First, a couple honorable mentions: Ariel Saves Eric and Commits to Her Choice, from The Little Mermaid. After a storm ravages Prince Eric’s ship, Ariel rescues him and takes him ashore. After he comes to and his men retrieve him, Ariel hides herself and reprises her “I want” song, “Part of Your World”, climaxing in the stunning moment when a wave crashes against the rock behind her. In this moment, she definitively makes a choice that was just a notion before, to become part of the human world. I also have to mention The Princesses Save Ralph in Ralph Breaks the Internet. In a sublime moment of fanservice, the Disney Princesses combine their skills to break Ralph’s fall. In terms of pure crowd-pleasing catnip it’s spectacular, but I don’t think it’s fair to run that moment in competition.
5) Tiana Breaks Dr. Facilier’s Talisman, The Princess and the Frog
While the decision to turn Tiana into a frog for much of the film’s runtime feels ill-considered, it is in frog form that Tiana shows the strength of her character. After Dr. Facilier murders Ray, he turns his attention to Tiana. Facilier tempts her with a vision of her dream restaurant up, running, and thriving, but she rejects his manipulation and shatters the McGuffin he’s so desperate for. This unleashes a phantasmagoric sequence, where Facilier’s “friends from the other side” come to collect his soul. And besides, Tiana knows she must earn her restaurant’s success through hard work, not by an ill-gotten shortcut.
4) Ice Palace for One, Frozen
Elsa inherited a castle from her parents. But her existence there was marked by repression of her true self. So when the people of Arendelle and its political peers see Elsa’s magical ice powers and react in fear to that which they don’t understand, Elsa sings an anthem of self-expression while building a palace entirely of herself. As “Let it Go” catapults emotion across the screen like a trebuchet flinging snowballs, Disney’s animators give us the unforgettable spectacle of Elsa creating an entire palace, culminating in Elsa magically manifesting her iconic ice dress.
3) Mulan Disarms Shan Yu, Mulan
After single-handedly crippling the Hun army (a potential entrant on this list all on its own), Mulan is outed as a woman but still warns of Shan Yu’s infiltration of the Imperial City. After Shan Yu’s sheer advantage in size overwhelms Li Shang and Mulan in turn, her fight with the Hun leader moves to a rooftop. Mulan, desperate for a weapon, produces the fan she brandished earlier in the movie when dressing up for a matchmaker. After Shan Yu taunts, “It looks like you’re out of ideas”, Mulan disarms him with the fan and takes his sword in an efficient punch-the-air moment.
2) Anna Sacrifices Her Kingdom to Save it, Frozen 2
For Anna, all hope is lost. She’s auditioned for Les Miserables with her song “The Next Right Thing”, wherein despite knowing her sister and Olaf are dead, she resolves to carry on and do what’s right, no matter how painful. So she wakes up the Earth Giants to destroy the Northuldra dam, the monument to Arendelle’s colonialist sin. Knowing the flood will destroy Arendelle, Anna invokes her royal authority to enlist the help of Mattias and his soldiers in taking desperate action. To be a Princess of a Kingdom is to understand the responsibility of power, and Anna’s decision to proactively confront the shameful history of Arendelle is a stunning display of leadership.
1) Moana Redeems Te Ka, Moana
For the length of the movie up to this point, Moana has believed that Maui, who stole the heart of Te Fiti, must restore it. But the power to do so has always been hers, as she has the insight to see through the corrupted form of Te Ka to the goddess underneath. So Moana parts the sea, sings to the kaiju-size fire demon, and saves it. In practice, this is mythic, poignant stuff supported by astonishing visuals. It gives me goosebumps every time. “They have stolen the heart from inside you / But this does not define you”, Moana sings to the molten monolith, before restoring that heart and saving the entire ocean from magical infection. A badass power move if ever I saw one.
***Contains spoilers for FROZEN 2***
Frozen 2 is a sequel to Frozen, but it’s also a continuation of a cultural phenomenon that hasn’t really dissipated over the past six years – to the delight of its converts and to the chagrin of those sick of hearing “Let it Go” for the thousandth time. The sequel is a visually masterful companion piece to the original, but as a musical it must also be measured by its songs. Thankfully, Frozen 2’s songs are excellent. While not generally adhering to the subversive quality of Frozen’s numbers, the sequel takes big swings with its songs, coming out the other side with operatic emotion and distinctive comedy. What secrets do these new songs hold?
