This is Disney Reflections, a series of monthly posts in which I compare Disney animated fairy tales to the original stories.
It is a rare fairy tale where the protagonist’s parents are a) alive, and b) capable of raising their children without life-damaging trauma. In this, the final post of Disney Reflections, the royal family of Arendelle fail both spectacularly. I was introduced to Tumblr’s opinions on this movie – including various versions of ‘Let It Go’, genderbent art, and meta I tried really hard not to read – before seeing it myself, which meant I was spoilered for several things on top of my usual ‘You’re Doing My Fairy Tale Wrong’ literalism. A rewatch is definitely necessary for judging this one.
The fairy tale: Frozen is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s story ‘The Snow Queen’, which is one of my favourites (admittedly, the list is lengthy) and was reviewed for the Fairy Tale Tuesday project. You can read my thoughts here.
The film: We start in the kingdom of Arendelle, which sounds like a dress shop rather than an actual place and what, may I ask, was wrong with Denmark? I mean, I can’t prove ‘The Snow Queen’ starts in Denmark but that’s where Andersen was from and later in the story Gerda travels to Lapland, so it would be reasonable to assume…
…you don’t really care, do you? It’s just I MISS the days when Disney set its fairy tales in real places, hyper-stereotyped though they usually were.
Anyway. Arendelle. It’s very north. In a sequence that reminds me of The Little Mermaid’s opening number, ‘Fathoms Below’, we see the ice-breakers at work on the river, hauling away vast frozen chunks with skill and speed. Tagging along behind is a little boy, with an equally diminutive young reindeer. He’s trying to learn the trade without anyone actually teaching him or, in fact, noticing he’s there.
In the castle, Princess Elsa is trying to sleep. The colours of the aurora borealis swirling in the night sky outside are not enough to wake her, even her little sister Anna’s determined tugging can’t get her up, until the magic words are deployed: “Do you wanna build a snowman?” The answer is YES. Elsa wants to build a snowman. And in the echoing great hall of the palace, that’s precisely what she does, because Elsa has magic that allows her to create winter at will. She makes the floor an ice rink, waves the stick arms of a snowman she calls Olaf, makes little hillocks of snow for Anna to jump between. But Anna keeps jumping higher and higher, and Elsa can’t keep up. Nor does Anna listen when she’s told to stop. A stray bolt of ice magic strikes her across the head; she tumbles to the ground and goes still. A streak of white appears in her hair. Panicked, Elsa screams for their parents.
Who at least know about the magic, though they don’t really like it. They take their daughters to the trolls, little mossy people who strongly resemble boulders. Trotting alone through the woods, the pint-sized ice-breaker is nearly mown down by the frantic royals and hurries after them to see what’s happening. “Cuties,” one troll remarks, petting both boy and reindeer approvingly. “I’m gonna keep you.”
The rest of the trolls are focused on the frightened family huddled in their midst. The chief troll comes kindly forward to examine his patient. It’s lucky – to a given value of ‘luck’ – that the blow struck Anna’s head, not her heart. By stripping away all memories of magic and modifying them to normal winter fun, the troll heals her. He warns Elsa that her power will only get stronger, and that she must learn to control it or disaster will follow. He illustrates his point with flashing red illusions that terrify the young princess and her parents, who decide the best way to handle their daughter’s burgeoning abilities is to go into full lockdown. The castle gates are locked; the staff reduced. Elsa’s things are moved out of the room she shared with her sister. She is encouraged to stay away from people until she learns to control her power…but the tighter her restrictions, the worse her control. Seeing that she makes frost with her bare hands, her father gives her gloves. The outside world becomes a terrifying place for a little girl with a secret.
And on the outside is Anna, bewildered at the sudden change in her sister, trying to coax her out of her room with slowly declining hope. She resorts to dangerous stunts to entertain herself, like riding a bike down a staircase, and starts talking to the paintings. When the girls are in their teens, their parents go on a fortnight’s sea voyage and are caught in a storm. They don’t come back. Now Elsa is utterly alone, and so is Anna.
