“A stunning big-screen comedy-adventure.”[i]
This enthusiastic advertising description does not refer to a Marvel superhero film, or an action-adventure franchise like Pirates of the Caribbean, or not even to the highly successful Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Abrams, 2015). It markets another box-office phenomenon distributed by the Disney company: the animated feature Frozen (Buck and Lee, 2013).
More often situated within the generic universe of children and family films (for example, the popular film website Rotten Tomatoes identifies it as a “Kids & Family” film),[ii] critical reception and marketing actually reveals the multiplicity of genres associated with Frozen. For example, Todd McCarthy (Hollywood Reporter) refers to its (supposed) target audience, identifying Frozen as a “girl-aimed film” and an “animated princess tale”; he also describes the film as a “full-fledged musical” with some “large-scale action” and “humour”.[iii] Frozen’s marketing foregrounds this generic variety. Its initial teaser trailer consisted of a slapstick comedy scene between Olaf the snowman and Sven the reindeer. Promotional clips featured thrilling action scenes (the “wolf chase” and the attack by giant snowman Marshmallow). Subsequent trailers emphasized Frozen’s musical component, using “Let It Go” as the soundtrack, and the central theme of sisterhood.
Frozen’s Wolf Chase Sequence
Frozen’s Holiday Trailer
Other critics used generic labels that are more unexpected in the context of an animated film, and rather associated with live action cinema. For example, Stephanie Merry (Washington Post) considers Princess Anna, the endearingly clumsy, dreamy, and optimistic lead, as a “contemporary rom-com heroine”.[iv] Scott Foundas (Variety) associates powerful and lonely Queen Elsa with both the superhero genre, comparing her ice-castle to “Superman’s Fortress of Solitude”, and the horror film, pointing out similarities between her potentially dangerous ice powers triggered by intense emotions, and Carrie’s “telekinetic rage” from the eponymous film (De Palma, 1977).[v]
The example of Frozen demonstrates that mainstream animated features can explore a wide variety of genres, and suggests that they can be approached within a generic context that transcends the label of “children films”. Like their live-action counterpart, they are generic hybrids, and I would argue that this hybridity is actually at the very core of animation.
The concept of “generic hybridity” has been highly documented in the context of live-action cinema. Celestino Deleyto describes filmic texts as “meeting points in which various genres come into contact with one another, vie for dominance and are transformed:” according to him, “genre mixing is… inherent to the workings of genre.”[vi] A film like Iron Man (Favreau, 2008), for example, is not merely a superhero film: it also includes tropes from the war film and screwball comedy. From a marketing perspective, Rick Altman points out that “Hollywood has no interest in explicitly identifying a film with a single genre.”[vii] In other words, the more hybrid, the wider the audience: all demographics can be attracted to some elements of the film. Mainstream animated features function in the same way; they are, by nature, generic hybrids.
The first reason for this is the specific audience usually targeted by mainstream animated films. Successful animated franchises such as DreamWorks’ Shrek or Pixar’s Toy Story possess a broad demographic appeal, addressing both children and adults. They engage the latter by casting prominent voice actors, by inserting a variety of pop culture references, and allusions to more adult films through parody or homage.[viii] This intertextual network builds up the films’ generic hybridity. For instance, Zootopia (Howard and Moore, 2016) presents itself as a straightforward family film: its brand identity, a Disney animated feature, necessarily situates it within this genre. Yet, the multiplicity of intertextual references, aimed at an older knowing audience, expands its generic identity. The relationship, at first antagonistic and later complementary, between idealist rabbit/police officer Judy Hopps and cynical fox/hustler Nick Wilde, follows from cop and buddy films; the characterization of crime boss Mr. Big, a threatening arctic shrew, is a parodic reference to Marlon Brando in The Godfather (1972, Coppola), and represents a wider homage to the gangster film. Zootopia also pokes fun at the wider Disney fairy-tale canon, with a line directly referring to Frozen: “life isn’t some cartoon musical where you sing a little song and all your insipid dreams magically come true. So let it go.”
Added to this generically hybrid intertextuality aimed at a multigenerational audience, mainstream animation has the potential to bring further live-action generic hybridity due to the specificity of its medium. Paul Wells argues that animated films both subvert and redefine genre within live action, and foreground the specificity of animation as a form.[ix] He points out two particularities of animation that are key in the context of generic hybridity: the medium’s ability to announce itself as its own text, which interrogates the parameters of its own uses of generic traits, and the primacy of metamorphosis as a thematic and stylistic trope.
