(To make my point, I’m going to explain the first fifteen minutes of Disney’s Frozen. If this would spoil you, do not read ahead.)
Disney’s most recent animated movie, Frozen, revolves around two sisters, Elsa and Anna, princesses of a northern kingdom. Elsa, the older sister, has the magical power to wield ice and snow. However, this power is difficult for her to control.
The movie starts with young Elsa and Anna sneaking out of bed to play in Elsa’s magical indoor snow. However, Elsa accidentally hits Anna in the head with a jolt of her power, which puts her in a magical coma. The trolls on the mountain are able to heal Anna, but they do so at the price of her memories of Elsa’s magic and warn the girls’ parents that if Anna learns of Elsa’s magic again, it may cause a relapse.
Naturally, this means that neither girl is allowed to leave the castle (Elsa because nobody can know about her powers and Anna because… reasons), and a gap grows between the sisters. To keep her powers secret, Elsa must avoid Anna without telling her why. Anna, a natural social butterfly, resents the enforced isolation and is angry that her one playmate refuses to spend time with her.
I liked a lot of things about Frozen, but this part of the movie didn’t work for me.
Part of it was because I didn’t feel like Elsa actually wanted to hang out with Anna, powers or not. Sure, we see Elsa being all angsty and everything, but it seems to be more about OMG having powers bites and not OMG I wish I could be there for my kid sister. It would have been nice to see Elsa do some things that showed us she really cared about Anna as much as we got told she did.
Off the top of my head, maybe Elsa wrote her letters pretending to be a faraway prince so she’d have someone to talk to (and then that could tie in to what happens later in the film). Too complicated? Maybe Elsa secretly gets the castle staff to make Anna’s favourites for lunch or asks for her own dresses in colours she knows Anna likes so that when Anna gets one of the same cloth, she’ll be happy. Easy. Done.
But mostly, the whole keeping-Anna-in-the-dark thing didn’t work for me because it felt like a totally unnecessary machination for a plot point that could have come about organically.
I’ve written before about how prophecy-driven plots don’t move me, and Frozen‘s “must-keep-magic-a-secret” plotline felt similarly artificial. I felt like the trolls’ proclamation that Anna must not learn about her sister’s ice powers was crammed in there entirely so the big revelation at Elsa’s coronation could have more impact — i.e., for the storyteller’s reasons, not the characters’. I was particularly disappointed when Anna, in fact, learned of Elsa’s powers… and nothing drastic happened. She didn’t fall in a coma again. She didn’t collapse in agony. There were no consequences. The whole keep-it-secret thing was a waste.
To me, Frozen would have been a lot more engaging if the production team had done one of two things.
Either they could have let us see the revelation of Elsa’s powers entirely from Anna’s point of view, or they could have drawn more powerful drama from Anna knowing about the powers all along.
In the first case, the skewed logic of the girls’ parents’ reaction to Anna’s accident would pass the viewer by, because we’d get to feel Anna’s own outrage and slowly dawning realization. We’d get a more powerful catharsis with Elsa, too — up until a third of the way through the movie, we, like Anna, would think she’s inexplicably grown up into a total jerk, and then in one blasting twist (and awesome power ballad), we’d see that we were wrong.
But, Sarah (you might protest), wouldn’t we then lose the scene at the beginning, the one of the two girls playing inside and creating the snowman that then becomes a character? Aha — we wouldn’t have to. We could start with a similarly fun scene of the two girls playing outside in regular snow… and as Anna learned more and began to remember, we could see her memories of that scene slowly change until she remembered the truth.
Okay, okay: I like mysteries, and this first set-up appeals to that part of my taste.
I can also see why it might not work: from the trailer/title/etc., audiences might already know that Elsa has magical snow powers. For that reason, they might not be able to fully assume Anna’s POV (although never underestimate how pleased it makes an audience to be one step ahead of the main character).
That’s why I prefer my second suggestion.
What if there was none of this “secret” nonsense, and Anna knew about Elsa’s powers the whole time? What if she knew that Elsa wasn’t allowed to use her powers around others, especially Anna? What if she still wanted Elsa to come out and play because she had the confidence in Elsa that Elsa herself lacked?
To me, that makes a much more intriguing plot with a more exciting relationship between the two sisters. It makes the conflict one of actual, grounded emotion instead of mistaken beliefs. Elsa believes that she is a danger to the younger sister she loves, and that the best way to protect that sister is to stay away from her. Anna believes her sister’s love can be stronger than any accidental ice-power manifestations; she believes that if Elsa really cared about her, she’d trust that love to keep Anna safe.
All the songs still work; all the plot still works. The change just Occam’s-Razors away the unnecessary magical convolutions that don’t really add anything.
And I think it’s more faithful to the nature of True Love as depicted in the movie: love trusts us even when sometimes we don’t trust ourselves, and caring more about someone else than about oneself can mean seeing the love in them that they don’t trust. Also: love doesn’t necessarily mean we agree about everything. Love just means that sometimes, the other person is more important than our disagreement.
Obviously, I am not a Disney employee, nor have I ever even dreamed about working for Disney. I don’t have the experience or skill under my belt to dream of making a movie so full of awe, beauty, and humour. This is my opinion, based on my reaction to the movie.
In the end, all I can conclude is that I, personally, find stories stronger when there’s underlying psychological conflict rather than conflict caused by an external force. I want the main problems — or some aspect of those problems — to come from the characters themselves.