A literary and theological look at what's really going on.
“Some people are worth melting for.” –Olaf the Snowman
Why do we like the movies we like? I think that whenever we watch a movie, on some level, we judge it based on how well we think it presents some aspect of reality. Different viewers naturally focus on different aspects: feminists look to see how the female is portrayed, Marxists look to see how economics and history appear, and so on. I must admit that I, as a twenty-one year old Catholic liberal arts student, when analyzing how Hollywood blockbusters present the world, often ask myself to what extent they display a classical Judeo-Christian morality. You can imagine my joy, then, when I stepped into the movie theater to see the newest animated Disney film, Frozen, and found that I could have mistaken it for something written by Karol Wojtyła, had he dedicated himself to writing Oscar winning children’s fantasy movies instead of becoming Pope John Paul II.
Why do I think this movie is so Christian? It’s simple: the sort of love displayed by the film’s characters and the way those characters grow (if you need a summary of the plot, Wikipedia will do). The two most developed and interesting characters are naturally the two protagonists, the princesses Anna and Elsa. The two are foils to each other, showing the viewer how our understanding of love and self-fulfillment affect us. Anna attempts to find happiness in the embrace of a man she’s just met, while Elsa cuts herself off more and more throughout the course of the movie. By the end of the film, however, it is made clear that they can only find happiness in sacrificial love.
Hans and Anna become engaged, in traditional Disney fashion, on the first day of their acquaintance. Unlike many of its predecessors, however, Frozen shows the foolhardiness of these actions in two ways. The first is simple: by making Hans turn out to be the villain. The second is a bit more complicated: by displaying Anna’s development in her understanding of love. Anna and Hans’ duet, “Love Is an Open Door,” which they sing just before getting engaged, is not just extremely fun and catchy—it also showcases an immature and worldly view of love.
Throughout the song, the two “lovers” sing of love as a freeing experience, an idea that is perfectly Christian. Yet the freedom of which these characters sing and the freedom which Christians describe are quite different. Hans and Anna claim that they will “say goodbye to the pain of the past,” as they seek an effortless love that frees them from suffering. For Christians, by contrast, true human development and authentic love occur through self-gift and self-sacrifice. As Venerable Fulton J. Sheen said when speaking of the modern world, it’s no use “Trying to get back in the Garden of Eden without walking up the hill of Calvary.” Love is indeed freeing, but the freedom it gives is from sin. For what is sin but a valuing of the self over the other -the very opposite of love?
After leaving the kingdom being thought a sorcerer, Elsa flees to the North Mountain where she sings the most popular song in the movie, “Let It Go.” This song is, in my opinion, the most misunderstood part of the movie. I have heard it spoken of as everything from a self-esteem anthem to Elsa’s throwing off patriarchy and embracing her lesbianism. No, I’m not kidding. Disney’s marketing decisions haven’t helped people to understand the song either. The company asked Demi Lovato to record a cover of the song, which I think was a mistake, as her delivery simply feeds into the interpretation that the song is simply an anthem of empowerment, self-expression, and self-esteem, rather than a display of where Elsa is personally at one precise point of the movie: a point where she recognizes that her powers are not to be hidden but while still denying her need for human companionship.
For anyone who sees the song in context, it should be clear that the “kingdom of isolation” in which Elsa finds herself queen is not where she ought to be. Sure, she no longer has to keep her powers hidden from the world, but she is completely without human company. For most her life Elsa lived by the mantra “conceal, don’t feel,” but now she decides to “let it go” and “run away and slam the door.” She says, “It’s time to see/ what I can do/ to test the limits and break through/ No right, no wrong/ No rules for me… I’m free.” Just as Anna’s conception of freedom is flawed, so is Elsa’s, for the freedom she gains on the mountain is a freedom devoid of relationship. In the song, Elsa claims that “the past is in the past,” but in reality she is just as isolated in her ice castle as she was at her home.
