Disney’s “Frozen”

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.


  1. Reply Neil Landau 6th January 2014

    I agree with you, Laurie. This one left me cold. But my teenaged sons loved it — which truly surprised me. And hard to argue with the movies’ phenomenal success. I guess the kids identify with the feelings of alienation and being misunderstood. And those songs are wonderful.

    • Reply Laurie Hutzler 6th January 2014

      The “Frozen” songs are wonderful and great voices singing them. But loving something as a fan isn’t viewing the critical eye of really analyzing what is there on the screen and what it means.

  2. Reply Neville Kiser 12th January 2014

    Totally agree on “Frozen” as a story as the script and the character arcs were pretty “unchanging.” The antagonist was underdeveloped, too, and who that even was. It almost felt too convenient by the end, too, who it ended up being.

    But I agree with Neil. The reason why (apart from the songs and the hilarious logic of the snowman) this is doing so well is because of that alienation and separation young people, old people, everyone is feeling in this world where people are glued to their bright phone screens and busy updating statuses on FB, twitter and Instagram. It’s funny because I actually really liked this movie and recommended it to everyone I knew in November when I saw it. I think despite the weak script I just loved that it was about sisters. And the love between sisters. And yes, Anna was dying anyway when she stepped in and sacrificed herself for her sister but that scene carries enough emotional weight, still, and for me, offsets a lot of “Frozen’s” faults.

    I think in that moment, I was reminded of the final scene from Disney’s “”Beauty and the Beast”, still my favorite of all Disney animated films. Sacrifice for romantic love is all over the movies but rarely do we see sacrifice for a sibling. Call me sentimental but I have seven siblings and so when that moment came around in “Frozen”, I (a 31 year-old guy) immediately found that there was a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. It made me think back to all those days when I was young when I wouldn’t allow a younger sibling to play with me because I thought I was so cool and it is that regret as an adult that the movie inadvertently tapped into for me.

    I know I just answered more emotionally to your critiques of he script and its comparison/contrast to the source material, but wanted to put my two cents in. As a screenwriter who did really enjoy the movie.

    • Reply Laurie Hutzler 13th January 2014

      Hi Neville– Thanks for your post. It’s possible to be a fan of something flawed but as professionals it’s really useful to understand those flaws. Laurie

  3. Reply Dana Kendler 14th January 2014

    I’m so glad to read I’m not the only one! I was so disoriented by the storytelling I left the theater feeling confused, trying to reorganize what I had just witnessed. I’m the antagonist! No, I’m the antagonist! No, I am! If that story was about two sisters, why weren’t they even in the same room with each other for any length of time? Why the parallel stories? Why the artificial love story for Anna, cut and pasted on, when their real hearts were hurting, trying to understand each other? Why not explore that? What about the betrayal of Elsa’s father’s wish – that was her false belief that was driving her – to do what he said and stay isolated. Keep her powers hidden. So why not explore and overcome that in the third act, using Anna as an emotional catalyst? Why not explore her powers and what they could do and how to make good use of them? What was Elsa doing in that ice castle other than pacing around? And if an act of love could cure Anna, why didn’t the little snowman cure her when he sacrificed himself in front of the fire for her? Oh, sorry, I’m going to rephrase that now – not an act of love – a true love’s first kiss. Am I in Snow White? Three weeks later and I’m still processing it. Their hearts were in the right place, but I agree, they missed the mark in my opinion.