All is Found
Like “Frozen Heart” in Frozen, this song’s narrative function is to foreshadow some of the drama of the movie. Unlike “Frozen Heart”, which used a truly removed Greek chorus approach, Anna and Elsa hear the song, receive it as folklore, and later refer to the lyrics as a warning, almost as prophecy. “Go too far, and you’ll be drowned.” The lyric, “Can you face what the river knows?” sets up the discovery of a great sin in Arendelle’s past. This is a kingdom that later in the movie is described as an eternal “kingdom of plenty that stands for the good of the many”, so it’s a mature move to complicate that, reminiscent of the similar anti-colonial themes of Thor: Ragnarok vis a vis Asgard. Additionally, the song’s full-volume power comes when it’s later magically reprised within “Show Yourself”. Musically, the piece is a lovely folk melody that sets up the nature-based beauty of the film.
Some Things Never Change
Unlike any song in the first movie, this is a true ensemble piece for the cast of major players, something tailormade for a Broadway company, or even more so, a cast of Muppets. Like the Muppets’ “Life’s a Happy Song”, the song features an irresistible groove in the chorus and an infectiously cheery tone, even while commenting on the inevitability of the passage of time, which provides a slight tension. “Like an old stone wall that will never fall” plays over, of course, an old stone wall falling apart. “The flag of Arendelle will always fly” is shortly followed by the flag decorating the ground (shades of the flag of Rohan in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers).
“The leaves are already falling / Sven, it feels like the future is calling.” The verse hook is killer. The song respects the happily-ever-after ending of Frozen, before the complications of the story. And because of the excellent execution, it sidesteps the direct-to-video sequel feel that this sentimentality could’ve led to. (Even as Olaf is allowed a meta moment to address the audience directly!)
Into the Unknown
An Elsa solo show-stopper and worthy successor to “Let it Go” (though that anthem is still impossible to top, especially in terms of cultural impact; the sequel does well to spread the pressure of a follow-up between two songs). The song incorporates talk-singing in the verses, making for a strong contrast to the soaring chorus. That chorus demonstrates a mastery of syllabic dynamics, as the progression of 5-syllable to 6-syllable to 8-syllable phrasing perfectly livens up what could’ve been a repetitive use of the title “Into the Unknown”.
The song also begins a recurring musical motif among the film’s songbook. The galloping rhythm under the chorus suggests travel or determined footsteps, mirroring Elsa’s desire for bold movement and specifically foreshadowing her wrangling, taming, and riding the Water Nokk as a horse. We’ll return to the motif of musical footsteps later.
When I am Older
A nifty little Vaudeville comedy song for Olaf, about… him having a dissociative episode from the uncanny events happening all around him! Because of this obvious and amusing tension in the song, this is the Frozen 2 number closest in spirit to the subversive stylings of the original film. Musically, the song doesn’t stand up as well on its own without its physical and emotional comedy context. But there are still wonderful touches, like the kooky sting that scores the verses. On the one hand it’s a creepy family-friendly horror-tinged lick, but on the other it doubles for Olaf’s frightened and scattered footsteps.
Lost in the Woods
The most unique song in the movie, “Lost in the Woods” is an unapologetic 1980s power ballad shot like a music video, complete with specific visual references to classic rock such as Queen. Coming on the heels of a brief reprise of “Reindeers are Better than People” from the first movie, the ballad represents the clearest formal musical experimentation of the film. If nothing else, I’m pleased Broadway musical star Jonathan Groff has a chance to use his pipes, after barely getting a look-in in Frozen.
An emotional epic, “Show Yourself” is a euphoric experience even on its own, but pair it with the mind-blowing visuals of this portion of the movie and you have something truly special. The imagery of this sequence is prismatic, crystalline, mythical, magical, and a clear highlight not only in the film but in Disney’s animated canon. The full Aurora Borealis effect feels like a fulfillment of what Olivia Newton-John’s Xanadu could’ve been.
The cresting intersections of voice in the song make it a lightning rod of emotion. Elsa, her mother Iduna, and the Ahtohallan voice combine for a three-pronged effect; when “All is Found” is reprised, it’s an incandescent moment. Add to that a jagged piano backing and some juicy saxophone application, and from a storytelling perspective, an almost literal killer coda that freezes Elsa solid.
