Mom, can we listen to Frozen?
Mom, can we get Frozen on dvd?
Yep, I already ordered it.
Mom, can we see Frozen again?
“Let us go. Let us go”
Mom, so when will we get the Frozen DVD?
Today. Wanna watch it? On a school night?
And so…through the Magic of Disney, one young girl’s thrifty, screen-limiting, forever-thwarting mother has, in the flick of a sparkly wand, transformed into the mom of her dreams.
My 9-year-old loves Frozen. I love Frozen. Frozen doesn’t need our declaration of love. It has two Oscars and $1 billion in box office love already. But I profess it, nonetheless. I have good reason: At this very moment the lab coats of Hollywood are busily mixing their formula, closing in on the testing phase, and oiling the crank on the conveyer belt. A flurry of Frozen knock-offs is coming, and I want to do all I can to help them get it right.
So to all the alchemists of box office gold, I suggest, first, that you dump whatever variant on sisterly love you and your lab mates have already concocted. Anna’s act of true love for her sister Elsa is lovely, inspiring and heartfelt, and no doubt so would be the true love between your script’s two cousins or stepsisters or (even better) frenemies. But, while a twist on true love is fine, in itself, it’s not going to give your formula the bubble and fizz it needs.
But, wait, you say, subverting the princess-waiting-for-her-prince motif is the whole reason for Frozen’s success. To channel Anna, “ACT-u-a-lly, it’s not” This plot line is revolutionary if the last kids’ film you saw was from the ‘70s, but for today’s 6 to 12 year olds—not so much. The shining-armored prince is adult baggage, and like TSA agents posted at the gates of childhood, Tiana, Brave, Tangled, et al., have been keeping our kids safe for some time now.
If it helps, you do get to keep the comic foil/companion. It can be either animal or object, as long as it kinder, wiser, cuter, goofier and funnier than any human friend could ever be. Olaf may, in fact, be the exemplar, so you’re probably already off to a good start.
Be sure, though, to pay close attention to the ingredients Frozen left out. Number one in this category: the evil mother figure. While the 45-year-old Hollywood exec may have mother issues, your key audience just gets confused when you make mom (and mom-like figures) the source of all evil. Best to leave it out or, like Frozen, call it out as the ridiculous trope that it is—“Elsa’s not evil!” scoffs Anna.
Okay, we’re off to a good start, but we’ve not yet turned celluloid into gold. For that, I should also mention that it’s not just me, it’s not just my daughter, dad enjoys Frozen too. He sings along with the soundtrack and channels Olaf with some regularity.
I think this is important. He’s outside the target demographic, yet his dollars certainly helped to break the box office. I think, too, that we should take note of the fact that he handed over his dollars even though Frozen rarely winks at him. When they watch Frozen together, dad and daughter laugh at the same jokes for the same reasons, and are touched by the same scenes. Frozen’s niche audience seems to be anyone who has 1) experienced childhood; and/or 2) had a relationship, be it with a sister, a sweetheart or a snowman.
It is, of course, more powerfully relevant to those who, in their relationships with others, feel acutely the expectations of those others—be they parents, teachers, friends—and also feel compelled to take those expectations seriously, even as it squelches their own spirit (aka “conceal, don’t feel”). This means: girls, a little more than boys; and women, a little more than men (and at over 50% of the population, you’re looking at a pretty good demographic).
Boys and men are certainly burdened by the “shoulds” of life, too (100%, an even better demographic). In fact, we probably dole out expectations to boys and girls in equal measure, but when it comes to compliance, boys (who “will be boys’) get more of a pass, while girls “should know better.”
Then along comes a movie that acknowledges this pressure “to behave” and even offers a vicarious moment of freedom, in the form of a super-fun-to-sing anthem. Frozen touched a nerve, a particularly sensitive one for girls, but in no way unique to the female anatomy. So getting back to the formula, you’ll need a strong measure both of relevance and relate-ability.
Does that mean chuck the “Girl-Power?” Why yes, it does. We both know that kids can peg an adult rah-rah message from miles away, and also that they understand, much better than us, the difference between play-acting feeling and real feeling. Pretend empowerment is not gonna fill your theater seats, if you want to keep ‘em coming back, give ‘em the real thing—so cut the bluster and just sing something relevant, meaningful and validating about their lives. [See: Let It Go]
Now if this was all there was to the formula, even Frozen would have fizzled by now. But the movie has two other essential compounds. First, from title to ending credits, Frozen remained a should-free zone. No one leaves the theater feeling like they need to try to be something they are not. This is the obvious choice given the movie’s theme, yet in this genre, it’s an almost impossible result to get. From the trolls there is wisdom to be found, for sure, but while they may be heavy in the hands, they are not heavy-handed. What they offer in fact is a hand-hold.
As for the second compound, the movie tells an important truth: people who love you can hurt you—deeply, also unintentionally and regretfully—but they hurt you and love you at the same time, and the love and you can survive, even thrive. Most adults struggle with this truth, yet Jennifer Lee and company had enough faith in kids to put it in their movie—and to leave it there. It doesn’t get explained away, or chocked up to some mystical and easily defeated evil force; instead, the movie shares something truthful about the world we live in (you know, along with the ice powers, trolls and talking snowman). Truth is powerful—you may have heard that saying—and to be trusted with truth is empowering.
So with these basic compounds, I think you can take it from here. But before you head back to the lab, just one more thing: The other day I overheard my husband asking our daughter what it is she loves so much about Frozen and here’s what she said:
“You know how Dora is all ‘Swiper no swiping, Swiper no swiping,’ and how the ninjas think the world of Ningago is going to be devoured, but the whole time we know that Swiper’s never going to swipe anything and everyone in Ningago will be just fine…? But Frozen, it’s just a good story: I didn’t know what was going to happen next!”
Hmm, sounds like what she’s saying is that she liked that it wasn’t too formulaic. So, maybe you’d better work that into your formula, too.
Image courtesy of Disney