It took me a long time to finally watch the mega-hit Disney film Frozen, but I don’t live in a cave, so I thought I knew a lot about the film before going in. I certainly couldn’t escape “Let it Go” as the song blared from the mouths of little girls singing it in the Target aisle and flooded the internet with cover versions and parodies. My friends with kids seemed to burn through their DVD players with the film on continual repeat, turning my facebook feed into a stream of Frozen complaints and compliments. Cultural commentators also loved to talk about the film: Frozen is Disney’s best since the Lion King; Frozen is the “most progressive Disney movie ever;” Frozen’s hidden meanings; Frozen’s Christian meanings; Frozen’s sexist meanings; Frozen’s selfish meanings — the list could go on for a while.
When I finally watched the movie, I didn’t think much could surprise me. As a sucker for a good musical, I was pretty sure I would like the songs, but I didn’t know I would love them, and find myself immediately singing them. I was pretty sure I would like the film in general, but I didn’t know it would have so much nuance, humor, and sophisticated storytelling through sly lyrics and subtle visual cues. I certainly didn’t think I would be bawling my eyes out in the final scene as (SPOILER) Elsa brings life back to the frozen kingdom.
There are many things I could say about why I loved Frozen so much. I could talk about the way the film skillfully employs then subverts its own Disney stereotypes; how the hero (female) is saved not by a man, but by herself — not because of her “girl power” but because of her self-sacrifice; I could talk about the film’s portrayal of a strong, smart man in a relationship of equal power with a strong, smart girl; I could talk about the clever writing or the power of familial love or even Anna-as-Christ-figure. But all of these elements have been analyzed and criticized by many others, as a quick Google search will tell you.
While many factors probably led to my crying my eyes out on a weekday afternoon as the film drew to a close, the main reason I found myself joyfully weeping over Frozen was the film’s beautiful commentary on the relationship between fear and love. It’s a theme that is probably best summarized by a saint — St. John, to be exact — who once said, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 Jn. 4:18)
We begin to see fear as a theme in Frozen when Elsa and her parents bring Anna to the trolls for healing and the head Troll tells Elsa, “Your power will only grow. There is beauty in it… But also great danger. You must learn to control it. Fear will be your enemy.” Any observant viewer should then recall the scene just previous, in which Elsa creates a beautiful indoor winter wonderland for her sister that includes a lovable snowman and a series of snowy peaks, which Elsa brings into being as quickly as Anna can spring from peak to peak. When Anna moves too quickly and Elsa believes her sister will fall, fear clouds her face as she tries to save Anna — and accidentally strikes her instead. In this scene, love is a creative force; only fear causes Elsa to lose control and hurt her sister.
It is fear that keeps Elsa and her family locked inside their castle, fear that limits Elsa’s contact with anyone; fear that compels her father’s instructions to “conceal, don’t feel.” Because Elsa only experiences her gift through fearfulness, she cannot learn to control it, and when it explodes out of her at the end of the coronation party, fear for her sister and her kingdom is once again the driving force.
Now we come to the famous “Let it Go” scene — one that has caused more than one voice of consternation on the internet to cry that “Let it Go” sets a bad example for kids because it promotes self-centered individualism. Viewed within the fear vs. love framework, however, Elsa’s icy flight from the castle and exultant self-discovery are not examples of pure selfishness (though there probably is some selfishness involved) but of fear and love. As Elsa flees the coronation party in fear of what her power will do to her subjects and loved ones, ice begins to spread wherever she goes. Naturally, Elsa goes as far away as she can, not because she hates people, but because she loves them and doesn’t want to hurt them. It is only when she is free from the fear of hurting others that she is finally able to “let it go” and find some measure of self-love as she enjoys the beauty of her powerful gift. Admittedly, self-love can be selfish, but it is important to note that Elsa does not realize the wide-ranging and terrible effects of unleashing her power until after Anna tells her that the kingdom is stuck in a frozen wasteland. Until that point, Elsa actually believes she is acting in her family’s and kingdom’s best interests.
Of course, Elsa’s love is not “pure” at the time of “Let it Go.” She thinks she’s acting out of love, but it’s really still fear that controls her. That’s why it’s important to note that “Let it Go” is not the film’s climax. As Elsa continues to wield her power in self-defense and fear, she accidentally strikes her sister again, unleashes a terrible snow monster, and hurts many of the soldiers who come to capture her. As usual, fear is the cause of Elsa’s destructive powers.
Elsa doesn’t really understand love until she and Anna are saved through Anna’s sacrificial love (foreshadowed comically and endearingly by Olaf’s confession to Anna that “some people are worth melting for.”) When Elsa understands the power of love to control her icy power, she realizes the truth: “love melts,” and she restores summer to the kingdom. But love, we see, does more than melt the ice; love helps Elsa to control her gift — a truth that becomes clear in retrospect as well as in the film’s closing scene, when Elsa uses her gift to create a winter wonderland for her people, opening herself to others just as she opens the castle gates to the public.
There are many other ways Frozen develops the theme of love opposing fear (and vice versa). Anna’s chief characteristic is her fearlessness — which always expresses itself in loving actions. Prince Hans is motivated by the fear of having no inheritance; Kristoff is motivated by love. I could probably go on for a while with examples, because this is a film that rewards re-watching. So even if you’ve heard “Do You Wanna Build A Snowman” so many times you pray that you will never see snow again, take comfort in knowing that in a thousand tiny ways (and some big ones) Frozen promotes a shockingly Christian view of love. Silly Olaf is the one who expresses this view most clearly: “Love is putting someone else’s needs before yours.” That’s a message we could all stand to have stuck in our heads for days.