“Do You Want to Read My Blog Post?” Of Course, You Do! Seven Keys to Why Disney’s ‘Frozen’ is (still) Red Hot

A few weeks ago, our esteemed headmaster and a friend of this blog both consulted me in their puzzlement over the popularity juggernaut that is Disney’s Frozen. Rather than fading, the film continues to dazzle, with an ice show and Broadway productions in the works, connections on the popular show Once Upon A Time, and even a huge boom in the name “Elsa” for babies! My learned colleagues really don’t get it (and let’s be honest, the Headmaster hasn’t seen it. I think he had heard of it. Maybe…) As the resident faculty film fancier and a fully-fledged Frozen aficionado, I offered to toss out my Seven Keys to Frozen’s immense popularity, and I hope you will join me in the conversation. Please don’t shut me out, please don’t slam the door…

And there it is, Key 1: The Songs. To paraphrase the great Captain Jack Sparrow (another blog post should really get into the fascination with piracy, but that is another topic entirely): “I love this song! I’m going to teach it to my entire crew, and we’re going to sing it ALL the time!” Well, he was talking about “A Pirate’s Life for Me,” which is pretty darn catchy, as my crew of miscreants knows, having coerced whole boatloads of Japanese tourists to join us in singing along as we enjoyed the ride for the umpteenth time. But he might just as well have been referring to the plaintive “D’you Want to Build A Snowman?” the hilariously accurate “Fixer Upper,” the epic blow-your-doors-off showstopper “Let It Go,” or even the one I often hum in traffic: “Reindeer(s) are better than People.” Every song in this movie is just fantastic. Harking back to the great Disney musical numbers like “Under the Sea” in The Little Mermaid, “Prince Ali” from Aladdin, and “Be Our Guest” from Beauty and the Beast, the songs fit the film perfectly and also pull in audiences with the power of a Black Hole (that Disney movie was a huge failure, probably because there was no singing, and it was set in space, not Norway.)

Key 2: The Setting. My father has travelled all over the world, and one of his all-time favorite places to visit was Norway. It’s a gorgeous country, with spectacular scenery that guests at Disney’s EPCOT have long admired while waiting for that other awesome Disney boat ride, the Maelstrom. The animators make snow shine in a thousand brilliant colors, so that the film is visually, quite literally dazzling. Viewers can say, along with Anna, “I never knew winter could be so beautiful.” The characters’ costumes evoke the culture while remaining so unique that on a recent trip to DisneyWorld, I could easily spot an Anna or Elsa get-up a mile a away, startling small children when I asked if they wanted to build a snowman. (But one little girl just responded sadly that despite all her efforts, she did not have the power to make snow. I assured her that she probably had a different power, hence the buckets of rain that were falling at the time.) Overall, this film both trades upon its fabulous setting and makes us all want to go there. Plus, it has that wonderful quality of what C.S. Lewis called “northerness.” He was always very taken by that Andersen tone and feel, and I think he would have loved this film’s use of the Snow Queen as someone with those wonderful, Wagnerian elements, but who is ultimately redeemed by sacrificial love. I am, like the snowman Olaf, really ready for summer, but the movie’s snow was deliciously chilly and powerful.

Key 3: Fixer Uppers. Even with all this pretty art, at the same time, one of the best things this film does is skip the sugar coating (that’s snow, not sugar, all over everything) with characters who are as jagged around the edges as a glacier, rather than the neat and tidy packages of Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty. It’s important to see both Anna and Elsa as damaged young women, the products of well-intentioned but misguided parenting decisions that have left them both desperately lonely and unsure of themselves. Because they are different people, the outgoing (and endearingly clumsy, like Bella Swan) Anna latches onto the first man to show interest in her, while introverted Elsa is so terrified of hurting others that she inadvertently becomes what she fears. Kristoff is a fairly layered guy (far less cardboard and more angsty than any other Disney Dude other than the Beast), kind of flaky with the reindeer thing and his people issues. Like every other positive character in this movie, he is, indeed, as the Trolls say, a fixer-upper and knows it (I LOVE the Trolls, everyone’s weird family….) Those flaws, I think, are what sell this movie. The Pixar movies taught moviemakers that we like damaged, off-kilter folks, like grumpy old guys and chubby Scouts, secretive super hero families and lonely robots, old toys and rats that cook. These Disney characters are the Pixar crossovers, appealing, but flawed, like us: a snowman who loves summer? Check! A hero who admits all guys pick their noses and eat what they find? Check! A princess who wakes up with her hair messy and drool on her chin? Check!. Fixer uppers. They need each other, they need love, and with some smiles and some tears, they are well worth every moment we spend on them.

