It has been almost two years since Disney’s “Frozen” was released in theaters, and the movie’s title song, “Let It Go” is still blaring through the speakers found on children’s toys, looping non-stop on radio stations, and even playing on full blast at the gym. We may simply dismiss the film’s success as being part of Disney’s monopoly over the movie industry. Yet, this movie rivaled the ticket sales of such box office hits as “Up,” “The Incredibles,” and “The Lion King,” grossing in at approximately $400 million, whereas the other previously mentioned films, when averaged, made about $250 million. Even more shocking is the fact that Disney princess classics, such as “Beauty and the Beast” only obtained about $145 million in sales. So what makes “Frozen” and its musical hit so much more prosperous than the film’s other Disney princess predecessors?
One seemingly obvious factor is the difference in feminist depictions between Anna and Elsa and earlier princesses, such as Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella. The latter three princesses have been categorized as “Voiceless Beauties,” according to one scholar. It makes sense that because the films wrapped around these princesses were released in the 1950s or earlier (during which women were expected to act as the primary caretakers while their husbands were off at work), the leading ladies were depicted as subservient to their princes, completing such domestic tasks as cooking and cleaning. Since social roles have shifted (as marriage has not become as common of an occurrence in recent decades and females are now expected to enter the workplace just as much as men are), the Disney princess has also adapted to fit these trends. An example of this shift may be seen through the character of Merida from “Brave,” as she not only refuses to follow in the traditional footsteps of her mother and marry, but, she also engages in strength building tasks, such as archery, which would have been looked at as solely a man’s activity in the past. So where do Anna and Elsa fit into the mix? The two “Frozen” princesses almost seem to strike a happy medium between the helplessness exhibited by the classic Disney princesses and the borderline masculinity/tomboy personas displayed by the modern renditions of Disney princesses, such as Merida and Mulan. Anna’s hope to fall in love, as expressed at the beginning of the movie, is not uncommon for girls her age. Yet, her romantic desire doesn’t stop her from completing other activities in the meantime, such as mountain climbing with friends and building her relationship with her sister. Elsa seems to need to figure herself out before establishing connections with others, as indicated by her choice to run away to avoid acting as a potential danger to her sister and the other citizens of Arendelle, as well as escape her own persecution.
Elsa’s introspective nature brings us to our next point that “Frozen” may have topped the box office sellout charts due to its emphasis on realism. There has been a history of perfection when it comes to portrayals of Disney princesses, even in the modern Disney realm. For instance, even though Belle from “Beauty and the Beast” is supposed to be considered ‘odd’ like her father, she is still “the most beautiful girl in town,” according to Gaston. Anna, Elsa, and the situations that they are presented with imply that they, and their decision-making abilities, are far from flawless. This error-prone identity makes audience members more able to relate to Anna and Elsa’s shortcomings. As discussed previously, Elsa chooses to flee from Arendelle when forced to confront large masses of enraged people, a behavior that is common for people of all ages and genders, whether they have to put in a notice that they are quitting their jobs, defending an unpopular viewpoint in a classroom or jury of people, etc. She also fails to solve her own problem of ending the eternal winter that she set off right away, showing that she must endure a growth process before achieving any success. This is especially relevant to little kids watching the movie, as they know that in most situations, they will be scolded for disobeying their parents and rewarded for positive behavior. Whereas Elsa’s flaws are seen as a result of one mistake she made during the entire course of the movie (of running away), Anna and Kristoff expose small traces of personality quirks at random moments during the film. Kristoff is friends with trolls, and sings to himself using the voice of a reindeer, moving audience members to empathize with his strange hobbies and closet talents. Anna makes embarrassing slip-ups when flirting with Hans, which is something that a lot of people do when they are nervous talking to someone they are attracted to.