While on a musical level “Into the Unknown” will get the headlines as the sequel’s answer to “Let it Go”, “Show Yourself” is its true spiritual counterpart, because Elsa’s journey of self-discovery finds its next chapter at Ahtohallan. In Frozen’s ice palace, Elsa let her hair down and created an icy blue dress. In Frozen 2’s Ahtohallan, Elsa fully unbraids her hair and creates a crystalline white dress. The two sequences are true visual companion pieces. When Elsa runs down an enclosed ice cave, the rebirth imagery is clear. “Grow yourself into something new.”
The Next Right Thing
“The Next Right Thing” is Frozen’s version of “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables. Just as Fantine cries her way through that heartbreaking piece, Anna cries her way through the strains of this one, before gathering strength and taking decisive action. There are even musical quotes of specific Les Miserables moments in “The Next Right Thing”; a rising swell coinciding with the lyrical phrase “in my mind” from “I Dreamed a Dream”, and a descending operatic harmony at the song’s climax that recalls the ending of “One Day More”. The drama of the song is a little jarring for a children’s movie. “Hello darkness, I’m ready to succumb”?
But Anna rallies and picks herself up the floor. The phrasing of the title, “Next Right Thing”, is presented as hard glottal stops that don’t flow into each other (for example, like “The Place where Lost Things Go” in Mary Poppins Returns), but the effect that creates, for the third time on this soundtrack, suggests footsteps. Next. Right. Thing. Three successive distinct movements that don’t glide, but step one at a time. Each syllable is a choice for Anna to make even when all hope seems lost.
And each song is a rich earworming expansion of the Frozen repertoire, an impressive canon that also includes songs from two animated shorts and a Broadway musical. As I said, cultural phenomenon. And when looking in Frozen 2 for a worthy follow-up to a songbook that won an Oscar and the Internet, all is found.
Frozen spoilers follow.
Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez’ songs in the animated smash-hit Frozen are great. On the face of it, they’re great because they’re catchy and fun as hell to sing along with. But more than that, these songs are complex. I don’t mean technically or musically complicated – they hide layers that only become clear once the audience is aware of the complete picture of the film’s story. They work in the moment in their immediately apparent modes, but each takes on a new resonance when considering the broader story. In most Disney musicals, the songs are straightforward; what you hear is what you get. Not so here – this is multi-level storytelling, so thrilling when pulled off well. So what’s going on beneath the surface of this story of two regal sisters and the nature of true love?
Let’s start by looking at Frozen’s two traditional ‘I Want’ songs, Anna’s “For the First Time in Forever” and Olaf’s “In Summer”. Anna sings of her perfect romantic night with a sophisticated stranger now that Arendelle’s gates are opening, and throughout she mimes the poses of women in paintings. She wants a storybook romance. For the first time in forever / I’m getting what I’m dreaming of / A chance to change my lonely world / A chance to find true love. And so, even as we’re caught up in the beauty of the song, we’re also being told exactly how she’s exposing herself to Hans’ manipulation. And sure enough, she chooses to marry a man she has just met. Meanwhile, Olaf the guileless snowman spends a whole song wishing for the thing that the other characters know will kill him.
Anna and Olaf achieve their basic goals, but not in the way they intended. Anna ends up neither married nor engaged, and furthermore enters into a relationship not with the charismatic fairy tale prince Hans, but with the humble and antisocial snow merchant Kristoff (whose existence outside the castle was thus outside anything she knew her whole life). Olaf sees summer, but would have melted there and died if not for Elsa’s intervention. Life gave Anna and Olaf not what they wanted, but what they didn’t know they wanted, which is a beautiful endpoint to an arc.
And I stress, this isn’t how ‘I Want’ musical storytelling usually goes. Quasimodo wants only a mundane life “Out there”, and gets it by movie’s end, vindicated by his friends. Ariel wishes simply to be “Part of Your World”, and has entered the human world as the credits roll. Moana burns to voyage on the ocean and see “How Far I’ll Go”, and, you guessed it, embarks on a grand seafaring adventure. The desire is fulfilled, like an empty box being filled with a checkmark. In Anna and Olaf’s cases, they discover how much stranger life is than they thought, through realizing that what they wanted was in a lot of ways ignorant and naïve, but no less worthy of respect. This stuff is mature. The ‘I Want’ pieces are tinged with the bittersweet, even if that’s only noticeable to the viewer. It makes the story more human.