Three years later, the stillness on the castle cracks. Elsa is about to ascend the throne and that means, “for the first time in forever”, the gates are about to be opened. Anna is almost hysterical with excitement. She whizzes past ‘wow, am going to meet someone new’ straight to ‘TRUE LOVE IS OUT THERE’. Though her notion of true love is basically just someone who wants to talk to her. Oh, honey.
In the city outside, the festival mood is echoed in flower garlands and ribbons. The little boy, Kristoff – all grown up to lumberjack proportions, along with his reindeer Sven – is among the hopeful crowd. More distinguished guests, including a gang of dodgy-looking dignitaries, arrive in the port. When the gates are flung open Anna dives out, plunging into the crowd like she’s taking her first deep breath in years. Her enthusiasm is infectious. Her co-ordination could use some work, though. She runs straight into a horse, falls in a boat and ends up face to face with a prince. He’s handsome and courteous; she’s instantly smitten. Conversation stutters along in awkward mutual apologies until the introductions are made. He’s Hans; she’s the soon-to-be-queen’s younger sister; oh yes, and the coronation is about to start, she should probably be there.
Underneath a veneer of regal composure, Elsa is freaking out. Whatever she touches with her bare skin immediately frosts over, but part of the ceremony requires her to hold the traditional orb and sceptre aloft in front of everyone. She takes them in her hands for the briefest possible time and whips her gloves back on afterwards.
The following party is far less formal. Once Elsa has been introduced by her official title, with Anna by her side – and it’s desperately sad how uncertain Anna is about being there, edging diffidently away so they don’t stand too close – there is jaunty music and dancing. The sisters attempt to have a conversation. It’s reserved but kind on Elsa’s side, awkward and eager on Anna’s. Both are a little overwhelmed by the sheer number of people suddenly in their home, both sniff longingly at the aroma of chocolate. Their chat gets interrupted by the Duke of Weselton (one of those dodgy-looking dignitaries from earlier on), who asks for a dance. Being the queen has its perks; Elsa can say no, but Anna gets whirled around on the floor while the duke tries to pump her for information and simultaneously perform an acrobatic sort of hornpipe. Coming back to Elsa after the dance, Anna makes another tentative overture – “I wish it could be like this all the time” – and Elsa obviously agrees, but the reminder closes her down again, making Anna back off in tears.
And who should she stumble into at that moment? The handsome, the dashing, the much-better-dancer-than-that-duke Prince Hans of the Southern Isles, who proceeds over the evening to prove himself a fantastic listener. They swap stories: he’s the youngest of twelve brothers and three of them once pretended he didn’t exist, she doesn’t feel welcome in her own home. After hours of sneaking around the castle and gardens like little kids, Hans spontaneously proposes in a romantic spot beside a waterfall and Anna spontaneously accepts. They both seem drunk on finding someone who actually likes them. Bursting back into the ballroom to tell Elsa, their dizzy vibe is abruptly dampened when she points out they’ve only just met, this is weird, she’s not giving her blessing and definitely not hosting their wedding. She’s not very tactful. One thing leads to another, the sisters get into a screaming row and Anna accidentally pulls off one of Elsa’s gloves. Instantly, a wall of razor sharp icicles flash across the floor.
Elsa’s secret is finally out. Horrified, she flees into the village square but everyone wants to stop and congratulate her. The Duke of Weselton – who has somehow taken charge – shouts out an order to stop her. In her panic, Elsa lashes out again and her people shrink back in fear. She runs down to the fjord. When water meets her feet, it turns to ice, making a bridge for her to pass across. Which is pretty damn spectacular. Behind her, the whole fjord ices over, trapping the ships. Elsa’s fear is so great she has brought a sudden winter down on Arendelle.
