Oh, where to start. I’m stuck. I am, as it were, frozen.
Right. Well, when all else fails, go back to the beginning.
Frozen, like The Little Mermaid, is a Disney adaptation of a Hans Christian Andersen story. As a child I watched the low-budget Faerie Tale Theatre Snow Queen, which is a lot closer to the Andersen story. The Disney version of the tale has some stunning visuals and one good song, but—for reasons having nothing to do with other versions—I think its story is deeply flawed.
Though some say it’s a story about the problematic relationship between two sisters, I’d say Frozen is one girl’s coming-of-age tale or rite-of-passage story. Rite-of-passage stories have a life problem, a wrong way of addressing it, and a moment of acceptance. Anna’s problem is her sister’s unwillingness to face the world. Anna spends the whole movie wrongly acting as if she can soothe her sister’s fear, and totally fails because Elsa has to master her fear herself. Anna grows up when she accepts her sister as-is. Seems simple, right? Disney went and made it all complicated.
See below for more on why I thought Frozen was disappointing, including a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.
What’s Wrong with Frozen?
Relatively Minor Problems with Frozen
Olaf the snowman is abominable. In addition, Sven the canine reindeer is a lousy excuse for Kristoff to deliver bits of exposition aloud awkwardly. I can overlook both the sidekicks, though, in the same way I can overlook the chimp in Speed Racer.
The trolls do not belong in the movie. First of all, they’re a giant, bizarre coincidence: conveniently, they fix little Anna and they adopt little Kristoff. More importantly, they’re supposed to be “love experts”, but they’re more like fear mongers. They may have fixed little Anna, but they completely broke little Elsa and destroyed the close relationship the sisters had. Why did they remove Anna’s memories of Elsa’s powers? Why did they tell the king and queen that Elsa’s powers should be kept secret? Given how much damage they did, why are we supposed to see them as friendly and helpful?
It’s distracting that Kristoff could have been a match for Elsa. There’s a couple of lines in there about how he’s professionally impressed by her handiwork. “Now that’s ice. I might cry,” he says. Then he whistles appreciatively and says, “Flawless!” When Anna tells him to wait outside, he protests: “It’s a palace made of ice! Ice is my life!” He and Elsa could have been happy together in the ice palace, right? That’s definitely a direction the plot could have gone and didn’t. Ah well. I’m sure there’s fan fiction out there that covers that angle.
Amiable Prince Hans (surprise!) turns out to have been a sociopath all along. The “gotcha” moment feels like—and probably is—a desperate screen writer’s villain ex machina, though I like that there’s a subplot that at least tries to combat Cinderella Syndrome, even if it perhaps only succeeds in teaching us that it’s okay to believe in love at first sight the second time it happens.
Elsa’s powers defy logic. Not only can she call forth and dismiss ice, wind, and snow, she can use them to create living beings (!). Oh, and she can also transform her own and others’ clothes and shoes, a power which is logical only when you consider her character from the rather mercenary standpoint of the marketing department.
The Big Problem with Frozen
The sisters’ relationship, supposedly the sine qua non of the movie, makes no sense.
For years, the sisters live isolated lives in the same castle. The movie’s setup suggests that Elsa stays in her room every minute of every day while her sister runs around the empty hallways, bored. Does Elsa never eat? I didn’t see a hole cut in her door where they push the food through. Couldn’t the movie have shown us the sisters sitting at opposite ends of a huge dinner table, eating a formal meal and not talking? And where are all the adults? While Elsa sulks and Anna spins her wheels, who’s running the kingdom between when the king and queen drown and the day of Elsa’s coronation?
Anna doesn’t freak out when she learns the secret of the ice power. Anna’s reaction is one of loyalty and sadness. She tells the Duke of Weselton, “My sister’s not a monster. It was an accident. She was scared. She didn’t mean it.” Nobody in this kingdom has magic powers, and nobody knew Elsa did, though, so Anna should have felt angry and betrayed, or at least thoroughly shocked, that Elsa had been keeping such a huge, weird secret from her. Why isn’t Anna horribly afraid her sister isn’t the sister she remembers?
