The November 5th issue of the Wall Street Journal ran a feature article all about Frozen, the 2013 runaway, smash-hit from Disney. Loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, the animated fairy tale follows Anna on a quest to find her magical sister, Elsa, who has locked the kingdom in eternal winter.
The film certainly garnered a few pennies (just um … $1.3 billion in worldwide box office revenue). It also won an Academy Award for Best Song, “Let it Go.”
But all this glitzy glammy success was not under the scrutiny of the WSJ. What they wanted to figure out was why Elsa merchandise massively outsells Anna merchandise.
How could this be, the Journal muses, when Anna gets the most screen time? Anna sings more of the songs and Anna has two hot dudes in hot pursuit of her affection! (Forget that one of them is an underhanded scoundrel successfully duping poor Anna.) This anomaly baffled parents, as well as Disney execs.
A psychologist interviewed attests to the dominant power of the eldest sibling in American culture. Marketing experts noted that Elsa’s dress is much prettier than Anna’s.
Had I not seen Frozen for the first time a month ago, I might have thought these were reasonable theories, but they’re not for at least two reasons. First off, these theories don’t give the child audience even an ounce of credit for its sophistication in story consumption. Carl Jung rightly endowed children with the sole ownership of fantastical stories when he said, “The dynamic principle of fantasy is play, which belongs…to the child.” No one plays like a child (or a childlike mind). Nothing participates in a story as good as the childmind does! And much of Frozen‘s abominable-snowman-sized success stems directly from this participation, but I’ll come back to that!
Second, the WSJ theories do not account for story. Of course the Wall Street Journal is not a writer’s pulp rack. Story crafting is not their arena. Thus, I do not expect them to talk about what went wrong with the story to ultimately cause Anna’s popularity to take a Titanic nose dive. I do expect the Disney folks hired to deal in stories and the telling of them to know what went wrong. Frankly, I worry that they didn’t know, or worse, didn’t care.
So, let’s dig into the relevant aspects of Frozen‘s story because WE care. Because we want to serve that most sophisticated audience known as children. Because we work so dang hard to craft the characters leading our stories and we want our readers to care for those characters as tenderly and passionately as we do!
So, what is story? Not a simple question to answer on a non-premium blog with limited space capacity. So I’ll be succinct. Story is velocity. A cocktail of speed and direction. This means that the events within a story arise and unfold with a particular pace (speed). Also it means that the events begin somewhere, escalate or arc, and eventually wind down to an end (direction).
Any savvy storyteller worth her weight in golden ink (and any audience for that matter) knows that events are nothing unless they happen TO someone or something AND that someone or something determines that those events are significant and meaningful.
Under this definition, an earthquake is not a story. Oh sure, it’s an event. A potentially big one. The event certainly begins somewhere (deep down in the Earth’s crust). A moment of tectonic clutziness, then slowly, slowly, consequences rumble up to the surface. Friction escalates. Everything speeds up and in a small space of time, much destruction is wrought. And then it simmers down. A few aftershocks trundle through the landscape, and then it’s over.
Beginning, middle, end conveyed with pacing. But it is not a story unless that same earthquake is experienced by someone or something who finds it meaningful. And by meaningful, I mean that the event sparks emotional change or growth in that someone or something.
Thus the velocity that is story stems from and wraps around a central character. The main character. The protagonist. Whatever you call it, this character is the magic carpet that will convey the audience all the way through the story. In order to ride that carpet, the audience must build a powerful, emotional connection that links them to the protagonist. Like the jet bridge or gangway passengers use to go from the gate to the plane at airport terminals.
Now I say the audience “must” build that bridge, but what I really mean is that audiences are eager to build (especially children or childlike minds!). Any audience coming to a story wants to go for a ride, whether they are picking up a book, catching up with friends, or settling down to watch a movie. And so the storyteller must haul out, dust off, and present a magic carpet. That carpet enables the audience to experience the events AND the emotional growth.
“The Flying Carpet” by Victor Vasnetsov. Image PD.
Protagonists bear the greatest burdens, like Samwise in The Lord of the Rings. (No, that’s not a typo. I said Sam, not Frodo on purpose.) Main characters have the farthest to go. This could mean geographically, but it really refers to emotional growth. The best main characters start off with a lot of problems (internal and external) that need fixed. Through the velocity of story, the main character tackles and solves each problem.
Now it often happens that a storyteller hauls out the wrong carpet. The audience builds a gangway, boards the carpet which then takes off into story, and events transpire, but they are not meaningful. The poor audience clings tenaciously to the carpet’s tassels. Some make it all the way through and feel dissatisfied, but most inevitably fall off and never reach THE END.
And this is the problem with Frozen. The writers picked the wrong magic carpet.
