Walt Disney Studios
Hey parents, can you believe it hasn’t even been a year since Frozen came out? I know, it feels like you’ve been hearing you kids belt “Let It Go” for eons, but the Disney animated feature officially opened on a single screen in Hollywood on November 22, 2013, before going wide five days later. Technically, though, it did play as early as November 10th, at the New York Children’s Film Festival, so I guess we can start celebrating its first birthday. Stuff some cake in its face, because it’s barely a baby anymore.
My son is pretty young, so he didn’t see Frozen until a couple months ago (it’s also when I had my viewing), and ever since he’s wanted to watch it all the time. Whether he calls the movie “Let It Go” or claims Elsa’s name is “Let It Go” or mostly wants to watch Olaf the snowman, not a day goes by that he doesn’t mention the possibility. Not that I give in every time; more often we’ll just sing or play one of the songs.
I know he’ll eventually move on to something else (his last, and first, obsession was Dumbo). I also know I can’t force the change on him yet. I don’t even mind Frozen yet, strangely, but I bet parents who’ve been there for the past year are ready to forget it ever existed. Whatever the case, I’m devoting this week’s dozen movie recommendations to moms and dads who’d like some alternatives to try out. Most may seem obvious, but that’s so they can be easy transitional works, and I’ve provided some concrete reasoning for each that maybe you can also use on your children.
The Snow Queen (1957)
It’s important for your kids at some point to be aware of how Frozen is loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Snow Queen.” Disney had initially intended to make an actual “Snow Queen” movie last decade, but that was scrapped and evolved into a version where the title villain is now a young queen with magic powers she just can’t yet control. Many past adaptations of the story exist, but this Soviet production by Lev Atamanov is the classic, both in its original Russian and Universal’s first English-language dub and re-scored import featuring voice work from Sandra Dee and Disney regular Tommy Kirk (a later re-release included the voices of Kathleen Turner and Kirsten Dunst). For the older folk: this film had a huge impact on the career of Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki.
The Snowman (2010)
In a scene that isn’t actually in Frozen, only in its teaser trailer, Olaf sneezes and his carrot nose goes flying onto a frozen pond, where he must retrieve it before it’s eaten by Sven the reindeer. It’s very cute, especially when watched after you’ve seen the movie. It’s also been accused of ripping off a short animated film in which a snowman loses his carrot nose, also eventually on a frozen pond, and must retrieve it before a bunch of rabbits get to it. There is a lawsuit going to trial on the matter with one of The Snowman’s directors, Kelly Wilson, named as the plaintiff. Whether she’s able to beat Disney in court or not, it’s at least fair to share the short again so Wilson gets recognition for it being, as Scott wrote earlier this year, “a keen, sweet little short. Pleasant for all ages with simple animation and a sharp comic sense of raising the stakes that works to make the battle for a snowman’s nose smile-inducing.”
The Snowman (1982)
Another short animated film of the same name is one of the classics of my youth (and probably yours if you have small children now). Based on the children’s book by Raymond Briggs, the adaptation is about a boy and the snowman he builds. The latter comes to life in the middle of the night and takes his creator on a big adventure, with this Oscar-nominated version directed by Dianne Jackson and Jimmy T. Murakami expanding to make it more of a Christmas movie (that means there’s also reindeer, like Sven). Sadly, the snowman of this short doesn’t have the same fate as Olaf, but our kids need to face the truth there, right?
Frosty the Snowman (1969)
Not to push every magically living snowman, but the kids they love this stuff. Plus, I saw that Frosty was on TV the other day and put it on, only for it to be one of the ugly sequels (I think it was 2005’s The Legend of Frosty the Snowman). To be sure your kids don’t see the wrong version, introduce them to this Rankin/Bass short based on the hit song from two decades earlier. While the tune is not necessary a Christmas song, this adaptation did like the short above add in the Santa Claus component. If you want to be more pure, you can also see the very brief black-and-white 1954 film, which is more like an animated music video for the song.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
Of course you have to show your kids the first Disney animated feature, for many reasons. As related to Frozen, nothing to do with there being “snow” in the title, the movie involves a basic formula for the Mouse House where a princess leads a sheltered life and winds up out in the wilderness, where she’s befriended by some animals and comic relief characters. Instead of trolls, as Anna is welcomed in by in Frozen, Snow is embraced by dwarves (or dwarfs, as the title has it). Eventually she’s nearly killed by the queen and requires an act of true love (here a kiss) to save her. Maybe it’s regressive politically to show the kids the less feminist version now, where it’s up to the prince charming to save the day, but we can’t shield them from history.
