I feel the need to start this post with some sort of fully indemnifying disclaimer or risk the amassed criticism of the internet descending on my head like so many sneeze-induced miniature snowmen. So…
I like Frozen. It’s a perfectly good film with accomplished animation and voice acting. It looks good, it sounds good, and it has a compelling narrative which refreshingly does away with the typical fairy tale gender dynamic and the need for a conventional, lone villain against which the protagonist can be set. It also has deeply resonated with its audience in a way that seems to insulate it from criticism, its popularity and the affection it has engendered with its fans turning it into a no-go zone for critical analysis. The popularity of the song “Let it Go” alone has practically co-opted that phrase to the point that I can often discern the attempt to resist making reference to the movie whenever someone says it.
Sacred cow or not, however, my issues with the song have little to do with its ubiquity or the resultant attachment of a whole new set of cultural connotations to a common turn of phrase. I’m not the biggest fan of ubiquitous cultural texts, since the overwhelming visibility of one example of a particular form can lead to its transformation into an exemplar against which every new example will be compared. This is especially the case with genre films, since definitions of genres are often built around central, paradigmatic movies from which the basic character of the genre is extracted. Since it isn’t a film in itself, “Let it Go” isn’t a candidate for a genre paradigm, but my problems with the song and its treatment in Frozen do stem from its relationship to generic norms.
I don’t like “Let it Go” because it’s not a musical number.
Before you advise any innocent bystanders to leave the vicinity over questions of my sanity, while a sequence given over almost entirely to a character singing a song would seem to pretty intuitively qualify it for musical number status, the treatment of performance in classical Hollywood musicals, and the relationship between that generic convention and the equally specific conventions of animation, make that easy qualification a more complicated formal problem than it initially appears to be.
Save for the alternative narrative and generic strategies developed by Pixar, and outliers like Lilo & Stitch, Disney animation and musicals have become inextricably linked. And due to the popularity of the studio and its seminal place in the development of American animation, that link seems like a perfectly natural one. Yet this established compatibility involves a complex negotiation between the form and notions of spontaneous performance central to live-action musicals which would seem to be completely at odds with the inherently manufactured nature of animation.
As Jane Feuer argues, live-action musicals (particularly in the form of its “most persistent sub-genre,” the “backstage musical,” which depicts a group of people getting together to “put on a show”) display a curious contradiction of impulses. They tend to demystify popular entertainment by letting us peek behind the scenes at the processes that go into its creation while also ultimately upholding the seemingly magical quality of that entertainment so that it doesn’t seem like the result of a production process at all. Films like Singin’ in the Rain use “the backstage format to present sustained reflections upon, and affirmations of, the musical genre itself,” selectively revealing how Hollywood creates its illusions in order to reaffirm the affective power of those illusions. In order to do so, a basic distinction is often drawn between bad performance, which is associated with an artifice and illusionism the film seeks to expose, and good performance, which is associated with opposed values of spontaneity and authenticity.
In Singin’ in the Rain this strategy of selective revelation is concentrated on the relationship between sound and image. The film focuses on the difficulties two silent screen stars, Don and Lina, face during Hollywood’s transition to sound cinema. While perfectly acceptable as a silent performer, the gross mismatch between Lina’s refined, glamorous appearance on screen and her brittle, lower-class voice ensures that her first sound project with Don elicits only laughter. A potential solution is found when it’s suggested that the film be turned into a musical, with Kathy, an ingénue with a more appropriate voice, dubbing for Lina. The film contrasts the behind the scenes illusionism of Lina’s performance with the spontaneous musical talents displayed in Kathy and Don’s musical numbers, which take place off camera and are therefore not performances at all, but moments of authentic expression through song and dance.
Lina’s attempts to appropriate Kathy’s voice, however, problematize the notion of authentic musical expression on film, since they demonstrate that sound cinema has made it possible for the voice to be radically separated from its origins. As Peter Wollen argues, if the body and the voice can be dissociated, the latter can become a means of deception, so that simply seeing someone sing on screen isn’t enough to guarantee the authenticity of the performance. The film “can only end happily,” he asserts “when a properly married print is produced, in which voice and image are naturally joined together,” achieved when Kathy is revealed as the real star of Don and Lina’s film.
