frozen 2 early buzz

(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: why do modern Disney movie villains stink?)

Early in the new Walt Disney Animation Studios film Frozen II, our main quintet of characters plays a friendly game of charades. Queen Elsa of Arendelle, her goofy sister Princess Anna, their living-snowman pal Olaf, the ice-salesman himbo Kristoff and his reindeer Sven are just relaxing in the castle, with Anna trying to get the others to guess a challenging clue. Though they’re able to narrow it down based on her gestures to the long-gone Prince Hans of the Southern Isles, they don’t get the actual clue: “villain”. 

That charade is a fitting word to see the characters struggle to guess, as it exemplifies a fascinating creative direction for Disney Animation over the past decade. Though many of the studio’s films have become bigger and bigger hits, they’ve become less defined by their antagonists, for both good and ill.

If Only There Was Someone Out There Who Loved You

Frozen, the 2013 film/worldwide phenom, was loosely inspired by the fairy tale The Snow Queen; had it been truly a strict adaptation, Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel) wouldn’t have been the frustrated heroine, but the story’s calculating villainess. Disney’s animators and writers shifted throughout the development process. In the end, the villainy of the eponymous snow queen was backgrounded, though other people in Arendelle might have initially perceived Elsa to be a bad guy for freezing their land in perpetual winter. Elsa is undoubtedly a more fascinating protagonist with her own internal struggles. However, the way the original film resolves, with a third-act surprise that Prince Hans isn’t really a kindly love interest for Anna (Kristen Bell), but out for his own nefarious power grab of Arendelle, is abrupt and weirdly unnecessary. Frozen would almost be better off without a villain.

That last thought must have permeated the minds of writer and co-director Jennifer Lee and her fellow director Chris Buck in making Frozen II, because the new film is indeed basically lacking a villain. It’s not that the film lacks conflict, but there is no distinct antagonist in the story, at least none living in the present. Elsa is driven to journey north of her country to locate the source of a mysterious voice that only she can hear. Anna, unbowed from her last adventure, refuses to separate from her sister again so she and the other friends join Elsa on a trip to an enchanted forest up north. Eventually, though they encounter two groups who have been trapped in that forest for decades, Elsa and Anna learn that the real antagonist (if there even is one) is their long-dead grandfather.

Through glimpses of old memories and flashbacks, we learn that the previous king of Arendelle arranged for a meeting between his troops and the Northuldra people living in the forest, in commune with its magical forces. Though the get-together is intended to be peaceful, the king is actually attempting to wipe out the Northuldra because of his latent fear towards them and the magic of the natural world. The ensuing battle left the forest shrouded in an impenetrable fog, and the forces of air, water, earth, and fire adrift and frustrated. Though those elemental forces initially seem to be causing trouble for Elsa and the others, the real problem is their past.

Open Up The Gates

While there is conflict in Frozen II, it’s not visualized in a standard fashion. And that’s been a fairly consistent choice throughout most of the last decade of Disney Animation titles, as well as some Pixar titles, too. For a very long time, a Disney animated film was arguably only as good as its villain. The Disney Renaissance of the late 1980s and 1990s was typified as much by its throwback-style fairy-tale adaptations as it was by memorable songs and equally memorable bad guys. How successful a film would Beauty and the Beast be if Gaston, the handsome but cruel and evil hunter, wasn’t the villain? Would we remember the heartbreak of Simba losing his father in The Lion King as much if the killing blow wasn’t delivered by the slimy and odious Scar?

And much further back than the Renaissance, we can look to villains such as the evil Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty, Captain Hook in Peter Pan and others as iconic examples of the antagonist in modern cinematic storytelling. Even lesser Disney animated films, such as Robin Hood and The Rescuers, are easily defined by their hissable bad guys. Villains are in the DNA of Walt Disney Animation Studios, which makes the recent transition away from standard-issue bad guys both a bit baffling and troubling. 

We can look partly to the influence of Pixar Animation Studios to clarify and define this shift, though. Think of the many wonderful films released by Pixar, some a good deal better than those released by Disney Animation. Films such as Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, Inside Out, and Up are defined by their original concepts, their emotional character arcs, and their humor. But they’re not known for strong or memorable antagonists. Or, more often than not, their protagonists serve as internal antagonists of a sort.

Who, for example, is the bad guy of Finding Nemo? Is it the lunkhead dentist who takes Nemo to his office, not knowing about the whole watery world he’s rent asunder, or is it the neurotic and stubborn clownfish Marlin, who has to become a better fish to find his son? The villain of Inside Out isn’t easy to quantify, either, since Joy is our heroine even as she stubbornly refuses to accept that her place can be expanded in the mind of the little girl in which she resides. Ratatouille has a seemingly obvious villain in the slimy Chef Skinner, but our heroic rat Remy’s own stubbornness gets in the way as much as the chef does. Those internal struggles are now being more reflected in Disney Animation, too.

