Why is Frozen such a big hit? The experts want to know, in hopes that Hollywood can create another viral megahit.
Story, characters, timing, music, acting — these are all necessary ingredients. Disney has made other hit animated classics, but why does this one cut across every demographic?
For one thing, the movie’s appeal is more universal than the usual Disney fluff, as George Bizer, a psychologist at Union College, found after interviewing college students.
While responses were predictably varied, one theme seemed to resonate: everyone could identify with Elsa. She wasn’t your typical princess. She wasn’t your typical Disney character. Born with magical powers that she couldn’t quite control, she meant well but caused harm, both on a personal scale (hurting her sister, repeatedly) and a global one (cursing her kingdom, by mistake). She was flawed—actually flawed, in a way that resulted in real mistakes and real consequences. Everyone could interpret her in a unique way and find that the arc of her story applied directly to them. For some, it was about emotional repression; for others, about gender and identity; for others still, about broader social acceptance and depression. “The character identification is the driving force,” says Wells, whose own research focusses on perception and the visual appeal of film. “It’s why people tend to identify with that medium always—it allows them to be put in those roles and experiment through that.” She recalls the sheer diversity of the students who joined the discussion: a mixture, split evenly between genders, of representatives of the L.G.B.T. community, artists, scientists. “Here they were, all so different, and they were talking about how it represents them, not ideally but realistically,” she told me.
Another strong point of appeal: the story keeps the audience engaged because it subverts expected tropes and stereotypes, over and over. “It’s the furthest thing from a typical princess movie,” Wells says. “The handsome prince is evil. The person with the magical powers is good. It spins Disney on its head.” It also, unlike prior Disney films, aces the Bechdel Test: not only are both leads female, but they certainly talk about things other than men. It is the women, in fact, not the men, who save the day, repeatedly—and a selfless act of sacrifice rather than a “kiss of true love” that ends up winning. “Frozen” is, in other words, the strong, relatable, and nuanced story that Litman and Simonton identified.
That Disney allowed social media like YouTube to reproduce the songs — especially “Let It Go” — which was quite contrary to Disney’s usual rabid copyright protectionism, helped, too.