Nic Sammond on the enduring popularity of Disney's hit film Frozen

September 15, 2014 by Jenny Hall - U of T Research Communications

Disney struck box office gold with the animated feature Frozen, which has the distinction of being the highest-grossing animated feature and the fifth highest-grossing film of all time. Its Academy Award-winning song “Let it Go” has struck a particular chord with kids, and is the subject of online tributes and parodies. We spoke to Professor Nic Sammond of the Cinema Studies Institute at Innis College about the movie’s incredible success. The author of Babes in Tomorrowland: Walt Disney and the Making of the American Child, 1930-1960, Sammond studies the cultural history and political economy of popular film and media.

Note: This interview contains spoilers for Frozen and Maleficent.

Why is Frozen such a popular movie?

It’s designed to create strong emotional relationships between parents and children. This is what’s genius about what Disney does — some would say evil genius, others might say good. Its plots often revolve around the separation of the parent figure from the child. The child has to go through a transformation where it learns what its shortcomings are, what its strengths are, and rely on friends to help it and bring it back together with the parent. The parent has to suffer though letting the child go so the child can stand or fall on its own two feet. This is a constant struggle between parents and children in life, and Disney sneaks right in there, knowing this is an emotional hook for both parents and children. It provides the anxiety of separation and then the fulfillment of reunion.

In the case of Frozen, it’s particularly about the relationship between mothers and children. This is one of Disney’s attempts at feminism. It does still have beautiful princesses. It still ends with the ideal marriage. It doesn’t completely break the mould, but it does allow at least the illusion of choice for the protagonist. She makes a bad choice, and then she has to rectify the choice and set the world right. If you compare that to Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty — some of the classic Disney tales that were borrowing from 18th and 19th century fairy tales — it’s a big step forward.

A lot has been made of the fact that the act of true love at the end is between sisters — there is no man involved.

Yes, and that has been repeated in Maleficent, which is also a Disney movie. It’s not about Prince Charming; it’s about family love. This is a big emotional hook for both children and parents. The formula has to undergo change. If it stays the same, it becomes brittle and doesn’t match the sensibilities of the people watching the movie. In Frozen, the parents die and then you have, as often you do, evil surrogates that have to be dealt with. But you also have her sister and the sense that family will endure after the parents are gone. This is something that resonates with parents, to know that siblings will look after each other.

You’ve written a book about Disney’s marketing to children. Can you give us your findings in a nutshell?

I wrote about Disney’s beginnings in the late 1920s and early 1930s. At that time, the Production Code was just starting. The Production Code, which existed roughly from 1930 to 1968, was a set of rules for what you could and couldn’t do on the screen, and it was premised on the notion that children are susceptible to the messages in films. It was buttressed by a group of scientific studies published between 1933 and 1935 that were popularized in women’s magazines, speaking in alarmist terms about the effect of movies on children.

Disney took advantage of this concern, suggesting that it was good for children. It latched onto the fear that movies are damaging. There was an underlying anti-Semitism to some of those messages — as in, the Jewish Hollywood cabal was going to corrupt your good Protestant children. Disney was not Jewish and was often praised for being solidly middle American, from Missouri and Chicago. The rest could be inferred.

The company built a reputation around an emerging science of child development, and it weathered a significant change in those theories. Before World War II, most of the theories were predicated on behaviourism, which is the notion of input in, behaviour out. Pavlov’s dog is the classic example. That fell out of favour after the war because of the Nazis and the Russians. They were seen as behaviourists who raised generations of evil children. So there was a shift to a Freudian model, popularized by Dr. Spock, that was all about letting the child develop on its own. Disney very adroitly shifted from one discourse to the other and still was seen as good for children. Asked point blank, Walt Disney or other Disney representatives would say, “We just make movies for families.” But all the marketing had messaging about how it was actually good for children.

And what about Disney’s marketing today?

They have had to keep up with an increasingly sophisticated market of both parents and children. There are a lot more jokes written for parents and for sophisticated children and a lot of attention paid to issues around identity formation — race, gender, sexuality. Disney has become one of the most gay-friendly companies in the United States. It still has a hard time having out characters, but in the way it markets itself more generally, it does a good job. It’s tried to take on race, for example, in The Princess and the Frog and in Mulan. A lot of people have critiqued the company for this — it doesn’t necessarily get it right — but there is such a reserve of good will for Disney that even when it doesn’t quite get it right, it’s still seen as doing good.

It’s the same with Frozen. Yes, it’s the act of selfless love between two sisters at the end that’s what true love is really about. But they still have the classic happy ending. They still have the impossible bodies. They’re going for a sweet spot in their marketing.

Frozen was in theatres for a long time, and now it’s out on DVD. Can we expect its popularity to recede anytime soon?

I don’t know. The era of streaming is new. Companies are still experimenting with distribution models. One of the things that Disney was known for was the timed release. On Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter — the big emotional holidays — they would do anniversary releases in theatres and then on VHS and then on DVD. It was part of the reason there was always so much warm intergenerational feeling for Disney. A movie would come out on Thanksgiving. The parents would have all this nostalgia, and they’d watch with the kids. Disney would even withdraw things from circulation for a number of years prior to an anniversary to build demand. The question is how to do that in a streaming market. It will be interesting to see how they organize things now.

One final question: Did you like the movie?

I liked it okay. In many ways, I like Maleficent better. I find Frozen a little pat, even though I thought “good on them” for that ending. But I don’t have kids, so I don’t have to rehash it.