Frozen is now called the greatest Disney musical since The Lion King…hailing Disney’s return to broadway quality the likes of which we have not seen since the team that gave us The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast (Howard Ashman and Alan Menken). I’ll admit it; I bawled like a baby. Pretty much everything about it is spectacular, but I was left thinking about what it is about Disney films that so affect me? When they work for me, WHY do they work? Answer: it’s the heart. For me, when art works it isn’t because of any intellectual exercise; it is because it makes me feel something. Disney has been known for intentionally going for the “feels”, and that’s what this film does. Furthermore, for me, when art works it “speaks” in some way. That is also what this film does. It provides perspective. In its purely archetypal, kaleidoscopic sense, it presents faceted images of the archetypal realm.
Please be advised that there will be **SPOILERS** ahead, so if you aren’t interested in finding out what happens in this film, please pass over this post. Also, in contrast to my other posts that tend to be theoretical, the following review is **PERSONAL**. I’m speaking my truth here.
Frozen is an incredibly loose adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. And when I say loose, I mean that pretty much the only thing this film and the original fairy tale have in common is some snow. Indeed, as per usual, Disney tends to pick up motifs from the older versions of fairy tales (trolls, royalty, snow, mirror) and re-mythologizes them completely. Andersen’s work is self-consciously moralizing in tone–lovely, but incredibly Victorian. That is not how Disney rolls…particularly since The Little Mermaid. Disney does comedy…caricature. It has always presented fairy tales in the vein of Hollywood standards, but since the late 1980s, (in my opinion the genius brought to the studio by Ashman) they have presented these tales through heart-stirring and powerful broadway style musicals. I don’t think that it is a coincidence that the films since Ariel all feature young women with strong, broadway caliber characters and voices. I’ve previously suggested that Disney princesses reflect the anima (or the soul’s feminine aspects) complex of the Disney Studios. They represent facets of feminine consciousness coming to light (hence the “feels”) through the belting ballads of Disney anima-tion.
Frozen features two of these power houses–sisters Elsa and Anna. As usual, Disney focuses on the ways love transforms us all and the importance of sharing bonds of love with family. This film is no exception. Though it is not the first story to focus of the power of relationships between women, it is the first to focus so intensely on the relationship between sisters as a catalyst for magical transformation.
Frozen begins with a powerful intro song similar to the opening piece of Beauty and The Beast or The Lion King. It’s a group of “ice harvesters,” singing about the beauty and power of ice and exhorting the audience to “beware the frozen heart.” The story soon turns to joy–two little sisters giggling and playing together in a wintery paradise created by magical powers. Elsa, the older sister, is the one with the magical powers to create ice and snow. Her younger sister, Anna, wakes her sister and begs her to play. “Do you want to build a snowmaaaaan?” An accident occurs as they play, and Anna is wounded by a stray bit of ice that enters her head. Elsa calls for her parents, and the family approaches a local family of trolls for magical advice. The elder troll heals Anna (he tells the family that she is lucky to have been wounded in the head–that the heart is more difficult to change), but also warns Elsa that her power is dangerous. He tells her that fear will be her Achilles heel–that she must master her fear to come into balance of her power. A central condition of Anna’s healing is that she have all her memories of magic erased.
The king and queen set about the business of trying to “control” Elsa’s powers. Between Elsa’s fear that she will hurt the ones she loves and Anna’s memory loss, the relationship between the sisters becomes distant, cold and strained. Elsa becomes more and more anxious about her powers, so anxious in fact that she locks herself away in her room. Anna is confused. She can’t understand why her sister doesn’t want to be with her. She can’t understand the breakdown of their relationship. Then tragedy strikes. While away on a voyage of presumed royal duty, the ship carrying the royal couple sinks. The princesses are left alone.