Key 4: Laughter and Tears. Disney moviemakers have never been afraid to tug on our heart strings. Only a frozen heart could not be moved by Simba pawing at the body of his dead father, Belle proclaiming her love for the dying Beast, or the Dwarfs somberly praying over the still form of Snow White. But Frozen has an emotional scale all its own, taking us from one very real experience to the next: the tragedy that leaves Anna and Elsa emotionally stranded, the anxiety that grips Elsa as she attempts to be a good queen and to conceal(don’t feel!) her dangerous gift (her shaking hands during the coronation were just one of the brilliant touches in this film; I gasped so loudly that I scared the kids in the row in front of me), But the laughs are just as real as the drama, a rarity in any film. There are enough jokes about man habits (like peeing in the woods), hilarious Olaf moments (“I can’t feel my feet!”), Sven snorts, and Anna pratfalls (love that crunchy dress!) to balance out this film and make it more than just another princess movie. In fact, despite having not one but two female leads, Frozen is far less of a “chick flick” than old classics like Cinderella, or any Tinkerbell movie ( I can drive any boy out of a room with one of those beauties in the DVD player). There is plenty of appeal for both genders and all ages here, while also presenting female characters who make us laugh, cry, and, ultimately, think.

Key 5: Elsa, Elsa, Elsa (and did I mention Elsa?)
Elsa really is the key (And she is a Queen, not a Princess, go Disney!). In addition to being now fused with that other super-appealing and powerful misunderstood castle-dweller, Elphaba from Wicked (the incomparable Idina Menzel, who voices Elsa, created the role of Elphaba on Broadway), she resonates profoundly with an audience already familiar with texts like Harry Potter, Twilight, and the X-Men (loads of influence there. Check out the How it Should have Ended video that has Elsa go to Xavier’s school! Priceless!). She is an essentially very good person who struggles with identity and secrecy. She is NOT the villain. If there is a villain per se, it is the rotten charmer, Prince Hans, who, unlike Anna, resents his family and is willing to sacrifice anyone for his ambition. Or perhaps the power-hungry, vain Duke of “Weasel-town” who labels Elsa a monster but misses his own monstrous tendencies. Because this story is just very loosely connected to Andersen’s “Snow Queen” (about as much as Lion King is based on Hamlet), we can’t see her as that same figure. Like Meyer’s Bella and Rowling’s Harry, she is a character struggling with who she is and how to cope with powers that can harm or help. The answer, using sacrificial love to thaw the ice, is straight Andersen but also bread and butter to the HP generation. The choice issue is also a Twilight staple, so its resonance is not surprising. I wondered, when I took my daughter to the film (and had no idea what an experience that would be; it was opening weekend), if she would prefer Anna or Elsa as a character. I was not surprised that she was mesmerized by the terrifying, troubled, but deeply good Snow Queen (not just because she loves Wicked and sings along with Menzel from the cast recording CD. Defy Gravity, Baby!). This is not to say that Anna is overlooked, but she is more conventional and less flashy than Elsa, who gets the best song and the best clothes of any Disney gal EVER (I MUST have that cape. I NEED that cape…). Anna ends up with the nice guy instead of the heel and gets in the best right hook outside of a Hugh Jackman movie, but it’s Elsa who is the touchstone for millions of (mostly) female viewers, including hordes of little (and not so little) girls, who know the beauty of saying “let it go!” but also recognize that we can’t run from the people we love in order to save them. She ends the film in a good place, literally and figuratively, but she is queen in her own right, with no Prince needed, showing that a “happy ending” does not have to include a wedding (with all apologies to Shakespeare and his formula comedy endings!)

