Fixer Uppers: Frozen and the Price of Isolation

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Having re-established their reputation as one of Hollywood’s dominant animation studios thanks to recent hits such as Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph, Disney have created something of a masterpiece in their latest release, Frozen. A loose adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Snow Queen, the film follows Anna (Kristen Bell) as she attempts to rescue the town of Arendelle following its freezing by her sister Elsa (Idina Menzel). The film is sweet, charming and visually stunning, but then, so were Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph. What makes Frozen such a masterpiece? Well, Frozen is not just a good film; it’s an important one. Featuring a sensitive depiction of emotional trauma, a revolutionary approach to the fairy tale genre and a genuinely progressive portrayal of its female characters, it picks up the baton left by its predecessors and takes it into some brave new directions that fly in the face of the widely accepted perception of Disney as peddlers of safe, repetitive and regressive entertainment. Frozen is anything but.

The film begins as it means to go on: with a song that’s much more than it seems. ‘Frozen Heart’ is a surprisingly violent song to begin a Disney Princess film with. It’s sung by a group of ice harvesters as they strip a frozen lake for its bounty. The sound of them plunging their saws into the ice provides the song with its beat, which grows faster and more intense as the song progresses. The lyrics are no less intense as the men sing “Split the ice apart / And break the frozen heart” in the second verse. “Cut through the heart cold and clear,” they add in the final verse. “Strike for love and strike for fear.” The song concludes with the line “Beware the frozen heart” but it’s intriguingly ambiguous on just who should beware: those who know the person with a frozen heart, or the person suffering from a frozen heart themselves? If the latter, just how does one go about avoiding a frozen heart? (1)

Frozen will eventually provide a resounding answer to that question, but only at the conclusion of a story that’s one of Disney’s most emotionally complex in years (if not ever). Depicting a group of characters who are fundamentally at war with themselves, Frozen suggests that such contradictions are an inevitable fact of human nature that aren’t easily reconciled (if indeed they can be reconciled at all), and even dares to explore the nature of depression, anxiety (2) and other emotional trauma. Unlike Tangled, the title of which was controversially changed from Rapunzel for marketing reasons, the switch from The Snow Queen to Frozen is entirely justified. This is a film about cold, distant emotions and characters who struggle to feel anything for each other.

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It’s worth, therefore, looking at the core cast in more detail. The list of characters reads as follows:

Elsa: The elder royal sister of Arendelle who is cursed with the uncontrollable power to form ice and snow from her fingers. She’s a brave, noble and graceful woman, but having spent most of her life hidden away from the world, she has grown fearful and considers herself dangerous.

Anna: Elsa’s younger sister, who has also spent years locked away from the world. Their parents dead, Anna has seen her adventurous spirit suffocated by isolation, and she’s become desperate for any kind attention, particularly of the romantic variety.

Hans: A handsome prince who woos Anna and proposes marriage after knowing her for only one day. However, his charming exterior masks darker motivations. He has designs on Arendelle, and seeks to exploit Anna’s naivety to take over the kingdom.

Kristoff: A gruff, lonely ice trader who helps Anna on her journey to save her sister. Kristoff’s only friend is his reindeer Sven and he rejects the human race in favour of his pet (“every one of them’s bad,” he sings in ‘Reindeer Are Better Than People’). Like Hans though, Kristoff’s exterior is just a mask – he’s really a pussy cat, and as the song Fixer Upper explains, “his isolation is confirmation of his desperation for human hugs.”

The Trolls: Small, grey creatures who adopt the orphaned Kristoff at an early age. They are rock-like beings who can disguise themselves as small boulders to remain out of sight. However, their cold outer shell conceals an inner warmth. They sing Fixer Upper, a song that sums up the film’s central themes and which pleads for calm, understanding and humanity.

Olaf: The film’s comic relief is nonetheless key to its themes as well. Olaf is a snowman who dreams of experiencing the summer unaware of the fatal effect it would have on him. “Winter’s a good time to stay in and cuddle,” he sings obliviously in ‘In Summer’, “but put me in summer and I’ll be a… happy snowman!”

Such inner conflicts are by no means unusual to Disney, animation or indeed cinema as a whole; indeed they’re the very basis of good drama. Frozen emphasises this device more than most though by trading smartly on fairy tale and Disney history, and the idea of change. Again, songs play a significant role in highlighting this point, and towards the end of ‘Fixer Upper’ one of the lead trolls tells Anna:

“We’re not saying you can change him
Because people don’t really change.
All we know is love’s a force that’s powerful and strange.
People make bad choices when they’re mad or scared or stressed.
But throw a little love their way and you’ll bring out their best.”

