FROZEN (2013) is a great example of how Disney can unfold non-traditional plot lines without antagonizing traditionalists. The story is loosely, and I do mean loosely, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” (1845). The seven stories of “The Snow Queen” constitute Andersen’s longest fairy tale about a boy and a girl who meet a doomed fate at the hands of the evil Snow Queen. Walt Disney himself had been interested in adapting the story, though his vision never came to fruition in his lifetime. FROZEN is not nearly as dark as Andersen’s tale. Elsa and Anna are sisters and best friends until Elsa’s uncontrolable ice powers put her sister in danger. The two are separated by a castle of closed doors until Elsa’s coronation day. When Anna announces her engagement to a man she just met, Elsa looses her temper and accidentally reveals her dangerous secret to the entire kingdom. She runs into the mountains in fear, pursued by Anna, who just wants to help her sister. The film opens with a testosterone-fuelled chant of ice harvesters. If we are to draw a parallel between “ice,” as natural element, and Elsa as the epitome of female genius, the “Frozen Heart” song places the male and female in an antagonistic stance the one against the other. The very first shot shows a serated ice saw violently penetrating the thick layer of ice, an agressive, almost fallic, gesture. The men sing of their need to destroy the ice, which (like women) is “both foul and fair,” “beautiful, powerful, dangerous, cold.” The term “frozen” has traditionally been used to describe sexually repressed women, and much of the language employed in this opening number is reminiscent of the Freudian suppression Victorian women faced.
The themes of Freudian psychoanalysis carry on to the highly patriarchal relationship between the two royal sisters and their father. Throughout the brief sequence in which the parents are present, the mother is all but mute, her only line being “She’s ice cold!” The father, on the other hand, plays a central role suppressing Elsa’s power. In a bid to play the protective patriarch, the king succeeds in shutting his children away from the world and apart from each other, while also instilling a deep sense of guilt and shame in the existence of her genius: “Conceal it. Don’t feel it. Don’t let it show.”
Sisters Elsa and Anna make up their own secluded community of women. Elsa’s power/genius unites them. The song “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” represents how Elsa’s ability to create establishes a bond of active play between the sisters who are otherwise secluded from outside society. One is reminded of the ways in which Jo March‘s genius in writing plays and stories united the community of sisters in Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women.” In the end it is the comical snowman Olaf, a vision of their own making, who unites the two. Although women have historically been prevented from participating in the activities of the wider world, they found an outlet for their energies within the female community. This desire to have human connection with her sister is reflected in Anna’s desire to play, create, and converse with her isolated older sister. The film gives a special nod to the struggles of female historical figures when Anna sings, “I’ve started talking to the pictures on the wall – hang in there, Joan!” indicating a picture of Joan of Arc.
Unfortunately Anna’s repression has disastrous consequences, at least temporarily, when she becomes instantly engaged to the first man she meets. For Elsa’s coronation day, the gates of the sisters’ castle/prison are opened “For the First Time in Forever.” The event sparks Anna’s pent up energy, while simultaneously inspiring fear in Elsa, who is desperate to conceal her powers from the people of her kingdom. As she sings, “Don’t let them in. Don’t let them see. Be the good girl you always have to be,” she gazes up at a menacing painting of her father. Another male threat comes from the head of a neighbouring trade partner, who is eager to “open those gates so I can unlock your secrets and exploit your riches.” For the purposes of the Disney movie, this must be read literally, but a deeper examination of the line leads to another, highly sexualized suggestion. When Elsa’s dangerous gifts are exposed, this same male antagonist accuses her of being a “monster,” which instantly send up red flags for the feminist scholar, who is reminded of Barbara Creed’s landmark text “The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, and Psychoanalysis.” In discussing the female as victim in most horror genre films, Creed argues that “the prototype of all definitions of the monstrous is the female reproductive body.” Elsa’s power, genius, and secret is her ability to reproduce – in the case of the film text, she literally reproduces ice (which if you’ll remember is “beautiful, powerful, dangerous, cold”). This power to reproduce threatens the patriarchal order of her father’s household and the economic order of her relationship with her neighbouring trade partners.
The feminist is reminded of yet another essential feminist text when Elsa escapes to “a kingdom of isolation, and it looks like I’m the queen” (sidenote: the play on the word “isolation” and “ice” is GENIUS! Thank you Disney songwriters for that gem of wordplay!). Elsa’s desire for a place of her own, where she can practise her art without fear of retribution, reminds one of Virgina Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own,” in which she asserts that women writers (read creators) have the right for a literal and figurative space of their own within a male-dominated literary tradition. Elsa and Anna have finally been able to escape the castle with the “Yellow Wallpaper” and Elsa in particular finds freedom and solace on the North Mountain. Anna’s relationship with Kristoff is a tricky one. Sometimes he’s nothing less than condescending to the princess. Like when he tries to keep her from throwing a snowball at the mean snow monster by literally picking her up and calling her “Feisty-pants.” Girl, I would have thrown that snowball right in his face! But every time he tries to do the masculine macho thing and save her, she ends up saving both herself and him. And they’re still friends! The whole patriarchal order doesn’t dissolve when women are allowed to take care of themselves! Equally ridiculous is Kristoff’s adopted family of trolls trying to fix them up together. Their comical pushiness highlights the absurdity of Anna’s engagement because her devotion to her sister necessitates that that be her only serious relationship for the time being. In the end, Elsa’s power puts her in a double bind of imprisonment and freedom, unity and isolation. She is imprisoned by the guilt and fear surrounding her powers, but her powers also enable her to escape danger. Her ability to create unites her with her sister in play, but it also makes her distinct from her sister, and makes her feel the need to protect Anna by keeping her at bay. The power is put out of balance by fear and suspicion, but order is restored with the unification of the two sisters, Elsa as head and Anna as heart. The film has a most fabulously beautiful shot of the two sisters, Anna as an ice statue and Elsa as the ice queen, all dressed in sparkly blue, draped over her sister, appearing as one whole form. Their devotion levels the emotions and allows love and peace to prevail. This frees the women to open the kingdom while also allowing them to open their hearts to more people. The dangerous element of Elsa’s power is removed when she learns to use her genius for the good and joy of her people.
Final Analysis Like BRAVE (2012), a mother-daughter love story, and THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG (2009), which was a love story between a young woman and her career dreams, FROZEN (2013) breaks the traditional prince/princess happily-ever-after fairy tale plot line. But while Disney expands the range of possibility for its female protagonists, these stories unfortunately send the message to boys that they are no longer necessary. While the second wave feminism was distinctly anti-male, the current third wave of feminism is in danger of ignoring the male gender altogether. Though we are a far cry from switching the roles so that men become “the other,” we could make more of an effort to include men in the social transformation we wish to see in the gender order. Of the three male characters in FROZEN, two are exiled from the kingdom while the third, Christoph, is just sort of allowed to hang out a bit on the sidelines. Unfortunately, that’s the best we can do so far for our brothers while we women try to actualize the dreams of our feminist predecessors.
I recommend seeing FROZEN with your daughters, but there are better movies for your sons. Having seen the film in both 2D and 3D, it is definitely worth investing the extra couple bucks in the 3D. The special effects with the ice are brilliant. Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell (that rhymes!) gave superb vocal performances – I bought the soundtrack after realizing all the songs were stuck in my head all day at work. Josh Gad‘s performance as Olaf for the song “In Summer” was hilarious! All-in-all, this is one of my new favorite Disney movies which I will be adding to my [extensive] personal collection as soon as possible.