Why Disney’s Marketing Campaign Doesn’t Do ‘Frozen’ Justice


REARVIEW: A musical about two princesses? You wouldn't know it from the Mouse House's shrewdly deceptive advertising strategy.

Before I saw “Frozen,” Disney’s altogether splendid new animated feature, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d emerged from such a movie actually humming the soundtrack. Forced to guess, I’d say it was 15 years ago with “Mulan,” a modest charmer whose catchy central number, “I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” has earned a permanent spot on my workout playlist. “Frozen” is an achievement of a different magnitude — a welcome throwback to the Mouse House musical tradition in which every tune and lyric is delivered with full-throated gusto and a glorious absence of irony. When the youthful queen Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel) sings “Let It Go,” free at last to unleash the icy enchantments that have kept her locked up since childhood, the result is as thrilling an anthem of liberation as “Defying Gravity,” Menzel’s signature number from the stage tuner “Wicked.”

As many have pointed out, “Frozen” is essentially a warm-up act for its own inevitable Broadway show, so fully formed are its musical elements and so skillfully have they been integrated into the story’s narrative engine. The film may not quite reach the heights of Disney’s classic heyday or the Howard Ashman-Alan Menken era, but the creative sparks that gave rise to “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” “Sleeping Beauty” and “The Little Mermaid” nonetheless course through its lifeblood. And for sheer princess-centric, femme-focused appeal, “Frozen” arguably outdoes them all, placing not one but two royal heroines, Anna and Elsa, at the center of a story very loosely inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s classic “The Snow Queen.”

Of course, you wouldn’t know any of this based solely on the film’s shrewdly deceptive marketing campaign, which has gone out of its way to avoid even the slightest suggestion that “Frozen” is (a) a musical and (b) about princesses and queens, snowy or otherwise. The billboards show the four human principals covered in a thick frost while giving pride of place to Olaf the snowman, weirdly implying that this comic-relief figure is in fact the protagonist. Faced with that misleading image, a literal whitewash of the film’s actual content, you couldn’t begin to guess what the story’s about, or even that it takes place once upon a time.

The trailer and TV spots go even further, playing up Olaf’s genteel hijinks (and even those of Sven the reindeer) while essentially banishing Elsa, by far the story’s most complex and compelling character, to the margins. Anna fares mildly better, though of the four major personalities singled out, she comes in fourth, ranking behind her two handsome suitors and Olaf. (Why treat your co-lead like she’s Scarlett Johansson in “The Avengers”?) And while previews for the studio’s past films have been awash in source music, no one here sings so much as a note, never mind that they have at their disposal one of the more impressive Disney song scores in recent memory (courtesy of composer Christophe Beck and songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez).

And then, of course, there is that pesky gender-neutral title, which does for “The Snow Queen” what “Tangled” did for “Rapunzel,” reflecting an overall impulse to suppress anything remotely girly or princessy about this thoroughly girly, princessy movie. The thinking (if that’s the word) behind these decisions is clear enough, and it’s been a matter of fairly public knowledge since the disappointing B.O. performance of a 2009 film that Disney had the grave misfortune to title “The Princess and the Frog.” After all, why call attention to princesses — a niche commodity at best these days — when you can more successfully market your product to all four quadrants? Why run the risk of alienating viewers with singing, dancing and other archaic showbiz practices when you can seduce them instead with catchy one-liners and breezy slapstick?

For that matter, why even bother to make a movie with any of these things at all if they’re such narrow, feminine attributes, so abhorrent to the cootie-phobic fanboys being targeted by Disney’s recently acquired Marvel franchise? The answer to that question gets at the strange commingling of integrity and hypocrisy that has always lurked at the heart of the Disney brand. This is a company that retains a strong, deeply entrenched sense of tradition, and happily boasts enough superb storytellers (in this case, filmmakers Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee) to carry that tradition proudly forward. Yet the studio is also, on some level, beholden to a curious industry paradox: That there is a deep-seated, gender-blind public need for fairy tales — for timeless, well-crafted stories about witches and wizards, frogs and princesses — is as obvious and undeniable as the reflexive sexism that seeks to frustrate almost every attempt to satisfy that demand.

