At its first presentation at Siggraph, Disney’s “Frozen” started to gain some positive buzz as the animation Oscar frontrunner. But then came a viral media storm last month about gender portrayals in animation that yielded some provocative debate in the community about the Disney/Pixar animation boys club’s predisposition toward pretty females.
However, now we can focus on what really matters: “Frozen” offers Disney’s most progressive feminist approach to the princess fairy tale to date. How else would you characterize the post-modern refashioning of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” as a conflict between two sisters based on love vs. fear? The result is a lot bolder than perpetuating traditional romantic love, bolstered by the presence of Disney Animation’s first female director — Jennifer Lee (the co-screenwriter of “Wreck-It Ralph”) — who helmed with animation vet Chris Buck (“Surf’s Up,” “Tarzan”). But then it was Buck’s idea to end with a radical departure that they worked very hard to earn.
So naturally if you have two princesses that closely resemble each other — the free-spirited Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) and the repressed Elsa (voiced by Idini Menzel) — you’re going to have a few animation challenges in distinguishing their individual expressions.
That’s what Disney animation head Lino DiSalvo was trying to point out in the roundtable that started the firestorm. Yes, in retrospect, he shouldn’t have said that animating female characters is historically difficult because of their range of emotions. His big mistake, pointed out by Brenda Chapman (Pixar’s first woman director, who won the Oscar with her replacement on “Brave,” Mark Andrews), was saying “pretty” instead of “appealing” in describing the siblings.
Overall, though, the performances of Anna and Elsa are more nuanced and emotionally complex than ever before in the Disney canon, leveraging what Glen Keane and the animators accomplished on “Tangled” by adding more hand-drawn warmth and expressiveness to CG. But the rigs are superior on “Frozen” along with better skin, eyes, and lighting. The girls look more authentic yet still caricatured in the big-eyed Keane mold that dates back to Ariel from “The Little Mermaid.”
However, according to DiSalvo, there’s a “cohesiveness and continuity,” thanks to a new “truth in acting” approach that he’s instituted. He brought in acting coach Warner Loughlin very early on to help them discover emotional details of every character, conducting exercises in technique, singing, and especially breathing, given the importance of the frozen environment.
DiSalvo says they accentuated acting more than on previous films, and dailies were strictly about evaluating performance. “Do you buy what the characters are thinking? How does it look in continuity? Let’s go back — it looks too big and too broad. Keep pulling it back.”
Also, because we briefly glimpse Anna and Elsa as kids, we know the source of their conflict and why they’re at cross-purposes.
“It helped having Jen as both writer and director and wanting to raise the level of performance, telling you what’s on the mind of the characters and what the subtext is. And we explore the right subtext without going too hyper-real.”
In the case of Menzel (the star of Broadway’s “Wicked”), DiSalvo even moderated “Inside the Actors Studio”-like sessions between her and the animators. They benefited greatly from observing her singing and breathing, the way she moves her diaphragm and her hips back, and the tension in her neck. It lends enormous power to the showstopping “Let It Go” performance (written by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez), which also has to be considered the Oscar frontrunner for best original song.
It’s a liberating moment for Elsa after being afraid of her magical power for creating snow and ice (the result of Disney’s latest technical innovations). She flees her kingdom, embraces her inner self, and builds an Ice Palace from a single snowflake in a flurry of artistic triumph. And the exquisite animation blends in perfectly with the music and lyrics. The late Howard Ashman (“The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast”) would be proud.
By contrast, Anna is fearless and unafraid to say what’s on her mind, even if it’s embarrassing and makes her seem goofy. Her awkward meet cute encounter with the handsome prince Hans (Santino Fontana) is the stuff of rom-com. It’s a delight to see such vulnerability displayed with her eyes, brows, hands, and perky mouth under Rebecca Wilson Bresee’s inspired supervision.
“My interest is in emotional truth,” DiSalvo proclaims. “I want to make sure that the takes we have from the actors aren’t super cleaned up. I want to hear lip smacks, I want to hear breaks, I want to hear the unique cadence. Even in the songs you hear their breaths. It’s going for that familiar feeling you’ve had in your life. For me, it’s a natural progression from ‘Tangled.’ We’re learning new tools and we’re good at this CG.
“I want to pick up where we left off in ‘Frozen’ on my next film. I want to use that breath, I want to use that subtext, that juicy screen test. What can we find? I want to use that as a starting point.”
But the Disney animators have definitely turned a corner with Anna and Elsa, learning to hold back, wait, and let the emotion speak for itself, using just the right timing, gestures, and phrasing. It has nothing to do with being pretty and everything to do with their humanity.