  4. Reply Jasmina Wesolowski 24th January 2014

    Dear Laurie,

    I like your review a lot. Anyway I think that there’s a tiny little character arc for Anna (and a even bigger one for Elsa). She doesn’t have any responsibilities in the beginning and she’s kind of bored hanging out in the castle the whole time. Then her sister actually gets into trouble. Anna has to go on an adventure, she’s pretty naive (thinking she’ able to climb a mountain on her own or getting Elsa back will be an easy task). I got the feeling that she’s getting more adult through the quest, e.g. when she’s facing death – she accepts the proposal of herself being taken to Hans first, Elsa’s taken a back seat then. Though I’ve to agree that Anna is pretty much guided by the other characters.
    Elsa’s not cursed with the ice power, but in my opinion the powers become a curse for her personally. Because of the accident she’s forced – or even more important – forces herself to stay away from human beings including her sister, she didn’t care about something bad to happen before, it was a child’s game (like a child realising it cannot touch and eat everything, the world becomes more serious, Elsa becomes more serious (she seems to be a bright child before). She becomes afraid of what she is, she seems to regard her powers as gift in the beginning of the movie. Elsa wants to be normal, she’s most afraid about hurting anyone, which she didn’t think of in her innocent years.
    Elsa doesn’t talk to Anna anymore and Anna doesn’t understand the change in their relationship. She tries harder to get near Elsa. Perhaps the difference would have been bigger when Elsa would be the first to ask Anna to build a snowman with her.
    Then Elsa gets the gloves (she’s “chained” like in the final battle) and trains every day with her parents to gain control (about something “natural”). She stays in her room actually doing nothing she’d like to. A big sacrifice in my opinion. Then the death of the parents – it really comes sudden but not completely without reason, I think. They were the only people in reach knowing about Elsas powers, the only emotional help, the leading (they actually tell her what’s best, they did never ask her if she wants to be locked in her room) and shelter which drops out for her. Anna sits in front of the room in her mourning, she wants to be near the only person there is left. But Elsa doesn’t open the door, though she’d really like to. Admittedly this doesn’t change the situation, but it enlargens the problem and clears the way for Elsas following escape.
    Elsas crowning ceremony, which should be a solemn moment, becomes a walk on a tightrope. Anna doesn’t get near her sister, Elsa appears pretty stiff, when Anna notes she’d like to see her more often (before she has a little weak moment saying “That would be nice”). Annas wish to get to know a soulmate is pretty big now, “her antenna is activated”, she marries the nice Hans right away. Elsa can’t control herself, which leads to ..
    Elsa freeing herself from all expectations and people, containing Anna she loves. Elsa always had to be quite adult for her age. Quite a lot changes then (like a teenager growing up and moving away from home) – she discovers her female beauty (she looks quite buttoned up before), shows her long blonde hair, creates herself a quite sexy dress and an ice palace (the first place on her own). She’s tired of being the perfect queen, she wants to play and create stuff and doesn’t want to be controlled by anything or anyone “that’s past” she sings. Before she’s been controlled by her parents, Anna also kind of detained her from being who she really is. I actually like the idea of Anna being crowned and live a “happy life” with Hans. That would make the sacrifice bigger and break the circuit of Anna going after Elsa (though she truly loves her because of the old memories she treasures about their friendship and – actually there seems to be no other girl around). Anna wants to take Elsa back home and the second accident happens. Anna doesn’t want to give up this time (“you will not lock me out again”, she turns away every time Elsa sends her away before), Elsa wants to teach her the “hard way”, which she also didn’t thought of before. The first accident happened in a game. This time Elsa doesn’t mean to hurt Anna too, just wants to teach her to stay away, but she pierces a ice shiver through her heart. The intention to save others from herself causes Elsa a lot of trouble, she nearly kills Anna with the ice monster and one of the soldiers in the ice palace by nearly squashing him with an ice block/letting him (or another one?) fall off a cliff. This reminds me of Lenny in “Of Mice and Men”. Elsa would have killed the men if Hans didn’t stop her (“Don’t do what they expect you to do”, he says).
    About Hans getting evil – I somehow liked the twist, though it happens very late, because we’d never dream of him doing that in the beginning. Every evil disney character is usually identified as evil in the first second on screen – which doesn’t make evil actions pretty surprising, and surprise is what bonds us to the screen. Anna and Hans even have a love song together, how revolutionary is that? It’s a absolute break in tradition, the expected kiss ain’t the right one. He doesn’t kiss her because he doesn’t love her and he doesn’t need to kiss her anyway, because we know that he’s the wrong guy the second the music changes. Anna’s always nice to everybody, but in the end she knocks Hans out in a pretty unladylike way (a little change). Anna already sees the man who truly loves her – Kristoff – and could break the spell/bring her back to life. Nevertheless she decides to save Elsa, so it actually is a great sacrifice. We get to know Anna as a happy girl, she definitely wants to life. Then she decides to take the risk when she stands in front of Elsa. She actually raises her hand like to stop the sword, that’s not the gesture you use when you throw your life away, she still has hope, it’s sad to see her die. It was for me.
    Regarding the love interest between Anna and Kristoff – Kristoffs troll people see right into their hearts and decide they’re made for each other. Sven, the reindeer wants Kristoff to go back and he knows him very well. Kristoff decides to return to Arendell, knowing Anna is being kissed by Hans (perhaps he should better return, because he worries about her dying). He is looking for Anna in the end, though there’s a terrible ice-storm and the sheet of ice breaks next to him.

    I’m interested in your opinion.

    Best wishes, it was a wonderful class,


  5. Reply Evan Rappaport 1st March 2014

    Respectfully, I think you missed the entire point of the movie.
    1) “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.” Actually he doesn’t throw her in jail he leaves her to die and when he reports Anna’s death he states his claim to the throne by saying that he and Anna had time to complete their vows before she died. He’s claiming the throne through marriage.
    2) “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.” Actually this is a big sacrifice for Anna since she at the time believes that only a kiss from Cristhoff will save her life and every second counts since she’s already freezing over (see her hands). She decides that to save her sister’s life she’s going to forfeit her own.
    3) “Elsa’s tears of grief melt Anna and supposedly warm Elsa’s own heart.” The act of true love was Anna’s self sacrifice to save her sister. It wasn’t Elsa who warmed Anna’s heart. Anna saved herself.
    4) “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?” What changed was the fact that Elsa learned that instead of holding her emotions back and fearing her powers that she should embrace them and love those around her. Her parents were wrong to tell her to suppress her emotions. She says this just before she thawed out Arendell. By the way the trolls said that fear and negative thoughts were the danger in controlling her power and no one really listened to them. They just made her grow up in fear anyway.
    5) “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.” Elsa’s powers were not a curse. The trolls ask her father that when they bring Anna to be first healed and he says “It’s not a curse, she was born with it”.
    6) “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.” The scenes of Elsa and Anna are exactly that. Also during the entire Let it Go song Elsa is learning to channel and control it. She starts out small and then tries more and more. “It’s time to see what I can do To test the limits and break through”
    7) “Elsa’s abilities also have no effect on her personality.” Elsa’s abilities entirely shape her personality. She shuts people out, she lives in fear, she is distant. All from fear of being found out or hurting someone.
    8) “Despite being told (several times) True Love’s Kiss is essential, it is never used to any consequence in the story.” No one who knows what they’re talking about ever says that. Cristoff, Olaf and Anna just assume that it has to be True Love’s Kiss. The elder troll is the only person who knows anything about it and he just says that she needs an act of true love. The whole point is that Cristoff, Olaf and Anna were wrong. Again, no one bothered to listen to the trolls.
    9) “There is also little lasting romance in “Frozen.” I believe that was the point. This is Disney getting away from every single princess story ending in a marriage. Disney has been getting a lot of ridicule that all the princesses are nothing without a man. This is a story where the men in the story don’t matter much.