No matter how many times we were told, we wouldn’t let it go. And so Frozen is back. Not that the earworm of the century was going to die anyway, with the official YouTube video of Let It Go at 1.8 billion views and counting, six years on from the original film.
This week sees the opening of Frozen II, a launch long awaited by seven-year-olds who want to be ice-pick-wielding princesses and long dreaded by parents who have only just about got over the psychological scars caused by the soundtrack of the first film: “I mean it’s crazy…” “What?” “We finish each other’s sandwiches…” How those words linger in what is left of my mind.
The original 2013 movie took more than $1bn at the box office and more than that in merchandising, became Amazon’s bestselling children’s film DVD of all time, solely based on pre-orders, and pushed Elsa, the name of the ice princess who can’t control her powers, into the top 100 names for British babies. At the height of Frozen’s success, the waiting time to see Elsa at Disney World, Florida, was four hours. Serena Williams once claimed to have watched the film 3,000 times.
I don’t think I can quite beat that but sometimes it felt like it. Our family was gripped by Frozen mania long before the term “basic” fell into common usage. At the time, in 2013, our children were aged three, seven and 10, so we were essentially a Frozen marketing focus group. At first, Frozen was comforting and bonding, even slightly profound in its Oprah-esque message of self-belief and resilience. Then the soundtrack drove you slowly but surely to the boundary of sanity. Still, the children’s passion for it grew. The three-year-old loved Olaf, the snowman who never wanted summer to come because then he would melt. The seven-year-old could imagine she was a princess who could shoot ice from her fingers. And the 10-year-old got to pretend his interest in it all was purely ironic. The parents, by now bludgeoned into dumb submission by the repetition of frozen fractals spiralling all around (Let It Go, bridge), simply appreciated any DVD or CD that the three tyrants would not argue over.
For months, car trips were dominated by trolls singing about suitors tinkling in the woods and debates about whether reindeers smell better than people (seems unlikely but depends on the person – and the reindeer). I must confess to tragically earnest attempts by a peri-menopausal woman with karaoke ambitions (that would be me) to mimic the vocal gymnastics of Tony award-winner Idina Menzel as Elsa. I tried for months to hit the high E flat on “Let the storm rage ooooon…”, a note held for so long that the driver of the car (my husband) once threatened to crash intentionally. As voice coach Molly Webb puts it: “You don’t meet many singers who find sustaining a belt on an Eb5 a manageable request.” But not many singers are Menzel. If she could do it, I could do it on the A303. The song robbed me of all reason.
The excellence of the real-life performers behind the characters was certainly a factor in the film’s success, with Kristen Bell also shining as Anna. The film itself won best animated feature, and Let It Go won the Oscar for best song. That song represents Frozen’s success – and embodies the “hell hath no fury” feminism of the storyline: “The cold never bothered me anyway.”
This brand of isolationist feminism – who needs men when you can create your own ice kingdom? – somehow hit a nerve long before #MeToo. Psychology professor Jordan Peterson called the story “deeply propagandistic” and “the subjugation of art to propaganda” because he didn’t like the prince turning out to be a villain. Meanwhile, to Disney’s delight, the sister protagonists Elsa and Anna got to be two ideal things at once: princesses who didn’t need to be rescued (appropriately PC), but still princesses who could be marketed as dolls (necessarily lucrative).
Frozen’s real allure lay in the fact it became a touchstone for all kinds of causes, though. Just like the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale The Snow Queen, which inspired the film, it allows you to overlay your own ideas on to the storytelling. Time magazine ran an article by psychologists Maryam Kia-Keating and Yalda T Uhls entitled “The Science of Why Your Kids Can’t Resist Frozen”: “We all feel internal struggles with our impulses. None of us really wants a (too) scary villain. Most of us are pretty loyal to our families, despite their eccentricities and the emotional challenges that we face at times. And all of us want to be happy and free.”
The film ticked many boxes at the same time. A old-fashioned story with reassuringly “hygge” Scandinavian overtones, and one where the parents are dead early on (a winning formula for Disney and for fairytales since time began). Not one but two of the elusive “empowering female characters” Hollywood is obliged to provide nowadays. A classic hero’s tale of redemption. A 21st-century paean to the importance of anger management. A handsome but down-to-earth prince-who-isn’t-a-prince who is willing to play second fiddle to a woman. The unintended possibility that Elsa might be gay (wish-fulfilment for some viewers). Sharp, comic dialogue between an anthropomorphic snowman, ditsy reindeer and streetwise trolls who were easily convertible to merchandise. People in this house claim to have grown out of Frozen, but even the 13-year-old recently twitched uncontrollably at Marks & Spencer in the presence of an Olaf the Snowman onesie.
The Frozen juggernaut also benefited from many unintentional factors, not least John Travolta introducing Menzel as “the wickedly talented one and only Adele Dazeem” at the 2015 Oscars just as she was about to perform the award-winning song. He later blamed this on phonetic spelling on the autocue – and on Goldie Hawn for having distracted him just before he went on stage by being too sexy. And Frozen instantly became a huge singalong phenomenon several years before the launch of the lip-sync app TikTok. YouTube videos such as Good-Looking Parents Sing Disney’s Frozen and Real Grandparents Sing Frozen’s Love Is An Open Door racked up tens of millions of views in 2014 and 2015 at exactly the same time as many parents in their thirties, forties and fifties started to use social media obsessively. The originators of the first viral video with 23 million views – many of these by me – were “adorable Christian couple from Texas” Sam and Nia who built up a 2 million-strong subscriber base. They feature highly in lists of both Most Influential YouTubers and Most Hated People.
Sometimes the Frozen party threatened to rage too hard. Reports surfaced that a woman in Japan had divorced her husband on the grounds that he was “too ambivalent towards Frozen”. This story emerged from a post on a Japanese marriage forum where a man claimed his wife had told him that there was “something wrong with him as a human being” if he was immune to the charms of Elsa and Anna.
Can the sequel match any of this frenzy? Elsa and Anna are older and wiser but haunted by a mystery from their childhood that they must solve in order to find inner peace. (Who doesn’t identify?) Menzel is back with another Elsa breakout song, Into the Unknown: “I’m sorry, secret siren, but I’m blocking out your calls.” I’m pretending not to be interested in this, of course, while subconsciously memorising the lyrics.
Lukewarm reviews surround the releaseas they so often do with sequels (“likable but underpowered”; “meandering”; “half-baked”; “won’t give you the same chills”). But the critics never bothered the makers of Frozen anyway. It isn’t intended for them. As long as children are being born, and as long we identify with the idea of overcoming the odds, an audience is constantly being created and it won’t matter if the original Frozen obsessives are no longer at one with the wind and sky. Which is just as well, as some have, apparently, moved on. Reaction of my nine-year-old boy to the question: “Are you interested in seeing Frozen II?” He makes a “don’t insult me” face. Me: “I’ll take that as a no. Why?” He: “I’m not saying Frozen is for girls. But I don’t want to see it. It’s too weird.” That’s what I was going to say. Jinx. Jinx again.