"We're going to the movies!" My son and niece jumped up and down. "What are we going to see?" my niece asked.
"Frozen," said my wife.
"What's it about?"
The truth is we weren't sure (bad parent alert!). But it's notable that she was old enough to consider and pose the question—a sign of how much she might be influenced. The only preview we'd seen was of a lighthearted reindeer and snowman goofing around in the snow.
Once we settled into our seats, though, we realized this cutesy preview wasn't representative of the movie we were about to watch.
Frozen's setup—and most of its duration—is characterized by great distress. My son—who is old enough to know immediately the emotional hues of a narrative arc—regularly leaned over to my wife to ask, "What's wrong?"
I was even more interested in my niece's reactions to the movie, because, while it's not apparent in much of its advertising campaign, Frozen is in fact another Disney Princess movie. Less characteristically Disney (and Hollywood, too) is that its two primary protagonists are sisters: five-year-old Anna and eight-year-old Elsa. (You should know that my niece loves princesses.)
One of the film's early scenes sets the tragic tone when Elsa, possessing since birth the power to create ice and snow, accidentally freezes her younger sister when playing together in the royal palace. The King and Queen seek healing from a group of trolls; they heal Anna's wound, remove any memory she has of her sister's magic, and advise the family to keep Elsa's power a secret so as to protect her from the potential negative consequences.
Perhaps too hasty to protect Elsa, the royal family isolate themselves in the castle, and the two sisters grow increasingly apart over the years. Elsa, afraid of again hurting her sister or anyone else, stays lodged in her room. Anna, unaware of the past, doesn't understand why her big sister is so distant. Compounding these tragic origins is the sudden death of the King and Queen during a storm at sea.
Three years after the death of their parents, it's summer, and Elsa's coronation has arrived. The kingdom's gates are opened (a rare occasion) to various citizens and dignitaries from near and far. Anna, who has suffered the consequences of the decision to hide her sister from the public eye, is excited at the opportunity to meet people—and particularly eager to encounter a potential Prince Charming.
As it turns out, she meets Prince Hans and after falling all too quickly in love, they show up at the coronation intending to marry. Elsa, who has had a successfully quiet public appearance prior to this news, gets into an argument with her younger sister over the swift engagement, and in the heat of the moment, Elsa angrily reveals her powers in front of everyone.
She flees the kingdom for the mountains and creates an ice palace where she finally feels free to be herself. But because of this, the land is beset by an eternal winter—one that only "true love" can thaw.
So I had two potential problems on my hands: a heavy dose of tragic sadness for my son (at his young age) to digest, and another potentially cliché-ridden Princess story that I'd rather not have impressed upon my niece, who is at least old enough to be influenced by it.
Thankfully, Frozen was more subversive and (if dark) enlightening than I expected.
In the past few years, there's been a lot of talk about Disney's Princess ethos, especially how it can cause harm for young girls. Without going into it all too deeply, I think one of the sticking points is the potential for insecurity that the Disney Princess image can foster. The Disney Princess is one place where our culture has its most impoverished expectations and visions of women: obsessed with physical beauty, lacking in creative or characteristic greatness, and waiting for a man to save her so that she might fall helplessly in love with him.
Frozen is interesting because Elsa's tragic plight of hiddenness could have turned out to be a story of this exact conflict of feminine insecurity, isolation, and fear (or, tongue firmly in cheek, an unintentional commentary on the worst excesses of evangelical purity culture: "conceal, don't feel!"). Not long ago, Hannah Faith Notess commented over at Her.meneutics on the "friendless, voiceless, Disney princess."
And in Frozen, two sisters' friendship is in serious jeopardy, which gives musical expression to their tragic plight. But when seen through this lens, Frozen doesn't simply highlight the tragedy of the Disney princess. It's admirable precisely because you could read its resolution in a couple of unexpected, truly empowering ways.
The trolls warned the family that Elsa's great enemy would be fear—how other people might react to her magical power. Yet, it also turns out that her family's proactive steps to protect Elsa made her insecure—fearful—in her alienation from others. But, Frozen doesn't go for an easy, overly ideological subtext. Younger sister Anna's over-eager enjoyment of freedom outside the protective kingdom walls leads her to fall in love with Prince Hans, whose supposed instant love for her masks a more insidious plan.
Some critics have accused the film of setting up its tricky reveal a little too perfectly. But while the sheer goodness of Hans' actions for most of the movie may be over the top, I'm fine with over-selling the problems with first-glance infatuation. Hollywood has too often sold the same experience as "true love." Ironically—and perhaps too tragically—it's Elsa's wisdom about her younger sister's folly which especially ices her separation from everyone.
The trolls inform Anna and her new pals—ice trader Kristoff and his reindeer buddy, Sven—that only "an act of true love" can free the people from their eternal winter. It would be natural to assume that an act of romance, of love at first sight, would save the day. Instead, the act of true love—the perfect love which casts out fear in Elsa's heart, you might say—is accomplished by Anna, who endlessly seeks reconciliation with her big sister.
Frozen's narrative logic could be tighter. Some of its dialogue and lyrical content is out of step with some of the film's mature direction. But none of this is enough to cancel out what's rewarding about the story.
In Frozen, true love is a sacrificial act performed by one sister for another, restoring a friendship that had fallen apart because of tragic circumstances. Elsa's wintry magical power can be used for good if allowed to flourish in a loving community (yes, even a kingdom). Olaf the snowman is not the central protagonist of this film, but he's important all the same. He provides the occasional comic gestures I knew my son would enjoy, but he's also a kind of comic, hopeful symbol throughout the film that Elsa's magical power can be used for good, if only fear is dissipated.
Fitting, then, that true love doesn't melt Elsa's power—only her fear. She's able to keep Olaf around, providing him with an eternal flurry that will preserve the kind of warm laughter that Olaf belly sliding down snowbanks evokes from my son. Anna gets a kiss on the cheek from the admirable Kristoff, but what the film does to that point gives the moment a different, slightly more mature sensibility.
After the kiss, my wife looked over at my young niece, who was bashfully smiling. "I loved that movie!" was her review as we walked out of the theater.
I'm not sure I "loved" Frozen, but I'm surprised to say of my niece's happy response to this latest Disney princess installment: I'm glad.
Frozen features some dark thematic circumstances which cause distress for the sisters, and it also features some "violence" which, depending on the scene, is either cast appropriately as humorous or perilous.