Frozen’s “Let It Go” epitomizes these two particularities, both announcing itself as an animated sequence and foregrounding the animation trope of metamorphosis, which points to the film’s generic hybridity. During this sequence, Queen Elsa explores for the first time the full scope of her powers. She designs and brings to life Olaf the snowman: from a self-reflexive perspective, she becomes an animator. In her hands, snow is a three-dimensional material artistically transformed into various elements, from small snowflakes to an impressive ice castle. It strikingly rises before the viewers’ eyes, as if they were taken behind the scenes of computer-generated animation.
As her creations become more and more elaborate, Queen Elsa pushes the boundaries of the animated medium (“it’s time to see what I can do, to test the limits and break through”), becoming a “super” animator. Indeed, her growing mastery of her transformative powers, and her enthusiasm in the process, follow from the superhero film. The genre dedicates a significant amount of time to the protagonists’ exploration of their superpowers, foregrounding the “majesty” and “delight” these bring.[x]
This enthusiasm is also conveyed through song. Susan Smith considers the “relationship between animation and the musical as mutually enhancing”: the pleasures of the animated musical seem “rooted in a self-conscious delight in animation’s capacity for bringing things to life”.[xi] Indeed, Elsa’s extraordinary transformative abilities as a super-animator reach their visual climax (the first long shot revealing the stunning ice castle) when the most powerfully rendered line “Let the storm rage on” is heard.
Frozen’s “Let It Go”
Frozen’s “Let It Go”, a self-reflexive animated superhero/musical sequence, shows that the propensity of the animated medium to announce itself as its own text, and to showcase its potential for metamorphosis, enables it to explore live-action genres, and to develop its generic hybridity. Taking into account this particularly developed generic hybridity enriches the study of these animated features and casts new light on their aesthetic and narrative tropes. For example, the superhero genre is an interesting framework to approach the portrayal of Elsa and female power within the film. To conclude, it demonstrates that contemporary mainstream animation touches a large variety of genres – beyond the “children’s film” generic label.
[iii] McCarthy, T. (2013) Frozen: Film Review. [online] The Hollywood Reporter. Available at http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/frozen-film-review-652699 [Accessed 19 April 2016].
[iv] Merry, S. (2013). Frozen Movie Review: Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel Dazzle in Disney’s Latest. [online] The Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/goingoutguide/movies/frozen-movie-review-kristen-bell-and-idina-menzel-dazzle-in-disneys-latest/2013/11/26/3b030292-5390-11e3-9fe0-fd2ca728e67c_story.html [Accessed 19 April 2016].
[v] Foundas, S. (2013). Film Review: Frozen. [online] Variety. Available at http://variety.com/2013/film/reviews/frozen-review-1200782020/ [Accessed 19 April 2016].
[vi] Deleyto, C. (2009). The Secret Life of Romantic Comedy. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 14.
[vii] Altman, R. (1998). “Reusable Packaging: Generic Products and the Recycling Process.” In Refiguring American Film Genres: History and Theory, edited by Nick Brown. Berkeley: University of California Press, 9.
[viii] See Beeler, S. (2015). “Songs for the Older Set: Music and Multiple Demographics in Shrek, Madagascar, and Happy Feet.” In Children’s Film in the Digital Age: Essays on Audience, Adaptation and Consumer Culture, edited by Karin Beeler and Stan Beeler. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 28; 32.
[ix] Wells, P. (2002). Animation: Genre and Authorship. London: Wallflower, 48; 66.
[x] See Schumaker, J. (2011). “Super-Intertextuality and 21st Century Individualized Social Advocacy in Spider-Man and Kick-Ass.” In The 21st Century Superhero: Essays on Gender, Genre and Globalization in Film, edited by Richard J. Gray II and Betty Kaklamanidou. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 134.
[xi] Smith, S. “The Animated Film Musical.” In The Oxford Handbook of the American Musical, edited by Raymond Knapp, Mitchell Morris, and Stacy Wolf. New York: Oxford University Press, 172.
Eve Benhamou is a PhD candidate in Film & TV at the University of Bristol (UK). Her research focuses on Disney’s and Pixar’s contemporary feature-length animated output (2006-2016). Combining genre studies and postfeminism as theoretical frameworks, her thesis aims at exploring the way these animated features are influenced by and rework current Hollywood trends and postfeminist tropes. She presented papers on postfeminist gender constructions, the animated superhero genre, and generic hybridity in Disney and Pixar animated films at several conferences, including BAFTSS Annual Conference 2015, Symfrozium: A Study Day on Disney’s Frozen (University of East Anglia, 2015), and SERCIA Annual Conference 2015.