Anna is not one of those calling Elsa a monster. She feels guilty about the fight and worried about her sister; leaving Hans to hold the fort, she gets a horse and rides off to find Elsa. “She’s my sister,” she reassures Hans. “She would never hurt me.” But Elsa does not want to be found. Climbing high into the mountains, the snow a whirlwind around her, she has gone right through panic into something like elation: she can’t go back so why bother with the rules? Why not do whatever she wants? Why not…LET IT GO, LET IT GO, SHE CAN’T HOLD IT BACK ANYMORE…
Had to be said.
Crafting a palace from ice, she frosts herself a dress and conjures up a snowman just for the hell of it. Elsa likes being banished. The cold never bothered her anyway. It does bother Anna, who didn’t change out of her summer ballgown and just lost both her cloak and her horse in the woods. Staggering through knee-deep snow towards the rising smoke of a chimney, she discovers a little shop that is stocked almost exclusively for summer. Managing to acquire a warm dress and boots, she and the shopkeeper are both taken aback when a snow-encrusted stranger stomps in demanding carrots. It is Kristoff, who has just come from the North Mountain, where scary magic stuff is happening. Anna perks up. In return for buying his hideously expensive winter supplies – the shopkeeper is not sympathetic to sorcerous changes in season – she enlists Kristoff’s help to reach the mountain and hopefully convince Elsa to stop freezing Arendelle to death.
Kristoff has grown up a bit odd. He prefers his reindeer Sven to human beings (well, that’s not odd, Sven is adorable, if a bit dog-like) and has a ventriloquism thing going on where he pretends Sven is singing along with him, but he’s all Anna’s got, even if he does tell her off for scuffing his freshly lacquered sled and takes Elsa’s side in the Hans argument. Anna sticks to her guns. It is TRUE LOVE. When wolves attack the sled, she works off her anger beating them away with Kristoff’s guitar.
I feel really sorry for wolves in Disney films, they get so badly typecast.
Anna and Kristoff end up running straight at a cliff. Because it is Disney, they get over safely; the freshly lacquered sled, however, ends up at the bottom of a ravine. Anna guiltily promises to buy a new one. Kristoff isn’t very forgiving, but Sven likes her so Kristoff ends up having an argument more or less with himself and comes along grudgingly.
As the sun comes up, the wintry world Elsa has created glitters bewitchingly. Anna and Kristoff are walking through it (with a very bouncy Sven) toward the mountain when they come across Olaf the mobile snowman, Elsa’s creation from last night, who is cheerfully critiquing the lack of colour. Despite initial misgivings, Anna gives him one of Sven’s carrots for a nose. When he introduces himself, she recognises the childhood name and realises they have a lead on finding Elsa. Olaf is delighted to help, though it means bringing back summer. He likes summer. Just doesn’t understand quite what it is…
As a side note: being a Queenslander, I find his desire to get tanned really unhealthy. Snow melts. Skin burns. Don’t tan, people!
Meanwhile, in the city, Hans is great in a crisis. He’s handing around cloaks and blankets, offering hot soup from the castle kitchens, tamping down the Duke of Weselton’s hysterical accusations. When Anna’s horse returns without its rider, he rapidly gathers volunteers for a rescue party. The Duke sends along two men who do not have the royal family’s interests at heart. Unaware of the concerns for her safety, Anna climbs higher into Elsa’s winter wonderland. The closer they get to the top, the spikier the ice formations grow. At length they come to a cliff-face that’s too steep to climb. Nothing daunted, Anna launches herself at it anyway. “You know, most people who disappear into the mountains want to be alone,” Kristoff points out. “Nobody wants to be alone!” Anna declares. Olaf politely interrupts by finding a staircase round the back that leads straight to Elsa’s massive ice palace. Kristoff falls in love with it on the spot.
He’s indignant when Anna insists on going in alone, but doesn’t push it. Olaf trots in anyway. Elsa is astonished to see him alive; apparently her magic has even less limits than she thought. Anna reminds her of the snowmen they built as children, asking her to come home; Elsa gets a painful flashback to when her magic and her sister last collided and demands she leave, go back to the castle where she’ll be safe. Only she won’t, because eternal winter. Hearing what her magic has done, Elsa is appalled – she doesn’t know how to undo it and Anna’s blithe assurance that she can is maddening. Ice starbursts out from her, a splinter accidentally lodging in Anna’s chest.
