Almost nobody saw it coming. Released in 2013, Disney’s Frozen was expected to do the same sort of business as predecessors such as Tangled and Bolt. It knocked those films into a distant dimension. Taking $1.2 billion, it became the highest-grossing animated feature in the history of the medium.
Let it Go, the central empowering showtune, was unavoidable for the following 12 months. And the appeal never waned.
A loose take on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, the picture has become a defining pop cultural phenomenon of the decade. As the sequel careers into cinemas, we ask… Why? How did this happen? It’s a great film. But that didn’t stop The Iron Giant being a flop 20 years ago.
Here are 10 reasons Frozen is a phenomenon:
1. Frozen has not one, but two princesses
The continuing success of the Disney Princess brand sits uneasily with contemporary gender politics, but the appeal remains largely undimmed. Elsa and Anna, icy royalty of Arendelle, are wittier, cleverer and less easily charmed than 1950s incarnations. They still remain sparkly and eligible.
2. The ‘villainess’ is a heroine
Nothing defines the film’s sly feminism more convincingly than the decision make Elsa – originally classified as the baddie – a determined champion of difference and independence. Isolated because she’s odd? “Othered” like so many in society. So what? “The cold never bothered me anyway!” Speaking of which…
3. Let it Go, Let it Go, Let it Go…
Gosh, that’s one heck of a belter. Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez’s mid-tempo tune appealed to wee girls, wee boys, drunk karaoke nuts, drag queens, wedding singers and everybody else who’s ever felt different (everyone in other words). The original single release by Demi Lovato (why?) is already almost forgotten. It’s Idina Menzel’s forever. Or “Adele Dazeem” if you are around John Travolta’s place.
4. It’s a proper musical
See above. Disney has always had a magical way with music, but most of their releases play like straight comedies that rearrange the furniture to accommodate the odd song. Directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee delivered a project that played to the beats of the classic Broadway tuner. Good timing. With hits such as Mamma Mia!, The Greatest Showman and Les Misérables, that genre is more popular than ever.
5. Prince Charming is a jerk
Had it up to here with the supposedly suave, privileged twit in his gold braid and patent-leather boots? Prince Hans of the Southern Isles is here to show the slime beneath the carapace. Inevitably there were some buttoned-up bores who felt that the revelation of Hans’s venal wretchedness might “confuse” children. Those people are always claiming confusion on their off-springs’ behalf. Any kid who’s met an adult understands such ambivalence all too clearly.
6. Great comic support
You always need a funny idiot or two in a Disney movie. Frozen has one conspicuous foil – the bumbling snowman Olaf – and, in iceman Kristoff and his reindeer Sven, a comic duo who trade idiot duties. Fans of the spectacularly grim Netflix series Mindhunter may not yet know that Jonathan Groff, who plays FBI agent Holden Ford, voices the endlessly amiable Kristoff. He tells me there is more crossover between fans than you might guess.
7. It honours the Disney traditions
Frozen pulled off an impressive trick by working in some zippy innovations – a strong feminist impulse, the rejection of certain gender norms – while still delivering the beats we have come to expect from a Walt Disney Studios cartoon. Like The Little Mermaid, it takes its inspiration from Hans Christian Anderson. Like The Sleeping Beauty, it honours the older traditions of folk tale.
8. Japan and beyond
One wonders if even Disney themselves understand why the film was such a massive hit in Japan. Taking an eye-watering $247 million, it still, six years later, registers as the third-highest grossing film ever in that territory (it's now "only" number 37 in the US). One convincing argument has it that female-led stories have always been popular in that country's anime. The local voice-casting of Sayaka Kanda and Takako Matsu was also spot on.
9. Audiences found it for themselves
Listen carefully. We know the power of franchises. It's so much easier to flog somebody something they already know they want: Star Wars, The Lion King, Marvel. But audiences still appreciate sharing an entertainment that hits them at an unexpected angle. Of course, there was much about this Walt Disney product that was familiar, but the characters were fresh and the attitudes were surprising. Mind you…
10. Whisper it quietly: merch matters
There is no getting away from it. Frozen was ideally positioned to profit from the flogging of dresses, dolls, lunchboxes, plush toys and – it was six years ago, remember – physical recordings on something called a "compact disc" (ask your gran). It does us no good to be naïve about this. The picture is as much a cog in a global industrial complex as is the Sidewinder missile or the Apache helicopter. But nicer. And better suited to birthday parties for the under-eights.
Frozen 2 opens on November 22nd