My latest Sequart review of the Disney film Tomorrowland is now live and available: “Tomorrowland and the Disney Ethic.”
[Yes, beware of spoilers…]
I have a confession to make. After being begged by my daughters (Grace, 8, and Zoe, 4 — Grace did most of the begging because she never forgets anything and at eight years old is probably smarter than me) for about ten continuous days I finally rented Frozen on iTunes and watched it last night with my kids. They loved it.
That’s not my confession, though. My confession is that I watched it again, this morning, all by myself, no kids around, just because I wanted to. I think I’ll have to listen to three hours of AC/DC to get my man card back.
At least I didn’t cry.
Disney’s Frozen is, on the face of it, until the end, another one of their usual adaptations of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, which in this case is “The Snow Queen.” True to Disney form, the writers deviate significantly from the story, and through most of the film viewers are set up for a typical Disney romance. Frozen’s plot is focused upon two sisters, who are of course princesses, daughters of the King and Queen of Arendelle. The younger one is Anna, who is redheaded, passionate, and impulsive. The older one, Elsa, is blonde, cool (even cold and off-putting), and collected. The stereotypes are as familiar as Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Even the two sisters’ hair color follows type: the redhead is the impulsive one.
As is the case with most fairy tales, there is a magical curse at work. In this case, Elsa is cursed with magical powers that allow her to freeze things and create ice and snow at will. These powers in themselves aren’t necessarily a curse, but she doesn’t control them very well (think Midas), so she nearly kills her sister while they were playing together one day as children. Her sister was only saved by wise and kind trolls (who, incidentally, are evil in the fairy tale version, but what do you expect from Disney?). Part of Anna’s cure, however, was that all memory of Elsa’s magic was removed from her, and Anna had to be kept apart from Elsa to keep her from regaining knowledge of her sister’s magic as well as for her own protection.
And again, typical to most fairy tales, the girls’ parents must be dispensed with somehow in order for the children to have adventures and agency. In this case, the parents die in a shipwreck while the girls are young, so they grow up separately until Elsa comes of age and is ready to take the throne. Both girls had been kept sequestered from the world until the day of Elsa’s coronation and ball. Anna, inexperienced and impulsive, falls in love with the first prince (Hans) whom she dances with and agrees to marry him: Elsa forbids it because, of course, Anna had just met the man. Take note that Anna is acting just like Cinderella, whose behavior isn’t questioned in that film: falling in love with the first prince you meet is just what Disney princesses do. Love at first sight is real and, after all, he is a prince. In the ensuing argument between Anna and Elsa, Elsa inadvertently releases her powers, flees her kingdom, and unwittingly condemns it to an eternal winter while she seeks solitude and freedom in the mountains.
Anna, naturally, pursues her sister, and on the way she meets a kind peasant man her own age (Kristoff) and a goofy magical sidekick (every Disney film has a goofy sidekick of some kind). The sidekick leads Anna to Elsa, and when Anna confronts Elsa, Elsa accidentally strikes her in the heart with her ice, cursing Anna to eventually freeze solid unless an act of true love saves her. Naturally, Prince Hans’s “true love’s kiss” is supposed to be the device that saves her, so Kristoff rushes Anna back to the castle.
In perhaps the weakest element of the film, Prince Hans turns out to be a villain who sought to marry into a throne by marrying Anna, having planned to dispense with Elsa once he married Anna. Until this point Prince Hans has been uniformly — perfectly — kind and virtuous, so while his motives are plausible, his transformation into a villain is not. In a final confrontation Anna is forced to choose between saving herself with Kristoff’s kiss — whom she realizes loves her — or saving her sister from Prince Hans. At the last minute, she chooses to save her sister. Anna places herself between her sister and Prince Hans just in time to protect Elsa, at which point Anna freezes into solid ice. Prince Hans is knocked out cold by the magical transformation, and Elsa weeps over her sister’s frozen body.
Anna’s sacrifice, however, turns out to be the act of true love that cures her from being struck with her sister’s ice, and she thaws, returning to normal. The princess saved herself without any help from a prince at all, so that the emotional core of the film was not a love story between a man and a woman, but between two sisters. The culmination was not the prince’s kiss, but the sisters’ long-awaited hug.
It’s that ending that makes the film what it is and changes a rather predictable Disney adaptation of a fairy tale into a much more remarkable movie. It’s tempting to call the film a feminist statement, seeing in it Hélène Cixous’s call for women to recover their womanhood in relationships with other women, but I won’t. I would say instead that Frozen is working with a rather conventional “true love waits” ethos: resolve your issues in your home life of origin before your strike out to create a new home of your own. Don’t act impulsively in your choice of a spouse, but take your time choosing and get to know them first. At no point does Disney depart from conventional wisdom for all of its departure from Disney’s own fairy tale template.
But I think the film isn’t really concerned with marriage at all. I think it is concerned, ultimately, with grief: the sisters’ grief for their dead parents and their ensuing loss of and separation from one another, and how grief interrupts our relationships, freezes our lives and hearts, and keeps us from moving forward in life. Being “frozen,” then, is primarily a trope for grief and loss. The two sisters represent two different responses to grief and loss. Elsa, the cold one, shuts people out to keep from causing and suffering further pain, desiring nothing more than to run away to an isolated castle in the mountains. Her freezing everything is a function of her fear. Anna, the hot one, wants to manage her grief with activity and relationships, running away from grief by running into another person’s arms.
The film accepts neither response by itself, but synthesizes the two. Elsa was not allowed to run away, and Anna was not allowed to marry. Both were forced back to one another to draw from each other’s strength and, in fact, each sister’s weakness is what the other sister needs to be strong. Anna needs Elsa’s self-control and restraint, and Elsa needs Anna’s expressiveness. They need and complement each other perfectly. Anna and Kristoff finally get their kiss, but they’re not running to the altar, and Elsa learns that repressing emotion is not the way to control it. She learns to express herself, especially those emotions that are not fear.
The fundamental insight of this film is that you can’t control negative emotions by suppressing them. Human beings can’t live in an emotional vacuum. We can only control negative emotions by expressing positive ones. It’s not that uncommon a message. Angelo in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure is often played this way: trying to suppress vice, he succumbs to lust. Blake’s angels and devils in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell ultimately have to synthesize so that the energy of the devils can fuel the angels, and so that the rationality of the angels can restrain and direct, but not eradicate, the energy of the devils. Spock in all versions of the Star Trek franchise slips at times from Vulcan rationality into human emotion. When we suffer, we naturally seek to escape our suffering, and suppression is a kind of escape, but what we do to escape our pain only makes it worse.
Grief, in particular, only exists because love was present first, but love still exists — as grief — when the object of love is lost. Elsa learns to express her love in ways other than grief, and that is what restores her relationship with her sister and her own country in the end. Both characters were frozen in a sense: emotionally frozen by their separation from their parents and from one another. Recovering love from their grief is what thawed them.
This balance between Elsa and Anna, between restraint and expressiveness, is ultimately a very old one: between form and freedom, restraint and activity, reason and emotion, the Dionysian and the Apollonian, the heaven and hell of William Blake. The film envisions joy as the product of this synthesis. I think I can live with that.
PS As of the second day after publishing this post, it’s the most popular post on my blog. Thanks much, everyone, for reading.
“The Lion King: Hamlet and the Myth of Happy Vengeance” is my September 2003 Metaphilm article exploring both the Disney classic as a retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the implications of a vengeance plot with a happy, Disney ending.