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The Five Most Interesting Themes of Disney’s Frozen
Whether it’s more powerful messages of feminism, meaningful development of characters and plot beyond the traditional good vs. evil archetypes and conventions, or the inventive ways in which the studio has begun to explore complex themes in its seemingly light material, there’s something to be said for the interesting way Disney films have evolved over the years.
Gone are the fair damsels in distress of old, the women who were incapable of protecting themselves and relied on the aid of a fair prince for their protection. No more are we meant to buy the shallow motivations of a villain being evil merely for the sake of having a villain in the story, and although they certainly do go to great lengths to make sure they triumph over adversity, many of the heroes in modern Disney films have to deal not only with an outside source of tribulation, but with their own flaws as well.
Really, Disney has reached an interesting point where they not only buck the traditional storytelling conventions and themes that persist in their older classics, but also adopt a sense of self-awareness that serves to poke fun at these silly ideas, all while telling a story whose themes are completely relevant to our modern world.
The most recent example of this is in Frozen, the latest release from Disney Animation Studios. A film that adapted a classic Hans Christian Anderson fairytale, Frozen tells a fascinating story whose themes are inventive, relevant, and as forward-thinking as ever.
I know what you may be thinking: this is an animated kid’s movie. Why should we waste time exploring the themes contained within a fairytale? To which I’ll grant you this: yes, it is a fairytale. And yes, it might appear silly to try and break it down on a philosophical level. But to me, Frozen was a particularly striking film that broke some new ground in storytelling and the way Disney crafts a film.
And so, I present to you the five most interesting themes in Frozen. A warning to those who are reading this pre-viewing: I will be delving into spoilers. Read at your own risk.
1) Acceptance of One’s Self
Anyone who’s seen a Disney film before will rightfully argue that this isn’t at all a new theme explored by Frozen. Films such as Mulan, Toy Story, Hercules, and The Lion King all dealt with characters who struggled with feelings of acceptance and being true to themselves. But Frozen hit on this in a fascinating and real way.
One of my favorite characters in the film was Elsa, Anna’s older sister whose icy magical abilities were all but out of her control. Early on in the film, her parents shut her away and tried to help her contain her powers by isolating her from the world, lest everyone find out the sorcery she was capable of. It’s only when the kingdom of Arendelle discovers her abilities and she allows them to express in their truest form that she finally realizes her power and achieves a much-needed sense of self that she had denied herself for so long.
Interestingly enough, Idina Menzel plays the role of Elsa, and is also one of the first actors to play the character of Elphaba in the Broadway production of Wicked. Those who have seen Wicked or know of its premise will find stark similarities between Elphaba and Elsa, both in their demeanor and in their initial fear of being different. For both characters, the fact that they are so different and house magical abilities eventually becomes their empowering factor that drives them forward and helps them achieve a sense of self-actualization. Sure, they are viewed as villainous because of their accidental actions, and their infamy causes the people around them to shun them in fear (although Elsa received a much happier ending than Elphaba), but their character development and the fact that they struggle with ideas of acceptance and being unafraid to be one’s self speaks to the power and depth of their characters as a whole.
I will admit, Frozen almost pulled a fast one on me. Thanks to the painful trailers they released beforehand, I half-expected Elsa to become the villain of the story, and when things got going in the film, I almost longed for her to be. How great would it be to see a villain arise out of such inner turmoil? But, the story took things in an interesting direction by making her into the reluctant and nervous magic wielder whose acceptance of herself and discovery of the ability to harness the power of love turned her into a noble and powerful character that she was meant to be. I almost wished we could have explored her character a bit more, even if it was just to see how she dealt with her own fears of her power and how she would relate to the outside world. Still, hers was by far one of the most interesting and tragic arcs that ultimately created one of the stronger themes of the film.
Like number one, this is also a theme that we’ve seen in Disney films before. And in some ways, I almost wonder if Disney’s recent movement toward portraying female characters as empowered isn’t some sort of penance paid to make up for their egregious depiction of women as nothing more than fair damsels in films of old.
Still, it’s a breath of fresh air and a hopeful theme to convey to audiences that anyone can be powerful and have a purpose, no matter their gender, even if it is coming from a company that used to express the exact opposite.
There’s an unfortunate consensus today that, in order to show a strong female character, you have to turn her into a warrior princess who is just as willing to jump into the fray and throw down alongside all the boys. While I love me some female characters that do this (I’ll be the first to admit that Mulan has largely influenced my world view), it’s not fair to say that the only women who can be empowered are those who pick up a sword or act out physically toward opposition.
Frozen takes an interesting look at empowered females and feminism through the character of Anna, Elsa’s younger sister. After being shut away from the world for so long, Anna has developed a desire to experience life on the outside “for the first time in forever.” She’s young, she’s flighty, she sings to birds (seriously, what is it with classic fairytales showing women singing with birds?) and above all else, she longs to fall in love and discover “the one”.
She gets her chance to do so about five minutes into her sister’s coronation party when she meets Prince Hans, a character she’s instantly smitten with and asks to marry after an upbeat love song shared between the two.
Essentially, Anna starts out as a damsel in distress character; she finds her “true love”, and is ready to allow this man into her life. Because what else could young women possibly want other than to fall madly in love and live happily ever after?
