Winter has long been a popular muse for artists, inspiring both erotic and intrepid imaginations with its spirit, beauty and ferocity. Nineteenth century composer Tchaikovsky, all too familiar with long Russian winters, frequently drew romantic inspiration from the frigid season, composing elaborate symphonies brimming with fantasy and wonder. Winter was sentimental. But that was only after European industrialization and economy made it possible to observe winter from the comfort of a warm shelter. Ask anyone in the middle ages, and winter was death. Both figuratively and literally. It was merciless, relentless, and claimed the lives of many. All notions of sentimentality were brushed aside in the desperate fight to survive. Few would have considered ice and snow as artistic inspiration.
Disney's Frozen recognizes this dual interpretation right off of the opening title, where hard-working ice harvesters sing an anthem reminiscent of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs:
BORN OF COLD AND WINTER AIR/AND MOUNTAIN RAIN COMBINING/THIS ICY FORCE BOTH FOUL AND FAIR/HAS A FROZEN HEART WORTH MINING.
They continue, revealing the very thesis of the film through lyric:
CUT THROUGH THE HEART, COLD AND CLEAR/STRIKE FOR LOVE AND STRIKE FOR FEAR/SEE THE BEAUTY SHARP AND SHEER/SPLIT THE ICE APART/AND BREAK THE FROZEN HEART.
Combined with the sheer beauty of the animation, cold blues and sparkling whites under a dark sky, we recognize winter as a magical and mysterious metaphor. We know that, in true Disney fashion, love will ultimately conquer the frozen heart, and winter will be a thing of restored beauty. The quest to romanticize winter will take the form of an inner quest for love.
Elsa, much like the Prince of Beauty and the Beast, takes refuge through a self-imposed exile after she is judged a monster by the townspeople. She herself embraces that image, believing she must isolate herself for everyone's safety. She's forgotten the warmth of love, having chosen isolation over relationship with her sister (a history covered in a poignant ten minute montage near the beginning, a direct nod to Pixar's Up). We don't know why she has magical ice powers, and it's never explicitly stated as either a curse or a blessing. That's because Elsa herself has to make that decision. Fate has taken a surprising backseat to ethical choice. "With great power comes great responsibility," Uncle Ben would say to Peter in Spider-man. Elsa neglects that responsibility, and winter becomes death. While selfishly taking refuge in her ice castle, the rest of the kingdom has been subjected to an eternal winter the likes of Narnia's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Elsa is, in essence, a white witch: the true antagonist of the story.
But her sister, Anna, sees room for redemption. In blind faith she convinces a lone ice harvester to take her where she cannot go alone, a scenario strikingly similar to Mattie Ross' plea to the stubborn Rooster Cogburn in the Coen Bros' True Grit. Kristoff, like Rooster, reluctantly agrees to take the ambitious girl up the mountain after she exercises enough persuasion. Attentive Disney fans might predict the budding romance, but the interesting twist here is that Disney itself exploited the cliche of whirring romance by having Anna "fall" for a Prince she just met that morning. Elsa, a truly cynical counterpart to Anna's hopeless romance, straight-up tells her how stupid that is. But Anna stubbornly pushes forward, naively convinced that love can give her a Happily Ever After. It does, of course, but not until love itself undergoes some necessary soul-searching.
Meanwhile, Elsa is living her existential dream up on the mountain. She is even given the token musical showstopper, a surprising move on Disney's part, since her expression of freedom and rebellion later proves to be a vice to the film's thesis. She is embracing liberty, but her heart is still frozen. True love is not something she can experience in isolation. As she passionately proclaims,
I DON'T CARE WHAT THEY’RE GOING TO SAY/LET THE STORM RAGE ON/THE COLD NEVER BOTHERED ME ANYWAY
She takes cold solace in the icy cynicism of individuality. Winter is a kind of beautiful death. Her rejection of relationship and responsibility manifests itself as a terrible snow monster, tasked to guard her castle from intruders.
Not to be discouraged, Anna desperately pleas with Elsa to reclaim her responsibility. Winter doesn't have to be a curse. Olaf, a snowmen that the two sisters built as children, is not just comic relief: he is a reminder to Elsa that winter can be reinterpreted. Like the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz, he may not have a heart to call his own, but he sure possesses some much needed insight and selflessness. It is he who, when Anna's world is turned upside down and she's forced to admit she doesn't even know what love is, reflects the very love once shared by the sisters as children.
Herein is Frozen's master stroke: the thesis of the film is finally realized, not in typical Happily Ever After fashion, but through an act of self-sacrifice that outshines anything Disney has ever given us before. The title of the film becomes its unexpected resolution, and winter becomes bitter sweet.
This is, without a doubt in my mind, Disney's most self-aware effort to date. Two other films produced by the company in recent years, Tangled and Brave, showed major signs of maturity. Rapunzel's 'prince' was their most believable male protagonist since Aladdin. In Brave, there's not even a romantic interest in sight. Instead, it told an incredible story of love between a mother and daughter. Both characters were flawed in realistic, endearing ways. I don't think it's a coincidence that Brave was the personal effort of a female writer, Brenda Chapman, who eschewed the Disney Princess conventions to tell one of the greatest fantasy stories of 2012. Here again, we find in Frozen a brilliant story penned by a woman, Jennifer Lee. It's about time that Hollywood started handing the reigns of princess stories and female protagonists back to women. Let's hope we'll see more from these exceptional writers down the road!
At the end of the film, the eternal winter is thawed and the Happily Ever After makes its obligatory appearance. It's okay. They've earned it. I've referenced a lot of films so far, but truly, I think this has to be Disney's best princess film since Beauty and the Beast. And just as with that film, I don't think we can help but be at least a little disappointed in the Happily Ever After. We've fallen in love with the beast. Disney is finally teaching children and adults alike that heroes are flawed, escapism is too romanticized, and we all have a responsibility to the people in our lives. Winter is a thing of beauty after all.