How Did 'Frozen' Become so Popular?

Now the highest grossing animated film in history, there's no denying a certain appeal to Disney's Frozen. That doesn't make it a quality film, though.


Director: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee
Cast: Kristin Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad
Length: 102 minutes
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
Year: 2013
Distributor: Disney
MPAA Rating: PG
Release Date: 2014-03-18

We all know having a high box office doesn't a good movie make, just as procuring a large bank account doesn't mean you're a good person. Yet when you're smashing box office records on a global scale, besting films with long-standing statistical marks, there has to be a meaning. People don't simply go to see films for no reason (well, some do). They have to be told why, whether through trailers or -- as is the case with Frozen -- good word of mouth.

How Disney's blockbuster original animated picture earned such positive word of mouth is actually beyond my reasoning. I equate it to a similar, recent feat: Alice in Wonderland. Now, Frozen isn't nearly the auteuristic tragedy of that Tim Burton/Johnny Depp pairing. But I could nevertheless explain how either climbed to their epic grosses. Alice in Wonderland may have simply coasted off a lack of children's fare in theaters, familiarity of story, and Johnny Depp, but Frozen? It had none of these advantages, and every story I've heard from families and friends involves their children being obsessed with the tale of two princesses learning to find each other's love again.

Everything about Disney's unofficial sequel to the far superior Tangled -- don't even get me started on the film's similarities and how Frozen fails to imitate its predecessor at every turn -- is completely mediocre. The premise starts out original enough, focusing on two sisters separated by secrets. A Disney film focusing on two women sounds like an excellent, progressive, 21st century idea. If only it was executed with equally excellent pizzaz.

Instead, the screenplay becomes a muddled mess, failing to convey who our protagonist is, what we should be hoping will happen, or even what relationships to care about. By the time the film ends, there's little attachment left for any of the characters, especially if you're not a fan what/who many are calling the film's scene-stealing side character (more on the off-putting Olaf later). On top of all this, we see bland visual interpretations of humans -- character designs with little imagination and few distinguishing features, let alone Pixar-level CGI magic. Sure, there are a few dazzling snow and ice designs, but nothing to truly stick in one's memory.

Sadly, Frozen looks like a video game. When watching the Blu-ray on my Playstation 3, I kept forgetting I wouldn't get a turn to play along, as opposed to the stunning art on display in Toy Story 3. While these could be forgiven and are rarely the reason children flock to a film (it's certainly not for the hideous Madagascar franchise), the music isn't addictive enough to save it. Frozen is a step up from Les Miserables when it comes to musicality, but that's not saying much, considering that these characters aren't forced to sing literally every line. And, come to think of it, the show-stopping number in Les Miserables, "I Dreamed a Dream", is far better than that of Frozen -- the admittedly catchy, if flawed "Let It Go". The Oscar-winning song is the best of the bunch, but really a lesser lyrical gem than its competition in this year's Academy Awards, "Happy" by Pharrell.

I can't even remember a chord from the rest of the numbers, and I've seen the film twice now. They were forgettable and less than stimulating during the show, and another inexplicably adored element of the Frozen fan base. They, however, seem like treasure compared to the other oft-defended, most cherished element of the film: Olaf, the talking snowman.

The cheery, oddly shaped lover of warm hugs is a vomit-inducing, stumbling contradiction. "Oh, a snowman who loves 'all things hot.' What an idea." I can hear a Disney exec telling himself (or herself) this very thought after stealing it from their six-year-old. While Maximus, the arrogant horse brought to life with vigor and creativity in Tangled -- and half-assedly copied in Frozen as the silent moose, Sven -- is a whole character, Olaf is a one-note joke, voiced with such a high level of self-aware cuteness by Josh Gad it's impossible to find him half as cute as he so obviously wants.

Or so I thought. As I've admitted, Frozen and its characters are much-loved. Families worldwide are eating up the film again and again on its Blu-ray/DVD combo pack. Sporting standard special features like deleted scenes, music videos, a teaser trailer, and a making-of, I'm guessing most owners will keep watching the movie over and over rather than spend time with these equally average extras. T

hen again, if you love the average film, you may love the average extras, as well. The animated short film, Get a Horse is also thrown in, as is a seven-minute featurette on Disney's journey from its origins to, well, Frozen. "Disney's Journey From Hans Christian Anderson to Frozen" is sweet, touching, and provides rich images and insightful interviews. I doubt many kids will jump to it, but adults may find a few moments of nostalgia to cherish.

Honestly, though, Frozen has put me in quite a quandary. Not knowing why it became the success it did, it's hard for me to recommend with any confidence anything about it at all. So see for yourself, if you haven't already. Perhaps you'll discover what it is that I'm missing.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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