Nearly 10 months after its release, after raking in more than $1.2 billion in foreign and domestic sales (making it the fifth-highest-grossing film and top-grossing animated film of all time); watching its soundtrack emerge as the top-selling album of 2014 so far; inspiring a sing-a-long doppelganger movie with subtitles; becoming a best-selling DVD; and generating what is projected to exceed $1 billion in merchandise revenue before the end of the year—
Let me start over. After the YouTube video of “Let It Go,” plus its offshoots and satires and permutations, have collectively drawn more views than there are numbers in the universe without funny names—
After the Magic Kingdom announced that, starting Nov. 5, Cinderella’s palace will undergo a nightly transformation into a sparkling ice castle, and Hollywood Studios placed its summer “frozen funland” and sing-along on the “continuing indefinitely” list, and Epcot decreed that “Norway,” as represented in its amusement park, shall henceforth be Arendelle, and overrun with rock trolls—
After mythical Scandinavian sisters invaded our grape packaging—
Congratulations, Frozen, you’ve arrived.
The fairytale mash-up show, which returned for its fourth season last Sunday, teased Frozen back in May: As the clock wound down on Season 3’s two-hour finale, a jar full of shimmering blue liquid fell on its side, its contents coagulating into a lady. She—gloves, dress, flaxen braid—sauntered from the room, ice blooming beneath her feet. It was almost positively Elsa, Frozen’s snow queen, and almost positively the most genius marketing stunt the OUAT showrunners could have possibly concocted: Once Upon A Time closed out its third season with 6.8 million total viewers. The Season 4 premiere lured in 10.4 million.
As the first episode of Season 4 opens, we see Elsa and Anna’s parents—doomed to die at sea—debating whether to entrust a secret to a bottle and set it afloat. They do, of course, and of course the message falls into the hands of the person it concerns—Elsa, who concludes that she and her frost-fringed powers are responsible for setting her parents on their fatal voyage. (This improbable, come-the-hell-on plotting is typical of Once Upon a Time, which is not an insult: It is typical of fairy tales too.) So Anna, engaged to marry beau Kristoff in the family wedding dress Elsa has found for her—because their sororal relationship is great!—sails off for the Enchanted Forest to learn more, with the hope of assuaging Elsa’s guilt. When she doesn’t come back, the snow queen goes looking for her in Storybrooke, the fictional Maine town that is OUAT’s home base. She engages in scary villain behavior: flash-freezing a Chevy of dwarves, unleashing an ice monster. The showrunners seem to be positioning Elsa as the season’s tragic, bewitchingly beautiful, and dangerous Big Bad.
Embroidering that central plotline are, I suppose, a few ghostly reminders that we are watching Once Upon a Time, rather than your preteen’s Frozen fanfic magically manifest on network TV. Emma and Regina yell at each other about something, and then cry together about something. Gus Fring from Breaking Bad makes a facial expression. But what’s striking about the series’ use of Frozen so far is that it more closely resembles a takeover than an incorporation. OUAT’s many, many main characters—Hook, Robin, Charming, Mary Margaret—are relegated to background noise as protracted scenes explore the sweet but complicated dynamic between Anna and Elsa, or introduce yet more Frozen creatures (such as rock trolls). Where past protagonists like Belle (repurposed as callous Rumpelstiltskin’s saving grace) and Mulan (Aurora’s fierce protector) bent around the demands of the story, here the story is tap water in the ice tray that is the Frozen franchise.* The unintended effect is definitely to underscore the commercial nature of the merger; the way the movie elements stand apart from the rest of the show—when they aren’t mercilessly absorbing it—has a coarse, bossy quality, like: Here’s what you wanted. Now be quiet.
It’s all utterly predictable, and makes 100 percent pure grade capitalist sense. Some Frozen paraphernalia I didn’t mention in the beginning of this post: Umbrellas. $10,000 dolls. Dog collars. A themed karaoke app, endless birthday party decorations, sexy adult Halloween costumes modeled after Olaf the snowman (yes, really), and dinnerware sets galore. Moments after most Frozen products hit Disney stores, eBay, or Amazon, they vanish. “Since the movie’s release on DVD in March, Frozen merchandise has been selling so fast, Disney [outlets] had to institute a two-item limit on all goods … not that there’s anything to buy,” reported the New York Post in an article titled “Frozen Merch Is Making Parents Do Crazy Things.” (What kind of crazy things? “People have gotten into physical fights,” one Disney store employee lamented.)
Online, parents swap tips for navigating the five-hour waits to meet Anna and Elsa at Disney World, which are not really tips at all, but muted cries of consolation and Schadenfreude. (“If you thought the situation at rope drop was crazy at Epcot, we’ve heard it’s even worse at Magic Kingdom Park with the masses all running toward Princess Fairytale Hall at opening.”) While officials have tried to mitigate matters by expanding the greeting area and creating separate lines for Anna and Elsa, these homegrown posts advise, Fastpass reservations to pose with the sisters are still snapped up months in advance.
“I don’t think Disney expected the property to be so wildly successful,” Wynne Tyree, the president of a market research and consulting firm, told Ad Age. During the early days, they were pleased, of course, if a bit overwhelmed. At this point the company seems to have recovered from the shock and switched into feverish capitalization mode. In the works: a line of Frozen health food, bandages, and toothpaste; more than 50 print and online books; a Frozen-on-ice fantasia; a sing-a-long boombox; a new nail polish line; and a Broadway show. (Plus a short sequel, Frozen Fever.) Analysts expect that the top-selling holiday toy this year will be a 15-inch Snow Glow Elsa Doll, available for $39.99, that “sports a light-up dress, a magical snowflake necklace, and belts out the film’s anthemic ballad, ‘Let It Go.’ ” Says Laurie Schact, chief toy officer at a company that publishes toy industry trade magazines: “With Anna and Elsa, as prepared as retailers are for the holiday rush for these products, they’re still going to find themselves short.”
So the Frozen situation on Once Upon a Time seems like a metaphor. Sure, the movie is wonderful—resonant, gutsy, fresh, sincere, imaginative—but does it really overshadow the entire Disney canon, from Snow White and Sleeping Beauty to Robin Hood, Peter Pan, Mulan, Beauty and the Beast, and The Little Mermaid? Is it way better than 2012’s Brave? (Merida never made it to ABC.) None of these classics had near the commercial impact out of the gate that Frozen is having, though clearly some of this relates to advances in marketing, toy design, and general ingenuity in spinning products from stories. You could point to other factors: The Internet is to fandom as gasoline is to fire. The other mainstream children’s film offerings from 2013 left something to be desired. More and more, adults are embracing kid-directed culture without embarrassment—with, maybe, a touch of pride.
Whatever the reasons, Frozen’s popularity keeps snowballing. And now that huge snowball has rolled over a mediocre show that people used to watch largely out of a lingering loyalty to fairy tales—a show that in the past at least feigned interest in its characters’ deep mythologies, as well as in their bankability. By scooping up 10-month-old Anna and Elsa, Once Upon a Time has abandoned any pretense of nervily refreshing timeless tales, or engaging with a tradition. We fans aren’t mad—we like the series’ “anything goes” attitude, its willingness to mash unlikely elements together. On the other hand, there’s nothing less magical than the profit motive taking over your dream factory. Disney loosed a good dream to add to the collection when it released Frozen last November. A little less factory would be nice.
*Correction, Oct. 8, 2014: This article originally misspelled Rumpelstiltskin’s name. We’ve corrected it, however, so we respectfully ask for our firstborn child back.