Way Down North
The newest film from Walt Disney Animation Studios, Frozen finally expresses the much overdue full impact of the Pixar revolution at the studio where the animated feature was born. There’s a moment late in the film when the rugged hero, Kristoff rushes to attempt to save Anna, the film’s heroine. The town of Arendelle has been accidentally frozen by Anna’s sister, Queen Elsa, whose touch turns everything to ice. As Kristoff rushes to Anna’s aid, the ice beneath him fragments into blocks across which he must hop. The scene invokes 19th century melodrama, foundationally Elisa’s escape across the ice floes on the Ohio River in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but more directly, the 1920 film, Way Down East. In this D.W. Griffith masterpiece, a different Anna (Lillian Gish), wronged by an urban bigamist, flees out into a snowstorm after her beloved’s father casts her out of his Puritanical New England home. Following Pixar’s lead—the similarly themed Brave reconstructs Michael Curtiz’s The Adventures of Robin Hood with a female protagonist replacing Errol Flynn—Frozen uses the language of film history—Griffith’s parallel editing of the damsel in distress—to mold Hans Christian Andersen’s 1845 fairy tale, “The Snow Queen” into a modern, feminist allegory of significant emotional impact.
In Pixar’s Brave, the standard love affair between a princess and her prince is replaced by the rebellious teenage princess’ coming to accept the feminine guidance of her mother. Frozen is no less radical in reconstructing the conventional Disney princess story in which she is symbolically entombed waiting for the prince on his horse. Having set up Prince Hans as the film’s candidate for this role, Frozen ends up being about the love that is experienced between the sisters, Anna and Elsa.
This reconstruction does considerable damage to the traditional Disney feature film. For example, 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the alpha text of the tradition, climaxes as the dwarves, in defense of Snow White, chase the evil Queen up a rocky cliff. As she attacks the dwarves, a godly bolt of lightning strikes the cliff, causing the queen to fall to her death. In Frozen, the fiery, earthy tones are replaced by the glistening white of ice. Afraid of being feared as a monster once her powers are exposed, Elsa retreats to her own mountaintop. However, rather than the evil Queen’s vain jealousy, this isolation results in an empowering sense of freedom for Elsa. In fact, the film’s central song is built around this transformation. In “Let it Go,” Elsa celebrates the formation of her isolating ice palace as an act of creativity. In Snow White, we get no sense that the evil Queen has actually built the castle in which she gazes into her magic mirror. When the townspeople arrive to storm the castle in Frozen, they fear such an evil queen, but none lives there. The true evil rests safe and secure back in Arendelle.
Like Brave before it, Frozen‘s reconstruction of patriarchal mythology is a significant advance in film history. Feminist poet Adrienne Rich wrote about the woman-identified woman, the notion that women in isolation could only respond to the directives of men. As if animating Rich, what is driving the hardship in Frozen is Anna’s complete separation from his sister. Trying to protect Anna from Elsa’s uncontrolled powers, the girls’ parents keep her in the dark. The plot of the film revolves around Anna’s discovery of her sister’s secret, and Elsa’s corollary learning through her sister how to control that power. Anna is in desperate need of her sister’s guidance, and Elsa is equally reliant on her sister’s love.
Frozen transforms the myth of King Midas, whose love for gold resulted in his complete isolation; despite the fact that he can create tremendous wealth for himself, the more he does so, he makes impossible meaningful contact with others. Frozen discards the gold metaphor for one of emotional chilliness. The film works from the stereotype of the ice queen, a cold and calculating woman who puts her own self-interest over her emotional contact with others. The film answers this patriarchal myth via the metaphor of thawing. When Olaf, the magical snowman sings beautifully about the coming of summer, he expresses the film’s theme.
The comatose Snow White waits for “love’s first kiss,” a silly process that Frozen derails. Early in the proceedings, Anna meets Prince Hans at her sister’s coronation ball. Soon after, Anna and Kristoff find themselves chasing Elsa up the mountain. Kirstoff tells Anna immediately that to have fallen in love with Hans in one evening is an act of pure folly. Even the male love interest understands that the traditional princess’ fairy tale of love at first sight makes no common sense. When dippy Norwegian ice farmers start critiquing patriarchy, it’s time to put that prince to bed, and for good.
– Walter Metz