In the reprise of “For the First Time in Forever”, sisters Anna and Elsa have a roller coaster of a communication breakdown. There is misunderstanding on both sides, and the conflict is on the surface. Whereas in the case of Anna and Hans’ duet “Love is an Open Door”, it only comes out in retrospect how the two singing partners are at cross-purposes. The conflict is veiled and obscure, but with hindsight adds a layer to the song and its function. And so every real-life couple who duets the song has to think in the back of their minds, “Does one of us have an agenda here?”
What further complicates the song is Hans’ enigmatic character. A usurper of the crown he is, but the film concisely portrays Hans as a natural leader and an effective monarch… who happens to use evil means to gain a throne. He’s not just the one-dimensional villain; left to his own devices, he would have been a decent king. But his path to power is ruthless. He wants it too much. To him, the opportunity for power, the open door, is a lovely thing indeed. You can subtly see this in the song.
Anna: But with you –
Hans: But with you – I found my place.
Anna: I see your face.
Both: … and it’s nothing like I’ve ever known before!
In the same moment: Anna focuses on Hans. Hans focuses on his position. And yet the clumsy romantic and the charming conspirator still harmonize beautifully in song. “Love is an Open Door” is an obvious but significant example of a song taking on multiple dimensions with the benefit of hindsight.
And this brings us to the biggest showstopper of them all, Elsa’s “Let it Go”. Not so much an ‘I Want’ number, it’s more like a ‘Maybe I Don’t Want the Thing Everyone Said I Should Want’ song. Its placement in the movie also serves as the audience’s first meaningful insight into Elsa’s character, as this literal ice queen had predominantly been seen through Anna’s eyes. Taking on this burden, “Let it Go” makes an interesting choice: it’s achingly personal, but also universal. Anyone who’s ever been made to feel different, or repressed, or closeted, has an empowering anthem in “Let it Go”. Let it go, let it go / And I’ll rise like the break of dawn / Let it go, let it go / That perfect girl is gone.
Still, some have said that this über-popular karaoke staple is about abandoning responsibility, an act of selfishness. While on one level that’s true, I think of the song as representing something that is not only worthy of championing but also ties in perfectly with Frozen songs having multilayered themes. You as the viewer can project any baggage of your own onto “Let it Go”, as long as you’re breaking free of it; it does have a plot function of abandoning the queenship; but above all, it represents Elsa’s right to make her own mistakes.
As a musical, Frozen is unique, in that the film deploys its songs without being overwhelmed by them. The songs are mostly confined to the first act, setting them up to be subverted or further toggled with later. (The songs are frontloaded. First act: four full songs and a prologue. Second act: two full songs, a ditty, and a reprise. Third act: no songs.) “Frozen Heart” is a Greek chorus that foreshadows the larger story. “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” begins in childhood innocence and ends in suffocating depression. “For the First Time in Forever” is a joyous ‘I Want’ song that nonetheless sets up exactly how to take advantage of Anna. “Love is an Open Door” is a romantic duet and a clockwork manipulation. “Let it Go” is a swirling anthem that on some level is about shutting out the world. “In Summer” is a ‘be careful what you wish for’ song with a singer who’s none the wiser. These are significant choices, the choices of a film that’s going for your brain just as it’s going for your heart and your funny bone. Frozen is a phenomenon, a cultural touchstone, a subversive 21st Century fairy tale. I think it happens to be an ironclad masterpiece, with a nonetheless humble scope, where there are always new things to discover. And the Lopez’ songs are music that keeps on giving.
Contains spoilers for Zootopia (known as Zootropolis in some territories)
Zootopia is a very fine movie. Its lead characters are endearing, a lot of the humor is on point, and the video-game-overworld layout of the titular city leads to some eye-popping visuals showing off a fully realized world. But what does it have to say?
Quite a lot, actually – too much, even, but I’ll get into that later. I separate the film’s moral from its attempt at allegory, so I’ll address the moral first. The moral/message is great and very timely. We’re in the midst of a 2016 Presidential campaign marked by some ugly, downright troglodytic racism and sexism on the part of a certain candidate, and Zootopia comes along with a healthy message of tolerance, hitting hard against xenophobia and prejudice.
