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Getting Upset About the Wrong Things in Disney Movies: A Christian Tradition

Getting Upset About the Wrong Things in Disney Movies A Christian Tradition Disney

Disney

Brian Brown - published on 03/19/14

What hyperventilating moralists didn’t notice about "Frozen."

I wasn’t going to write anything about Frozen.

Heck, I wasn’t even going to watch it in the theaters — the atrocious U.S. marketing had me assuming it was a goofy animated story about a talking snowman (been there, done that). But one positive review made me realize there was a lot more going on. My wife and I went and saw it; to say we loved it would sound like an understatement, because people use the word so liberally these days. It might have been the most beautiful animated movie we’ve ever seen (including sights and sounds, from the ice castle architecture to the medieval choral music — when was the last time you heard that in an animated movie?).

Then I started seeing the things religious people were writing about it. There’s the gay conspiracy theory. (WOW. I can’t even dignify that one by talking about it further.) On the more sober side, more thoughtful people have criticized the song “Let It Go,” because of its themes of selfish individualism. But after about the sixth of the “Let It Go” critiques, I cracked. I was starting to think nobody gets this movie. I had to write something — because two things absolutely have to be said.

Before I get to those, though, you should read Greg Forster’s review of the movie. This is the one that got me to go see it. Disney animation, as you know it, is gradually ceasing to exist. More and more Pixar people are flooding the shop. (And most of them, by the way, went to BYU — they’re not your typical Hollywooders, as movies like WALL-E and The Incredibles ought to have been proof.) Pixar mainstay John Lasseter is now heading up Disney Imagineering and was the executive producer of Frozen. So don’t make the mistake of automatically lumping this in with the Disney tradition of subversive movies.

“Disney tradition of subversive movies.” About that.

The first thing that absolutely has to be said pertains to the fact that Christians, particularly but not exclusively of a fundamentalist stripe, have been getting upset about Disney movies for a long time. The Little Mermaid didn’t wear enough clothes. The Hunchback of Notre Dame made religious people look bad. Pocohantas was a pantheist. Lots of the movies had good guys who perform magic. The list is very long. (Of course, this is part of an even longer and broader tradition of caring a great deal more about a total absence of bad things in a movie than the presence of good things, which is partly why the Christian films we’re all “supposed” to go see are almost universally clean, safe, and horrible.)

Disney made the best animated films around, for pretty much forever (as far as the film industry goes), and stamped a lot of great values and memories into kids’ minds. But there are some legitimate parental complaints on the list, especially since these are children’s movies that act upon impressionable young people. But as a Millennial who grew up on these movies, I think our parents got upset about most of the wrong things and utterly missed the most fundamental way Disney was shaping their kids. While Mom and Dad were worrying about overt things that were realistic (Ariel dressing like a mermaid, a Native American revering nature) or a normal part of fairy tales (magic), Disney was installing a value system into us that was apparently too subtle for them to notice.

Nearly every Disney animated film for decades taught us the same core moral principle. In most contexts, it looked like “love is a feeling that must be acted on at all costs.” At a more fundamental level, though, it was “following your heart is always the right thing to do.” Disney didn’t make most of us a witch, or a pantheist, or a nude sunbather, but boy did it teach us to value nothing above our own desires. (In fairness, many of our parents
were reinforcing the lesson.)

We learned the lesson well, as evidenced by my generation’s serial dating, teenage hookups, commitment-phobia, and views on marital public policy issues. After all, Ariel, Aladdin — whoever it was — with rare exceptions, all did what they felt like doing; they pursued their dreams, their love interest, and so on. They burned bridges. They rejected their parents. They abandoned their traditions and their people. For that matter, Ariel sold her soul to the devil. And… they all lived happily ever after.

This brings me to the second thing I decided had to be said: with respect to this and many other issues, Frozen is the most anti-Disney animated movie I’ve ever seen.

What I saw in Frozen was a massive shift from the animated films I was raised with — maybe a sea change, if it carries on into future movies. Yes, Elsa’s song “Let It Go” sounds very old-school Disney; me, me, me, screw everybody else. So does Anna deciding she’s fallen in love in four and a half seconds, and getting engaged in three minutes.

But that’s not where the film ends.

Saying that these things are the takeaways from the movie is like saying the takeaway from Lord of the Rings is that you shouldn’t go wandering through the woods because it’s dangerous out there.

(Spoilers hereafter.)

Instead, the entire plot of the movie is built around the two main characters unlearning these givens of Disney morality.

Anna learns almost immediately that following her heart regardless of consequences can have awful consequences. And then she learns, in probably the most stunning departure ever from Disney tradition, that her “true love,” her feeling, was nonsense, and that love is “putting someone else’s needs before yours.” To hammer home the point, the surprise ending of the story turns all the Disney fairy tale clichés on their heads, and replaces them with an act worthy of a real fairy tale. I don’t think this was just an incidental plot device. A girl who grows up with these dolls on her bed, instead of older Disney princesses, has a powerful reference point in her imagination for what love is (and isn’t). That’s precisely the kind of thing a fairy tale is supposed to give her.

A
s for Elsa and “Let It Go
,” Elsa spends the first half of the movie with a choice between two extremes. For most of her life, she chooses the first: hide her powers so as not to do damage. It’s the opposite of Anna’s initial view: don’t love at all (or at any rate don’t show it), because people might get hurt. In the song, forced out of the first choice, she chooses a second: follow her own star and do whatever she wants. As far as love is concerned, it’s still pretty much the same choice: don’t let people in (only now she’s doing it for herself instead of partly for Anna). The rest of the movie is a process of Elsa coming to grips with a third option: learn to channel what she can do for the good of others, and learn that love is helping, not merely declining to hurt. Her ultimate embrace of who she is does not come in the form of doing whatever she wants, or forcing everyone to accept her. It comes in shouldering the responsibility of both sister and queen; earning acceptance through giving, and using her gifts to bring joy and beauty to the lives around her. Her invitation of the commoners into the royal courtyard at the end of the film is a powerful statement: she has let people into her heart and given what she has.

The cumulative effect is a story with moral complexity and truth that destroys anything Disney has ever done, but is very much in the Pixar tradition (if, even there, above average). There are people out there (though they don’t seem to be writing reviews) who let the film speak for itself outside of the context of an anti-Disney bias—and I suspect they saw something like what I saw: a film that made them think, for 100 glorious minutes, that maybe great fairy tales aren’t dead.

Brian Brown is an organizational growth consultant specializing in social strategies; meaning he helps people build their business, nonprofit, or campaign exponentially by capitalizing on human relationships and technology. He is the senior editor of Humane Pursuits. You can follow him on Twitter @BrianBrownSF.

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