It is of course a critic’s job to review movies, not advertising strategies, and far be it from me to advise against business practices that are apparently paying off. “Tangled” grossed nearly $600 million worldwide, and “Frozen” looks on track to do even better, having already set a Thanksgiving weekend opening record and grossed a terrific $93 million domestically. It would be ridiculous to begrudge a movie as fine as “Frozen” its hit status. But it’s not unreasonable — especially since truthfulness and transparency are among the movie’s key themes — to wish that it were being presented with less self-loathing and more honesty, as well as more confidence in its considerable artistic virtues.

In its bid to update classical Disney storytelling with respectable gender politics and wised-up humor, “Frozen” is a far more seamless effort than either “Tangled” or “The Princess and the Frog.” There are, to be sure, broadly humorous touches and a few winkingly anachronistic lines of dialogue, but these are for the most part pleasing and unobtrusive. There are indispensable life lessons about the perils of rushing into romance, which parents of young girls will particularly appreciate. And there is, at the story’s core, a subtle feminist intelligence as clear and calm as the icy surfaces that abound in this beautiful winter wonderland.

As in Disney/Pixar’s “Brave,” which focused on a thorny, moving and utterly convincing bond between mother and daughter, that feminism expresses itself in a family dynamic rarely explored in contemporary animation. In “Frozen,” it’s the difficult but deeply loving relationship between two sisters — two smart, resilient, carefully individuated women whose emotional connection is strong enough to endanger an entire kingdom, and also to bring about its salvation. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this a movie that quietly declares, in scene after scene, that a powerful woman is not someone to be loathed, feared or hidden from view. Would it have killed Disney to make sure the marketing proved worthy of the message?

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  1. cooki says:

    i disagree with most of you. i wanted to see a movie about a snowman and his travels. this is what i envisioned from the trailers. ugh just another dumb princess movie. my son hated it. this was not for boys even though it was semi markted that way. and if it is a musical they should not be embarrassed or what ever to say so. we felt totally snookered into seing this thing. oh and this was a reinvention of the sbow queen. a dark tragic spooky cool fairy tale. but this was all syrup. ugh

    • marcaus says:

      you say “FROZEN” is another dumb princess movie, and that it was not for boys. Well i`m a boy and i loved every minute of it, if your son dosen`t like it then that him, but there are alot of people including “boys” that love this movie. so if you have something bad to soay about it just keep it to yourself.

  2. Perry says:

    A thoughtful piece with some valid points, but I disagree. Disney knows it can make a mint with an animated feature in the holiday period, even with poor advertising. They just don’t care. Consider WRECK-IT RALPH. Disney could have emphasized the whole arcade nostalgia aspect more — which already worked for TRON: LEGACY — but inexplicably decided that promoting the voice talents of John C. Reilly was the way to go. Apparently, audiences didn’t mind.

  3. johntshea says:

    Lots of gender generalizations here, I see, starting with Justin Chang’s absurd references to Marvel and ‘cootie-phobic fanboys’ and continuing in the comments. Do cartoons really need the gender wars?

  4. pcclsky says:

    This really isn’t anything new, although brought to the forefront with “Frozen”. I still remember the previews for “Tangled”. I’ve got a lot of nieces and nephews and they were still “young enough” to see a lot of “kiddie” flicks that were advertising it. And I remembered thinking: “This is the goofiest, dumbest thing I’ve seen Disney put out in a long time.” And I continued to think that well past the film’s release, until I finally started hear from my peers, “Oh no! That was a really good movie!” Admittingly, I still haven’t seen it in its entirety, but the few clips of it I saw were far from “pure goofiness”. Basically, I would prefer if Disney could be more “upfront” about things like this. I’d like to think Disney and Pixar (well…maybe not Pixar so much anymore after “Cars 2” and “Monsters University”…) are getting into the mindset where these movies are for everyone, not just kids…kind of like Studio Ghibli films. But, unfortunately, the mentality of “cartoons are for kids” seems to be permanently engrained in American thought. Hence, they had no choice but to market “Tangled” as a bunch of dumb pop-culture jokes and “Frozen” as an “Ice Age” knockoff, because ultimately they have to market to kids because they can’t rely on adults going to see the movies on their own. I can only hope that changes in the future…because I’d see “Frozen” again over half the live-action crud at the box office.