While the two songs feel very different when first watching them, the lyrics of “Let It Go” are strongly reminiscent of her sister’s duet, “Love Is an Open Door.” This similarity is especially apparent when we examine the motifs present in the songs. Indeed, doors, freedom, and leaving the past behind are all mentioned in similar ways. In the performance of their two most memorable songs, the two sisters display two possible reactions to the pain of isolation. While it is by no means an exclusively Christian concept (indeed, we inherit it from the pagan philosopher Aristotle), the maxim that “virtue is the mean between two extremes” comes to mind when considering the two sisters’ actions. Neither running into the arms of a man, as Anna does, nor isolating oneself from society and “being yourself” can bring happiness. In the case of Elsa as in that of Anna, Frozen and the Church perfectly in accord. They both ask: What is the purpose of power when not used in sacrificial love?
For the Christian, love consists of actions taken out of recognition that the other person is valuable, good, and beautiful. Anna’s duet with Hans, containing lines like “I’ve never met someone who thinks so much like me,” and “our mental synchronization can have but one explanation” seems to be displaying an attraction not to the other as he is, but only insofar as he is similar to the self and makes the self feel free and happy. While the romance is enjoyable, isn’t this sort of enjoyment a form of narcissism? Elsa similarly displays something akin to narcissism. While her decision to isolate herself on a mountaintop is completely understandable, given that her supposedly loyal citizens are terrified of her, it might be more accurately labeled as solipsism. She cuts herself off from human contact, which takes away from her ability to truly love others. As C.S. Lewis thought, the doors of Hell are locked on the inside.
After being injured by Elsa Anna is told that only an act of true love can save her life, and so, thinking that Hans is in love with her, she sets out to be kissed by him, but is betrayed by him, so she must find another act of true love. But the question (eternally posed by Haddaway) still remains: What is love? According to the Christian tradition, the sort of love that brings about human fulfillment is a self-giving one, but does Frozen agree?
Olaf the Snowman, who provides most of the comedic relief of the movie, acts as Anna’s teacher in love. After Hans betrays Anna and locks her door (Get it? Locks her door?), it looks as though Anna will die alone in the room, but Olaf uses his nose (which Anna presented to him earlier in the movie) to open Anna’s door and show her true love by saving her life. In speaking with Olaf, Anna finally admits, “I don’t even know what love is,” to which Olaf replies, “Love is…putting someone else’s needs before yours
, like, you know, how Kristoff brought you back here to Hans and left you forever.”
Yes. You read that correctly. A character in a Disney movie explicitly identified love with action. Not feeling. Not fate. Action. And not only that, the claim is backed up by the conclusion of the movie.
At the film’s climax, Anna, knowing that in order to survive she needs “an act of true love,” must choose between “true love’s kiss,” which she believes will save her, and saving her sister’s life from the traitorous Hans. Anna runs to Elsa in order to save her from Hans’ murderous blade and turns to ice just as the knife reaches her. All believe Anna to be dead for a few moments (it is a Disney movie, after all), but, after her sister begins to cry over her, Anna begins to thaw. What saved her was not the result of romantic feelings, but of sacrificial love. Just as Christians believe that they must follow Christ by dying to self for the sake of others, Frozen shows that Anna survives only because of self-giving love. Moreover, Elsa grows to recognize that by responding to those around her with love, rather than self-isolation, she can control her powers, thereby becoming fully herself. For the Christian, a person is only fully himself and truly happy after opening himself up to Divine love and responding with love, and although Frozen makes no mention of the divine, I would argue that the love central to the plot is Christian.
Even though Frozen isn’t a “Christian” movie, it presents a vision of love that is harmonious with that of Christianity. The creators of the movie probably weren’t attempting to evangelize the world, but they still managed to communicate a truth about human love that Christianity teaches. St. Justin Martyr wrote in the second century, “All truth, wherever it is found, belongs to us as Christians.” While that may sound presumptuous to non-Christians, I don’t know if it is. Implicit in that quotation is the belief that truth is unified –that the world is fundamentally comprehensible. Christians believe that the unifying factor is Christ. He is the key that helps us understand suffering and human love. Whether people believe in the divinity of Christ or not, I think that they can see connections between truths, which can help them to recognize more truth. Although I may not know why we like the movies we do, I believe that being exposed to the truths about love contained in Frozen helps open us up to more truth – whether you’re a Marxist, a feminist… Or even a Catholic.