Elsa is icy.
No, really. She’s not just a little standoffish (though she’s that, too). Everything she touches actually freezes solid. She merely needs to gesture to send snow and ice flying. She’s colder than a popsicle, as frigid as a football game in Barrow, Alaska. Even Narnia’s White Witch would accuse Elsa of overdoing things a little.
Not that she has a choice. From birth, she’s had this gift (or curse) of being able to conjure cold with just a touch or gesture or thought. It used to be fun, too: As a kid (and heir to the lovely, vaguely Norwegian kingdom of Arendelle) she would turn the palace ballroom into a gigantic icebox so she could play in it with her sister.
Alas, roughhousing with magic isn’t always the safest thing. When Elsa accidentally zaps Anna (she’s the sister) in the head with one of her frigid blasts—necessitating an emergency trip to some wise, old trolls—Elsa decides to keep her snowy powers bottled up. Anna is made to forget that Elsa ever had powers in the first place, but as Elsa’s now-hidden magic grows stronger and stronger, the two sisters grow ever more distant. Elsa closes herself off, both emotionally and literally, from any sort of human contact—for everyone’s good, she thinks.
But not even über-chilly princesses can fend off warmth forever. On her coronation day, tradition dictates that the palace throw open its doors and invite the kingdom in for a sumptuous ball. Elsa knows she must, so she does—taking every precaution she can to make sure she doesn’t freeze everyone out.
It’s not enough. When Anna introduces Elsa to a handsome stranger named Prince Hans, and the two ask for her blessing in marriage, Elsa—dutiful, frigid Elsa—says no. In desperation, Anna grabs Elsa’s hand and pulls off one of her protective gloves.
And the cold front sweeps in.
Elsa flees the ballroom and escapes into the wild, leaving a trail of icicles behind her. It’s an abdication, of sorts—an admission that she is a monster, unfit for human companionship. If she can just go away, she need not hurt anyone again.
There’s only one problem: She already has. Even though it’s July, Arendelle is caked in ice—the result of Elsa’s panic and fear. And Anna, feeling the whole thing’s her fault, knows she has to go after her sister and make things right.
“She’s my sister,” she says on her way out the castle door. “She would never hurt me.”
Following decades of Disney tradition, Frozen is a fairy tale about true love. But this time, the prime love in play is between sisters, not a young and blushing couple: Anna loves her older sister fiercely, and for years she’s been so puzzled and hurt by Elsa’s chilly distance. Elsa loves Anna just as much—which is why she’s kept such a chilly distance. Elsa sacrificed her own happiness, in a way, to keep the people she loves safe.
When Elsa’s powers are unleashed, Anna rides to her aid, getting help from Kristoff, a wandering ice salesman, en route. She risks her life on more than one occasion for her sis, and eventually helps Elsa find a way to control her powers.
Indeed, sacrificial love abounds here. It has to: When Anna is struck with a cold shard that only sacrificial love can melt, several people seem to be good, qualified candidates to make that sacrifice. Kristoff, who’s fallen in love with Anna, takes her to fiancé Hans—hoping that “true love’s kiss” will thaw her chilly soul. A lively snowman named Olaf lights a fire and volunteers to stay with Anna, helping to keep her warm. “Some people are worth melting for,” he says. Hans, put in charge of the kingdom in Elsa and Anna’s absence, opens the castle’s doors to the country’s cold citizens, giving them warm clothing and piping hot food.
In Frozen, love not only makes everything better, it makes us better, too. As we’re told by a passel of singing trolls: “We’re only saying that love, of course, is powerful and strange/People make bad choices if they’re mad, or scared, or stressed/Throw a little love their way and you’ll bring out their best/True love brings out their best!”
In the midst of all this loving, we’re warmed up with other lessons: how we should try to accept and help people who are different from us, even if those differences can be a little scary; how bottling up emotions inside us is a recipe for disaster; how, conversely, letting all those emotions out at once can be dangerous; and why (despite what Disney sometimes says in its other bits of entertainment) it’s probably a good idea to look at love-at-first-sight with a bit of suspicion.
Frozen is said to be loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s story of “The Snow Queen”—a tale filled with earthy demons, religious references and spiritual allusions. But, really, this isn’t so much of a retelling as a complete gut-and-remodel job. Most of the characters and all the spirituality have been neatly stripped away, leaving behind an ethical but almost wholly irreligious fable. Never mind that Elsa’s coronation takes place in a church and is presided over by what looks like an Orthodox priest.
Oh, and never mind, too, all the supernatural activity going on, most notably Elsa’s strange powers and the colony of rock-like trolls. Elsa’s abilities are wholly organic here, not spiritually derived. She has neither asked for them nor does it appear that anyone else has put a spell on her.