  5. Sean says:

    The ad campaign was why my son (age 10) wanted to see the movie. When he saw it, he was very disappointed because the ads he saw (mostly on Cartoon Network) did not represent what the movie actually turned out to be. I also remember seeing a scene online involving the snowman, the reindeer, and their battle for a carrot on a frozen pond that made the movie seem more like a straight comedy with non-human characters than a musical, which it pretty much was. There is nothing wrong with the movie but had it been properly presented in the various marketing formats both my son and I saw, we wouldn’t have gone. It just wasn’t his thing and has made him decide that maybe he needs to be pickier about the animated movies he wants to see in the future. My son actually compared Frozen to Tangled, which had some singing but, as he put it, got it out of the way and then was mostly all about the story. And it wasn’t strictly a gender issue. One of my son’s female friends didn’t like it either because of all the music, something she also didn’t realize would play such a large part in the story. It’s been so long since I saw a Disney movie with music (like Beauty and the Beast) that I forgot that Disney actually did have a movie history prior to Pixar and its narrative influence. I’ll exercise a little discretion (like not going on the first day like we did with Frozen) and make sure I check a review in the future (which I actually usually do) to see if the ads represent the actual movie.

  6. Kara says:

    Come on! Let’s think about this for a second. Yes, ‘those were the days’ when Princess graced our presence with their beautiful dress and catchy, show stopping musical numbers. THOSE WERE THE DAYS! However, we have to think about the audience the movie is really targeting; today’s children [both boys and girls]. These kids are accustom to cheesy, over dramatized slapstick comedy . They laugh at words like butt and duty; and they are rolling in the aisles when a character releases a flatulent. These kids are immediately turned off, especially young boys, at words like princess, or fairy tales, or musical. I think Disney understands that kids these days want movies like Despicable Me, where comedy is the center of the film. Disney wants to remain true to their origin and they will always make a movie based on those principles but they HAVE to get these kids to the theater. That’s why the teaser trailer feature the two goofy side kicks rather than the two heroines. And may I remind you that the TV spots released closer to the premiere featured the songs “For the First Time in Forever” and pop version of “Let It Go.”

  7. johntshea says:

    Homosexual snowman? Are heterosexual snowmen less creepy? How exactly would a snowman go about…On seconds thoughts, forget I ever asked. ‘Melting with passion’ could gain a whole new and rather fatal meaning. Only the carrot would survive, Very Freudian…

  8. Ana Faye says:

    I completely agree they should be proud of the two strong female leads and focus the marketing on them and not so much on olaf the snow man. My two nephews both have an olaf the snow man and ask them about froZen they will tell u they wanna watch the snowman movie having no idea that there are princesses even in the movie because the commercials focus on olaf. I find it very sad considering my boy love to watch princess sofia and don’t care that she’s a girl! They love the music and the story. Disney should put the emphasis back on the story telling that is wat makes all the great Disney movies so well loved.

  9. Robyn says:

    I completely agree. The marketing focuses so heavily on Olaf (the snowman) and while he does play an important part in Elsa and Anna’s relationship, he is no way the sole focus of the movie. It’s quite sad to see him featured so prominently when Elsa is just shown as the villain so much. They characterized her all wrong for the trailers. On a side note: I highly disagree with Disney getting rid of talent, as much as I dislike cgi animation I can at least say that Pixar’s crew has got some insane talent, especially story telling wise. Ever since Princess and the Frog it feels like Disney has to lie in it’s marketing for movies, I (a huge Disney fan) almost didn’t go see Tangled because of how bad the trailers made it look.

