Disney has a history of taking old fairy tales and adapting them to movie formats with happy endings. Frozen partly fits the pattern, but where it breaks the pattern, it ruins the point of both the old story and the new.
The Hans Christian Andersen tale, “The Snow Queen,” reminds me a little of part of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, in that it has a boy abducted by a Snow Queen, and he is ultimately rescued by a girl who loves him (in the case of the Narnian tale it is by his sister, but in the original fairy story the little girl is his neighbor). At the beginning of the fairy tale are trolls who make a mirror that distorts reality so that one can see only the ugly and the evil, and when the mirror shatters, splinters of it get into people’s eyes and hearts. The Snow Queen controls snowflakes and has a palace in the land of permafrost, and she seems to have little else to do than to make mischief by kidnapping the boy who takes her fancy. The Queen’s abduction of this boy is nothing but a whim, and she is not the main character, despite the title of the tale. The point of the story is that the protagonist, the boy’s friend, Gerda, loves him and searches tirelessly for him, obtaining help along her journey from magic in a river, in roses, in tears, in a reindeer and doves, and from a princess, a robber band, and a couple of old women. Gerda’s love eventually saves her friend, and when they return home, it is summer, they are grown up, and the Snow Queen has been left behind in her kingdom of snowflakes, probably still buzzing around rather aimlessly.
In Frozen, which is said to be very loosely inspired by the fairy tale, there is a snow queen, there are trolls, ice that can freeze a person’s heart, a girl who searches for one she loves, and in the end there is summer. But the story is much different, and the point is—well, we’ll see.
The kingdom of Arendelle is ruled by a king and queen who have two daughters, Elsa and Anna. Elsa has cryokinetic powers and entertains Anna with them, but one night she accidentally hits Anna in the head with her icicles. The result is separation of the sisters, supposedly so that Elsa can learn to control her powers. However, there is nothing that suggests that Elsa undergoes any sort of training, or any sort of program to help her gain control of these powers. Apparently she is the only one of the family, and indeed, the only person anyone knows of who has any special powers. It’s something like the Harry Potter world in which a Hermione can be born to Muggle parents who prove unequipped to prepare her for adulthood. Unfortunately for Elsa, in the kingdom of Arendelle there is no hidden wizarding world, no Hogwarts schooling. She is simply isolated, and as suggested in the lyrics to “Let It Go” she is expected to be obedient, kind, even-tempered, good-natured: perfect.
The scenes that transition the girls from young childhood to young adulthood provide ambiguity in their relationship—at first it seems that Elsa and Anna are separated by order of their parents, but the succeeding scenes suggest it is Elsa herself who keeps herself away, and her only reason seems to be fear. Since these scenes deal only with Anna asking Elsa to help her build a snowman, we get no idea of the rest of these girls’ lives—all we know is that they each have nobody else for companionship. Even the servants are missing from this castle, and then their parents die offstage, and their isolation is complete.
How, one wonders, is this kingdom run? With the parents dead and Elsa unable to be crowned until she comes of age (an unspecified time), where are the government ministers, the lawmakers or anyone wielding any sort of power to prepare Elsa for governing? Instead, it seems that she is simply continuing in her isolation until she can be crowned.
Suddenly it is time for the coronation. Without any obvious support, the young women appear to be properly gowned, to know proper etiquette, to know the social graces they are supposed to use. Anna is gauche and something of a tomboy, which makes one wonder again, where were the servants? Why didn’t she have a governess or some suitable training in being a princess? She appears to know the rules, then she seems not to know the rules. The focus has shifted onto Anna, who takes over the lead role in the romance of this particular tale. She and the visiting secretly-a-snake-in-the-grass, Prince Hans, fall in love.
Meanwhile, Elsa becomes the queen, mostly successful in hiding her power to make ice out of everything around her when she becomes agitated. However, almost the sole ruling role she has is in her denial of permission for her sister to marry Prince Hans. One wonders again, what is her role in this kingdom, that she can be so apparently untrained and yet be a queen? When important things are left to the assumption that they happened behind-the-scenes, one can imagine as well that nothing happened at all.
Thwarting Anna leads to a major quarrel and to the revelation of the secret—Elsa cannot control her powers. It seems that all those years of isolation were for nothing. But instead of doing anything responsible, the unfit queen runs away. This is the crux of why “Let It Go” is not on my list of inspirational songs—it’s a celebration of all the wrong things. She sings about the “swirling storm inside” in terms of the expectations of her girlhood—that she be good and hide her feelings and her powers. She says now that everyone knows about her, she can “turn away and slam the door”—so isolation is her answer to how she should live, and the implication is that she no longer has to be good: “that perfect girl is gone.” She says there’s “no right, no wrong, no rules for me”—the classic existentialist in absolute selfish existence. She says she’ll never cry, but “let the storm rage on,” so apparently she’s thinking she’ll live in perpetual anger, and she further claims, “I’m never going back, the past is in the past!” Living solely in the present with no accountability for the past is further proof of her childishness—she refuses to see that she is to blame for the loss of her temper, for the loss of “control” of these magical powers she has.
To alienate me further from this film, while she is singing this anthem of selfishness, she is using those powers to build a magnificently beautiful ice palace. It is as though the film wants us to believe that only when we cut ourselves off completely from self-control that we become who we are supposed to be and can accomplish what we were created to accomplish. This is the most purely antithetical message to all that I believe is true.
Finally, she sings a refrain, “The cold never bothered me anyway!” and it is a fitting refrain for a woman giving herself over to cold-heartedness.
But her sister searches for her to cure the perpetual winter Elsa has left behind. Anna gets help from an animated snowman, an iceman, Kristoff, and his reindeer sidekick, Sven. (Sven is one of a long line of Disney animal sidekicks, all with the same sassy manners for humor.) When they find Elsa, they find an angry woman who blasts ice into her sister’s heart to kill her. Only an act of true love will cure Anna, and after some straightening out the plot points telling which man is the hero and which the villain, the act of true love after all is that of Anna for her sister, when she saves Elsa’s life.
Disney films usually end happily ever after. This one doesn’t. Yes, Anna gets her man and they marry. But Elsa? Anna’s sacrifice fails to completely heal Elsa. There’s no romance for her. There doesn’t seem to be any role for her despite that she goes back to Arendelle to be their queen. Aside from one ruling on a matter of trade, her role seems limited to providing ice sculptures and skating rinks and things like that. It’s hardly the ending that such powers deserve, but after all it may be fitting for a woman who never was trained to be a ruler, who spent most of her life in solitary confinement, and who seems to have been born to do nothing more than make cold things, or to make things cold.