Language Issues and Disney’s Frozen “Let It Go” Multilanguage Video

What better way to introduce myself as a blogger than to have a post combining two of my greatest passions: film and language? Today, I take a closer look at Disney’s popular multilanguage video of “Let It Go” from Frozen.

As the end credits of Frozen rolled the first time I saw the film, I turned to one of my friends and said, “This movie is going to win the Oscar for Best Original Song.”

“Which one do you think?” my friend asked.

“It’s got to be that ‘Let It Go’ song.”

It wasn’t difficult to predict. In the months between then and the Oscar ceremony, “Let It Go” took pop culture by storm (no pun intended). As Professor W. Anthony Sheppard, a musicologist at Williams College, demonstrates, various musical and cinematic elements work to give the song power both in and out of the film.

The Multilanguage “Let It Go” Video

As a response to the enormous popularity of “Let It Go” (and perhaps as part of the campaign to win the Oscar), Disney released a multilanguage version of the song, trumping it as “Let It Go” in “25 Languages.”

The “Let It Go” video is important because, as of now, it is the most viewed multilanguage video on YouTube. The video, thus, might be many viewers’ primary encounter with numerous world languages.

In casting international talent to dub Frozen, Disney tried to find vocalists whose voices matched those of the original performers in the English version, Idina Menzel for Elsa.  In fact, the solid casting and fluid editing of the multilanguage video prompted many commenters to note that it sounded like Menzel singing in all the languages.  Disney later released a “behind the mic” version to show the vocalists behind each international version of “Let It Go.”

Before I go any further, I want to make something clear: Disney’s choice to make both versions of this video is wonderful. By presenting a popular song from a popular movie in multiple languages, Disney showed people that different languages carry meaning as well, which would especially help Anglophone American audiences who aren’t exposed to many world languages.

The 25 Languages

But what happens when Disney does this? Before answering, let’s consider languages included in the video, as the captions say:

  • English
  • French
  • German
  • Dutch
  • Mandarin
  • Swedish
  • Japanese
  • Latin American Spanish
  • Polish
  • Hungarian
  • Castilian Spanish
  • Catalan
  • Italian
  • Korean
  • Serbian
  • Cantonese
  • Portuguese
  • Bahasa Malaysia
  • Russian
  • Danish
  • Bulgarian
  • Norwegian
  • Thai
  • Canadian French
  • Flemish

Disney’s selection of the twenty-five languages is somewhat problematic. However, I should note that I don’t know how Disney chose these languages. There were a total of forty-three international dubs of Frozen, and Disney released the remaining versions of “Let It Go” in a compilation album entitled Let It Go: The Complete Set.

Perhaps the other languages weren’t ready at the time of dubbing.  Or perhaps Disney chose twenty-five versions that sound like similar voices to create the illusion of having only one voice.  For example, the Arabic version, which was not included in the original video, has a very different vocal style.  Either way, there must have been some executive decisions as to which languages would be included. After all, doesn’t “25 Languages” sound rather nice?

The languages that Disney chose, for the most part, assert Eurocentrism, particularly Western Eurocentrism. Of the twenty-five languages, nineteen are European or American of European origin, with only five of those from Eastern or Southeastern Europe. Of course, perhaps these are the markets for which Frozen was dubbed, meaning that these regions dub more frequently than do others. But to only have six Asian languages seems a little…odd.

“25 Languages” or “25 Languages and Dialects”?

As a linguist, however, I am also baffled at Disney’s choice of the title “25 Languages.” Through this video, Disney has subtly asserted what a “language” is. There is a fuzzy link between languages and dialects, but a handful of Disney’s “languages” are more commonly seen as dialects: French and Canadian French, Latin American Spanish and Castilian Spanish, and Dutch and Flemish. In the latter two cases, there were different translations and different vocalists, which was not true of the French and Canadian French versions.

In an interview with NPR, Rick Dempsey, Senior Vice President of Creative for Disney Character Voices International, suggested that the reason for a Canadian French dub was to make the film more targeted for French-speaking Canadian audiences. French actress and singer Anaïs Delva provided the singing for Elsa in both French and Canadian French and the speaking voice for the French version, with Aurélie Morgane providing the Canadian French speaking voice. It’s fair enough to have two different dubs given the dialectal differences between French and Canadian French. But why two versions of the song in French found their way into the official multilanguage video at the expense of another language remains unclear.