The noise brings Kristoff running. That’s the last straw for Elsa, who calls up a giant snow bouncer to throw them out. Unfortunately, like Olaf, it has more personality than she intended. When Anna insults it, the snow bouncer chases after them all in a homicidal rage. Kristoff rapidly rigs up his rope and pick to swing them down the side of the mountain, but the snow bouncer starts pulling them back up and they have to cut the rope, falling into deep snow. As they get up and try to decide what to do next, Kristoff notices Anna’s hair slowly turning white. Realising she was struck by Elsa’s magic, he leads her to meet some friends.
They really do look a lot like boulders. Olaf is skeptical. But the stones quickly reveal themselves to actually be trolls, who are so wildly overjoyed about Kristoff finally introducing them to another human being that they start planning a wedding straight away. I find this a bit creepy. Finally, when Anna collapses, they figure out this is a medical emergency rather than a marriage, but the news gets no better – Anna has been struck in the heart and the only cure for that is an act of true love.
Kristoff lifts her onto Sven. His idea is to bring her back to Hans for true love’s kiss, but Hans is at the ice palace getting attacked by Elsa’s snow bouncer while the Duke’s men slip past with crossbows. Elsa begs them to just leave, flinging up ice to defend herself – but by the time Hans gets there, she has both men at the mercy of her ice and is about to kill them. “Don’t be the monster they fear you are!” Hans calls out. Elsa wavers. One of the Duke’s men grabs the chance to fire his crossbow; in deflecting it, Hans brings down a chandelier. Elsa is knocked unconscious. When she comes to, she’s in a cell under the castle, hands gloved in iron to prevent her using her magic, and Hans comes in pleading with her to bring back summer. She tells him what she told Anna: she doesn’t know how.
At the same time, Kristoff is riding like mad for the castle. He leaves Anna with the people there, unwilling to go but not sure what else he can do, and she’s quickly bundled into a quiet, warm room with Hans. She explains as best she can, already very weak, and he leans in to kiss her…only their mouths don’t meet. He pulls back at the last minute. “Oh Anna,” he remarks. “If only there was someone out there who loved you.” In a screeching narrative U-turn, he reveals his hand. All he actually wants is the kingdom and as it looks like he can have that without her, he’s going to let the magic take its course. To be sure it does, he locks the door behind him when he leaves. Heartbroken, Anna collapses on the floor.
If this is really based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, I think it’s a bit much they’ve named the villain after him.
Hans then goes straight to the council room to announce Anna’s death at Elsa’s hands. “At least we got to say our marriage vows,” he whispers, “before she died in my arms.” He should be off on stage doing Romeo and Juliet. Instead he gets the throne and everybody’s approval to execute Elsa. But it won’t be quite that simple. As Anna told him, he’s no match for Elsa – her ice freezes the metal gloves to breaking point and she breaks down a wall to escape her cell.
Up on the hill overlooking the city, Kristoff is walking away from the royal family drama. Sven completely disagrees with this life choice. Kristoff kind of does too, though he can’t quite admit it. This is probably their first fight ever. It breaks off when they see the massive storm building around the castle – Anna is down there and Kristoff doesn’t even hesitate, plunging back the way he came.
The one to reach Anna first, however, is Olaf. He picks the lock with his carrot nose (there’s an interesting line to type) and throws caution to the winds by kindling a fire to warm her up. Though she can barely talk, Anna tries to warn him. “Some people are worth melting for,” he tells her. That is an act of true love, if you ask me, but he thinks they should get Kristoff, who is riding hard for the castle. If they’re going to reach him, it had better be soon – spikes of ice are spreading across the castle, turning it into a death trap. Breaking open a window, Anna drops onto the frozen fjord. Unknown to her, Elsa is close by, lost in the storm of snow. Hans is in pursuit; Kristoff and Sven are searching. It’s like a game of Murder. Guess who’s the murderer?
