Elsa and the two Ilsas
Last weekend, my wife and I took our daughter to see Disney on Ice, about a third of which was devoted to a Cliffs Notes version of Frozen. Hearing those familiar songs again in an arena with a raucous family audience, I was struck once more by how that film’s spectacular success emerged from the intersection of two peerless bags of tricks: the musical and the animated cartoon. Disney has taken cues from Broadway for a long time, of course, but in Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, they found a creative duo that understood those stage conventions inside and out, and the movie runs off their knowledge like a battery. Lopez, in particular, emerged as such a fluent ventriloquist of the Sesame Street style in Avenue Q that I remember talking to an acquaintance of his—a member of the same musical theater circles—who assumed that he could do nothing else. In fact, as it soon became clear, he can do just about anything. He reminds me at times of a less cynical version of Stephin Merritt, a master of formulas who has imbibed the grammar and, yes, the clichés of his medium so completely that he can deploy them almost without thinking. And what sets Lopez apart is that he’s both totally aware of how manipulative that framework can be and willing to use it in the service of what feels like genuine, unfaked emotion.
When you watch Frozen through that lens, you start to notice how many of its most memorable effects are achieved by an ingenious rearrangement of those basic components. In “For the First Time in Forever,” for instance, when the movie cuts away from Anna—who takes the song up a half-step with every verse—to Elsa singing the emotional counterpoint of “Let it Go,” and then begins to cut between them, it amounts to a fantastic structural trick that moves us before we even know why. During the reprise at the ice palace, Anna sings in major key, Elsa in minor, and it culminates in a miniature quodlibet that somehow evokes all of Les Misérables in less than a minute. Most famous of all, of course, is “Let It Go” itself, which, as I’ve noted elsewhere, seems to have recentered the entire movie as soon as it was written. And the really revealing point is that the Lopezes began with certain stock elements without worrying too much about where they fit into the script. “For the First Time in Forever” is a classic “I want” number, which is often ironically reprised later in the story, and “Let It Go” was known as “Elsa’s badass song” in the outline before it became something closer to “Defying Gravity.” (Idina Menzel was cast before any of the music had been written, so they were clearly writing with her strengths in mind.) And once the song was in place, the whole movie was reshaped around it, like the tail wagging the dog. As Lopez-Anderson has said: “If it weren’t framed by the right story, [the song] wouldn’t connect with people.”
And musicals aren’t the only genre in which a compelling character can result from the spaces left by the manipulation of big blocks of narrative. In an interview about the writing of Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, Christopher McQuarrie said:
The…question for me was figuring out the structure of the movie, and we decided to just start with the action—we thought about what kinds of action set pieces we always wanted to do, and then we put them into some semblance of an order to try and figure out what journey that would put our characters on…I rearranged two sequences and changed one specific detail. I took the underwater sequence and the motorcycle chase and put them back to back, creating one monster action set piece in the middle of the movie. When I did that, it created a great relentless set piece, but I blew up the movie—suddenly, characters’ motives that made sense in the previous draft didn’t work anymore. If Ilsa is running from both Ethan and Lane, where is she running to? Figuring that out necessitated the creation of act one and the introduction of British intelligence into the movie, and that in turn led us to all the consequences in the third act. So action really drove story.
Critics have long noted that the action and musical genres have a lot in common, but I’m not sure if anyone has ever noticed how both can recombine stock elements to generate information about a character. In this case, it resulted in Ilsa Faust, who—with apologies to Imperator Furiosa, with whom she shares her initials—is the most interesting woman in an action movie in years.
And it applies to other genres as well. At the risk of stretching the argument, I’d argue that the most famous fictional Ilsa of all—as played by Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca—benefits from the same kind of narrative recombination. Casablanca is a kind of musical already, both because of its memorable songs and in the way its great set pieces play like solos or duets of unforgettable dialogue. And if much of Bergman’s appeal comes from her real confusion on the set about which man she was supposed to love the most, with her scenes being constantly rewritten on the fly, that embodies a kind of musical logic, too: director Michael Curtiz and his team of screenwriters seem to have chosen sequences based on how well they played in the moment, with Ilsa’s motivations evolving based on the emotional logic that the scenes imposed, rather than the other way around. If the result works so well, that’s a tribute to Bergman’s performance, which provides a connective thread between inconsistent conceptions of Ilsa’s character: the scene in which she pulls a gun on Rick to get the letters of transit doesn’t have much to do with anything else, but because of Bergman, we buy it, at least for as long as it takes to get us to the next moment. Umberto Eco famously said that Casablanca is made up of memories of other movies, but the intersection of all those incompatible elements resulted in a character that no one can ever forget. Ilsa and her two namesakes have that much in common: they emerge, as if by icy magic, when you set the right pieces side by side.