Nonsense, you say. The film opens with an emotionally resonant scene wherein little, rambunctious Anna wakes up little Elsa, begging her to come and play. (Technically, the movie starts with a cool ice harvesting scene starring little Kristoff and his adorable baby reindeer, Sven. But they are Disney world-building fodder, not the magic carpet main characters.) Do you want to build a snowman? asks little Anna as she coaxes Elsa out of bed.
So it seems we’ve got our magic carpet: Anna. Her problems/burdens? She’s more adventurous than anyone else! More active. Spunkier! Okay, we build our jet bridge and climb on board. Who better to take us on a good adventure!
But as the girls play, Elsa’s powers accidentally injure Anna. After that, Elsa is basically sent to her room. She’s grounded. What does our main character do? She WAITS!
Our magic carpet, that wondrous vessel of adventure, sits around and does a whole lot of nothing. Oh sure, she wanders aimlessly through a big empty palace or slumps down Elsa’s bedroom door, but in either instance, she is waiting. And that’s how the movie progresses for a long time. A.really.long.time. Anna waits for Elsa to come out. She waits. And waits. And waits some more. That’s roughly the first chunk of the movie.
Protagonists, main characters, heroes/heroines do not wait around. They act! They do. They choose. They go. Sometimes, they do all of this unwisely, resulting in great misadventures.
In the next chunk of the movie, Elsa runs away. What does Anna do? Chase her. She meets up with Kristoff and Sven. Together, they all chase Elsa. Then they meet Olaf, the jolly snowman, and then resume the chase.
In the third chunk of the movie, bad guys capture Elsa and take her back to the kingdom, which then causes Anna and Co. to double back and do some more chasing.
It’s like Anna, Olaf, Kristoff, and Sven do everything they can to show the writers who they should be writing about. Their sleigh whips trails of snow dust as they flail around screaming, “Hey, dummies, you’re barking up the wrong tree!”
Admittedly, all this waiting and chasing gives Anna a lot of screen time. And she sings a lot of songs on the way. But none of it compels the audience. Quite simply: Disney hauled out the wrong magic carpet. Nothing that happens throughout the film sparks emotional change in Anna. Initially, we connected to her because she was more adventurous and audacious than anyone else. She remains that way throughout the film. It’s like earthquakes happen all around Anna. She witnesses them. She barges bravely through them, but the earthquakes do not change her. Her adventurous bravery is unfailingly admirable. Why should she change? She’s already totally awesome!
Okay but, you say, Anna has other problems. She’s a.) bored, b.) lonely, c.) desperate to get married, and d.) a little (a lot) naive. Sure, but those other problems are pretty boring compared to Elsa’s! For starters, Elsa possesses amazing yet terrible powers. She can manifest and manipulate ice and snow. She can create as well as destroy (which, in my book, qualifies her as a goddess). However, Elsa does not know how to control her powers. She scares herself half to death! She is locked inside her room to train every day. Inside that room is where the emotionally meaningful events take place. Inside that room, Elsa strives to master her powers. She tries and fails. Tries and almost succeeds. Tries and fails again.
If she can’t harness her abilities, then she’ll lose control of her entire kingdom. Worse, she’ll remain lost to her sister (and last living relative) FOREVER!
As a result, Elsa is the one doing all the…well, doing! She acts. Chooses. Goes. And like a true protagonist/main character/heroine, she sings “Let it Go,” the emotionally powerful and resonant linchpin song of the whole musical story.
But this is why Disney had a huge hit, despite making a huge blunder. We (the audience so eager to go for a ride) cling to the Anna-rug only because it is forever on the heals of the Elsa-carpet. We stay aboard because we see glimpses of terrific story transpiring. And children, those masters of play and story participation, shower Elsa with all the praise and admiration she deserves!
The one four-year-old interviewed for the WSJ article boils it down elegantly: “Elsa has powers and she’s pretty.”
We can easily ignore the mention of Elsa’s good looks. Frozen is a Disney film. It goes without saying that their newest princess, like all the princesses who precede her, is pretty. I do not expect Disney to play the part of daring pioneer making a fearless foray into the realm of ugly-yet-inspiring female protagonists. Pretty princesses are part and parcel of their fairy tale formula. Thus, her looks are not more or less likely to make her more or less popular than other pretty princess.
What’s more telling to me is that the four-year-old picked up on and mentioned Elsa’s powers first. This kid, along with millions of others, knows that with great power comes great responsibility. And with that comes great story.
So go back to your story. If you’re main character is sitting around waiting for something, odds are very good you’ve pegged the wrong protag. Alternately, check to see whether your supposed hero/heroine is chasing earthquakes or causing them!