There is much to recommend Disney’s “Frozen.” Exquisite art direction, great comic sidekicks, thrilling set pieces, exciting action sequences, and the wonderful voices of Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel belting songs like full fledged Broadway Babes.
The film has been a great commercial success and has had a generally positive critical reception. I find myself in the distinct minority. For me the film has a very muddled story and lacks a strong clear emotional arc. Spoilers ahead for those who haven’t seen it.
“Frozen” is very loosely based on the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale, “The Snow Queen”. The original story depicts a little boy and girl, Kai and Gerda, caught in a terrible struggle between good and evil. Innocence is the only power that can vanquish darkness. This link is a good summary of the original story: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Snow_Queen
Evil is mostly eradicated from the Disney adaption. Anderson’s Snow Queen character is a powerful female villain on a par with Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent, Cruella deVil in 101 Dalmations, The Little Mermaid’s Ursula or the Evil Queen in Snow White.
Instead of a great Diva of Darkness, “Frozen” gives us troubled Princess Elsa of Arendelle, a loving daughter and doting sister who has the ability to freeze everything within her reach. One day, during a wintery romp with her adoring younger sister, Anna, she accidentally pierces the girl with a ice shard.
Her parents bring Anna to a troll king for healing and the troll king is told Elsa’s powers are innate and not a curse. The random mishap causes Elsa to retreat from her sister and subjects to hide her abilities and for fear of causing further harm. Her parents are then lost at sea for no apparent reason.
Anna, tries endlessly over the years to draw her sister out, only to be rebuffed. Elsa can no longer hide when she comes of age and must attend her summer coronation ceremony. Tragedy strikes again when the young queen is angered by Anna’s impulsive engagement and cannot control her temper or her freezing powers.
Elsa locks the kingdom in a Polar Vortex of endless winter. She flees to far off snowy North Mountain and creates a crystal palace or Fortress of Solitude where she can finally be herself and be free by “never feeling anything”. This doesn’t make her evil, only a misunderstood recluse.
Anna, always believing her sister to be good and kind, goes after Elsa. Elsa deeply cares about Anna and is ever fearful of hurting her. Tragedy strikes yet again when Elsa becomes angered by Anna’s persistence and pushes Anna away piercing Anna’s heart with paralyzing cold. Unless Anna’s heart is thawed by “an act of true love,” she will be frozen solid forever.
Anna is rushed to Arendelle to the supposed saving True Love’s Kiss of her betrothed, Prince Hans of the Summer Isles. He reveals himself, in a stunning narrative cheat, to only be after a crown (being 12th in line to the throne at home). There is never the slightest hint that Hans has anything but honorable intentions prior to this verbal revelation. Refusing to kiss her, he throws Anna in jail. I’m not sure how he thinks this will get him closer to the throne since he has no claim on it himself. Hans then mounts a search and destroy mission to kill Elsa. Yes, this is evil but it comes unearned, is illogical, and is very late in the story.
As Anna is dying, in the final moments of her life, she shields Elsa from harm. Although this is a sacrifice it is not a very big one. Anna is dying anyway. She is giving up something she has already lost. Elsa’s tears of grief melt Anna and supposedly warm Elsa’s own heart.
Here are my problems:
If Elsa’s freezing power can cause harm, even unintentionally, how can she be trusted (or trust herself) once back in Arendelle. Her benign building of an ice rink for the amusement of her subjects mirrors the original tragedy with her sister. What has changed?
If Elsa’s powers were the result of a curse, the curse could be lifted (by an act of love). Her freezing ability would be ended. If her abilities were a curse her parents could be killed on a journey to find a way to lift the curse, making Elsa feel even more culpable.
As an inborn ability, Elsa’s freezing power doesn’t go away. But we see no visible process of learning to channel it or control it. Will anger, despite her best intentions, have future disastrous consequences?
Elsa’s abilities also have no effect on her personality. Despite her frigid isolation and singing about never wanting to feel anything she personally never becomes bitter, cold, or cruel. Her hands may be cold but her heart is still warm. Everything she does, even creating the snow monster, is to protect others by keeping them away from her.