Thankfully, Frozen disposes of this shallow sentiment and uses the story’s circumstance to develop Anna a bit further. A headstrong optimist, Anna takes it upon herself to track down her sister and undo the eternal winter the kingdom finds itself under thanks to her sister’s inability to control her powers. She refuses the help of Hans, and sets out on her own without any idea as to where Elsa has gone or what she has to do to stop her. Still, that doesn’t deter her from achieving her goal, and Anna begins to find her own assertiveness when she enlists the help of the reluctant Kristoff and his reindeer friend Sven. Throughout the film, Anna goes from being a flighty and naive character to one that realizes the importance of family and understands what true love really is. It was a nice change to see a female character evolve into an empowered figure that didn’t have to raise a weapon in order to take charge of her live and the circumstances around her, which is why Frozen should be given some credit for its exploration of feminism.
3) True Love
As eluded to above, Frozen definitely discusses the ideas of true love and love at first sight, with all the self-awareness we’ve come to know and love from Disney films.
At first, the dynamic between Hans and Anna made me groan. Were they really going to do this? Were we really going to be subjected to learning about the power of true love between two people, and the sacred power of true love’s first kiss? Really?
This was especially true when we saw that Anna’s heart had been frozen and would only thaw and prevent her from dying should she perform an act of true love. Instantly, the characters on screen assumed that the only remedy was for Anna to finally lock lips with her man, which I can only assume now was meant to play on audience’s learned expectations.
Thankfully, the film shied away from such a rote ending and instead replaced it with a much more meaningful and interesting idea of self-sacrifice for the ones we love. At the last minute, when Anna’s life is wearing thin, she jumps in front of a sword to save her sister from being killed, which then counts as an act of true love and attests to the powerful bond and love often shared between sisters.
Sure, we would have settled for her admitted love of Kristoff and their kiss saving her life, but the fact that they went the route of self-sacrifice is much more endearing, meaningful, and evocative. It’s often said that true love involves sacrifice for the other, and this is often true in both romantic and family relationships.
There’s a lot of imagery with closed doors and being locked away that, while not often subtle, speaks to the development of the film’s two main characters. Both Elsa and Anna were locked away as children, and the fact that they were separated from the world caused the two girls to evolve into women with completely opposite personalities.
When the promise of the gates being open finally present themsevles, Anna meets the opportunity with elation, excited to finally experience the life she’s always dreamed of. It’s during Anna’s excitement that we see Elsa has a very different idea about how the opening should be handled. Instead of sharing in Anna’s optimism, she’s scared. After all, she’s learned from a young age that her powers are something to be scared of, something that should be locked away and hidden from the world.
This isolation plays into the film later, when Elsa runs away to the mountains and constructs her own palace of ice in order to protect herself. During this moment, we see Elsa suddenly come to accept herself, to allow her powers to define her, and to not be afraid of herself anymore. It’s in isolation that Elsa draws her strength, and we see that she’s comfortable being herself the most when she’s all alone.
Light night and day, it’s a completely different story for Anna. Whenever she’s greeted with a closed door, we get a sense of her desperation, of her severe fear to be locked away from the world once again. It’s because of this that Anna remains the intrepid optimist who will stop at nothing to escape isolation and will willingly interact with anyone on the outside. This likely plays into her naivete as well; after all, she’s only ever dreamed of the outside world. When she finally interacts with it, all things become wonderful and intriguing, with danger thrown to the wayside.
Seeing the two react so differently to isolation and the feeling of being alone was a fascinating way to initially set up the characters and their different personalities. And, thanks to good writing, it’s later used as a vehicle to explore the characters in fascinating ways later on in the film.
Yes, I know. I KNOW. This has also been covered in Disney movies before. But the relationship between the two sisters in Frozen was unlike anything we’ve seen from the studio before.
When they were very young, Elsa and Anna were both close to each other and were each other’s best friends. It was only when tragedy struck that they were separated in an effort to keep Elsa’s powers from ever harming Anna again, and they slowly drifted apart.
When they finally reunite at the coronation, things are expectedly awkward between the two, although they’re able to bridge the divide fairly quickly. It’s when we see the two girls reconnect that things begin to grow increasingly interesting.
See, there’s an inherent love that Anna has for Elsa that fuels her every move, continually driving her forward in her quest to help her sister. She knows that Elsa never meant to hurt anyone, and she feels partially responsible for the fact that the kingdom has been frozen over due to causing Elsa to lose control.
This bond shared between the two is one that can only exist in a familial relationship. They are so different, yet the fact that they are sisters and love each other helps the two make peace with each other’s faults. Elsa fears harming her sister, and when she learns of what she’s done, the guilt she feels almost drives her mad.
But it’s at the film’s climax, when Anna uses what little energy she has left to save Elsa’s life, that we see the true ideas of family come into play in Frozen. I loved that the act of true love was one shared between two sisters rather than in a romantic setting, and it spoke to a host of more interesting ideas contained within the film.
Ultimately, the bond between the two was what really served as one of the most dynamic parts of the film. Where we all thought Anna was going to have to take up the sword to stop her evil sister from ruling the land with ice, we instead got a film that explored the tender ideas of family and true love in ways we’ve never seen in Disney films previous. It’s because of this that I found Frozen to be particularly striking, and a film that touched on much heavier themes with an unabashed sense of depth.