Dissecting the megapopularity of the Frozen movies with a 5.25-year-old

Seven years ago, on November 22, 2013, a lone voice, crying in the wilderness, issued a proclamation that would enthrall a planet’s children with its honeyed tongue. “Let it go,” urged the voice. “Let it go! Can’t hold it back anymore! Let it go! Let it go-o-o! Turn away and slam the door!”

“I don’t care,” the voice continued, “what they’re going to say. Let the storm rage on. The cold never bothered me anyway!”

That voice, later identified as Princess Elsa, one of the dual heroes of the Disney animated feature film Frozen, returned with the new doctrine of Frozen II on November 22, 2019 (yes, right down to the day). In this chronicle, Elsa and her sister Anna issued further proclamations the children of the world took to heart. Also, Elsa got a super rad water horse.

I have never quite understood the appeal of the Frozen franchise. I like the movies, but I find them to feature overstuffed plotting and considerable failures of nerve. Both Frozen films come so close to upending the Disney template before ultimately chickening out; as someone who enjoys the Disney template but also doesn’t mind subverting it, I find them to be failures of potential. And that’s before we get to all of the ways the movies want to have their cake and eat it too (Elsa being vaguely coded as a queer character without being textually queer).

But I am a non-child, and therefore, some of Frozen’s appeal is surely lost on me. (Okay, I understand the water horse. I’d love a water horse.) Fortunately for me, one of my most esteemed colleagues* is an expert on both the Frozen franchise and on being a child. I speak, of course, of Vox’s critic at small, Eliza, who is now 5-and-a-quarter and who consented to speak with me in some detail about the Frozen franchise.

* I am reliably informed that Eliza described me as her best friend out of all of her mother’s coworkers, and I can assure you Eliza is my best friend who is 5.

Emily and Eliza on Frozen’s eternal appeal

Disney

Emily: As I just mentioned, I find the Frozen films slightly half-baked. The first is loosely inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” and you can almost see the roots of that story in the film if you look closely. But in “The Snow Queen,” the titular character is a villain, and Frozen never has the courage to make Elsa its antagonist, even briefly.

She is demonized and misunderstood, not so drunk off her own power that she actually becomes monstrous. I don’t know that making Elsa villainous is necessary — especially if you want to read her as subtextually queer (as I tend to do) — but it creates a movie where the story all but demands that Elsa and Anna seem like they’re truly at odds, before backing away from that conflict almost completely. Instead, it’s Anna’s boyfriend Hans who turns out to be the true bad guy, via a diabolical plot that makes next to no sense. (He needs to sideline both sisters to rule the kingdom, yet he does almost nothing to achieve this nefarious objective until it’s time for him to reveal his plan.)

There are even more moments when Frozen II shies away from something truly interesting. It very nearly destroys the castle of Arendelle, as part of a story about how a country’s people are what has value, not its power, but it blinks. It also flirts with the idea that Elsa might have met the girl of her dreams, before promptly sidelining that character for a large swath of the movie.

But let’s just admit up front that I am not the target audience for Frozen. And I don’t even mean that because I’m not a kid. What I mean is that I’m not one half of a duo of young sisters. Yes, I have sisters, and yes, we have complex and fascinating dynamics (though I am so clearly the Elsa), but when we were kids, a Disney princess was defined by her boyfriend.

Not so with the children of today! Eliza, as a child of today, which Frozen movie is your favorite?

Eliza: Both.

Emily: Interesting. Why do you like them both, instead of one or the other?

Eliza: The first one because Marshmallow at the end isn’t mean anymore, and the second one because the Earth Giants aren’t mean after the end.

Emily: You like when things that are big and scary turn out to be not so mean?

Eliza: [nods]

Emily: When you think about the characters in the movie, who’s your favorite?

Eliza: [long pause] Anna.

Emily: My favorite’s Elsa, and I have asked you this question before, and you have said Elsa in the past. And now Anna’s in front. Why do you like Anna more now?

Eliza: Because she’s my sister’s favorite.

Emily: Awwwwww. [Legitimately, I said this. I have the transcript to prove it.] So why do Anna and Elsa stop being mean to each other and start being nice to each other again?

Eliza: I don’t know.

Emily: You don’t know?

