I’m feeling a bit Frozentoday. And it has little to do with SoCal weather. As a kid, having zipped through loads of Greek mythology as well as Grimm’s fairy tales, I started in on Hans Christian Andersen. I’d known about the Danish author for years: the Frank Loesser musical version of Andersen’s life was the very first movie I ever remember seeing. In the role of Andersen, funnyman Danny Kaye performed spirited musical versions of “The Ugly Duckling,” “Thumbelina,” and (if memory serves) “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” But when I sat down with a fat volume of Andersen’s FairyTales, I was startled to discover at the heart of Andersen’s stories a darkness that Loesser and Kaye had managed to sidestep. For instance, consider Andersen’s original Little Mermaid. Hardly a pixieish Disney sprite, she was instead a mournful creature, one who gave up her voice and her seafaring identity for the sake of a mortal man who done her wrong. And then there was “The Snow Queen.” This tale, featuring a cold-blooded queen as well as shards of mirror that lodge in the heart, was so much grimmer than Grimm that I simply stopped reading.
“The Snow Queen” has turned out to be the genesis of Disney’s Frozen. This 2013 release, now the top-grossing animated film of all time, contains plenty of Disney trademarks: charming leads, wacky sidekicks, affably anthropomorphized inanimate objects (here a snowman, Olaf, who romanticizes the joys of warm summer days). There’s also gorgeous scenery, lively musical interludes, and the joys of young love. Still, this is a darker story than the usual Disney fare. I was not surprised by the film’s female empowerment message: the idea that young women can be the controllers of their own destiny has been an article of faith in the Disney canon for quite a while. But when I finally caught up with Frozen, I was struck by the Nordic gloom that balances the film’s Anaheim affability.
I was late coming to Frozen. Instead of properly enjoying its scenic beauty on a wide screen in some stately movie palace (Hollywood’s El Capitan is the perfect place to see movies like this one), I checked out a copy from my local library. It was scratched and smudgy, surely the result of having been lovingly handled by a great many little girls. The result was that the DVD got stuck from time to time, leaving me with a picture that was – yes – frozen. As frustrating as this was, I persisted. After all, though I’d heard the hit song countless times, I still wasn’t sure exactly what Elsa was letting go of.
The answer surprised me. Since the film was intended to be family-friendly, I’d assumed that Queen Elsa, who is cursed with the ability to turn the world into ice with the wave of her hand, sings this song in the course of renouncing (letting go of) her magical powers. Not so. In fact, this is the moment when she (voiced by the full-throated Idina Menzel) essentially comes into her own, unleashing the full force of those powers even if this means cutting herself off forever from the rest of humankind. From this point onward, she’s downright scary, even toward her trusting younger sister, Anna.
For today’s little girls, even those too young to see the movie, Anna and Elsa are icons. What’s interesting is that the sisters do not represent good and bad in a conventional Disney way. Throughout all their frosty adventures, they care about one another. And at last, in Disney fashion, they don’t let go of family feelings.