‘Fixer Upper’ is such a fun and comedic song that it’s easy to overlook its relevance, but this verse really does sum the film up. People don’t change, it says, they can’t. Problems are problems because they’ve been built up over a number of years, and even with the best of intentions, those problems can’t be easy conquered or dismissed. Things take time, people are stubborn, human nature is difficult. Change – real, lasting, change – is a mountain that’s not easily scaled.

Now think about the context and history of Frozen. This is a Disney film. It’s a fairy tale. Change and transformation are utterly vital to both. Disney is the studio that transformed pumpkins into beautiful carriages, humble servants into princesses, mermaids into human beings. As a genre, the very foundations of fairy tales are built on the idea of change and transformation – indeed, their primary purpose for hundreds of years has been to educate youngsters about morality, thus providing them with lessons that will change their view of the world. Frozendoesn’t just dismiss such magical transformation, it portrays it as unhelpful, showing both Anna (who seeks true love as a simple solution to her loneliness) and Elsa (who repeats her father’s manta “Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let it show” like it’s a magical spell) as hamstrung by their faith.”

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Frozen‘s subversion of these tropes is more than mere satire; indeed like Tangled, Frozen is entirely reverential to its past and doesn’t actively seek to satirise or mock. Instead, its subversion works on an emotional level. By playing into the audience’s expectations of what a Disney fairy tale should be (pretty princesses, handsome princes, comic sidekicks, and luxurious castles), and then pulling the rug and not delivering on the idea of magical change and transformation we’ve come to expect from such stories, the film finds a new way to provide resonance. This is fairy tale fantasy with a sobering injection of reality.

Perhaps the most significant injection of reality is that for the most part, Frozen lacks a clear-cut villain. A conniving Duke adds a certain level of moustache-twirling evil, and of course there’s the final act reveal around Hans, but these are minor details in the grander scheme of a film that bravely refuses to portray its ostensible villain (Elsa) as a villain. Instead, it focuses on fleshing her out into a rounded, complex and deeply flawed heroine, whose biggest problem isn’t her powers, but her confusion. This is is beautifully illustrated in Frozen‘s breakout hit, ‘Let It Go’, a typically stirring Disney power ballad that’s easy to misunderstand. The song appears about a quarter of the way through the film. Elsa’s powers have been exposed, and she’s fled to Arendelle’s mountains to avoid persecution. Vowing to put the painful past behind her, Elsa sings about identity and self-actualisation while removing the trappings of her former life (her regal gown and crown) and builds a new palace made of snow and ice. “It’s funny how some distance makes everything seem small,” she sings. “And the fears that once controlled me can’t get to me at all.”

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This is pretty standard Disney songwriting, reminiscent of Beauty and the Beast‘s ‘Belle’ or The Little Mermaid‘s ‘Part of Your World’, both songs in which the heroines express their hopes and dreams, and the hunger which will drive them to make them real. The music and the sweep Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee’s visuals provide Elsa with further her power, but in reality, Elsa is at her weakest her. Sure she’s “free”, in so much as she no longer has to hide her power, but her emancipation has come at a cost, one she acknowledges, but doesn’t seem to fully understand. “A kingdom of isolation / And it looks like I’m the Queen,” goes one of the songs lines, with another adding emphatically, ”The wing is howling / Like this swirling storm inside / Couldn’t keep it in / Heaven knows I tried…” This isn’t a song of defiance, as it’s so easy to misconstrue it as, but one of denial, a point confirmed by the closing lines: “Turn away and slam the door / I don’t care what they’re going to say / Let the storm rage on / The cold never bothered me anyway.”