Eliza: I forget. [lightbulb] Oh! Wait! Because, because, because, because Anna turns to ice because she saved Elsa. And then, and then, and then, and then Elsa unfreezes Anna. And then Anna unfreezes and she’s back to normal with an unfrozen heart. [beat] Guess what! There’s a rubber band on Mommy’s chair.

Emily: Why is there a rubber band on Mommy’s chair?

Eliza: I don’t know. How did it even get on the chair? It’s looped around her chair, but it’s not open, so people couldn’t get it off.

Emily: You should ask your mom why there’s a rubber band looped around her chair. I want to get to the bottom of this mystery. [To date, this mystery remains unsolved.]

Eliza and Emily on Frozen: merchandising bonanza

Emily: Disney must have seen Frozen’s success as a surefire way to sell the children of the world toys featuring not just one princess but two. You can’t have an Elsa toy without an Anna toy, and vice versa, and I can imagine the accountants at Disney feverishly anticipating a whole wave of “Love Is an Open Door”–themed engagement parties and “Let It Go”–themed divorce celebrations, as the Frozen generation ages to adulthood.

Decisions made based on toys are a little grubby and materialistic, but I don’t think anyone would ever mistake the Walt Disney Company for one that wasn’t at least a little bit grubby and materialistic. And at least if the kids of today are having fictional role models, Anna and Elsa are pretty good ones, thanks to their sisterly bond, Anna’s refusal to give up on Elsa, and Elsa’s super cool ice powers.

Eliza, you’ve attended our little confab dressed as Anna. This sartorial choice is in keeping with your stated preference for Anna at this point in time. Why didn’t you come dressed as Elsa? Come to think of it, why didn’t I come dressed as Elsa? That slinky ice blue number from “Let It Go” is pretty amazing.

Eliza: The Elsa dress is really, really, really itchy. [for emphasis] Very, very itchy.

Emily: I want to elaborate on why Elsa is my favorite: She has ice powers. I think it would be really cool to have ice powers. What do you think?

Eliza: My favorite is Anna and Elsa.

Emily: In the first one, they kind of get into a fight. What do you think about that?

Eliza: I don’t like it.

Emily: Do you and your sister ever do anything like that?

Eliza: [silence] I don’t know.

Emily: Well, Anna and Elsa also save each other a few times. Have you ever done anything nice for your sister?

Eliza: Uh-huh! One night, I wanted Mom to stand [next to my top bunk] and pet me, because I’m learning to sleep by myself, and so is Nora. But I said first I want Nora to get a turn with Mom petting her, because I love her.

Emily: That’s really sweet.

Eliza: [spinning around in her mother’s desk chair] Wheeeeeeeee!

Eliza and Emily on gigantic things

Elsa, Olaf, and Anna in a spinoff of the movie Frozen.

The Frozen franchise even includes short films like Olaf’s Frozen Adventure.
Disney

Emily: Eliza, who are some of your favorite characters who aren’t Anna or Elsa?

Eliza: The Earth Giants.

Emily: Ah, yes, kids really do love big things. I suppose that’s because when we’re children, everything is big, from our parents to many other kids to big dogs. Thus, when we as children see something that dwarfs anyone — even adults — we feel both a primal joy and a primal terror, especially once we realize that such a gigantic creature could be our friend.

What do you think of my theory, Eliza? Why do you like the Earth Giants?

Eliza: Because they’re so big.

Emily: Did you hear what I just said? What’s fun about things that are big?

Eliza: [with a look that says “truly, ma’am, you are not getting it”] Because I like things that are big.

Emily: What are some other things that are big that you like?

Eliza: My swing set!

Emily: How big is that?

Eliza: Mmm … [looks out window to estimate]

Emily: As big as an Earth Giant? [long pause] What’s going on outside?

Eliza: [The swing set is as big as] Nine cars stacked on top of each other! An Earth Giant is as tall as a tree!

Emily: If I had a friend who was that big, I would ask them to put me in their hand and then put me on top of a building. What if you were that tall, though? What would you do?

Eliza: I would climb up my swing set like Squirrely the Squirrel does. Squirrely the Squirrel is what we name every squirrel we see. Squirrels are brown. Guess what?

Emily: What?

Eliza: I saw a brown squirrel and a black squirrel before.

Eliza and Emily on why Frozen is so rewatchable

Emily: As the parents of the world will attest, Frozen and its sequel have become fixtures of many a child’s media diet. Disney movies have always had this rewatchable quality, and Frozen sure does seem to scratch that particular itch, if only because “Let It Go” is so absurdly catchy.