  10. I truly know what your talking about, I was part of that Mulan movie, as a digital painter, as much as I hate that line “those were the days” THOSE actually were the days! The people in charge at that time actually did care about all those things you talked about in your review, from beginning to end and the music and lyrics were as much a part of their films as the Story and Artwork. When someone over there got the idea that the public didn’t want to view 2D Animation anymore and that 3D was the ONLY way to go they got rid of the REAL TALENT that was always at the forefront of what the trademark “Disney” has always meant to the world!
    The almighty $$$ was the primary focus and they took every excuse they could find to CUT spending and decided they didn’t need to spend so mluch $$$ on Marketing and started streamlining the costumes on the characters and cutting the amount of characters etc. all the Classic touches that make the name Disney Classic. Even the Films Disneyland kickoff disappeared no more Store Front Window Promos or the Plush Toys in all of the Stores. Nothin, Na-da, Zip! There is not the HARD Marketing Promotionals that helped make those Disney Classics that we grew up with and the hugely successful films of the late 80”s and early, mid and late 90’s. It became all about “Pixar” after that and the Studio Lot became a Real Estate commodity and the Disney Historic Artistry got lost in the lust for
    $$$ and John Lasseter’s Fame and unwillingness to take any creative chances, it has to be something that’s already a “sure ting success”. We can only take so many Toy Stories before they get stale and the Comic Book thing is ALL the SAME story with different characters being told over and over and over. How long is it going to take before they realize there are more then a bunch of Comic Book Nerds out there who actually CARE about the STORY, the MUSIC and the FANTASY then a bunch of Special Effects. I loved being able to walk out of the theater humming one of the songs but best of all was being able to listen to my daughter and her friends singing the songs, dancing the dances and acting out their farorite scenes, that just doesn’t happen anymore.

  11. David Webb says:

    What Disney seems unable to comprehend, even now, is that “The Princess and the Frog” did not fail because the word “princess” was in the title. “The Princess and the Frog” failed in large part because the movie is long on atmosphere and short on story. The voodoo elements were far too creepy for young children, and whose idea was it anyway to turn Tiana into a frog for much of the movie? Let’s face it, Disney, TP&TF flopped because you made a bad movie, not because your marketing department let you down. So you overhauled the marketing team, and you changed the title of “Rapunzel.” Okay, that worked out for you. But you nearly botched the release of “Frozen” by way overcompensating for the lack of a male-female love story. If it weren’t for the critics and their near-unanimous praise for the film, “Frozen,” too, would have tanked because you lacked the courage to honestly market the movie you made. I’m beginning to think the Disney connection is not so good for Pixar.

    • Sean C. says:

      That’s a bit of a stretch, seeing as the movie underperformed on its opening weekend, before anybody could have been aware of the elements of it that you raise. And the movie was generally well-received by critics.

  12. Dale Hopson says:

    “A few winkingly anachronistic lines of dialogue”

    It was lame but not as bad as Jiminy Cricket crying “Let’s swing it!” in”Pinocchio”.

  13. Matt says:

    But can you really blame them? Disney have long been the target of feminist abuse, even during the run up to this movie. It makes perfect sense to not give the enemy more ammunition

  14. PhilG says:

    Tangled’s trailer(s) didn’t highlight the music; several of Frozen’s DO feature the main song..

    There’s also a tonne of irony (plus sarcasm and polite mockery) all through the film – which is all extremely well handled.

    • Julia says:

      One of my friends was less than excited to see it because from the trailers she thought it was all about the snowman. We cried and laugh together throughout the whole thing and she is, like me, obsessed with Elsa. A truly fantastic movie and I’m glad it is getting the success it deserves, and will certainly be one of my all time favorites!

  15. ChellemaBelle says:

    I was not excited to see this movie, but am glad my two girls pretty much drug me to it. The marketing campaign makes you wince, expecting the pang of the ever-cute sidekick. While he does prove to be adorable, he’s just a very small part of the movie. The overall message has the women portrayed as intelligent, loving, and supportive. The visuals are astounding and the voice artists actually live up to the term. Would definitely recommend, even though I would really appreciate it if at least one Disney movie would have a mother figure that isn’t demented, turned into a bear, or dies within the first 20 minutes.

  16. Nanny Mo says:

    Okay, I was going to give this a miss because the posters looked so stupid, with that extra stupid snowman, but after reading this, I might go see it. I’m intrigued.

  17. johntshea says:

    I’m happy to hear Disney’s confusing ad campaign has not discouraged moviegoers from seeing ‘FROZEN’, unlike their feeble ads for ‘JOHN CARTER’ where the simple omission of the two words ‘…OF MARS’ left people lost in space as to who or what the movie was about.

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