Key 6: Not going by the book. I love fairy tales, but I have to admit, I am not a huge fan of Hans Christian Andersen. His original stories are often bleak and too preachy for my taste. While the “Disney Treatment” has sullied more than a few stories from history(Pocahontas), stage (forthcoming Into the Woods with a surviving Rapunzel and non-pedophile Wolf) and literature ( The Black Cauldron), it certainly perked up the doom and gloom of “The Little Mermaid” ; it also puts some serious pixie dust magic to work on “The Snow Queen,” the story that is the basic core of Frozen. According to gossip, this film’s story was a laborious process for the writers, but clearly, their creative choices work. Though at least one of my friends counts “The Snow Queen” as her all-time favorite fairy tale, I always thought it went on longer than the Danish winter, wandered off focus for too long, and that Kay hardly deserved the selfless and courageous Gerta. Frozen‘s version keeps some names (Prince Hans, Kristoff the ice-harvesting wilderness man, and Princess Anna all have names based on that of Hans Christian Andersen) and the very important theme of love thawing the frozen heart. While it keeps that critical core (see Key 7), it also tells its own story. With the wild success of the alchemically driven but way off-the-book Tangled, Disney writers have seen that the key to successfully adapting a fairy tale may be not sticking to almost every point, but instead, realizing that a total revamp is better than deviating from a few tiny points. Hence the raging success of The Little Mermaid and the relative obscurity of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Since we are going to change stuff, we might as well REALLY change stuff, except of course, for the REALLY important stuff (that’s you, Trolls: speak, ’tis your cue).

Key 7: The story that is at the back of all the good ones. What I think really makes Frozen touch even icy hearts is what our beloved Headmaster has pointed out so often: in a world that tries to be completely secular, the entertainments that really connect for us are those that hark back to The Story. The Christian/allegorical layer here works beautifully. Though Disney is very strict about no mention of religion (though Elsa is crowned in a fabulous church), this film is a glacier-sized reminder of the power of love, real love, not the “happy ever after” stuff. Real love does not give up on our family members, even when they are difficult, isn’t based on false pretenses, and is often the reason for the most profound sacrifices. The Trolls, much to my delight as an old vet of that EPCOT Norway ride, are the voice of faith, taking in the stranger, loving everyone, and seeing potential. They know all along that love is the key, and that we don’t jettison people because they are broken; we fix them, and we let them fix us. Of course this film works; it tells the story our minds are hardwired to understand. I think everyone is also drawn to a film that, like Brave (which I also adore) shows the power of family love instead of just romantic love. There are many different kinds of love in this movie, really. Sometimes love makes mistakes, like the King and Queen whose best efforts go awry. Sometimes love is kind of silly, like Olaf. Sometimes we love our pets, like Sven, as if they were people. Good romantic love takes time and is courteous (Kristoff asks Anna’s permission before they kiss, and then she kisses him!). The love in this movie feels genuine, not staged, and audiences get that, whether they know it or not. After all, we all have a hole in our hearts that needs to be filled, and whether we realize it or not, Someone is standing out there knocking on the door to our souls; we need to open that door, to let Love inside, but it has to be the right kind of love, the love that only comes from the Source of Love Himself. That’s the kind of love that jumps in front of someone we love to ward off the killing blow, the love that melts the frozen heart.

This is, if you’ll pardon the pun, just the tip of the iceberg of why this story works. But of course, not every story works for everyone (I am, after all, one of the six people in America who hates the film Forrest Gump…..). So I hope that we have an avalanche of your ideas about Frozen, while I continue to marvel that, on our last trip to the Magic Kingdom (the one in Orlando, not the one in Arendelle), the wait to see Mickey Mouse was around 45 minutes, to see Anna and Elsa? Three hours. That’s hot, no matter how much snow falls.


