"Elsa, the past is not what it seems."
Thus begins the trailer of Frozen 2, the sequel to Disney's hugely successful 2013 animated film Frozen directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee. The line is typical of stories in the fantasy genre where the protagonist learns something new about their past in subsequent installments. However, it's also a befitting comment on fairytales about princesses that seldom allow their "good" female protagonists any agency. The ones who are powerful are immediately characterised as wicked and are defeated or killed.
Frozen was hailed as an important feminist film when it released, though some were not really convinced about Disney's intentions. The film was inspired by Hans Christian Anderson's fairytale, The Snow Queen. While the titular Snow Queen in the story is the chief villain, she is the hero of Frozen. In the film, Elsa is a young woman who's grown up fearing her own powers and what it can unleash. She suffers from guilt because of her talents but finds acceptance from her sister Anna whom she'd unintentionally hurt in their childhood. Forget a powerful female protagonist portrayed in a positive light, fairytales seldom even show relationships between women as amicable. The arch rival of the princess is usually her stepmother, stepsisters or a witch. Frozen overturned that narrative by placing at its centre two young women who look out for each other and win over the conspiracy hatched by the handsome Prince Hans (is the name a subversive dig at the original author?) and the Duke of Weselton.
But do children get all of this? Eight-year-old Anaisha from Pune lists two reasons for why she likes the film: "I like Frozen because it has magic and my favourite character is Elsa. She can do magic and build a very big castle with it. In the last part, there's love between two sisters and they come together." She adds that this is also why the film is different from other stories about princesses that she's read or watched.
Zoey, who is in the same grade as Anaisha, says she watched Frozen when she was five years old and that she liked the film back then because Elsa had powers. "She could make ice steps and a snowman, that's why I liked it!" she says. Her favourite character, however, is Elsa's mother because, "she's good and she was the first queen, her hair colour was also like mine!"
Though Hollywood is increasingly becoming conscious about diversity in representation in live action as well as animation films, popular culture in India is still teeming with hypermasculine heroes, and powerful female protagonists are hard to come by. For instance, four animated films were made and released in India in 2012 (the year before Frozen): Arjun: The Warrior Prince, Chhota Bheem and the Curse of Damyaan, Delhi Safari, and Hey Krishna. All four are centered around male protagonists, including Delhi Safari which has anthropomorphic animals.
Ten-year-old Pranaya who lives in Singapore says, "Most fairytales don't feature two girls. Also, the two girls look totally different from each other." It's an incisive remark because women in fairytales are typically pitted against each other on the basis of beauty. Anna and Elsa are sisters but while Elsa is blonde and pale-skinned, Anna has brown hair and is darker. However, this difference does not become a bone of contention between them, and there's no 'who's prettier' contest.
Swathilika, who's the same age as Pranaya and lives in Chennai, says that the part which really made her sad in the film was when Anna stopped knocking on Elsa's door eventually because she knew her older sister wouldn't open it. Zoey too says that she felt sad when "the sisters go apart". The bond between Anna and Elsa appears to have resonated with the filmâ€™s young audience though it's seldom represented on screen. "Frozen was also different because the princesses didn't need rescuing," Swathilika says.
Seven-year-old Surya, Pranaya's brother, is a Frozen fan ("because it's all about adventure!") too and echoes Swathilika's observation: "In Frozen, a prince does not rescue all the people. In all the other fairytales, the prince rescues the princess."
When Anna is frozen and needs a kiss of "true love" to come alive again, it's Elsa who saves her and not Kristoff with whom Anna is romantically involved. This twist effectively breaks away from the long-held tradition that only heterosexual, romantic love can be considered as "true" and not other forms of affection. Prince Hans, with whom Anna falls in love at first sight in typical fairytale fashion, turns out to be the villain. "My least favourite character in Frozen is Prince Hans because he wants to kill Elsa," says eight-year-old Aveisha. There's nothing about the film that didn't appeal to her and she adds that it was different from what she's watched so far but, "I don't know how." Surya, meanwhile, says he wished Hans wasn't evil and had been a good person.
In the small sample of children that TNM spoke to, Frozen appears to be much more popular with the girls than the boys. This isn't surprising because male protagonists rule the mainstream and are embraced by all genders while films with female leads are categorised as "women-centric" and are expected to appeal only to girls and women. There's also the disdain that many boys express towards something "girly" â€“ to be like a boy is an aspiration, to be like a girl is an insult. Princess stories being among them.
Nine-year-old Mukund from Kochi shyly admits that he likes Frozen only after his mother reminds him that he's watched it at least five times. "My friends don't like the movie," he says, when asked why he doesn't want to talk about it, "My favourite character is Olaf but I like Elsa too."
Frozen 2 is all set for release on November 22 and the children are excited about watching the sequel. What do they think will happen in the second film?
"I think the movie will return to the two sisters' dead parents. After giving the topic so little attention in Frozen, the producers would want to elaborate more on this in Frozen 2," says Pranaya.
"It will be about Elsa and Anna having kids. Then they will go on adventures," says Zoey.
"They will save the world!" says Swathilika.
"I think Anna and Elsa will finally find their parents and their parents' ship. Their parents' ship has sunk and they're in some other island. Anna and Elsa go and try to find their parents but they're stuck in another island. So Elsa tries to escape by making the water freeze and she can step (on the water) and run towards the parents' island. But then a big wave flushes her back to the island where she came from," says Surya.
"I don't know what will happen in Frozen 2, I'm waiting to be surprised!" says Anaisha.