I’m Bad, And That’s Good

Last November, the studio released Ralph Breaks the Internet, the sequel to the 2012 film Wreck-It Ralph. The original film doesn’t just have a standard-issue villain; its main character literally occupies the role of video-game villain. (It’s worth noting, however, that the real bad guy of the film is only revealed, a la Prince Hans, in the final half.) Whatever issues this writer has with the Ed Wynn-like King Candy in Wreck-It Ralph, that character is a much more distinctive villain than the one of Ralph Breaks the Internet: Ralph himself. In a character arc that takes longer to unfold than it does to predict, Ralph (John C. Reilly) realizes that his friendship with Vanellope Von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) is too lopsided, and he has to let her pursue her own dreams. It’s a realization he only fully grasps after fending off a virus that appears in the form of a giant…Ralph, visualizing that internal struggle fully and doubling down on the notion of Ralph being so terrifying to other video-game characters in the original film.

Other recent Disney Animation films, either by the nature of their story (such as in the underrated 2011 film Winnie the Pooh) or because they indulge in the “surprise!”-style villain reveal, haven’t had notable antagonists. Even the mostly wonderful 2016 films Zootopia and Moana are driven far more by their buddy-comedy-style main relationships than by outside opposing forces. Moana’s fiery climax is recalled somewhat by the finale of Frozen II, in which a heroine faces off against the natural world to withstand its fury, eventually coming to a sort of cathartic release such that those natural elements unite instead of destroying the land and its denizens.

This creative decision has not, by itself, hemmed in the films made by Disney and Pixar. Again, both Zootopia and Moana are exciting, gorgeously animated, funny, and emotional films that manage to feel largely of a piece with previous Disney films and distinct on their own. And whatever the case is regarding the two Frozen films, the original did not suffer at the box office or with audiences after the fact for not having a bad guy (and Frozen II will likely make an even bigger financial killing).

For the First Time in Forever

Yet the limitations of this style of storytelling, of the buddy comedy mixed with internal struggles, has its own shelf life in the same way that Pixar once perceived that Disney’s Renaissance-style films did. (John Lasseter and his crew very actively avoided making Toy Story into the kind of film where characters burst into songs. And while that 1995 film is arguably one of the greatest animated films of all time, it’s helped slightly by the terrifying but recognizable neighborhood bully Sid being an antagonistic force.) There’s something to be said for the value of giving a likable, well-written, and multidimensional protagonist being given an equally well-written and scary antagonist to play off of. 

It wasn’t so long ago that Disney was still willing to have some obvious villains in its films. In 2009 and 2010, the studio did release a couple more direct throwbacks to the era of fairy-tale storytelling with The Princess and the Frog and Tangled, each based on an iconic fable and each boasting a memorable bad guy. The former film features Dr. Facilier (voiced by Keith David), a smooth-talking voodoo practitioner whose resentment for wealthy white culture in New Orleans of the 1920s leads to him trying to take over the city by manipulating visiting royalty. And in Tangled, Rapunzel learns only too late that her overseer Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy) is really a haggard witch who kidnapped the girl and uses the magical powers inherent in Rapunzel’s long hair to keep herself looking young and beautiful.

Neither The Princess and the Frog nor Tangled were perceived of as being massive hits, unfortunately. The 2009 film, as wonderful as it is, ran up against Avatar at the box office and couldn’t hope to stand out. And Tangled, despite making more money both domestically and internationally than Wreck-It Ralph, has somehow not stood the test of time to receive a sequel. (It does have a follow-up TV series airing on the Disney Channel.) And so, since Tangled, none of the films from Walt Disney Animation Studios have had memorable, old-school villains.

They are much in want of one. Next November, Disney is releasing an all-new animated film called Raya and the Last Dragon; before that, Pixar will release two new original films, Onward and Soul, both of which have begun their marketing campaigns in earnest, and both of which seem (on the surface of their ads) very much in line with past Pixar films, driven by buddy-comedy-style relationships more than anything else. Each of these films, separately and together, sound exciting to some degree. The fact that 2020 is the first year in which the Walt Disney Company will release so many original animated films is very encouraging. 

We won’t know for a while if they have villains like Sid or Scar or Maleficent or Syndrome. But after so many years where the real villain is inside our heroes the whole time, it’d be nice for a change of pace, to go back to an old-school version of what made animation at Disney so remarkable for so long.

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