Upon first meeting, Anna and Hans careen into the same dinghy where they share a “moment” after they fall and get tangled up together. When Anna’s quizzed about her love for Hans—a test to see how much she really knows about him—one of the questions involves Hans’ shoe size. Her response? “That doesn’t matter,” a wink-wink to adults in the audience. Couples smooch.
An odd little aside that we’ll document without comment: After the credits, a monstrous snowman (a creation of Elsa’s with a deep voice) lumbers across the screen, picks up Elsa’s discarded tiara and sticks it daintily on its head, looking quite pleased.
Frozen is frosted with violence meant to be humorous. Snowman Olaf, for instance, falls literally apart with the slightest provocation (and sometimes melts a little). Characters get hit and thrown and spun around and fall down and sometimes sail off a cliff (to land in a relatively soft pillow of snow).
But there is more serious peril here, too. A band of soldiers eventually goes out looking for Anna and Elsa, with two of them having been instructed to “take care of the monster” should they have opportunity. They do, and they try to kill Elsa with swords and crossbows, while Elsa tries to impale one in the face with a slowly growing icicle and pushes the other off a balcony with a wall of ice. (Hans shouts, “Don’t be the monster they fear you are!”) Later, someone nearly kills Elsa with a sword. People get punched in the face—sometimes accidentally, sometimes on purpose. Someone succumbs to a deep, magical cold. A friendly reindeer nearly drowns. Anna and Kristoff are chased and attacked by wolves. Elsa and Anna’s parents are lost at sea. (Their ship is tossed around by stormy waves, then vanishes.)
Elsa’s magic can be lethal if her blasts of icy coldness hit you in just the right spot (your heart).
A couple of incomplete exclamations of “What the …?” Name-calling includes “duke of Weasel Town” and a put-down that giggles over somebody being confused with a donkey.
Champagne is served at the coronation ball. Olaf is seen with a tropical drink of some sort.
Kristoff, we’re told, doesn’t smell that good and likes to urinate in the woods. Excited about the castle opening up, Anna sings about being either “elated or gassy.” People get hit in the face with saliva. Kristoff tells Anna that all men pick their noses and eat the boogers (an assertion the credits jokingly distance the movie from). Olaf talks about “yellow snow.” A troll talks about passing a candy stone.
Characters lie and mislead at times. After trying to follow her parents’ wishes to conceal her abilities for most of her life, Elsa pushes back against their strictures, casting off their advice and creating a magical castle of ice. “No right, no wrong, no rules for me,” she sings. The moment powerfully embodies Elsa’s sense of freedom … and rebellion and isolation. (But it should be noted that it is designed to freeze, so to speak, a moment in time for Elsa, not to celebrate it or negate the more positive place where she’s heading in her journey.)
For most of my life, the only animated movies worth seeing were Disney’s.
When I was a kid, my parents would take me to re-releases of the studio’s classics: Snow White, Pinocchio, Cinderella, Fantasia. When I was in college and my early 20s, Disney flicks were all the rage: My friends would tromp off to the local theater to see The Little Mermaid or Aladdin or The Lion King.
It’s a different world today, of course. Two-dimensional animation has all but disappeared, certainly in feature films. A host of other studios are making quality computer animation. And for the last two decades, Disney has lagged behind Pixar, struggling to keep up with that studio’s steady brilliance. (Finally fully assimilating it into the Disney brand to perhaps better rub up against its cachet.)
Now, with Frozen, the wheel may be turning again.
It’s not like Disney’s breaking new ground (or ice) with this holiday flick. It has all the hallmarks of a classic Mouse House product: Music! Castles! Heroic heroes! Dastardly villains! Funny if somewhat-annoying sidekicks! Moreover, movies about princesses have always been Disney’s bread and butter, and giving us two in the same movie can feel almost cynical.
But there’s something different about these ladies—something, if I may say, special.
They inhabit a tale that’s not so much about a princess falling in love as it is about learning to love. It’s not about staying a child forever (à la Peter Pan’s Neverland), but figuring out how to grow up. Under the veneer of traditional Disney magic, Frozen gives us a bit of the emotional depth Pixar so excelled at. It’s a movie that doesn’t just entertain. It tries to speak to us, giving us insight into the nature of family and friendship—why sometimes those we love seem to go a little crazy and what we can do to help bring them back. (Elsa’s struggles could be seen as a metaphor for adolescence in some ways.) It plays with Disney’s well-worn messages of feel-good hope (be true to yourself; follow your dreams), modifying them and molding them into something stronger and more mature.
Frozen is then, perhaps, family entertainment for a new generation. A confection sprinkled with a few suggestive asides that remains a sweet bucketful of ice cream, you might say, a smooth-textured story with quality messages mixed in.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.