  1. I am one of the six, also. Loved the article. Thanks!

  2. 7kidsintx says

    Ok, I’m one of the six, as well…are the other three Hogwarts Professor readers, as well? 😉

    I love this story,because as the mother of six daughters, it is SISTER love that brings salvation. A powerful message that romantic love is wonderful, but family can’t be underestimated.

    Thanks for the great insight, Elizabeth!

  3. I’m the one in six people who wasn’t so keen on this movie (or Forrest Gump). Outside of “Let it Go” and “Do You Want to Build A Snowman?”, I found all the songs forgettable. I felt there was not enough focus on the sisters and their bond (IMO Lilo and Stitch was a more powerful depiction of sisterly love), as everything gets bogged down with the typical comedy/romance/action fare seen in most other modern animated films.

    As for Elsa, I liked her the most, but I felt we didn’t get so see much of her personality outside of her anxiety and self-loathing. Surely she has hobbies or other talents or other aspects of her personality? I also felt she didn’t go through much of a journey to get past her self-loathing; for me, the resolution was rushed and felt unearned.

    Anyways, I’m not trying to be mean or needlessly hate on a film so many people adore (if I have come across as rude at all, I apologize; I merely wanted to add my view to the discussion). All in all, I don’t think it’s a bad movie and love how it’s trying to give us more rounded female protagonists, but it’s appeal continues to elude me. I’m glad others have found much to admire, but I just cannot see what they do.

  4. I’ve had trouble appreciating Frozen as others have, too, Emily. I think I may have missed — or at least, missed the significance of — a few key moments of Elsa’s development.

    I certainly noticed the same problem with the Twilight haters; few of them seemed to realize that Bella becomes the most powerful being on Earth. So, I don’t want to make that same mistake here.

    One thing seems certain: fandoms like this are not a guaranteed thing in life. And if Frozen is inspiring those people to live happier lives, then more power to them.

  5. The Magical Power of ‘Let it Go’

  6. “And then there’s the fact that Frozen revolves around the relationship between strong, commanding female characters who defy the “Disney princess” stereotype (even though they technically are monarchs). ” (From the article on Frozen in Japan)

    Not really. If the stereotype is of the passive Snow White/Aurora variety, then yes they defy it, but Elsa and Anna were not the first to do so. Ariel was an active Disney princess back in 1989, Mulan tackled female and male gender stereotypes in 1998, and Tiana chose to chase her dreams despite the prejudice against her as an African-American and as a woman in 2008’s Princess and the Frog. Not that 90s/2000s Disney was terribly radical in its depiction of female characters or that the Disney Princess line has no issues– but I think we’re giving Frozen more credit than it deserves in that area. Plus, not everyone believes the film delivers on its feminist promises:

    But whatever. Even though I don’t get the love entirely and still feel the film is average after multiple viewings (someone has to be the one in six, after all), I am glad so many women and other oppressed people have found strength from the story and characters. Like James said, more power to them.

  7. May I suggest an eighth key: Ring Composition? Can’t paste a graphic in here, so chronologically, read down the left side of the ->->->s to the turn, then back up the right side.

    THE PROLOGUE: About Ice & Kristoff

    Sisters’ Playtime ->->-> Kingdom’s Playtime

    Accident wounds Ana ->->-> Act of True Love saves Ana/Elsa/Kingdom

    Race to save Ana via Trolls ->->-> Race to save Ana via Kiss

    Elsa conceals her power ->->-> Hans reveals his evil

    Queen is crowned ->->-> Queen is imprisoned

    Puppy Love, Hans Style ->->-> True Love, Troll Style

    Argument, Accident, Elsa flees ->->-> Argument, Accident, Ana flees

    Ana seeks Elsa ->->-> Ana finds Elsa

    Ana meets Kristoff ->->-> Ana meets Olaf

    THE TURN: Let It Go

    This seems to add weight to Elizabeth’s observation in Key 5 about secrecy. The king made a poor choice in teaching it to Elsa. In fact, it’s what Elsa casts off in Let It Go. And every ice-filled drawing reflects the theme: transparency is beautiful.

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