Indeed, the cold is all Elsa has now. Alienated from her only remaining family, she is truly alone, with no chance of truly mastering her magic or experiencing happiness. Hers, in effect, is a story of depression and how others react to those suffering from depression. Her natural and unchangeable state of being has separated her from the surrounding world, which doesn’t comprehend her problems or understand how to help her escape from them. Instead, she flees, refusing any kind of human contact (“I don’t care what they’re going to say”) and accepting her life of inner turmoil as inescapable (“Let the storm rage on!”). That the song is crafted as a typical Disney song of defiance and goal-setting only further emphasises the emotions at play here. Whereas Belle and Ariel sang of their dreams, Elsa’s been stripped of such luxuries, and as savvy audience members, we make the connection from this film to its predecessors. As the scene closes with Elsa slamming the door of her new palace shut (doors are used as symbols of emotional connect and disconnect throughout), the audience is left as split as she is: enthralled by the music, but saddened by the lyrics. (3)

If ‘Let It Go’ is Elsa’s song, Frozen‘s other key tune is undeniably Anna’s (although Elsa participates in it as well). ‘For the First Time in Forever’ takes place on the day of Elsa’s coronation, and after spending years alone in their palace afraid of her uncontrollable powers, she and her sister are having to accept visitors. This is terrible news for Elsa, who fears her powers will be exposed and she’ll be treated like a monster, but a welcome change for Anna, who has been starved of love by the years of solitude. ‘For the First Time in Forever’ is a bright, optimistic burst of joy and it too conjures memories Ariel’s ‘Part of Your World’, with songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristin Anderson-Lopez again banking on our shared knowledge of Disney history. “There’ll be actual real-life people,” Anna sings, as elated as Ariel was, “it’ll be totally strange. But wow! Am I so ready for this change!”

The change Anna’s seeking is love, but she’s looking for it in all the wrong places – a character trait all-too rare in Disney films (where the heroines so often find Mr. Right right away) that leads the story into some slyly satirical places. After so long alone, Anna’s built up a fantasy world that’s distinctly Disney-ish in nature. “I suddenly see him standing there. A beautiful stranger, tall and fair,” she sings, imagining an ideal scenario that could be ripped straight fromSnow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella. “We laugh and talk all evening. Which is totally bizarre. Nothing like the life I’ve led so far.” And indeed, she does meet a beautiful strange right at the end of ‘For the First Time in Forever’, but of course, he’s not all he seems. ‘For the First Time in Forever’ (along with ‘Love is an Open Door’, Anna’s duet with Hans) emphasises the severity of Anna’s loneliness and just how easy a target she is for manipulation.

There’s something even more important and daring that Lopez and Anderson-Lopez highlight with ‘For the First Time in Forever’ though: identity. As I’ve mentioned, every major character inFrozen is at war with themselves, and while Anna doesn’t face the same struggle Elsa does, she’s no less torn. Visually and lyrically, ‘For the First Time in Forever’ establishes Anna’s aspiration to be a doe-eyed princess who exists solely to be loved. “Tonight, imagine me gown and all,” she sings. “Fetchingly draped against the wall. The picture of sophisticated grace.” Shortly after, she attempts to literally become the “picture of sophisticated grace” as she heads into the palace’s gallery and positions herself against some of the paintings – each one depicting a passive woman being doted on by an adoring man. These women are window dressing, pretty pictures for the man to idolise, and so cut off from the rest of humanity has Anna become that these are the only visions of womanhood she has. How can she expect to become anything more when she has nobody else to look up to. (4)

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Though she may aspire to be these women, the film and the song constantly work to show that Anna’s nothing like them. While singing of her desire to be “the picture of sophisticated grace”, Anna hits herself in the face with a curtain string before picking up a bust of a handsome prince, swinging it around in a mock dance and accidentally hurling it into a cake. Anna is not graceful, she’s clumsy and goofy, waking up drooling on the day of the Coronation and confessing to wanting to “stuff some chocolate in my face” during ‘For the First Time in Forever’. Nor indeed is she a passive princess – she’s a dreamer, an adventurer, a determined young woman who wastes no time in going out into the snowy wilderness alone when Elsa flees following the exposure of her secret. Anna begs to be saved, but her every action proves that she doesn’t need to be.

‘For the First Time in Forever’ is reprised later in the film when Anna has finally tracked Elsa down to her new ice palace. The sisters remain at odds, but at least there’s communication – the song is effectively a musical dialogue between the two of them as Anna tries to persuade Elsa out of hiding. (5) The elder sister refuses though and the song ends, heartbreakingly, with Elsa delivering an emphatic “I can’t!” to Anna’s suggestion that she can thaw the frozen Arendelle. It’s a brilliant moment not only because of the ferocity with which Menzel delivers the line, but like the sight of Anna standing against those painting, because of how it trades on history. This should be the grand emotional highlight, the point at which Anna and Elsa make up and set out to achieve their goals like Ariel’s famous moment on the rock at the end of the reprise of ‘Part of Your World’ in The Little Mermaid. But it isn’t. Elsa’s emphatic denial is accompanied with a fatal icy blast to Anna’s heart that sets up a race against time in the film’s final act. Rather than setting out towards a better life, Elsa’s potentially ended both hers and her sister’s.

