Friday, 19 June 2015

Wickedly Frozen: The Witches Are Doing It For Themselves

Ever notice how the musical Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz and the Disney pop cultural juggernaut Frozen are kinda the same story? Well, not the exactly the same story but both hit a lot of the same narrative beats and touch on the same themes.

Because everyone knows Frozen, right? How could you not? It was absolutely everywhere at the beginning of last year, an unstoppable phenomenon which comes along once a generation. A film which resonated with the cultural zeitgeist, making its presence felt throughout the popular consciousness.

Don't forget the merchandise, oh god, the merchandise.

Perhaps part of Frozen's success can be attributed to the fact it is a tale of two sisters as the central protagonists, a rarity in Western popular storytelling. This seemed to strike a nerve by identifying a story which society wanted told but wasn't getting.

To be fair, in the light of Frozen's success, people seem to have forgotten that Lilo & Stitch was actually the first Disney movie to prominently feature two sisters as the central protagonists and have the story revolve around their relationship.

Additionally, Lilo & Stitch, while being mostly remembered for having a blue alien in it, featured a rather unique sister-sister dynamic for an animate Disney movie since this is a story about an older sister raising a younger sister after their parents die. It actually dealt with the hardships of parenthood and the frustration of being a substitute parental figure in a meaningful way which gave real gravitas to the sisters' relationship.

"Does it still count as sibling rivalry if I'm now your parental figure?"

Not trying to derail my own argument about Frozen and sisters but Lilo & Stitch is a rather overlooked movie, especially considering that at the time it also had quite the run of success, with merchandise galore, a spin-off TV show and sequel movie. Also I dislike it when people say this movie was the first to do this or say this without doing their research.

Also, Frozen wasn't the first Disney movie to make fun of love at first sight (Enchanted for one did that a lot and was kinda the main point of that movie). This is not to take away from Frozen, which is a great film, but to give credit where credit is due and deflate some of the more hyperbolic claims surrounding the film.

"Can you believe some people think we're the first Disney film to show magic?"

Another thing which played a massive part in Frozen's ridonculous commercial and critical success is its fantastic soundtrack with possibly the best set of songs in a Disney movie since the peak of the Disney Renaissance in the 1990s.

Probably even more critical to that success is that these are definitely the most memorable batch of songs Disney have put out since perhaps Hercules, or maybe even Lion King. While Tangled had some decent songs, none of them really resonated the same way those from Frozen did.

I'm talking about songs like "Do You Wanna Build a Snowman?", "For the First Time in Forever", and of course, the colossal mega supernova hit, "Let It Go", which spawned more covers and drove more parents insane than was previously thought statistically possible.

"Awww... you're trying to get this song out of your head. That's adorable"

And "Let It Go" really is the centre piece to Frozen, the song which transformed the film and really captured the zeitgeist leading to the film's massive success. Prior to "Let It Go', Elsa was supposed to be the villain of the film but the song was so uplifting and empowering that it couldn't be a villain song.

But instead of ditching the song, they changed the script to accommodate it, rewriting Elsa's character from a literal ice queen to a young woman struggling to gain her own agency and self-acceptance due to her emotional repressed state from the (near abusive) conditioning from her parents to hide her feelings.

She is legit afraid of her wondrous and miraculous ice powers because of the emotional repression her parents enforced on her.

Before I get into the similarities between Frozen and Wicked, I'd like to talk about Prince Hans for a bit. Since there is a real issue with Hans' completely out of fuckwhere betrayal in the final third of the film when he is revealed to be the villain.

Since there is no indication in the first two acts of the film that Hans is anything less than a nice guy, perhaps not the guy who Anna will get with in the end but definitely not sinister. And then BAM! in the final act, he's bad and apparently had an evil ulterior motive to gain the throne the whole time.

Now, I could completely accept the sudden bad guy reveal for Hans if it wasn't for one moment in the very first scene he's in. If the last 3 second of this scene were cut, while the reveal would still have been a bit out of nowhere, I could have accepted it. But it wasn't and I can't.