In animation, however, the voice must always be radically separated from the body since the form necessarily relies on the process of dubbing to give its characters speech and song. As Susan Smith argues, in animation “no voice ever really belongs to the performer we see on screen” since there is in fact no physical performer at all. Performance in animation is a complex amalgam of the efforts of voice actor and animator, which not only occur off screen, but are the result of a laborious and lengthy process in which the performing body is created and matched with a voice, making it difficult to pass off any performance as authentic and spontaneous.
Some of you may be thinking, “Wait a minute. We know that people can’t just break into perfectly choreographed song and dance numbers at a moment’s notice. There’s nothing spontaneous about musicals!” Quite right. But live-action musicals try to make us forget that basic reality in order to smooth over the implausibility arising from characters that suddenly break into song. I argued in my Masters final paper that we are able to accept the inherent fantasy of the musical due not only to generic convention (it’s a musical, people are going to sing and we’re used to that), but because that fantasy has limits rooted in the abilities of the performer. We all know Gene Kelly can dance, so if there was a world in which dancing was an everyday form of expression, breaking into spontaneous but clearly well-rehearsed numbers takes on enough plausibility for us to not think of it as fantastic.
But animation has no such limitations. There are, of course, limits on what a voice actor can do, but an animated body doesn’t have any limitations on its physical abilities because it’s animated and therefore capable of anything the animators can dream and then draw. Smith argues that animated musicals therefore trouble the concept of performance established in live-action, “requir[ing] us to be more flexible in the way we think about the relationship between song and dance, performer and song” in film.
Yet, while animation does open up the possibility that anyone, not just known stars like Kelly, or anything, can perform, when it comes to human performers (or anthropomorphised animal performers for that matter) animated musicals nonetheless rely on some of the formal conventions used in live-action film to make their performances seem like spontaneous moments of expression. Particularly, musicals often go to great lengths to integrate the numbers into the narrative so that they flow naturally from the dramatic situation and make those numbers seem like they arise from the impulse of the moment by having characters apparently improvise using whatever is around them.
The “For the First Time in Forever” sequence from Frozen is a good example of both.
When Anna is awakened by a knock at her door there is no music on the soundtrack, only the voices of the princess and the unseen servant, gently reminding her it’s “time to get ready.” Her sudden intake of breath when she wakes up enough to remember the significance of the day seems to wake up the score as well, as it breaks in with a quick flourish of strings and then settles into a steady beat. When Anna bursts out of her bedroom door she is essentially already dancing as she skips down the hall and twirls around the servants preparing for the day. Her movement, along with her line to one of the servants, delivered on beat and in a joyful half-sung tone, help prepare us for the oncoming number, so that when Anna sings her first note it seems like a natural progression from everyday speech into song.
As Anna dances her way through the palace and its grounds the spontaneous nature of the performance is suggested by her ability to make use of the objects around her as props for the number, in what Feuer describes as a form of bricolage, a cobbling together of the items at hand to “create the imaginary world of the musical performance.” Suits of armor become guests at the ball, the drapes become Anna’s gown, and a stone bust stands in for the true love she dreams of meeting.
When she finds her way into the palace gallery, the camera isolates a series of paintings shot straight on, so that when Anna dances or leaps from one canvas to the next she seems to take the place of one of the painted figures, each frozen in different moments of romance. Rather than using isolated objects as props to create the imaginary world she’s drawing for us in song, each painting provides an entire scene, complete with other characters and the right setting for Anna to play out her dream of finding love at the ball.
Because Anna had already told us that she had begun talking to the pictures on the walls after she was separated from Elsa and left isolated in the palace, her play with the paintings in the gallery also seems perfectly in character. It’s something we know Anna might do, whether in song or not, so that when she does it in a number it helps reinforce the sense of spontaneous performance suggested through her use of the armor and drapes. The song also tells us everything we need to know about Anna going forward, so that the song doesn’t only proceed naturally from the dramatic situation, but also helps prepare us for what’s to come.