Elsa had a loving heart as a child princess and has one now as a young queen. She sacrifices years of her life to protect Anna. How are a few tears of grief at the end of the story a more powerful “act of love” than a life-time of sacrifice?
Anna, in turn, never gives up on her sister. She even pursues Elsa up a dangerous mountain against everyone’s warning. She is undaunted and, even when injured, doesn’t doubt Elsa’s goodness. How is shielding Elsa when Anna is moments from death, with nothing left to lose, a more powerful “act of love” than a life of undoubting belief in her sister and endless attempts to engage her?
If the cold had retreated from Arendelle as Elsa moved further away and up the mountain the people could demand that Anna be crowned queen instead of Elsa. Hans could try to rush Anna into a marriage, and secure the crown for himself as well. He could argue that Anna has always been the ignored, marginalized, abandoned younger sister. This is her time to shine and take her rightful place. He believes in her and Anna would make a wonderful queen. Hans could argue he will give Anna all the love Elsa withheld by withdrawing and now finally leaving her.
Hans’ arguments could provide a powerful incentive to stay. Anna would have everything she wants (and has always been denied): a sunny life of comfort and joy; the prestige of a crown and the ability to fully engage with her subjects; and the warmth of her own “true love.” However tempting, if Anna refused to marry without her sister’s blessing it would take her back up the mountain. The journey then would be at the sacrifice of everything that could make Anna happy. Even though she might be sorely tempted to stay Anna could still decide to give her sister one last chance.
Instead, Anna simply repeats what she has always done– go after Elsa. There is little holding Anna back and no delicious alternative beckons. There is nothing to tempt her into selfishness. There is no real inner struggle or doubt. Maybe her sister is not a force of good– but as evil, selfish, and angry as Hans might claim.
Despite being told (several times) True Love’s Kiss is essential, it is never used to any consequence in the story. Hans refuses to kiss Anna instead of kissing her and the kiss having no effect. The coldness of his kiss could make Anna realize her sister was right and he wasn’t the man for her (in an action that isn’t a verbal narrative cheat). That could propel Anna back to Elsa, to apologize, realizing Elsa always had Anna’s best interest at heart. She could then save her sister to make things right between them.
Unbelievably, these “Frozen” sisters never argue with bitter emotional consequences. (There are no more serious wounds than those inflicted by a sister.) There is an argument about Anna’s impulsive engagement but it doesn’t last long. There is no deep seated terrible misunderstanding that constantly erupts between them. Why doesn’t Anna resent her sister’s withdrawal and just give up on her? Why isn’t Anna turned away from Elsa by Elsa’s seeming selfishness in refusing her blessing of Anna’s engagement? Why doesn’t Anna accuse Elsa of ruining her life and not wanting (never wanting) Anna to be happy? Why doesn’t Anna accuse Elsa of being cold and controlling? Why doesn’t Anna believe that Elsa is unhappy and wants everyone else to be frozen in unhappiness as well? Why doesn’t Hans try to undermine their relationship? Why aren’t the sisters deeply estranged at some point? Deep estrangement and bitter misunderstanding could propel their conflict and would provide something powerful to overcome.
In “Frozen” loving sisters never stop loving each other and, at the end, love each other more. That’s not a dramatic emotional arc.
There is also little lasting romance in “Frozen.” Even though there is great chemistry between Anna and Kristoff there is no real suggestion he and Anna are now a permanent couple. The gift of a new sleigh would logically prompt to Kristoff to leave the now sunny Arendelle to go back to harvesting ice (a prospect he seems happy about). Hans is quickly dispensed with in a dunk in the water and then back to the Summer Isles. There is no love interest at all for Elsa throughout the story.
This is a troubling lack of positive male energy. I am all for Girl Power and sister stories but instead of finding partners who are their equals and who treat them as equals both the heroines of “Brave” and “Frozen” seem to dispense with the importance of men all together. I’m not sure that mothers and sisters, as wonderful as they are, should negate the need for a grown-up romantic partner.
“Frozen” is a pleasant enough diversion but it lacks the power of classic fairytales.