Elsa botches her best chance to explain. After her secret gets out and she sings the song and becomes all empowered and whatever, Elsa won’t let Anna chill with her in the ice castle. Why? Because she still feels guilty for accidentally hurting her when they were kids. All along, Elsa has chosen to sustain her guilt rather than confess, a choice that has made her and her sister miserable for years. Why does she make the same stupid choice now that she’s supposedly free of the past? The result of her refusal to explain is another uncontrolled outburst, and this time the magic blow to Anna is too deadly for the trolls to cure.
Anna’s faith in Elsa is pretty extreme. Anna defends her sister, saying, “Elsa’s not dangerous. She’s my sister. She would never hurt me.” That’s ironic, since Elsa already hurt her, and since everything Elsa does hurts her. Oh, but surely Anna meant that Elsa would never hurt her on purpose. I suppose we’re meant to believe that when Elsa creates a snow monster who chases Anna off a cliff, she’s still really just trying to protect her.
Elsa never asks for forgiveness. She doesn’t apologize to her people or the foreign visitors for freezing the kingdom, but they’re all bystanders anyway, and maybe there wasn’t really time in the resolution for her to address them explicitly. However, Elsa never apologizes to her sister, either. If the movie is about sisterhood, shouldn’t it be trying harder to model how sisters should treat each other? Forgiveness is a gift that must be given freely, but it’s still polite to ask for it.
Elsa never tells Anna the truth. Anna never learns she is living proof that Elsa’s fears of hurting others are completely justified, in Elsa’s mind if not in actuality. You’d think Kristoff or the trolls would have mentioned Anna’s previous magical injury, even if Elsa was too ashamed to. Despite not knowing the reason for her sister’s self-doubt, Anna believes so strongly in Elsa’s innocence that at the climax of the movie she gives up what’s left of her fading life to save her. Seeing the story resolve like this is like seeing a blindfolded child pin the tail on the donkey: you can’t give Anna credit because she had no idea what she was doing. Anna’s gesture would have been more meaningful if she were knowingly forgiving the harm that Elsa had done to her as a child, which was the basis for all the other harm she did, but Anna can’t forgive Elsa’s childhood mistake because Elsa never told her about it!
Maybe this abysmal failure to communicate will be addressed in the November 2019 sequel.
My Beat Sheet for Frozen
Snow, a snowflake, water, ice.
Set-up / Theme Stated
After Elsa accidentally injures her sister Anna with her ice power, the trolls say it was lucky Anna was hit in the head because the head can be persuaded but the heart cannot. (Foreshadowing!) The trolls also say that fear will be Elsa’s greatest enemy, but that’s like the Oracle telling Neo about the vase, isn’t it? If they hadn’t said anything, would Elsa still have become such a basket case?
Elsa comes of age, there’s a coronation, foreign guests arrive. Anna asks for her sister’s blessing to marry a guy she just met, Elsa tells her she’s being an idiot, Anna gets angry, Elsa gets angry, Elsa accidentally freezes the kingdom and runs away.
Debate / Break Into Two
The duke says Elsa is a monster, but Anna defends her, then rushes off (with no specific plan) to try to fix the situation.
Promise of the Premise
Elsa sings Hakuna Matata. (The Lion King handles the running-from-royal-responsibility plot WAY better than Frozen.) She also builds an ice palace and a sentient but very stupid snowman named Olaf who has an appalling tendency to become dismembered and an unaccountable desire to experience summer.
After Anna loses her horse, she meets an ice cutter named Kristoff at a trading post. He agrees to take her to the north mountain to look for Elsa. They fight off some wolves and his sled gets destroyed.
Anna finds her sister, but Elsa accidentally unleashes her power again. This time, the ice power hits Anna’s heart. (Uh oh! We know what that means!) To add insult to injury, Elsa creates a bigger, meaner, thankfully less articulate snowman who throws Anna and Kristoff out of the ice palace.
