How do you deal with the knowledge that you're capable of terribly hurting people you care about without intending to? In 2013's Frozen, Princess Elsa's parents decide the answer is to lock their daughter away after she nearly kills her little sister. The experience and the response of their parents implies a lesson to Elsa she carries to her adulthood where she fears the proximity of loved ones. This is a very good, visually beautiful Disney fantasy with resonant themes about how one handles living in a world in which the threat of emotional harm is constant.
I could write a whole entry--and I probably will at some point--about the modern preoccupation with a sense of one's own capacity to destroy manifesting in fiction. The film credits Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen as its inspiration but there's, as you might expect, very little similarity between this film and the story (you can read the original story here). I do like the original story better but it doesn't diminish my love for the movie. I bring it up mainly to highlight two differences I consider crucial--the protagonists are peasants in the story and royalty in the film and in the film the story's person in need of rescue and villain are combined.
You'll notice I didn't say damsel in distress--that's because the original story is about a girl, Gerda, on a quest to rescue a boy, Kay, who has been seduced by the Snow Queen. He has been made susceptible to the Queen's influence because of two pieces of glass caught in his eye and his heart--glass, we are told, that originally came from a mirror made by the Devil which could only reflect death or blemishes. So Kay becomes cynical. Ever in search of purity he can no longer see, he becomes very good at numbers--can even add fractions in his head, the story says--and becomes a big hit for his ability to perfectly imitate others, highlighting their shortcomings. Something I thought was a rather insightful comment about the coldly logical nature of comedy. The glass threatens to eventually freeze Kay's heart which makes him attractive to the Snow Queen. A scene where she gathers him into her cloak on her sleigh as she takes him away inspired a scene from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.
In Frozen, the threat of a gradually freezing heart is transferred to the protagonist, named Anna instead of Gerda, voiced by Kristen Bell, the biggest star to lend a voice to this movie, unusually for a Disney animated film. Elsa is played by a Broadway star, Idina Menzel, whose singing voice is better than Bell's, unsurprisingly, though they both sing with the modern Broadway style I personally dislike, though I don't hold it against anyone for disagreeing with me.
Anna's heart starts to freeze when Elsa, who was born with the power to create and control ice and snow, accidentally zaps Anna's chest. The freezing heart is entirely a physical ailment in the film and doesn't carry any thematic meaning in terms of Anna's story other than being cured by an "act of true love". The heart of the original story becomes a broader sideline to the much more modern character conflict introduced for Elsa.
As anyone who's seen the film will probably tell you, the best scene is when Elsa, banished because her terrible destructive powers have finally been revealed, creates a castle for herself and she sings about how she's liberated, how she's free now to use her powers. What is she liberated from? Well, like Walter White in Breaking Bad whose cancer liberates him from the falseness of his home and work life, or the characters on Game of Thrones who operate with unvarnished pragmatism, Elsa is liberated from the artificial constraints of morality.
Elsa is the Kay/Snow Queen composite, a combination of the victim and the villain. The other crucial difference I mentioned, that the characters are royalty instead of peasants, is partly, I think, simply due to the fact that it's easier for kids and people generally to-day to identify with royalty. Disney used to make movies about people who lived on farms but movie-going audiences have shifted away from being able to identify with that lifestyle since the 1930s. Now movies about farms are about farm animals who have few or no chores and have personalities, like the children watching, founded on being taken care of.
But much like Game of Thrones, where very few of the many characters aren't nobility or royalty, people have an easier time now identifying with the privileges and the guilt of high station. The average person in the U.S. has an unprecedented awareness of the suffering throughout the world maintained along with, and possibly necessary for, their comfortable lives. There's also the awareness that one's lifestyle is responsible for climate change and immediately damaging ecological conditions in other countries. So Queen Elsa's liberation comes with the unintended consequence of putting her kingdom in a permanent state of winter.
Compared to Elsa's story, the tale that dominates most of the film--Anna's quest, her love triangle, and a talking comedy relief snowman--aren't nearly as interesting. Though Anna is charming and the men are both interesting--Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) is fun and Hans (Santino Fontana) contributes to the delightful satire of the old "love at first sight" conceit. Even the snowman is a good comedy relief character, existing as a credible part of the film's world rather than played for ironic dissonance as the Disney comedic relief characters too often are. But the film would have been better with more Elsa.
Twitter Sonnet #617
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