Not since _Harry Potter_ has the Catholic commentariat been so hotly divided over whether a pop culture franchise is profoundly Christian or profoundly dangerous as the controversy over Frozen. This controversy has re-erupted a bit since the release of Kenneth Branagh’s live action Cinderella, both because it contains the _Frozen_ short “Frozen Fever,” which seems to resolve a few of the issues with the first film (e.g., Kristoff and Anna are clearly a “couple”), and because it is being hailed as a positive change from the recent trajectory of Disney fairy tale movies–most notably its live-action predecessor Maleficent and, to some writers, Disney’s adaptation of Sondheim’s _Into the Woods_.
Those who take a dim view of Frozen rightly point to similar parallels between it and Maleficent. Both movies attempt revisionist approaches to fairy tales. Both involve a sympathetic backstory to a “villainess”. Both undermine the familiar notion of a “True Love’s kiss.” Ironically, in very few stories is a “kiss” the saving act, anyway. That’s a classic example of Disneyfication.
In “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” the title character is saved, not by a kiss, but by the dwarves dropping her coffin. While popular culture has the “Frog Prince” changed back by a “true love’s kiss,” in the “original” Grimm story, while he tries to get the princess to kiss him, she throws him against a wall in disgust. Andersen’s “Little Mermaid” fails. The Beast is transformed, in the “original” as well as the Disney version, by Beauty’s tears. Most “Fairy Tales” have more sophisticated endings than the modern day re-appropriations as folk tales. The notion that it’s always “true love’s kiss” is really Disney’s fault to begin with. Rapunzel and her prince end up happy ever after, but not before she bears him two children out of wedlock, and he is blinded.
Ironically, though, Andersen’s “Snow Queen” is one of the few where the spell is actually broken by a kiss. While Disney’s _Frozen_ began as an adaptation of Andersen’s story, it took on a life of its own in development, and is arguably a different story, as suggested by Disney-ABC’s _Once Upon A Time_.
While _Frozen_ and _Maleficent_ both deal with slightly revisionist themes (at least as far as Disney goes), they handle the same themes quite differently (I haven’t seen _Maleficent_ yet, but have read enough reviews and summaries to work with here). 1) _Maleficient_ takes one of the most truly evil characters in Disney, a character whose name *means* “evil,” and makes her a sympathetic character who started off “good”. Now, this in and of itself might be seen as profoundly Catholic, yet she remains the heroine. This is a contrast to Elsa, who’s never really evil. She has many parallels as a character to Erik, the Phantom of the Opera, but doesn’t even rise to his level of evil. She’s remarkably moral for someone raised in isolation who rebels and says, “no right, no wrong no rules for me” (more on that later). Elsa’s only “evil deeds” are accidental. In a slightly different narrative, she wouldn’t even be considered evil at all. For a story that is so departed from Andersen as to be an original story, and not a remake of an existing Disney property, it is hard to even call _Frozen_ revisionist. It might undermine some of the ideas taught by conventional Disney fairy tales, but it is more in keeping with the moral ambiguity and psychological complexity of the works of Perrault, Andersen and the Grimms.
2) Both _Maleficent_ and _Frozen_ betray the naivete of “two random people meet in the forest, fall in love at first sight, and live happily ever after.” Both seemingly say, “A woman doesn’t need a man to be happy,” and that men can’t be trusted. However, while in _Frozen_, Hans is a liar and scoundrel (a change made relatively late in development but hinted at throughout the film), he is contrasted to Kristoff. Though there are innuendos about the relationship between Kristoff and his reindeer Sven, the most overt line is that it “is a little outside of nature’s laws,” which suggests that Nature *has* laws–when was the last time you saw a movie, much less a kids’ movie, *mention* Natural Law, even jokingly?
For decades, Disney movies have taught little girls that a moment’s infatuation can mean the love of their life, and Christian educators and social critics have tried to emphasize that marriage should not be entered into lightly. Finally we have a fairy tale movie that shows the dangers of basing one’s decisions on emotion and infatuation, that has the main couple in a chaste relationship, and people are claiming it’s promoting homosexuality??
I have already written an extensive argument in favor of _Frozen_, so rather than repeating the points I made there, I’ll just refer you to it.
Now, all that said, this post was inspired by reading this commentary, which compares the four recent “Princess” movies and puts _Tangled_ and _Cinderella_ on one side, but _Frozen_ and _Maleficent_ on the other.
I’d say the reverse. _Tangled_, while an OK movie, is far more morally problematic than _Cinderella_: Rapunzel is kidnapped and horrifically brainwashed, yet this is brushed over. Rapunzel, who has to be suffering from Stockholm syndrome, PTSD, and any number of disorders related to being raised alone in a tower and lied to her entire life–how does she speak so eloquently?–falls in love with the first man she ever sees, like Miranda in _The Tempest_.
This “hero,” rather than a prince, is a criminal. The first time I saw _Tangled_, I kept expecting him to be an exiled prince like Aragorn in _Lord of the Rings_, but while he’s ostensibly based upon characters like Han Solo, his career is totally brushed over. He is not a rebel like Robin Hood. He doesn’t really appear to change his ways the way Han Solo does. There is no justification or repentance. He is not stealing bread to save his sister’s starving children. He’s just stealing. He takes Rapunzel to a den of thieves, and they turn out to be nice guys who are OK because they have dreams, even though they’re living in mortal sin.
The criticism of _Frozen_ is that there’s no overt “repentance” for Elsa’s attitude expressed in “Let it Go”–yet why should she? It’s a soliloquy. Nobody hears her. She herself learns the dangers of her attitudes, and her instincts about Hans–the only “mean” or “evil” thing she does is refuse to allow the engagement–turn out to be on the money. The whole point of “Let it Go” is it fulfills the first part and serves as the climax in the Aristotelian sense: the story itself shows the change in Elsa’s attitude and her realization that she is trading one imprisonment for another.