Let It Go: The Complete Set

More so than simply not a case of actually having twenty-five “languages,” Disney’s choice to include two versions of French, Spanish, and Dutch caused ire among some commenters. “Where’s Arabic?” “Where’s Tagalog?” “Where’s Hindi?” they asked. Disney has since released Let It Go: The Complete Set, featuring forty-one international versions of the original version and nine international versions of the end credits version.

Languages included in Let It Go: The Complete Set but not in the original multilanguage video are:

  • Arabic
  • Croatian
  • Czech
  • Estonian
  • Finnish
  • Greek
  • Hebrew
  • Icelandic
  • Latvian
  • Lithuanian
  • Taiwanese Mandarin
  • Brazilian Portuguese
  • Romanian
  • Slovakian
  • Slovenian
  • Turkish
  • Ukrainian
  • Vietnamese

Many of these additional languages are still Eurocentric, though they reflect Eastern and Southeastern Europe more than Western Europe. Crucially, however, there’s one more language of the Americas (Brazilian Portuguese), two more Asian languages (Taiwanese Mandarin and Vietnamese), as well as Arabic, Hebrew, and Turkish, making for a better-rounded representation of the world’s languages.

All the versions from the video save English and Canadian French are on the album. So depending on how you count the French and Canadian French versions (they are the same singer and same translation, after all), there are forty-two or forty-three versions of “Let It Go” available.

This, however, still excludes South Asia and Africa. Although it doesn’t seem as though Frozen was dubbed into any Indian or African language, Patrick Cox, Language Editor of Public Radio International, has suggested that Disney ought to have recorded a version of the song in some language anyway in order to include more linguistic diversity in the video. While I question the feasibility of Cox’s suggestion, I sympathize with his sentiment. Linguistic diversity should be celebrated, and though Disney’s video is a step in the right direction, more inclusiveness would not have hurt.

I say this because many could do with some more exposure to foreign languages – to increase both tolerance and understanding of the world and its peoples.

Kids and the Multilanguage “Let It Go” Video

For evidence, look at the below video of kids reacting to the multilanguage “Let It Go.”

The reactions from the kids range from “I’m learning new languages!” to “Go back to English now!” For the most part, as soon as they lyrics change from English, the kids have confused expressions. The foreignness of the other languages evidently makes some of them uncomfortable.

When Latin American Spanish – the language with which they are most likely to be familiar – comes around, one of the kids notes, “Oh, in Spanish, it sounds super good,” whereas she had previously said of Mandarin, “It sounds weird in Mandarin.” This shows that familiarity is key.

Greater exposure to foreign languages can also shatter stereotypes. One of the girls in the video noted that the German verse of the video was the first time she had heard German with it not sounding “scary.”

In fact, Disney’s selection of verses for the languages speaks to this notion. Let’s consider Dutch as an example. Dutch musical theatre star Willemijn Verkaik voiced Elsa in both the Dutch and German versions of Frozen, and the video places both of her versions near the beginning. If you listen to the full Dutch version, you’ll notice a lot of Dutch sounds like uvular fricatives that may sound “harsh” to Anglophone ears. The Dutch verse in the multilanguage video, however, is free of these sounds, making the foreign language less “foreign.”

Dubbing Global Media

The multilanguage video offers a peek into the global media world we all inhabit by showing fans of Frozen a slice of what the film sounds like in other languages.  As Rick Dempsey said in the NPR interview, The Lion King was only dubbed in roughly fifteen languages upon its release nearly two decades ago, and Disney has since started dubbing in numerous new markets.

While I have mixed feelings about dubbing in general, I believe that it works well for family films like Frozen since it allows children from different parts in the world to hear a movie in their native language. The makers of the “Kids React” video tried to explain this concept to the kids, eliciting varying reactions.

The increase in markets for which Disney dubs its movies demonstrates how various media, including movies, are making the world smaller.

One thought on “Language Issues and Disney’s Frozen “Let It Go” Multilanguage Video

Leave a Reply