Newsmaker: Elsa from Frozen

She's so popular - think countless reruns of Let It Go - that the director recently felt the need to apologise to long-suffering parents. Here's looking at the appeal of this most unusual of Disney princesses.

Elsa's appeal may lie in the fact that she's not perfect, but she realises what she needs to do to change things around for the better. Kagan McLeod for The National
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“It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” sang Andy Williams in 1963. An iconic Christmas song if ever there was one and, for millions of children around the world, it perfectly sums up the magic of the season, when everything is right in their little lives, gifts are doled out and vast quantities of mince pies and television are consumed while the adults grumpily gnaw away at the Brussels sprouts that have made their annual appearance. Kids love it, parents tend to end up loathing it and pretty soon it will all be over for another year.

And every single year the toy and merchandise manufacturers struggle to satisfy the enormous demands placed on them for the most popular items tied in with films, music and television. In the late 1970s, every little boy wanted Star Wars figures and replicas of the Millennium Falcon. In the mid-1980s every little girl seemed to be desperate for a My Little Pony and fistfights broke out in stores when supplies of Cabbage Patch Kids began to dwindle. Such is the procurement power wielded by prepubescent youngsters over their parents and guardians in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

There's no getting away with it this year, though – if you're buying for the littluns then one character will be featuring extensively in "Dear Santa" lists, especially for girls: Princess Elsa. It's been little more than a year since Disney's Frozen went nuclear at the box office and, in that time, one character has captured more hearts and minds of little girls than any other. Elsa, who starts the film as a young princess and ends it as Queen of Arendelle, is born with powers that allow her to control snow and ice. She gets into trouble, inadvertently harms people she cares for and, eventually, sorts herself out and saves the day. Hurrah.

This week, it has become entirely obvious what a magical hold this fictitious royal family member has over children, and frantic parents have been finding out – as they do every year – that they should have done their gift shopping months ago while the shelves were still healthily stocked with an endless array of Frozen merchandise.

Any toy manufacturer could see this coming, but Lego seems to have missed a trick for once. According to a report in The Telegraph earlier this month, while Lego's 292-brick Frozen set, known as Elsa's Sparkling Ice Castle, is available in the toymaker's home country of Denmark, the rest of Europe won't be able to buy it until mid-January at the earliest. Cue lots of upset young girls, embattled parents and a burgeoning grey market for the set that's seeing it changing hands for many times its actual store value.

So why all the fuss? Why has Frozen gone on to become history's most successful animated film, grossing (so far) more than Dh4.8 billion in cinema-ticket and DVD sales? Why, when an actual princess (Kate Middleton) visited New York recently, were children disappointed to discover it was her and not Elsa dropping by? To film critics, the universal appeal is obvious.

“She’s the modern-day Cinderella,” says Ella Ceron on, “the fairy-tale for today: her story is all about conquering fears, embracing who you are and taking charge. We all grow up a little scared and unsure of our potential, but she eventually learns how to own what makes her special and literally builds an entire kingdom from these powers.

“She doesn’t need a prince to save her,” continues Ceron, “in fact, it’s her sister with whom she must team up to save Arendelle – and has an element of vulnerability to her that isn’t worn out as far as Disney’s heroines go. It’s honestly refreshing, and her power ballad is the kind you should keep in your arsenal for all the days when you’re most doubting yourself.”

Ah yes, the power ballad. Disney's animated films almost always have more than their fair share of songs and, while The Bare Necessities and I Wanna Be Like You made The Jungle Book so universally loved, and Hakuna Matata became an intrinsic part of The Lion King's appeal, Frozen has this week been in the headlines because its director, Jennifer Lee (who won an Academy Award for her efforts), has apologised to parents the world over for the song Let It Go.

Sung by Idina Menzel, who voiced Elsa, it has evidently begun to get on the last nerves of parents whose children won’t stop watching it. “A year ago, I’d meet people who, when they found out who I was, they’d say: ‘Oh, we love the songs! We sing them all the time,’” she told The Hollywood Reporter. “Now they’re like, ‘Yep, we’re still listening to those songs.’ I’ve gone from, ‘Thank you’ to ‘Sorry’.” Not so long ago, it took years for a film to become available for home use, now it seems to be just a few short months – hearing certain songs on permanent repeat is just one of the prices we all pay for the over-availability of entertainment technology.

It’s the reason for so many becoming obsessed with Elsa that’s really interesting, however. That, and comparing her with Disney heroines from years gone by. Elsa isn’t perfect but she realises what she needs to do in order to right her wrongs, and she does it – a powerful, almost subliminal message to youngsters wherever they’re watching, that nothing should mean the end of the world. Not even committing an entire kingdom to permafrost, because redemption is always a possibility. That’s the power – as Huey Lewis once sang – that’s the power of love.

But it wasn't always thus for Disney's female leads. It's difficult to fathom but it was 1937, two years before Hitler invaded Poland, when Walt Disney released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Just think about that for a second: a full-length, colour, animated, film released in cinemas 77 years ago and its popularity has never waned. The roles of women in society have changed beyond recognition since then, however, and so, evidently, has the Disney heroine. Snow White might have been a princess but she was weak and gullible. Her nemesis was a vain, jealous and murderous queen – hardly a quality role model for today's youngsters.

After Snow White came Pinocchio in 1940, followed by Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi, but it was 1950 before another female role, Cinderella, took the prime spot in a Disney animation. The downtrodden Cinderella, in what has become the archetypal fairy tale, only lived happily ever after when her prince rescued her. Alice in Wonderland, a year later, was off the charts in weirdness terms and Sleeping Beauty, when she whimpered onto the silver screen in 1959, had basically the same time of it as Cinderella.

It wasn't until 1989 that a Disney animated film featured a leading bona fide heroine in The Little Mermaid. The feared film critic and Pulitzer Prize-winning Roger Ebert, of the Chicago Sun Times, said: "Ariel is a fully realised female character who thinks and acts independently, even rebelliously, instead of hanging around passively while the fates decide her destiny."

The early 1990s were wilderness years when it came to Disney's output quality, but in 1995 Pocahontas burst onto screens. The script might have done the facts the greatest of disservices, but this was a film aimed squarely at girls – one that gave the lead character some heroic moves – and it got an age group talking about America's history with its indigenous people, something that had been brushed under the carpet for far too long. Toy Story came a few months after Pocahontas and tore apart the animated-film rulebook, bringing a hitherto unbelievable virtual reality to children's stories and a knowing wink to adult humour that ensured kids of all ages were transfixed. A Bug's Life, Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo, Cars and Up hit box-office pay dirt, but there was a distinct lack of old-school fairy-tale telling going on. Until Frozen, that is.

To say that Frozen has affected popular culture in 2014 would be the understatement of the year. Its influence is being felt in every toy store, in every DVD seller's rack and in every living room. Will it stand the test of time like some of Disney's previous releases? With future generations of young girls, of that there is no doubt. And that isn't down to trick animation or celebrity voice-overs. It's down to the empowerment of a girl called Elsa – possibly the only female more searched for on Google this year than Kim Kardashian. As a parent, that has to be good news, doesn't it?