Winnie the Pooh (2011)
One of the reasons our kids love Frozen so much is the music, specifically the songs penned by the husband and wife team of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez. His past work has included songs in The Book of Mormon and Avenue Q, neither of which is appropriate for the young ones (even if the latter looks like it is), while as a duo they previously did the new tunes for this latest feature starring everyone’s favorite honey-loving bear. They don’t sound a whole lot like the tunes in Frozen, not that Frozen’s songs have a very consistent style to them, and they’re not quite as catchy as the old Sherman Brothers’ classics written for the earlier Pooh films, but they’re still probable additions to the sing-a-long roster. The film itself, which sticks to the traditional animation style, is also fairly flawless.
The Little Mermaid (1989)
For me, the last time a Disney animated film had such a compulsively catchy soundtrack as Frozen has was 25 years ago with this only other feature of theirs based on an Andersen fairy tale. Maybe it’s just that these tunes, written by Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman, became popular when I was still having to sing this kind of stuff in music class, but nothing since has caught my ear the same way (and so far my son has responded best to them over any others, before or after). One of them, “Part of Your World,” also kept coming to mind when I’d listen to two separate Frozen tunes. “Let It Go” reminds me of the lyrics where Ariel is singing of letting go above water, “bright young women sick of swimmin’, ready to stand.” Then the stuff that’s more generally about wanting to be in a world she can’t experience due to her biological nature is very “In Summer.” Many have looked back on The Little Mermaid for not being the empowering work it was decades ago, but Ariel is definitely a strong female character. So she jumps to the idea of giving up her voice for a man. Anna jumps to the idea of getting married to the first man she meets, too. It’s the rest that counts. Read this Atlantic piece for more convincing.
In recent years, Disney has been having some fun with its fairy tale princess tradition, partly for financially successful branding and partly for playful new reworkings of the concept. Six years before voicing a new icon of feminism as the snow queen Elsa in Frozen, Idina Menzel had a supporting part (live-action and animated) in this bit of self-parody from the same studio. Surprisingly she doesn’t sing in the musical, which also features tunes co-written by Menken, though she did originally have a duet with James Marsden that was cut out. Marsden plays an archetypal Disney prince, who winds up meeting and marrying Menzel’s character in one day – ironic, of course, because as Elsa she tells Anna that you can’t do that.
If you want your kids to appreciate modern Disney movies fully, you’ll have to get them to look for Easter eggs, such as the one Frozen has involving a cameo by Rapunzel and Eugene from this recent fairy tale adaptation. The couple appears as the gates are opening during the “For the First Time in Forever” number, if you’re curious. On top of that reason for my recommending it is the whole feminism thing and which other animated films are good for girl, like Frozen. Tangled is tricky, and I think that’s very healthy for the kids, because maybe they are or will be smart enough to decide for themselves if this one is positive or empowering enough. You can find very good articles on both sides of the debate around the web, including feminists defending the characterization of Rapunzel and her movie. Don’t be afraid to have a balanced discussion when your daughters or sons are old enough.
Between Tangled and Frozen, Pixar released its own princess movie that was celebrated for its feminist slant – this one is about a strong, smart, athletic Scottish girl who challenges her clan’s tradition and winds up not even having a male counterpart. And the person who saves the day – and a man – in the end is a woman, too. The girl, Merida, was welcomed by women as being a good role model and for having a more positive body image representation, until Disney went for a redesign and caused a huge controversy resulting in petitions and a quick rethinking on the part of the company.
Joan of Arc (1900)
Now to go way back to one of the most famous strong women protagonists of all time, someone who really lived: Saint Joan of Arc. You know, the Joan who Anna sees a painting of in Frozen and tells to “hang in there.” There have been many, many films of Joan’s story, some of which are very essential for your kids if they become great appreciators of cinema later on. Kid-friendly versions are less frequent, and the most accessible is probably a 1996 cartoon by former Disney animator Richard Rich (co-director of The Fox and the Hound and The Black Cauldron). I’d like to suggest instead this 114-year-old short (not the first film about Joan, by the way) from Georges Melies. You’ll have to explain what’s going on to the little ones, but just pretend it’s like a children’s book with moving illustrations.
My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
Hayao Miyazaki (who we mentioned in the first entry) is both a huge inspiration and a partner of Disney through his own animation house, Japan’s Studio Ghibli. He also has long been known for working with strong female protagonists in his feature films, particularly such modern classics as Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. A lot of them are a bit heavy and surreal for the younger kids, so I always like to recommend starting with this early work, which wound up being the director’s breakthrough in the States. Like Frozen, it also involves two sisters, but that’s about where the comparison ends. Totoro is a more other-world kind of fantasy film (even if it doesn’t go to another world save for the forest) with some of the most plush-friendly creatures you’ll ever see, the titular Totoro and the literally named Catbus.