This moment. This one right here.

The moment is after Hans and Anna meet, Hans falls into the harbour with the boat capsizing and then lifts it to look at Anna dashing off to the palace and smiles. Who is he smiling for? If he was supposed to be the villain from the beginning of the story, he would have smiled for Anna to keep up the pretense, but she has already run off, so she can't see the smile.

So the smile is solely for himself, which means it is really for the audience. However, it isn't a smirk to indicate something sinister or that he isn't being completely honest. It is a genuine and warm smile. A smile someone would make when they've just seen someone or something they like.

Therefore, this is either a storytelling trick to emotionally mislead the audience by a false cue, or it was a hangover from an earlier draft of the film before Hans was the villain. Either way, it is manipulative storytelling and ruins the ultimate 'bad guy Hans' reveal. Since the sincerity of that smile undercuts the revelation he was supposed to be always bad since he would never have smiled like that in that situation if he was evil.

Yes, that's more like it, but could you be more overtly evil?

Back to "Let It Go". The song completely changed the nature of the story since it gave Elsa's character a completely different character arc than originally conceived leading to a focus on the relationship between two sisters. As Frozen's Art Director, Michael Giaimo, said in an interview:
It changed her into someone that was being driven by fear, ruled by fear and Anna was ruled by her own love of other people and her own drive and then that gave us the foundation so much, that song changed so much that Jennifer Lee (Screenplay by) had to go back and rewrite the first act and then that rippled through the entire movie. So that was when we really found the movie and who these characters were.

The song also makes the most striking or overt link to Wicked since it acts as a big self-empowering YOLO song. A big diva belter which marks the end of Act 1 and sets up the rest of the story, much like Wicked's own "Defying Gravity".

No strings, she's levitating solely on that last high note.

Wicked is based on Gregory Maguire's novel, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, and is obviously based in the world of Oz from the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz which itself based on the novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Barum.

As an alternative retelling of The Wizard of Oz, Wicked explores the relationship between the Wicked Witch of the West, Elphaba, and the Good Witch formerly known as Galinda, Glinda, through school, revolution, and rivalry over the same love interest. So like Frozen (or possibly inspiring Frozen), it focuses on the relationship between two women, although they aren't sisters but friends in this case.

Both also feature a young woman who is different and has a talent she is shamed into hiding but then learns to accept and strikes out on her own, gaining her own agency. Subsequently, there is a lot of lyrical crossover between "Let It Go" and "Defying Gravity".

No? Really?

For example, here are a couple of lines from one of the songs:
I'm through accepting limits
'Cause someone says they're so
Some things I cannot change
But till I try, I'll never know!
And here are some lines from the other song:
It's time to see what I can do,
To test the limits and break through.
No right, no wrong, no rules for me.
I'm free!
Can you even tell which lines came from "Let It Go" and which came from "Defying Gravity"? Seriously, can you? I doubt it, at least not at first glance. 

For the record, the first couple of lines are from "Defying Gravity" but without looking them up, if I told you it was the other way around, would anyone know it was wrong?

"You would never know!"

Another thing that cements the whole Frozen is a Scandinavianish version of the self-empowered Wicked witch story is the fact that both Elphaba and Elsa are played by Idina Menzel. Providing her impressive voice to both characters creates an aesthetic link between the characters and their respective Fuck It, I'm Me and I'm Free songs.

I guess I just noticed that these two stories and songs had a lot in common despite not being stories that are told in Western culture all that often. Also, after watching both Frozen and then Wicked, it really seemed like Elphaba is a proto-Elsa, inspiring much of the narrative beats in her character arc.

Plus, I wanted to talk about princesses, queens, sisterly relationships, and witches this week, so this was a nice in and I got to listen to a couple of great soundtracks during the process, so I'm good. Maybe I'll go back to superheroes or gush about Mad Max: Fury Road next week. 

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