Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Straying from the Party Line: Anna’s Unusual Moments of Humanity in Frozen

At what point do we decide that we love Anna in Frozen? It’s not the first shot, waking her sister up to make her make a snowman, where she’s cute, but kind of annoying, and it’s certain not the next scene, where Anna causes her own injury by leaping around recklessly. And yet, by the end of the next song “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”, we love her.

So what’s the moment during that song? Well, I think it’s split. Usually, when we have a “moment of humanity”, it’s an appealing moment: a moment where the hero is funny, or kind, or appealingly odd, or out-of-character in a cheer-for sort of way, or comically vain.  Other times, it’s a little unique-but-universal moment, where the hero does something we’ve all done but never seen onscreen before, but even here, it’s usually a moment we find amusing, such as the ones listed in the linked post.

Eventually, we’ll be given lots of reasons to love Anna, but I think that the first moment we love her is unusual: it’s a sad unique-but-universal moment. In the first scene, we see that 5-year-old Anna could push her older sister around and cajole her into making snowmen even when Elsa didn’t want to. After Elsa gets locked up, Anna keeps asking Elsa to make snowmen, but Elsa won’t come out. Then Anna says something totally heartbreaking: “Do you want to build a snowman? [no answer] It doesn’t have to be a snowman... [no answer] Okay, bye…”

You don’t have to have an older sibling to see how universal this moment is. And what makes it so heartbreaking is that Anna is used to having the upper hand. In the past, it had to be a snowman and she would brook no opposition, but now she bends on that before she breaks (It doesn’t have to be a snowman) and it’s that bending that really breaks my heart.

But there are dangers with beginning with a sad moment. Let’s return one last time to that Scriptnotes podcast, where they discuss the fact that the song was too depressing this early in the movie:
  • Jennifer Lee: And then how she would throw herself over furniture and that her friends are these portraits. All of that setup is what made us be able to save the song because we were all like “I want to kill myself” by the end of that song because it was so like —
  • Aline Brosh McKenna: So you made it less sad by making her sort of an imp.
  • Jennifer: Yes. And saying this is the girl that you’re going to go on the journey with. These are things about her that you can laugh in her loneliness, I mean, and that’s very Anna. But that was the hardest, I mean, a lot of songs came and went, but that one was the one we all believed in and couldn’t make work for the longest time. And it was because it was so much. It had to do so much.
So they leavened this moment with some more traditional moments of humanity in the song, where Anna humorously interacts with the paintings in the palace. It’s dangerous to start with a downbeat unique-but-universal moment, no matter how compelling it is, because, as Lee says, we have to want to go on a journey with this character.

Postscript: Universal-But-Not-Unique Moments

Before we move on, let’s look at some later attempts to add additional moments of humanity that land a little awkwardly. After that song ends, we see Anna wake up in the morning looking with terrible hair, only to find out that it’s inauguration day and prance through the palace singing a new song. In that song, she clumsily breaks stuff and she feels the urge to stuff some chocolate in her face.

These moments are all fine, but you could call them universal-but-not-unique moments. They work fine for kids, but the adults who are also watching the movie have seen them in a dozen romantic comedies. They’re likable enough, but they take us out of the movie, because they’re overly familiar, and they feel manipulative. They remind us of other stories, instead of real life, so these are the sorts of moments you should not fall back on. Find universal moments that are more unique, so we are startled by the reality of your characters, instead of thinking “Oh, they’re trying to get me to like her.”

1 comment:

Bonnie said...

That's an interesting take on the song. I like when I empathize and worry about a character early on.