Fast forward to coronation day. The curtains and gates at the kingdom of Arendelle are about to open. Anna continues to seek Elsa, and Elsa continues to fear the possibilities of her power. They sing about their hopes and fears for the evening in “For the First Time in Forever” (Anna: “at least I have a chance”…Elsa: “But it’s only for today, It’s agony to wait”). Begin party…the sisters see each other and begin small talk. It’s awkward, but it’s clear that they both want to rekindle their relationship. Anna meets “the one” Prince Hans–a perfect IMAGE of a Disney prince. The two become engaged, much to Elsa’s dismay. They argue, and Elsa’s passionate response to her sister’s question of why she shuts her out ends in a display of her power. She flees, amid accusations of black sorcery, to the north mountain, and in an incredible moment that only Disney can create Elsa comes into her power as she sings the powerful ballad “Let it Go.” Dude, I gotta share it. It’s that good.
In doing this, Elsa unleashes perpetual winter, which sets Anna off on a journey to find her sister and “fix everything.” Along the way, she comes across a man named Kristoff, his fantastic reindeer Sven, and a snowman come to life by Elsa named Olaf. The relationship between Anna and these characters is adorable…but peripheral (though there is love, growth and education there) to a reunion between Anna and Elsa. Anna and crew eventually make their way to the north mountain where she and Elsa quarrel again. Anna believes that if they can just come together and be honest with each other, they can fix everything. Once again, Anna is accidentally injured…this time in her heart. The trolls tell her that only an act of true love will save her.
Kristoff and crew return her to her “true love” Prince Hans who, in a twist that apparently everyone but romantic little me saw coming, reveals himself as the villain (WHAT?!!). Hans locks Anna away and imprisons Elsa, attempting to drive an even deeper wedge between them. Elsa runs heart-broken into the snow, whipping up an even worse blizzard as she goes. Anna runs out into the snow searching for her “true love” moment, when suddenly the snow begins to die down and Anna sees Prince Hans attempting to kill Elsa. Anna, about to turn into a block of ice, gives herself for Elsa as she freezes. Elsa holds her sister and in a typical “true love’s kiss” moment, Anna comes back to life. Turns out that the act of true love she needed was one of her own, for her sister. All’s well that ends well…lesson learned…release the fear, embrace your power and love each other. Open the gates and never shut them again.
Confession: I have two sisters, both of whom I adore. I share a father with one sister and a mother with the other. And there is pain and trauma on both sides, which I am not at liberty to write about in this blog. Let’s just say that in relationship to both of them, I am the Anna. It is well known in our family that I am the silly, klutzy naive one of the group.I’ve got the freckles, the unshakable belief, the braids, the goofiness…they’ve got the beauty, the composure, grace, the maturity. I am also the one who has often been thought to need protection. I was so much younger that at different times, both of my sisters have, of their own belief and by our parents, felt that they could be the cause of hurt for me. Furthermore, they has caused them to doubt themselves and their gifts.
Both of my sisters are powerful women who have experienced differing levels of pressure to hold themselves back for fear of what release of their own intensity could mean. So they held back, and frankly, for a long time I didn’t really know my sisters. Now, as an adult, this story resonates with me. I can see how my sisters loved me and sought to protect me all through our lives. And, I know that an act of true love requires selfless acceptance, something I know that both my sisters and me were always willing to give. Just as Elsa needs to release the fear of her power…her ability to hurt the people she loves in order to embrace the beauty of who she is, so Anna needs to appreciate what her sister feels and support her in that power. But in order for that to happen, Elsa and Anna need to trust each other…a balance between the compassionate power of Queen Elsa and the boundless optimism of Princess Anna. These are powerful archetypal images that I find present in my relationship with my sisters. Older sisters, younger sisters. An act of true love can melt a frozen heart. And I’ve seen these archetypes in play in other families as well. My nieces, my cousins, my friends…
What could it mean for us all if we embraced our loved ones without fear? What if we bring what we believe to be shadow into light–accepting truth and loving each other, not in spite of it, but because of it? Disney’s Frozen tells us what happens. Love will thaw. And it is no coincidence that love comes to us through Disney’s healing touch of the feminine–on this point, sisterly love rather than romantic love. Sisters: The image of little girls at play and young women empowering each other. It is beautiful…and it heals, because we are more powerful together than apart. Together, we are whole.
Given, with love, for my darling sisters: Shari Merrill and Lisa Filippini