Even beyond the catchiness of its songs, though, Frozen, especially, is uniquely episodic. It breaks down into a series of short stories that link up into a larger one, and it’s theoretically easy for parents to pause the movie after, say, the visit to Oaken’s store or after Hans reveals his betrayal, because it’s time for dinner or bed. (Please don’t pause the movie to send kids to bed after Hans reveals his betrayal.) [Editor’s note: Joke’s on you. It is never easy to pause a movie without a tantrum.]

The first Frozen movie had a rather chaotic production process that saw the movie’s central story constantly shift while the film was being made. And even though the result sometimes doesn’t make much sense, those constant story shifts did accidentally create the episodic quality that makes Frozen so rewatchable. If you’re over one thing, the movie will be on to another imminently.

The same quality applies to Frozen II, though not quite as readily. That movie is knottier and more thematically ambitious, even if it is beset by failures of nerve throughout. Its storytelling hangs together slightly better as a cohesive whole, but, perversely, that cohesiveness perhaps works against the movie, emphasizing how overstuffed with characters the franchise truly is. (Frozen II, for instance, loses track of Anna’s boyfriend Kristoff and his reindeer Sven for a large portion of its second act.)

Eliza, prove me right here. How many times have you watched these movies?

Eliza: I’ve seen Frozen II three times and Frozen I two times.

Emily: You’ve seen Frozen more than two times!

Eliza: Wait. I mean four times.

Emily: That’s already double what you said before! Frozen came out before you were born, but do you remember going to see Frozen II in the theater?

Eliza: Yes. And I remember the part when [my sister] was asleep when the Earth Giants came. So she missed it.

Emily: Did you tell her about it later?

Eliza: No. But she saw it, because we watched the movie last night. And guess what, Emily? We watched the whole movie before dinner!

Emily: Wow! I never get to do that! So are there things in these movies that you maybe didn’t like as much before that you like a lot more now? Or are there things you did like before that —

Eliza: Guess what I dream about every night?!

Emily: What?

Eliza: Octonauts! My favorite show! They go under the water!

Emily: [blatantly trying to get back on topic] And Frozen is about frozen water! So you just like water-based storytelling.

Eliza: Yes! I’m very, very, very, very good at swimming. [falls to floor where Emily cannot see her, presumably begins doing various strokes]

Eliza and Emily on personal identification

Elsa and the gang play charades.

No matter who you are, there’s a Frozen character for you to identify with.
Disney

Emily: As my esteemed colleague Eliza has pointed out, there are many characters one might identify with in the Frozen universe, which may be why the films are so very popular. If you’ve never been an Anna or an Elsa in your relationship with your sibling, you will be at some point. And we can all be Kristoffs and Svens and snowman Olafs too. We might all be Earth Giants as well.

Eliza —

Eliza: Guess what!? I’m 5-and-a-quarter!

Emily: Wow. I’m 39 and 50 weeks [at the time of this conversation]. Do you know what that means? In like 10 days, I’m going to be 40. I’m not looking forward to it. I don’t like being this old.

Eliza: Why not?

Emily: [desperately trying not to say to a 5-year-old, “I’m afraid of death”] Because I have to do boring things like pay my bills. I can’t run around and play pretend with my sister.

Now. Which character are you most like in Frozen?

Eliza: Anna.

Emily: Why do you think you’re like Anna?

Eliza: Because Anna’s 5, and she has brown hair. [Anna is much older than 5, and she has red hair, but we’ll give Eliza this one.]

Emily: Does that make your sister Elsa?

Eliza: No. She’s Anna too.

Emily: What about me? Who am I most like? [long pause] I know you don’t know me as well as you or your sister, so you don’t have to have —

Eliza: Elsa.

Emily: That is honestly the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.

Eliza: You have the same kind of hair.

Emily: What about your mom? Who is she most like?

Eliza: [silence] Olaf.

Emily: Olaf? Why Olaf!?

Eliza: [longer silence] Because she told me.

Jen, Eliza’s mom, in extreme distance: I did not tell you that!

Eliza: [very quietly] I’m joking.

Emily: Do you have a different answer for who your mom is like?

Eliza: Elsa.

Emily: Yeah, that’s safe. Let’s stick with that.