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.