So before I get into the rest of this post I want to include the disclaimer that I am analyzing these two movies purely from a filmmaking standpoint, that is, I’m not getting into gender or race politics because I’m not qualified to speak on such issues. (The second half of this most recent episode of the podcast Still Buffering had some good discussion on gender representation in Moana and Frozen if you’re interested.) With that said:
I remember being fairly skeptical of Frozen‘s quality when I finally got around to seeing it a year after release. I think it was mostly because Olaf looked awful, and while he was, it turned out that was only the tip of the iceberg. Frozen reportedly went through some late-stage changes in story, and while that worked out well for Zootopia, it really did not here.
Let’s begin with the beginning. Frozen opens with Anna and Elsa as friends, playing with Elsa’s ice powers. Then Elsa accidentally hurts Anna and the sisters’ parents have trolls make Anna forget about the ice powers and tell Elsa to hide them, and then the parents die at sea and there’s a song showing Anna and Elsa growing up and not being friends anymore and then there’s going to be a big party and Anna sings about how the castle is finally going to be lively again.
That all happens in about 15 minutes, by the way. The extreme speed of all this plot information and changes in status quo make it impossible to care about any of it; sure, for Anna it’s been years since the castle was exciting and fun, but for the audience it’s been about five minutes.
This flip-flopping in status quo also drives the problem with Elsa as a character. Elsa basically has two characters in the movie: shy and afraid of her powers, and overly bold and confident. The result is a character with a totally unclear personality; is the confident Elsa just a blip and the shy Elsa we see for most of the movie “really” her, or is her confident side her “real” personality that’s otherwise been hidden? Because her character arc is kind of deemphasized at the end of the movie (at least to my recollection; it’s been a while since I saw the movie) there’s not really enough information to determine that.
Speaking of the end of the movie, that’s it’s other main problem. At this point in the plot Anna has been put under a magical curse that will freeze her unless broken by an “act of true love.” The resolution to this is when Anna steps in front of the villain Hans’ blade to save Elsa; Anna’s self-sacrifice is the act of true love. The problem with this is that Anna’s love for Elsa is something that’s never been in question during the movie. Half of the plot, in fact, is driven by how much Anna cares for Elsa. So for Anna saving Elsa to be the climax just doesn’t mean much because it says nothing new about the characters and requires no personal growth or change.
Hans, meanwhile, is a terrible villain. It’s really easy for characters who are pretending to be good but are secretly evil to come off as cheap because the writers can just write the character as if they were good until the reveal comes. And that’s exactly what happens here: there are no hints that Hans is evil, no indication that he’s putting on an act. He’s just a good guy who suddenly becomes a bad guy.
And it’s a shame that he turns out to be a bad guy, really, because of how it makes the song “Love is an Open Door” totally meaningless. I actually really like the song (it’s the only one in the movie I enjoy listening to), but not only is it lampshaded almost immediately when Elsa points out how ridiculous it is to get engaged to a dude after five minutes, but it turns out that the love was 100% fake on Hans’ part anyway so in retrospect, “Love is an Open Door” is basically just filler and its cuteness is totally undermined by the deception involved.
The final point against Frozen is its songs. Most of them are either emotionally hollow (“Love is an Open Door,” “For the First Time in Forever”) or more-or-less filler (Olaf’s song, the trolls’ song, the opening song which is sort of thematically relevant but is literally just about ice miners, whose lifestyle is totally irrelevant to the movie). “Let It Go” is the only song in the movie that has any real significance to it, and while its popularity is undeniable I don’t think it’s a very good song.
In addition to the actual quality and relevance of the songs, they also fall into a problem I have with a lot of Disney musicals, where the songs are majorly frontloaded. After “Let It Go” closes the first act, three of the four songs left in the movie are pointless filler and there aren’t any at all in the third act. (Also, while I don’t have the patience to start up the movie and check the timestamps, I’m pretty sure there’s only one song past the halfway point of the movie.) The end result is that the movie feels less like a musical and more like a movie that has some songs in it.
And that brings us to Moana and the first point in its favor, which is that it has not one but two climactic songs, both of which are great. (I haven’t thought a lot about what my favorite Disney song is but “I Am Moana” is definitely up there.) And there really aren’t any filler songs, either–the closest one to being filler is “Shiny,” but the way it’s used as a focal point for the setpiece going on during the song makes it feel more important.
Beyond that, Moana just fundamentally works. The characters have clear personalities and their arcs make sense; the light plot twist feels natural; the climax is founded on Moana’s unique skills, not a test of something that was never in question; and while the pacing in the first act is a little jumpy, the prologue isn’t at all convoluted. I haven’t seen Big Hero 6, but that aside I feel quite confident in calling Moana Disney’s best 3D animated movie this decade. (Zootopia is pretty close, though.)
Ugh, this is why writing about stuff I like sucks. I got nine paragraphs out of Frozen but only two out of Moana. Anyway, Moana is awesome and Frozen is not, case closed.