In the first minutes of Frozen, the older of two sisters nearly kills the younger, making it the rare Disney Princess Movie initiated by a brush with mortality. The principle concerns of the movie fall out around this life and death incident. We learn:
- That the older sister has the power to create and control ice and snow
- That the younger sister was lucky to receive her injury in the head and not the heart, since a frozen heart is unlikely to ever thaw
- That in order to heal the younger sister, all memories she has of her older sister’s unusual abilities must be erased
- That because of this the older sister must conceal her powers in order to protect her sister and the general population
This destroys the relationship between the two princesses of the kingdom of Arendelle. The older sister, Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel), has grown up afraid of hurting her younger sister and has completely shut her out. The younger sister, Anna (Kristen Bell), has no memory of why this should be the case and no understanding of why Elsa wants nothing to do with her. The girls’ parents die in a shipwreck, and Elsa must ascend the throne.
The sisters’ capacity for love and letting others into their lives exist on opposite ends of the spectrum. Elsa’s coronation dramatizes the situation neatly: Anna falls in love with the first eligible man she meets, Prince Hans (Santino Fontana), while Elsa suffers through every human interaction and courtly ceremony. Anna’s immediate engagement to Prince Hans, due to her irrepressible openness, strikes Elsa as incomprehensible given her deep-seated disdain for intimacy. As a result, Elsa loses control of her powers, revealing them to the entire kingdom. She abandons her kingdom, unleashes winter in the middle of summer, and builds herself a castle of ice, intent on living on her own, away from everyone.
I’m at a disadvantage when talking about the musical numbers. From my perspective on musicals, Singin’ in the Rain nailed it, and An American in Paris (sans the last, horrific number) rounds out the canon. Musicals should contain Gene Kelly and jazz standards. I know all the words to Newsies, but that’s simple 90s nostalgia, mostly borrowed from my younger sister. Most musicals don’t follow my criteria. And most contemporary musicals have a strong “contemporary Broadway” sound. I haven’t seen Rent but I have no doubts about how the show sounds. I don’t know how to define “Broadway-ness” in the terms of music theory, but I know it when I hear it, and it grates on me. I can hear Broadway in Frozen, but I’m surprisingly happy to forgive it, mostly because of the movie’s other strengths. Also, the songs support major story moments well enough that they blend in. Following the songs is following the story. That’s nowhere more in effect than in the song “Let It Go.” The number starts as Elsa charges up the mountain, away from her kingdom. We’ve learned earlier that her ability to manipulate snow and ice has a great capacity for both beauty and danger. In the song she describes a dark joy in finally unleashing a creative ability she’s held back. But in so doing she’s also cementing her isolation from others and accepting her identity as a snow-queen with a heart of ice. I didn’t like the song, but I still found it effective. Elsa’s appearance at the end of the number has acquired a new dimension; we can feel the exhilaration of her power, and the tenuous moral space she now inhabits. She’s now free, but total freedom looks frightening.
It’s in this flurry of creation that Elsa, it appears unconsciously, creates a sentient snowman, Olaf, voiced by Josh Gad, who gets much more out of the character than he should be able to. He’s genuinely funny. But Olaf exists for more than the requisite comic-relief. We first see Elsa and Anna build Olaf, or a prototype of him, very early in the movie, before Elsa accidentally injures her sister. Olaf then serves as a bridge back to a pre-fall time, reminder of the now decayed sisterly connection. The movie could easily have thrown in a goofy snowman “just cuz” and called it good, so freighting even the comic-relief character with a small resonance is proof that Frozen is trying.
The unseasonable winter is a serious threat to the kingdom, just as Elsa’s retreat is a serious threat to Anna. Anna sets off up the mountain to resolve both. Anna meets Olaf as she journeys up the mountain. But prior to meeting him, she’s found a guide in Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and his reindeer Sven. When we’re introduced to Kristoff as a grown man (he makes a previous appearance) he’s completely covered in ice. We’re meant to see him as someone with the same flaws as Elsa. His character also feels most at home in the snow and ice. He’s an ice cutter who goes so far as to say “Ice is my life.” The movie plays with our expectations here. Anna is already engaged to Hans. So what’s the play with Kristoff? Is he drawn parallel to Elsa in order to become her romantic opposite? They fall in love due to a mutual interest in ice?
