I've seen Disney's latest film Frozen with my kids twice now, and I'm rather pleased with the progress they have made in presenting realistic female characters.
Disney doesn't exactly have a history of being socially progressive. Most of their films, especially from the earlier days, are filled with racist caricatures.
Aside from Mickey Mouse, Disney's most well-known films are their Disney princesses. Most of the early ones aren't exactly independent women.
- Snow White: She does housekeeping for a household of dwarves before falling into a coma, until some passing prince gives her a kiss.
- Sleeping Beauty: Aurora sleeps through a large part of the movie, until some adventurous prince comes to rescue her.
- Cinderella: A house slave, who meets a prince who can't remember what she looks like, but has one of her shoes.
- The Little Mermaid: Ariel literally changes who she is, giving up her precious voice in order to be closer to her prince.
- Beauty and the Beast: Belle domesticates her prince, because we can't have someone with beastly behaviour.
- Aladdin: Most of the plot revolves around who Jasmine is allowed to marry.
- Pocahontas: the colonization of the New World, where a romantic involvement is created between the historic figures of Pocahontas and John Smith.
Some of the more recent films are better, in particular Tangled and Brave. But even there, there are problems. In Brave, the main disagreement and inciting incident revolves around Merida's choice in marriage. While she remains single, it is a primary source of conflict in the film.
With two young daughters, many of these films are problematic, not the least of which is their cultural influence. A few of these films I've never shown my kids, and probably won't until they're much older.
The latest Disney film, Frozen, really ups the game. While there are other important characters, the movie is really about the relationship between two sisters, Elsa and Anna.
While the younger sister does have two potential love interests, Queen Elsa has none. It also turns out that the act of true love which provides the fairy-tale ending is not "true love's kiss", but instead a heroic, selfless act to protect a sister. (At this point in the movie, my youngest daughter was in tears, and during the moment of silence in the film, there were more than one child-like sob from the audience).
So, what about those love interests? As this is Disney, they still feel compelled to writ some kind of love interest, if only for the musical numbers.
Hans is a prince from another kingdom, 13th in line to the throne. He proposes to Anna on the evening of Elsa's coronation. They ask for Elsa's blessing, claiming that it's true love, but she refuses, saying that they've just met. Later, Kristoff also questions her judgement for getting engaged to someone she's just met. Finally, it turns out that everyone else was right, and Hans reveals that he's just in it for the keys to the kingdom.
Everything seems lined up for Kristoff to provide an act of true love (a kiss, right?) when Anna instead turns and puts herself between her sister and a killing blow from Hans' sword. This is the act of true love: complete self sacrifice to protect someone you love. Sisterly love, which had been so cruelly denied earlier in the film.
There are a number of reasons why I really enjoyed this film, but in think the most important is how it's a story about two sisters. The movie revolves around their relationship, in a way that hasn't really happened in a Disney princess movie before.
One of the rather interesting things about this film is how they dealt with Elsa. From what I gather, the original plan for the adaptation of the Snow Queen was for Elsa to be the villain. During development, her character was completely rewritten, as a much more in depth character.
For myself, the two crucial points in the film are Anna's sacrifice at the ending, and Elsa's flight from the town of Arrendale. Her song "Let it Go" signaled a change, where she would embrace her magic, where she had previously attempted to suppress it.
Also of note is that in Frozen, there is a single line about Elsa's suitability for marriage, when Hans confesses that his original plan was to marry Elsa, but that "no one was getting anywhere with her". From being a primary plot point in Brave, to a single line in Frozen. Seems to be a big change.
Almost, but not quite
So, there are still a few places where this film fails. While Elsa escapes without a love interest, Anna has two. There are two (with a marginal third) musical numbers dedicated to her suitability for marriage. Both girls lead a sheltered life and Anna appears to be overly enthusiastic about getting out into the world. It fits with the existing franchise, and that's something Disney probably wasn't about to mess with. In fact, I'm pleasantly surprised by how far they have come, and by how successful the movie has been in theaters.