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Immersed in Movies: Pretty Females vs. the Bold Feminism of 'Frozen'

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood November 1, 2013 at 2:12PM

Now that the "Frozen" "pretty female" controversy has thawed, let's take a look at how Disney shatters the fairy tale model with two strong female heroines.

At its first presentation at Siggraph,  Disney's "Frozen" started to gain some positive buzz as the animation Oscar frontrunner. But then came a viral media storm last month about gender portrayals in animation that yielded some provocative debate in the community about the Disney/Pixar animation boys club's predisposition toward pretty females.  

However, now we can focus on what really matters: "Frozen" offers Disney's most progressive feminist approach to the princess fairy tale to date. How else would you characterize the post-modern refashioning of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen" as a conflict between two sisters based on love vs. fear? The result is a lot bolder than perpetuating traditional romantic love, bolstered by the presence of Disney Animation's first female director -- Jennifer Lee (the co-screenwriter of "Wreck-It Ralph") -- who helmed with animation vet Chris Buck ("Surf's Up," "Tarzan"). But then it was Buck's idea to end with a radical departure that they worked very hard to earn.

So naturally if you have two princesses that closely resemble each other -- the free-spirited Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) and the repressed Elsa (voiced by Idini Menzel) -- you're going to have a few animation challenges in distinguishing their individual expressions.

That's what Disney animation head Lino DiSalvo was trying to point out in the roundtable that started the firestorm. Yes, in retrospect, he shouldn't have said that animating female characters is historically difficult because of their range of emotions. His big mistake, pointed out by Brenda Chapman (Pixar's first woman director, who won the Oscar with her replacement on "Brave," Mark Andrews), was saying "pretty" instead of "appealing" in describing the siblings.

Overall, though, the performances of Anna and Elsa are more nuanced and emotionally complex than ever before in the Disney canon, leveraging what Glen Keane and the animators accomplished on "Tangled" by adding more hand-drawn warmth and expressiveness to CG. But the rigs are superior on "Frozen" along with better skin, eyes, and lighting. The girls look more authentic yet still caricatured in the big-eyed Keane mold that dates back to Ariel from "The Little Mermaid."

However, according to DiSalvo, there's a "cohesiveness and continuity," thanks to a new "truth in acting" approach that he's instituted. He brought in acting coach Warner Loughlin very early on to help them discover emotional details of every character, conducting exercises in technique, singing, and especially breathing, given the importance of the frozen environment.

DiSalvo says they accentuated acting more than on previous films, and dailies were strictly about evaluating performance. "Do you buy what the characters are thinking? How does it look in continuity? Let's go back -- it looks too big and too broad. Keep pulling it back."

Also, because we briefly glimpse Anna and Elsa as kids, we know the source of their conflict and why they're at cross-purposes.

This article is related to: Frozen, Disney , Immersed In Movies, Women in Film, Animation, Thompson on Hollywood, Awards, Awards, Oscars

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.