Like “For the First Time in Forever,” “Let it Go” centers on a character creating an ideal world around her to escape the constraints of the life she was living before. Yet, unlike Anna, who can only dream about the “change” she hopes the coronation will bring, Elsa can actually create the world she wants because of her magical abilities. There is no possibility for any form of bricolage, not only because there is nothing around Elsa save for snow and ice, but also because the sequence is largely given over to Elsa testing her ability to make whatever she desires out of nothing. Her magic allows her to physically manifest her ideal rather than imaginatively cobbling it together from what she has at hand.
As Richard Dyer argues, there is a certain utopianism at the heart of a number of popular entertainment forms evident in our tendency to describe them as escapist, as offering “the image of ‘something better’ to escape to” from our daily lives. In many musicals a distinction is drawn between the story and the music, with the numbers serving as an escape from the quotidian reality represented by the rest of the narrative. (Olaf’s number is a case in point, a pure fantasy that erases – while still teasing at – the reality of what would actually happen to a snowman in summer). Since the numbers are already fantastic, they can dive into utopian wishes, “pointing to how things could be better,” rather than how they are, with the full affective appeal of music. The musical numbers become a site not only for offering us a wished for ideal, but for making us experience how that ideal might actually feel. Frozen could tell us everything we need to know about Anna’s dreams through dialogue or other forms of exposition, but by letting her sing those dreams, “For the First Time in Forever” also tries to give us a sense of the emotions they embody.
But Elsa actually can fulfill her dreams, not only point to something better, but actually create it around her, even if it proves to be a temporary and false solution to her problems. She doesn’t need the utopian sensibility of the musical to offer her ideal to us because she can actually manufacture it. The sequence is, of course, similarly concerned with making us experience something of what it feels like to have such an ideal realized. The structure of both the song, especially the pause after the bridge before returning to the chorus, and of the sequence, which shifts between relatively close shots of Elsa and wider views of her magic in action with everything synched to the song’s tempo, is designed to offer an empowering sense of release from the constraints of being someone you’re not.
But when matched with actual fulfillment this attempt to register the feeling of utopian fulfillment collapses the distinction between what is and what could be. I’m sure this is what many people find so compelling about the song. It is pure affect. It goes straight for the basic desire to be exactly who we want to be without restrictions, evoking the emotions associated with that kind of freedom in the music while also letting a character actually achieve that desire in the narrative.
But in collapsing that distinction, “Let it Go” becomes too fantastic. If anything is possible the notion of utopian fulfillment loses meaning, so that while the song is essentially an inverted mirror of “For the First Time in Forever” – both songs are about better days to come, but Anna’s vision of that ideal involves making connections with other people and ending her isolation by playing the refined princess, while Elsa’s involves total isolation so she no longer has to pretend to be the “good girl” she isn’t – Elsa’s song is far less compelling.
While it may seem thematically warranted, the sequence is also strangely isolated.
The song follows from the dramatic situation as much as any other in the film, but because of the way the song is edited in relation to the scenes that come before and after, it feels like an entirely discrete sequence interpolated into the film. (My designated movie companion calls it a premade music video for a premade pop song.) Unlike “For the First Time in Forever,” there is no initiating action before the song begins. The film cuts from Anna riding out of Arendelle’s gates in search of her sister, accompanied by a rousing cue on the score, to a series of shots of a snow-obscured sky, during which the score gradually dies down and is then pulled out. Once we reach the mountain Elsa is climbing, after a brief moment of silence, the soundtrack abruptly switches to the beginning of “Let it Go,” which sounds so much like a singer’s piano cue that it throws us straight into the number with no help from the narrative to smooth over the transition. At the end of the song, Elsa literally seals off the sequence from the rest of the film, turning from camera and closing the doors she has just created behind her with a resounding thud.
Taken in isolation “Let it Go” is remarkable, but in the context of Frozen it feels like it’s from a different film.
And oddly enough, that film isn’t a musical.
Richard Dyer, Only Entertainment (New York: Routledge, 1992).
Jane Feuer, “The Self-reflective Musical and the Myth of Entertainment,” in Hollywood Musicals, The Film Reader, ed. Steven Cohan (New York: Routledge, 2002), 31-40.
Susan Smith, “The Animated Film Musical,” in The Oxford Handbook of the American Musical, eds. Raymond Knapp, Mitchell Morris, and Stacy Wolf (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
Peter Wollen, Singin’ in the Rain (London: BFI Publishing, 1992).