Now, the moment we’ve all been waiting for: the musical analysis of “Let It Go.” Elsa’s main musical number involves the spilling of her emotions and simultaneous rebellion against societal expectations. Contrarily, Snow White sings about the possibility of finding her true love, whilst Cinderella and Aurora from “Sleeping Beauty” sing about dreams, insinuated by the song titles,”A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes,” and “Once Upon a Dream.” This is not to say that dreams and love do not exist, but, rather that people in real life are more prone to venting their frustrations at the moment (which Elsa does positively and creatively by constructing an ice palace and giving herself a new look) instead of waiting for what may come about in twenty years, once again conveying a sense of relatable realism. Upon deeper investigation of the lyrics of these songs, it may be noticed that “Let It Go” is comprised of singing throughout the entirety of the piece with one brief instrumental interlude before Elsa reaches the B section (the rest of the song up to this point is, arguably, considered the A section because of its repeats and variations on the same vocal melody) starting with the line, “My power flurries through the air into the ground.” Conversely, the transition sections from the beginning to the end of the earlier princess solos, such as “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” and “Once Upon A Dream” consist of spoken dialogue between the princesses and the animals and the humming or randomization of syllables, such as “La-da-dee.” Psychologically, people are more likely to remember the melodies to songs if they have lyrics to reference over random syllables, which could be one reason that “Let It Go” has caught on more with audiences than these other Disney princess solos have. Furthermore, if we listen to the harmonies (or anything heard beneath the vocal line, which in these cases would be the orchestral part in the classic princess songs and the bass line heard in “Let It Go”), it is observable that the orchestra heard in the earlier songs acts as an accompaniment, bearing almost equal weight to the vocal line, with its shift between sustained (or held) tones and faster waltz-like rhythms. This active instrumental part makes earlier princess songs similar in structure to art songs (or solo vocal and piano pieces) of the Romantic era. “Let It Go” is set up more like a pop song with its repetitions of the same chords which constitute the bass line, its variety of instruments (as the piece fuses a piano and strings with an electric guitar and a marimba…not necessarily the classes of instruments you would normally throw together in stricter genres, such as that of the symphony), and its upbeat tempo. This fast-paced quality of “Let It Go” makes it easier to listen to and move around to than slower, more ponderous pieces of music, reaffirming the song’s success in comparison to songs from “Cinderella,” “Snow White,” or “Sleeping Beauty.”
Feel free to respond to any or all of these questions: Do you think that there are any other factors which have contributed to “Frozen’s” success than those that are mentioned above? Has “Frozen” set a healthy precedent for the way that women are depicted in Disney princess films? Do you believe that “Let It Go” will maintain as much of a legacy as “Someday My Prince Will Come” has over the years, or is this song just a trend that will fade out by the end of the decade? Which musical differences do you hear in “Let It Go” and “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes,” seen below?
Scroll to the VERY, VERY bottom of the page (past the Works Cited, until you can’t scroll anymore) or go to the “Thoughts on Why Can’t Fans Seem to Let Go…” section to leave your comments. Check out the “Help! What Do I Write About?” tab if you have questions about what to discuss musically, or even if you have writer’s block!
Gomez, Jeff. “Why “‘Frozen”‘ Became The Biggest Animated Movie Of All Time.” BusinessInsider. Entertainment, 1 April 2014. Web. 7 July 2015.
Kri306. “A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes (English).” YouTube. YouTube, 17 February 2008. Web. 9 July 2015.
Paul, Annie Murphy. “Why We Remember Song Lyrics So Well.” Psychology Today 21 June 2012. Web. 7 July 2015.
Stover, Cassandra. “Damsels and Heroines: The Conundrum of the Post-Feminist Disney Princess.” Lux: A Journal of Transdisciplinary Writing and Research from Claremont Graduate University 2.1 (2013): 1-11. Web. 7 July 2015.
WaltDisneyAnimationStudios. “Disney’s Frozen “‘Let It Go”‘ Sequence Performed By Idina Menzel.” YouTube. YouTube, 6 December 2013. Web. 7 July 2015.