Of course, it uses a city of anthropomorphic animals to make this point, illustrated in part by the two leads; we have female rabbit Judy Hopps and male fox Nick Wilde, who were in some way brought low by prejudice before rallying back to ensure a happy ending for the movie. They do this by circumventing a conspiracy to artificially make the 10% minority of predator animals go “savage” by introducing a drug into their systems. The plan was working for a while; “innocent prey” saw their worst prejudices realized with rabid killer predators on the loose, leading to panic, paranoia, and hate against the predators. Now for the film’s ending to be happy, the force of institutional racism is literalized and arrested in the form of the Mayor, a seemingly meek sheep named Dawn Bellwether who is behind the conspiracy. She rants about us vs. them and virtually declares war on the dreaded other. This is after making repeated comments earlier in the movie about how she and Judy need to “stick together”, but all the while orchestrating a fear monger’s campaign. She’s Trump if he kept it a secret.
So we have a simple moral of anti-xenophobia, arising from a complicated allegory. When getting into the specifics of Zootopia’s allegory, I think it’s overcomplicated and incoherent. Let’s break it down.
The setup begins with mysterious incidents of certain individuals of predator species going savage. We learn that “Night Howlers” are involved somehow. Judy Hopps inadvertently stokes the racially charged fear in the city when she states in a press conference that these predators are going back to their “natural state”. (To the film’s credit, this shows how even a good person can say offensive things because institutional racism can sometimes run insidiously deep.)
Next we further the Night Howler mystery by learning that it’s a flower, and that consumption of it leads to an animal going savage under psychotropic influence. So something like a crack/meth epidemic is causing this – just say no, and cue cute Breaking Bad parody.
But then it’s revealed that Mayor Bellwether is on a zealous crusade. She has the drug concentrated into pellets, arms her officers with dart guns, and orders predators SHOT WITH THE DRUG. We went from social commentary about oppression, to social commentary on minorities and drugs, to social commentary on minorities getting shot by the authorities. Mixed metaphor, much?
Now, of course, traditional mainlining of drugs has no place in a children’s movie and the movie needs the drugs to get in the predators somehow. For an example of a plot point not taken, the writers could have, I dunno, put the drug in a liquid that only predators drink – this could at least take advantage of how the movie uses animal biology. But the choice to reverse-engineer this plot into a commentary on minority groups getting freakin’ shot is a decisive one.
Stacking these revelations on top of each other ends up turning a potentially compelling parallel to our world into a circus show. Are the predators going savage because they’re an oppressed minority? Because they’re taking drugs? Because they’re all getting shot? By pulling it in all these different directions, the allegory is diluted. The film finds a bunch of real-life things to “comment on” and puts them in a blender. This isn’t the best allegory, it’s the most allegory.
Indeed, maybe part of this is a consequence of how plotty, procedural and reliant on successive revelations Zootopia can be. (Clue leads to clue, and it’s kind of hilarious how many times Judy recording someone saying something incriminating is a plot point.) Also, Zootopia is keen to comment on all these racial issues that we face, but at the end of the day this is still an animated comedy with animals. While the film certainly chafes against stereotypes to a certain extent (Bunnies are coded as feminine in the movie’s world, so cue Judy’s annoyance at jokes about bad driving and being really emotional), most of the animals are given predictable behavioral traits (Timberwolves gotta howl). As (the extended Marlon Brando joke) Mr. Big says, “We may be evolved, but we’re still animals!” I totally understand why a weasel named Weaselton is there acting all “weaselly” – after all, this is an accessible family movie – but it makes a thematic graft between these races and our human races kind of a no-go. When you’re depicting an allegorical world where these predator species did in fact originally evolve to kill the prey species, can you really justify this as a parallel of our world?
The place where Zootopia’s allegory was really helped out was with the pop star Gazelle. Just as Gazelle’s peaceful protest against racism was crashed, so did Beyoncé’s statement of solidarity with victims of police brutality at the Super Bowl face a big backlash. While I know Gazelle doesn’t know at that point that the predators are being shot, from the objective filmmaker’s viewpoint, that is a pop star protesting a minority group getting shot by authority figures. That’s timely as hell.
While it has a wonderful moral, Zootopia takes a sloppy path to get there, and stumbles as allegory. This doesn’t necessarily diminish it much – wearing its heart on its furry sleeve, it’s a great time at the movies in the company of likable characters living in an interesting world – but it shouldn’t be held up as some brilliant satire. It’s great on basic message. It’s just not so great as allegory.