It may seem strange to post a review of a Disney movie on this day, the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter. But it seemed curiously appropriate given the circumstances, and I hope you’ll agree.
Disney’s Frozen (2013), which netted the studio a ton of money and two Academy awards, is a breath of cold, fresh air, very loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s 19th century fable, The Snow Queen. At the core of the story is the relationship between two royal sisters: Elsa (Idina Menzel), who possesses the magical ability to create and manipulate snow and ice, and her younger sib Anna (Kristen Bell).
The film’s poignant beginning (reminiscent of the opening of Pixar’s Up) sets up the tension that drives the plot. The princesses, the only heirs of the king and queen of Arendelle, have a deep sisterly bond, and use Elsa’s powers to build snowmen indoors. But when Anna is accidentally hurt during their play, Elsa feels guilty and fears her power. Anna is healed by the Troll King and made to forget the incident. The family closes the castle gates and Elsa withdraws, lest she hurt Anna or anyone else again. Anna grows up feeling shut out (literally) by Elsa, and not knowing why.
The royal couple is tragically lost at sea. When she comes of age, Elsa is crowned the new Queen of Arendelle. At the coronation, Elsa tries to be the “good girl” her parents always cautioned her to be, controlling both her emotions and her powers. But after a conflict with Anna, she loses control, sending Arendelle into perpetual winter, and flees to the mountains. Anna goes after her, and the story is on: will the sisters be reunited, and at what cost?
The movie, of course, has a happy ending (warning: here’s where the spoilers begin — but you’ve seen it already, right?). This is not, however, your usual Disney princess movie about damsels who need to be rescued by the heroism of a dashing prince. Indeed, what makes Frozen so refreshing is the way it sends up and subverts the typical love story. (And as it happens, I had just finished writing a book chapter on marriage and romantic expectations — the usual boy-meets-girl, happily-ever-after formula.)
On the morning of the coronation, Anna, reveling in the joy of finally having the castle gates open, wondering if she might meet someone and fall in love, bumps into the handsome Prince Hans (Santino Fontana). They seem to hit it off immediately, singing “Love is an Open Door,” a parody of romantic conventions (they finish each other’s sentences and sandwiches). Hans immediately proposes marriage; the couple trot off happily to ask Elsa’s blessing. But Elsa refuses to give it, saying sensibly that she can’t marry someone she just met. The argument that follows is what triggers the revelation of Elsa’s power and her flight to North Mountain.
Anna pursues, aided by a scruffy young mountain man named Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his pet reindeer Sven, and Olaf (Josh Gad), a snowman brought to life by Elsa, and who longs cluelessly for a day at the beach. (In another hilarious subversion of cartoon conventions, Sven is not portrayed as a talking animal; Kristoff voices his thoughts for him.) When the two sisters finally meet, Anna is again accidentally hurt. But this time, the consequence is more severe: she will slowly become completely and permanent frozen unless rescued by an act of true love.
What she needs, everyone assumes in fairy tale fashion, is true love’s kiss. Kristoff therefore rushes her back to Arendelle, where Prince Hans has been left in charge of the city. But Anna, near death, discovers that Hans doesn’t love her. He had manipulated her into foolishly accepting his marriage proposal to gain the royal power and position he craved, and now, he leaves her to die. Having already captured Elsa, his plan is to blame her for Anna’s death, execute her, and take sole control of the kingdom.
Obviously, handsome Hans isn’t Anna’s true love.
At the story’s climax, Kristoff is racing to Anna’s rescue; Anna is looking for him, realizing at last that Kristoff is her true love; Elsa has escaped; Hans is looking for Elsa to kill her. They all meet in a blizzard created by Elsa’s emotions.
Will Kristoff’s kiss save Anna? There’s no time to find out: Anna sees Hans about to kill her sister and throws herself in the path of the descending sword. She freezes solid in that very moment; the sword, also frozen, shatters, and Hans is cast unconscious to the ground. Elsa, in deep grief, embraces her frozen sister and weeps.
But Anna’s act of sacrifice, of course, was the act of true love that was needed. She thaws, and Elsa, too, finally discovers the power to reverse both the physical and the emotional winter she had created: love.
What is love? The script satirizes the romantic idea of falling madly and immediately in love; it even dares to skewer the “true love’s kiss” convention of Disney’s own princess movies.
In its place, we get a much different message. Anna, out of love for the sister who has rejected her and frozen her out, nevertheless sacrifices herself without hesitation to save her. That, indeed, is the meaning of true love. It should sound familiar during this Easter season.