The movie keeps a brisk pace through the rising conflict. Paying off on the set up, Anna’s confrontation with Elsa ends up with Elsa accidentally freezing her heart. The antagonist captures Elsa and sentences her to death.
The movie’s most affecting moment comes after Elsa has frozen Anna’s heart, and as the ice spreads through her body, eventually to turn her completely into ice. They learn that perhaps a standard Disney trope, “true love’s kiss”, can thaw Anna’s heart. Kristoff ferries her back to Hans, her ostensible true love, gets her through the city gate, for the gate to close on him, his job finished. He hovers at the closed gate. He’s risked his life to help Anna. He’s opened up to her in ways that he never has to anyone else. And now he’s handed her over to Prince Hans. He pauses and then leaves. The movie hasn’t been overly subtle up to this point, but we haven’t had a lot of insight into exactly what Kristoff feels about Anna. His feelings crystalize for us in a single instant. It’s a good moment.
The movie’s central questions revolve around love and connection to others. What does an act of true love look like? How can broken relationships be repaired? Can you protect loved ones from yourself by shutting them out? The end of the movie starts to answer these questions. Inside the castle, we find that Prince Hans can’t give Anna true love’s kiss because he doesn’t love her. In fact, he’s gratified to find that she’s dying, because it’ll make his planned take-over of the kingdom that much easier. A Disney trope overturned; true love might not simply appear. It might need to be proven.
Naturally, Kristoff realizes he should never have left the girl he loves and turns around. The movie continues to play with our expectations as it comes to the climax.
Carrie-style, Elsa’s stress causes a snowstorm, and the central characters end up on the frozen lake in the middle of it. Prince Hans pursues Elsa to kill her. Kristoff pursues Anna to save her. The hinge of the dramatic situation turns on Anna. She’s about to turn to ice. She can choose to run toward Kristoff, believing that true love’s kiss will save her. Or she can try to save her sister. She runs toward Elsa. She throws herself between Elsa and Hans’ sword. The ice takes her over as the sword comes down. The sword breaks on the ice. Anna sacrificed herself to save her sister.
Of course, that kind of sacrifice is proof of love, and that love thaws her heart. Elsa has now witnessed the sacrifice of love and she responds by turning that love on the winter that holds the valley, thawing it. The movie is explicit about what an act of true love is. It’s not simply a kiss. Olaf tells us that “Love is putting someone else’s needs before your own.” It’s not a revolutionary thought, but it’s an important one, and really the only answer to the movies’ central questions.
Impressively, Frozen focuses on a relationship between sisters, and finding the resolution for that relationship in self-sacrifice. It was . . . somewhat affecting. A friend of mine did me the disservice of reminding me of The Iron Giant while we were talking about this movie. Another movie about self-sacrifice, but one which I can barely think about without getting a lump in my throat. Frozen doesn’t approach that kind of emotion. It’s good, but it’s not transcendently great.
That’s one quibble—the movie isn’t as great as I’d like it to be. My only other problem I recognize as entirely idiosyncratic. This is a fairy-tale movie, based on a story by Hans Christian Andersen. I want to see a fairy tale movie with the full, elemental impact of the Grimm brother’s stories. Disney can never do it. It requires letting too much of the murk and muck of the unconscious onto the screen. Coraline has flirted with such a thing, but I don’t trust Gaiman to get it quite right. Pan’s Labyrinth got close to getting the tone right, but I want a movie that believes in myth more, and feels the elemental things more, and one that doesn’t try to grow fairy tales up and make them important and adult by importing the horrors of reality. Fairy tales have horrors aplenty themselves. Horrors and sacrifices that resonate far more deeply than any studio currently working can hope for.