Thursday, September 18, 2014

Disney's Frozen -- A Tragedy (Almost)

My daughter, Melina, is a big fan of the movie Frozen. Of course, she's a seven year old girl, so it's probably not all that surprising that she loves it. I like the movie well enough -- I think it's cute (who doesn't like the snowman?), and I like some of the ways it subverts your Disney princess expectations -- but I haven't exactly thought all that much, let alone deeply, about it.

However, I recently came across Mayim Bialik's blog in which she discusses why she and her sons didn't much care for the movie. My initial point in commenting was to point out she was technically wrong about Frozen not being based on a fairy tale. It is -- quite loosely -- based on The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Anderson. But this resulted in a discussion with another commenter, which resulted in my thinking about the film a bit more.

It seems at first that we have a typical Disney princess movie in that the princess is going to find "true love" within seconds of meeting him. This first happens with Hans -- and the absurdity of it is pointed out in Elsa's reaction to their announcement they are going to get married. Then we meet Kristoff who, as the real red herring, is designed to make you think that he is Anna's true love. But, of course, they know each other only slightly more than Anna knew Hans (and Hans was manipulating her) -- and they know each other more only because they spent more actual time with each other. In fact, when you watch the movie again, it's pretty clear that Anna and Kristoff are not falling for each other. But the script plays with the audience's expectations that the friendly banter, etc. are preludes to love. The fact that Kristoff's "family" are excited he "brought a girl home" when the girl is not his girlfriend is a common trope in comedies. Of course, Frozen subverts that as well, since those movies all result in the man and woman falling in love, whereas we again do not see that in Frozen.

As for Elsa, she is the entire motivation for all of Anna's actions. Anna's separation from her sister makes her lonely enough to be taken advantage of by Hans. And when Elsa runs away, that causes Anna to go after her. There is no story at all without Elsa. She drives all the action.

Elsa meanwhile has a gift/curse her parents fear and are ashamed of. Elsa grows up not learning how to control it, but learning she should be ashamed of it. This is what causes her to make the same mistake as before. Her shame causes her to want to separate from the rest of society. Shame is, after all, social. Anna of course doesn't want to lose her sister again, so she goes after her. She doesn't want her sister to feel shame about who she is and what she can do. But shame causes people to lash out, and Elsa lashes out with her powers in creating the ice monster. When Anna is able to persuade Elsa she has nothing to be ashamed of, we get the resolution of the story.

If we consider the fact that there is a character -- Elsa -- who is a trailblazer (with her magical powers, which in fact represent being an outsider within one's own culture) who has to harm who she loves most to come to grips with who she is, it has the makings of a tragedy -- but it being Disney, we have to have a happily ever after ending with Anna not dying. Absent that, it's actually a pretty decent work of tragedy.The real message that Elsa should not be ashamed of who she is and what she can do does get muddled a bit at the end with her love for her sister being what saves her. This makes it appear that the story is really about love of one's siblings, when in fact the story is about how she should not stifle what makes us different, as what makes us different can make us great -- or, when we stifle it, it can make us a monster and drive us out of society. 

It's probably too much to ask Disney to give us a full-blown tragedy, but what they gave us isn't too far off.
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