Naturally, they all live happily ever after and there’s a neat twist on the meaning of true love that – in the film’s only real storytelling problem – becomes obvious much earlier than it should. What abides in this ending though isn’t just a play on a fairy tale concept, but the film’s insistence on communication as being the only thing that can draw people through dark times. As mentioned earlier, Anna’s love for Hans is based purely on infatuation – she falls for him because he’s the first desirable man she’s seen in years. Later in the film, Kristoff mocks Anna for this, and for accepting Hans’s speedy marriage proposal. When she hears of the forthcoming nuptials, Elsa is similarly dismissive, insisting quickly that there will be no wedding and that Anna has no concept of love. Of course, both Kristoff and Elsa are right, but so cut-off are they that there’s no discussion, no real attempt to help Anna. Indeed, so desperate do things become after Elsa freezes Anna’s heart, putting her life under a threat that only true love can solve, that Kristoff comes to blindly believe Anna and Hans are experiencing ‘true love’ and that only the duplicitous prince can save her – a false move that almost proves fatal.

The end of the film forces the characters into communication and change, but as the Trolls sang, insists that those things do not come easily, and can only arrive with the help of others. Kristoff, for example, has to accept that he doesn’t really want to spend his life in isolation and admit his feelings for Anna; Anna has to accept that her notions of love are false and develop new, healthier goals; and Elsa has to let her sister in and accept that no matter how dangerous her powers can be, there are ways of controlling them, and even expressing them in positive ways. The gates of Arendelle’s royal castle are finally opened, and life begins to flourish as our heroes skate in the courtyard along with the citizens of Arendelle on ice created by Elsa, who looks set to be an open, honest and beloved Queen. “We’re never closing them again,” she tells Anna.

Anna, in her own way, had it partly right all along – love really is an open door, and having accepted both that, and the communication it represents, she and her sister can finally “say goodbye to the pain of the past” for good and truly let it go. Far from being a dark warning of the fear of something monstrous, the frozen heart the ice harvesters sang about at the start was really a warning to ourselves. Only through human warmth can we really thaw the ice and make the fairy tale transformation so many Disney heroines have in the past. In doing so,Frozen not only helps re-establish Disney’s position at the vanguard of modern day animation, but also provides a blueprint for how it can stay there for years to come.

FOOTNOTES

  1. The ‘Frozen Heart’ sequence plays like a fairy tale prophecy – a small story that brings ill tidings – and it’s interesting to note that early drafts of the screenplay included a more explicit prophecy, hints of which can be heard in the song ‘Spring Pageant’ on the Deluxe Edition of the soundtrack album. The decision to drop this prophecy in favour of something less direct is one of a number of smart moves made by screenwriter and co-director Jennifer Lee.
  2. Lee confirmed this subtext on Twitter, writing: “@GStacyLA definitely was intentional to show anxiety and depression. Not necessarily for HCA, more for the story, but yes. Warm hugs to you.”
  3. Elsa’s split personality is further emphasised by the two characters she creates after becoming the Snow Queen: a snow monster called Marshamallow and Olaf the Snowman. The two character represent the person Elsa is (the cold, monstrous beast she feels she is and the fun joker who “likes warm hugs” that she wants to be). Elsa first created Olaf as a playpal for her and Anna when they were children, and perhaps her almost unwitting recreation of him during the ‘Let It Go’ sequence suggests that subconsciously, she wanted to leave one small channel of communication between herself and her sister open.
  4. The film makes a powerful but subtle comment on women’s representation by having Anna look up to a painting of Joan of Arc as a child during the song ‘Do You Want to Build a Snowman?.’ As a young girl, Anna identified with the strong woman, the film seems to be saying, but as time wore on, she became so overwhelmed with passive images of femininity that she came to accept that as the only way to be a woman.
  5. Maintaining the more sympathetic approach to Elsa the film-makers wanted to take, it’s worth noting here that a different, much more confrontational, song called ‘Life’s Too Short’ was originally written for this sequence. It can be heard on the Deluxe Edition of the soundtrack album.
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