Hans comes up behind Elsa. He tells her that she killed Anna and the shock of it brings her to her knees, the storm collapsing with her. Raising his sword, Hans prepares to finish her off – but Anna sees them first. With the last of her strength, she throws herself between them, just as she turns into a statue of pure ice. Hans’s sword shatters on impact, sending him flying. Elsa sobs brokenly over what is left of her sister while Kristoff, Sven and Olaf look on helplessly.
Magic is tricky. Anna thought she needed to receive an act of true love; instead she showed one. The ice melts and the sisters share their first hug in a very long time. Elsa realises that love is the key; if fear can set off an eternal winter, a sibling reunion is enough to end it. The deep snow around doesn’t thaw, it vanishes, leaving them all standing under a warm summer sky. Including Olaf. Who does start melting, but Elsa promptly fixes that with a personalised snow cloud to follow him about.
Which means there’s only Hans left to deal with. Anna faces him with disdainful composure. “The only frozen heart around here is yours,” she informs him, before decking him in the face. Everyone approves. Including the councillors, who are watching from a balcony and have changed their minds about a lot of things. For example, Elsa gets her crown back uncontested, while the Duke of Weselton is sent packing on the next ship out. Hans is taken home to face his big brothers.
Since they’re handling unfinished business, Anna prepares a surprise for Kristoff. He gets a brand new sled, the official post of Royal Icemaster and Deliverer, and a quite enthusiastic kiss from the crown princess. Olaf and Sven play practical jokes with a carrot and Queen Elsa creates an ice rink in the castle square to show off how fun her powers can be. “I like the open gates,” Anna confides. “We’re never closing them again,” Elsa declares. Skating together, surrounded by the people who love them, they both have all they ever wanted.
Spot the Difference: Okay, so this is a sweet movie. I love to see anything about sibling relationships take centre stage, particularly sisters, and there are some interesting – if not terribly well explained – narrative subversions. Anna breaking the spell on herself was a delightful touch that took me a second viewing to recognise, I thought Elsa’s grief broke it the first time around. Elsa is an unusually ambiguous character for Disney, which is also good to see. A lot of Elsa’s behaviour suggests she has an anxiety disorder, making her the first Disney princess with a mental illness, and her emotional upheaval gets a lot of very welcome nuance. These are all great things. On the other hand, a retelling that bears less resemblance to the original story would be difficult to find. The overlap is extraordinarily small and the differences are…interesting.
Andersen’s ‘The Snow Queen’ is all about friendship – not just between Gerda and Kay, but the host of allies Gerda receives support from along the way. Most of whom are female, occupying a wide spectrum of ages: the lonely enchantress, an exceptionally well-educated princess, the robber girl and a pair of wisewomen. The Snow Queen is a distant and largely disinterested villain. Anna and Elsa appear to be an odd amalgamation of Gerda, Kay and the Snow Queen – actually, that’s too much of a stretch, they appear to be entirely original characters with no basis in the fairy tale at all. There are no other significant female characters. Every secondary character of significance is male. This movie is about frightened girls finding their ground, and that is an important story to tell – but in the process, a host of fantastic women have been ignored.
Why pretend this is based on ‘The Snow Queen’ at all? It isn’t! It has a queen who likes snow. That’s not the same. I can appreciate all the good things about this movie and rewatching it was enjoyable, but as a retelling, it is a complete failure. I hope they make another version of ‘The Snow Queen’ someday and do it a bit more justice. Frozen stands perfectly well on its own.
This has been a fun project for me. It’s always exciting to see how fairy tales are adapted for changing times and audiences, what different ideas each iteration draws from the same story. Over Disney’s long history, the approach has evolved markedly. The next Disney princess to hit screens will be Moana, in a movie of the same name which will be released next year. I’ll definitely be watching it. Thank you for reading – I hope you’ve had fun too!