but clearly this is what causes us as ‘grown-ups’ to empathise with the character and hence experience a deeper level of enjoyment and investment in the story, and so expanding the demographic of fans. We see Elsa experience feelings of anxiety and depression (as confirmed by the creators) which we recognise from our own lives, whereas children more simply see someone who makes mistakes and suffers great loss, but who ultimately becomes a stronger person for it. This message is what makes Frozen such a modern and forward-thinking film.
Tangled wouldn’t be Disney if it didn’t feature similarly heart-warming morals, for example being your own person and – as always – following your dreams, and the protagonist is successfully modernised by being portrayed as childish and naïve. Personally I believe that Tangled suffers because of its tenuous links to reality. The difference between the two sets of characters can be most easily seen in the character’s development and reactions according to what happens in their lives.
Rapunzel in Tangled is raised without a father-figure and in seclusion from the outside world. Never once does she mention the absence of a father, but actually this is quite justifiable. What is more surprising is that it takes her 18 years to pluck up the courage to have a proper confrontation with her mother concerning her leaving of the tower. This would be less annoying if there didn’t seem to be an ulterior motive for this age: her not being a minor, meaning her relationship with Flynn Rider is uncontroversial. Later on, when Rapunzel rejoins her real family, she accepts instantaneously that the person who raised her was false and probably a psychopath, and all without any rage. The true feelings someone would experience upon this realisation could make a film of its own. These points create a sense of forced-saccharinity that perpetuates the story.
In Frozen we clearly see the sisters grieve for their parents’ death and the effect it has on their childhood. Elsa keeps herself apart as a result of fear, mourning and the pretence that she is above it all, and Anna is awkward and ungainly, an appropriate product of seclusion from the real world. Although I genuinely like the romance in Tangled, it is far from realistic, and Frozen sees Disney being very self-conscious by destroying the Prince Charming stereotype they themselves created. Whereas Tangled ends with a rushedly told happy ending of marriage, Frozen leaves the relationship between Anna and Kristoff open-ended because, after all, they only just met.
Perhaps what bothers me the most about Tangled is the moral it failed to tell. I only saw it recently so I was familiar with Rapunzel’s powers and their weakness. I was absolutely convinced that a big part of the story would be her transformation from blonde babe to brunette chic and particularly the vulnerability this would cause her to feel. I was certain that there would be a scene where her romantic partner would reassure her that he loved her no matter what her hair was like. Obviously, we have all been taught that outward appearances aren’t what count, but only alongside being taught that a woman’s outward appearance is and should be based entirely on the wants of man and man alone. In Frozen, Elsa’s hair transformation symbolises her feeling of newfound freedom accompanied by the much-loved song ‘Let It Go’. When Rapunzel got an edgy bob I was hoping for a similar song-inspiring moment, but I was disappointed. This was a point in the plot where the creators could have easily linked to everyday, real-world problems. We have all been witnesses to those packs of girls with straightened, artificially blonde hair and spider eyelashes; a sect of ‘fashion’ where the aim is to look like everyone else. Imagine if we had a film where we were explicitly told – not made to infer – that it was pretty damn cool to look different. Unfortunately we are left with a film where Rapunzel’s brown haircut only really symbolises her loss of powers. She would probably have grown it out long like everybody else.
Disney films have a long way to go to satisfy everyone’s ideals of positive body image and egalitarianism, and I could have just as easily criticised Frozen. However I believe that this article is a positive one because it shows that Disney have actually improved. Progress is change and Disney are finally trying to modernise the messages of their too-good-to-be-true tales, and I for one can’t wait to see what happens next.