Article by Justinian Oberon Wright
Five years ago, I saw Disney’s Frozen in the theater, and I enjoyed most of it. Part way through the movie, however, there was a plot twist I disliked immensely, for I found myself unable to believe the story I was being told. The twist had failed to seem real.
There are two reasons why this twist failed to seem real. The first is subjective. I thoroughly dislike this twist is because I do not like the concept. That could be chalked up to a matter of personal taste. But, second, I do not just find it subjectively bad, I also think it objectively bad. As I inspect this twist, I find it to be a shoddy piece of craftsmanship, poorly stitched on to the rest of the story.
Allow me to explain.
Early in the movie our heroine, Princess Anna, meets a chap named Hans. After an awkward first meeting, the two of them hit it off. They sing a cute song about love and Hans asks for Anna’s hand in marriage. This ends up with Anna’s sister, Queen Elsa, who has ice magic, freezing the fjords in an everlasting winter and running into the mountains. Anna, of course, goes into the mountains after her sister and leaves Hans in charge back at the castle.
Later, when Anna’s horse comes back without her, Hans himself takes a group of volunteers up into the mountains to look for Anna and the queen. He does find the queen and saves her from some assassins who had snuck into his group. Hans bring Elsa back from the mountains and puts her in the dungeon because she is kind of dangerous. (I think. The movie never really says why the queen is in the dungeon.)
A bit later still, Anna comes back from the mountains. She is dying because her sister the queen accidentally froze her heart. The only way to thaw a frozen heart is through an act of true love, such as true love’s kiss. At this moment, Hans reveals that he, in fact, does not love Anna and was only using her to get to the throne. Now that Anna is about to die, he will simply kill Elsa, too, bring back summer, and rule as king.
You may be looking at this summary and thinking to yourself “That twist did not sound half as bad as you made it out to be. In fact, it was not that bad at all.” If you are thinking this, please wait a short spell.
Animation is founded on twelve principles discovered by Walt Disney and the early Disney animators. The second of this twelve principles is called Anticipation. Anticipation states that every action has to have a buildup. In real life, an action is not going to happen with no pre-action (Example: A pitcher is not going to throw a pitch without first winding up.)
Similarly, if, in animation, however zany, the action has some sort of buildup, it both looks realistic to our eye and makes sense to our minds, even if it is an action that could not happen in real life. If one is going to show a character hitting a ball with a golf club, you must first show him winding up his swing. If a character is going to swing a sledge hammer, you must first show him raising the implement high over his head. That way, when he brings the sledgehammer down, it makes sense to our eye. If a dragon is going to breathe fire, he has to be shown breathing in or pulling back his head before he does so, so that it looks real, even if no such action has ever happened in real life. If you show the action without the anticipation, the audience will find it strange and confusing.
Anticipation applies to story-telling as well. If you are going to have a twist, the events of the plot beforehand should set it up, so that when the twist comes it makes sense. This can be foreshadowing but it does not have to be. If, for example, you are going to have Little Buttercup reveal that Captain Corcoran and Ralph Rackstraw were switched at birth, you must first show that Little Buttercup knows something about the Captain and Ralph. If you are going to have a pistol fired in Act Three, you must first have it hanging on the wall in Act One.
Now, we turn back to Frozen. The main problem with the twist in Frozen is that it has no Anticipation. Nothing Hans does before the twist sets the twist up. In fact, the opposite is true.
Knowing Hans’ true intentions, why didn’t he let the queen die? She was about to be shot with a crossbow, and Hans ran across the room and shoved the weapon upwards, so that the bolt would not hit her. Why did he do that? All he needed to do was nothing. He had the perfect alibi: he was just a second too slow to save her.
Maybe he thought she could bring back summer, and only wanted her dead after he found out she could not. But nothing in the movie says that. And why would he want to keep her alive in the first place? If the queen had died in the assassination attempt, then Anna would have been next in line. If Anna came back from the mountains and Hans married her, he would have become king. If she did not come back, then he was still in charge.
So why did Hans act?
Compare this twist with a similar one from the movie Wreck-it Ralph three years earlier. Merely knowing that there is a twist may be enough to spoil it, however, I shall still attempt to keep details, and thereby spoilers, to a minimum.
In Wreck-it Ralph, there is also a twist where a character who seemed like a nice guy turns out to be evil. But there is one important difference between the two movies. Wreck-it Ralph followed the principle of Anticipation. The actions of the character who turns out to be evil in Wreck-it Ralph, while not seeming evil, are congruous with whom he turns out to be. Things that seemed innocent at first made sense as the actions of a villain once the audience knew the truth.
This is not true of Hans, as we just showed above. More importantly, Wreck-it Ralph took time to set it up so, when the twist came, it seemed real. Frozen did not put in this effort so, when the twist came, it seemed false.
So in the end, the problem with Frozen’s twist is simple: It was not consistent, and it was not set up, because, I think, it was not part of the story. It was an addition, not an implication. It’s an engraftment on to the story, not a result from it.
Hans being evil is not necessary for that tale the writers wanted to tell and did not follow from the logic of their story. Reports from Disney studio are that they changed their mind about Hans’s character half way through the movie.
They did not plan for Hans to be the bad guy, and when they decide that Hans ought to be the bad guy, they simply threw it in without re-planning their movie. They forgot to plot their plot twist.
If this is the case, I am puzzled why the writers of Frozen wanted Hans to be the villain, for as best I can tell, they already had someone who would make the perfect villain… Elsa. However, this is not the article for that. I shall discuss the use and misuse of Elsa another time.
For now, I must bid you all adieu. Until next time.
Justinian Oberon Wright, the Elf King, is living in disguise among the Wright family.