Fairy Tales for 21st Century Families
The 'Frozen' songwriters on unconventional princesses, kids with differences, and knowing when to 'Let It Go'
It’s hard to overestimate how big Frozen is. It isn’t just that it’s a blockbuster—It’s a movie that’s hit a nerve with both kids and parents by creating a 21st century Disney princess—two of them, in fact. Kids are watching it (and listening to it) obsessively, and parents are pleased that these princesses have been liberated from the traditional role of being pretty and perfect and rescued by a prince.
A good deal of the sensibility that has made it such a favorite belongs to Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, the songwriting couple who brought their irreverent sense of humor and their own down-to-earth take on real kids and families to the project. We talked to the Lopezes, parents of two girls, about their refreshing perspective on children, on the challenges of being different and, of course, on breaking the princess mold.
Let It Go
First, Kristen points out that much as we lament the limitations of the princess genre, it has the advantage of being about girls. “There are so few movies that even have a female protagonist these days,” she said, “that tell a story from any kind of heroic female perspective. I thought we could build on that.” In Anna, the younger sister, Kristen was aiming for a funny, self-deprecating heroine in the Tina Fey, Amy Poehler mold.
And it was a story about sisters. “That is what was attractive to us in the first place, that it was going to be about two girls, and the love between the two sisters,” says Bobby, “celebrating the strength of their relationship, even though it would be tested.” It would be a family kind of love that would save the girls, he notes, rather than the romantic kind.
Still Bobby, a veteran of Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon, says avoiding romantic stereotypes in developing Frozen wasn’t as easy as he expected. “Over the course of working on it, I’d be saying things like, ‘What would happen is that they’d be friends together and a man would come into the picture and they’d kind of break up over the guy.’ And Kristen and Jennifer Lee, the director, would say, ‘NO! It can’t be a guy, STOP!’ ”
The thing that drives them apart, of course, is Elsa’s extraordinary power to freeze things, considered so dangerous she’s been forced into hiding. In the Academy Award-winning song “Let It Go,” Elsa stops trying to pretend she’s like everyone else, gives up trying to be “a perfect girl,” and unleashes the power. She also lets go of embarrassment, shame, and more than a little anger. It’s become a rallying cry for kids who’ve felt frustrated and misunderstood.
Kids with differences
Add to that the very funny, clever song “Fixer Upper,” about the socially inept ice harvester Anna enlists to help her find, and then save, her sister, and you have a powerful message of inclusion. His adoptive family of trolls apologizes to Anna for his imperfections—let’s just say that his only friend is his reindeer—and tries to marry them. Anna is still besotted by her prince, but they make a great team; I note that not only is she bossy, but she saves him as often as he saves her.
Kristen knows something about kids with challenges. She grew up with a brother, two years younger, who had struggles that she says today would probably be diagnosed as autism. “My brother was diagnosed with everything, at one point or another, his whole life. He was learning disabled. He was hyperactive. We went on all the diets. He went to special schools. He had sensory issues. Impulse issues.
“It was always a part of the family,” she adds. “It’s part of everything I write. There’s a whole character completely based on my brother in our next project.”
Where is her brother now? “He lives at home. He works at a golf course nearby. We were starting to try to get him more help, but he turned it down, he doesn’t like the label very much. We’re still very much in the middle of that process, and he’s turning 40 next week.
In fact, she adds, “He texted us: ‘It’s my 40th birthday you’re taking me to Disney.’ ”
And are they taking him to Disney? “Yeah,” she said. “It’s a tribute to the power of suggestion. At first I thought, ‘That’s audacious!’ then gradually it became ‘When we take Sean to Disney….’ ”
“Yesterday I got the best text from him,” Bobby adds. “It just said ‘8 days.’ ”
One of the most surprising things about the hit song, “Let It Go,” is how much anger there is in it. The Lopezes pull out the stops and let Elsa rage.
“We were trying to write a song that would allow Elsa to go off the rails a bit as far as a protagonist,” Bobby recalls. “We put a fair amount of anger and negativity into it while still exploring the positive feelings of being free.”
When the song was written, the plot had Elsa “taking a turn for the villainous,” as Bobby puts it. But the song was a turning point in the development of the film, as the creative team began to see Elsa differently. She evolved into a more sympathetic character, less fairy-tale evil and more a human being who needed to learn to use her powers positively and, as a therapist might say, express her anger safely.
As the character evolved, the team considered toning down what they’ve called “Elsa’s kick-butt song,” but decided not to. When you’ve made a mess of things and stormed out and you’re up there on your metaphorical hill, and you feel nobody understands you, there’s going to be a lot of anger, Bobby notes.
“Anything that makes you feel frustrated with something that is just inherently in you,” adds Kristen, “is going to lead to anger at yourself, at the world. I think everybody has this. Everybody in the world. I’m pretty sure even Gwyneth Paltrow has this.”
Slamming the door
Another liberating aspect of “Let It Go” is that Elsa is allowed to blow off what everyone expects and wants from her. It’s struck a cord with many who feel girls are taught to much too please other people.
Elsa sings that she’s done with trying to “conceal it, don’t feel it.” She’s glad her secret is out. And she builds a castle of ice and slams the door to it. She’s alone and free and thrilled about it: “Let the storm rage on—cold never bothered me anyway.”
“It’s shocking for a girl to say that outright, and people are responding to that,” Kristen says. “Girls are expected to get along, keep the group happy. I don’t think that’s a bad thing to learn but I think there is gender inequality in expectations.”
Of course Elsa has something to learn, she adds. “You can’t keep that door closed for ever. But people are giving her props for that moment.”
How do their daughters—both of whom have singing roles as the young princesses—feel about the movie?
When the youngest celebrated her fifth birthday, she went to her dress-up party as Elsa—though, Bobby notes, she was hardly the only one.
“My older daughter is a little over Frozen,” says Kristen, “because she’s like one of those early adopters of an indie band, and she’s like, this was MY secret in 2012 and now the whole world knows!”