Bad Guys Close In
Hans and some soldiers go to the ice palace looking for Anna with two of the duke’s murderous henchmen in tow. Kristoff’s troll friends tell him they can’t cure Anna, only true love can.
All Is Lost
Elsa has been captured and is locked up. Hans, Anna’s supposed true love, betrays her, leaving her to freeze to death, and takes over the kingdom. He sentences Elsa to death for treason.
Dark Night of the Soul
Olaf nearly melts trying to save Anna, who realizes how naive she was to trust Hans, and how much she likes Kristoff (who she also just met).
Break into Three
Everyone goes out onto the ice. Elsa has broken out of her chains. Anna and Olaf escape the castle to look for Kristoff. Kristoff rides Sven down the mountain to find Anna. Hans is hunting Elsa.
Anna turns away from Kristoff when she sees Hans attack Elsa, arriving just in time to save her and freeze solid. Then she comes back to life, though it’s not clear whether she revives because she loves her sister or because her sister loves her. Either way, Elsa realizes that in the end all you need is love, and ends the winter by emitting happy blue sparks that sweep all the snow away into the sky.
Elsa gives Olaf a cloud. Anna punches Hans. The duke is banished. Anna gives Kristoff a sled and a kiss.
Elsa decorates the castle courtyard with her ice power and throws an ice-skating party. For some reason, no one is scared of her now.
The Songs in Frozen
All the other songs in the movie are just riding the coattails of that one song. (You know the one.)
“Let It Go”
Personally, I’m a fan, partly because I like alliteration, and the lyrics are full of it.
I like the ice-cutting song. I just noticed that the lyrics include the phrase “let it go”.
“Love Is an Open Door”
Anna finishes the sentence Hans is in the middle of singing, but not in the way you’d expect.
“We finish each other’s—”
Is it still a self-reference joke if it’s subverted? I’d say it’s an even better one. All good writing is re-writing. Whenever you write something obvious, you’re supposed to throw it out and write something unexpected. Seems like a case in point.
Just to clarify: I don’t actually like the song. I just like the joke.
“For the First Time in Forever”
Ugh. Anna hovers irresolutely between “I’m singing a song” and “I’m talking using my singing voice”. I think this is what turns people off musicals permanently.
“In Summer” & “Fixer Upper”
I didn’t like the snowman or the trolls, so… meh.
“Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”
Others’ Thoughts on Frozen
Honest Trailer for Frozen
There are so many hilarious lines in this video. Here’s just one: “When disaster strikes, watch Anna save the day by teaming up with her sister, a merchant, a hot guy, and a snowman to defeat villains like… her sister, a merchant, a hot guy, and a snowman.” That about sums it up.
Why Frozen Is a Bad Movie
I remember that when I first read it, this article was like a breath of fresh air. It resonated with me because whereas most people’s reactions were positive, it echoed some of my own more critical thoughts. I think now I agree with it even more than I did before.
The Official Save-the-Cat Frozen Beat Sheet
This beat sheet has a lot of nice detail, but I’m surprised the author categorizes the plot of Frozen as “buddy love”. Because Elsa consistently refuses to discuss her guilt and fear, Anna and Elsa don’t talk to each other much, so it’s hard to say they “debate important story issues” as the buddies in buddy-love stories are said to do.
Frozen is not as feminist or groundbreaking as you think.
I agree with much of what this author has to say on the subject of Frozen, and I’m glad she took the time to spell out her thoughts on the movie despite not liking it. I’m not sure whether I’m convinced that Anna’s primary goal is to find a mate, but I’m impressed by all the detailed Disney movie comparisons and I like how the movie is assessed in its cultural context.
Elsa and Anna are foils.
Some brilliant jokes, pop-culture references, and deadpan sarcasm in this video, but also some great insights: Anna represents fire, warmth, and emotion, whereas Elsa represents ice, cold, and rationality.