The post-Frozen utopia and the feelings it left behind

The Frozen obsession is growing by the day at our house, and thankfully, the world provides easy grist for Ros’s mill. The Frozen soundtrack is available for streaming, which is great motivation to get one’s boots and jacket on and hustle to the car. The Disney marketing behemoth has furthermore seen fit to generate metric tons of Frozen spin-off content. The “Elsa and Anna stories” that she always asks for now (as with Moana, she’s more into the book than the movie itself) feature all the things about them that she likes: their arresting beauty, their pretty clothes, and their…fun adventures together as sisters? There’s the animated short film created in 2015 that features Elsa trying to throw Anna the perfect birthday party (it’s on Netflix, in case you were curious, at the end of a collection of ten Disney shorts). There’s also a long series of Step Into Reading volumes that build out the world of Arendell with self-contained little Elsa and Anna vignettes. Unlike the renditions of Moana that we have so assiduously collected and read, which have tithed pretty closely to the movie’s emotional core, post-Frozen content depicts a very different Elsa and Anna from the ones we saw in the original 2013 movie. Currently in our library stash is Frozen: Ghost Hunt, in which Elsa and Anna make snacks and have a slumber party and read ghost stories. It’s a wishful future for the two sisters, who for the majority of Frozen's run time barely speak to one another. The Frozen aesthetic is powerful, and it should come as no surprise that Disney would package and sell its sparkly ice-castle exterior while conveniently ignoring its turbulent and emotional insides. Elsa and Anna having a carefree slumber party in Ghost Hunt makes me think to myself, “do you people remember anything about the actual movie you made?” More likely, what you’re going to have is two women who will need some serious time to rebuild their relationship after a couple of decades of forced emotional distance! I mean, really! Before slumber parties, let’s have the one where Elsa and Anna go to family therapy, maybe. I don’t know how you package that and sell it to a three-year-old, but wouldn’t anyone like to try?

I wouldn’t be writing about Frozen if it hadn’t affected me deeply, and I guess that’s why I’m offended by the erasure of its emotional depth via cutesy spin-off material. The movie itself is deeply, deeply sad, and that’s what makes it worth watching in the first place. The audience has to endure a lot before they get their happy ending: imagine being told as a kid that if you reveal your true self to the person closest to you, your little sister, you might accidentally kill her, so you should shut yourself in your room forever and hope that works out better. Or, imagine being suddenly completely cut off from the love and attention of your only sibling (your older sister, whom you abjectly adore), with no explanation. It becomes clear during the heartbreaking song “Do You Wanna Build A Snowman?” (of course it’s Ros’s favorite) that it’s hard to say whom this arrangement hurts more: Anna, who just keeps asking to be loved without knowing why the answer is “no?” or Elsa, who has to keep refusing her sister’s love over and over again? I know Disney movies are notorious for being much darker generally than their sparking surface initially lets on, but…JESUS! There’s of course the obvious trauma of Anna and Elsa losing their parents at an early age (classic Disney move, throwing that in there in the first ten minutes), but the far more disturbing and tragic aspect of their relationship is Elsa’s belief that she must hide the truth of her powers from Anna at all costs (and that if she fails, Anna will get hurt or die and it will be her fault). I’m going to risk speaking ill of the dead and say that this whole story is the result of terrible parenting choices, and I think that’s why it affects me so much: it’s a cautionary tale about two kids who grow up in an emotional wasteland.

Besides the idea that “hey, maybe ‘conceal don’t feel’ is the wrong lesson to teach a child,” there’s also a lot that Frozen has to say about love: how it can be weaponized, how it can be misunderstood, and how it can survive long, cold winters. Romantic love is absolutely something Frozen claims to be interested in, but the often-joked-about “love experts,” who turn out to be trolls with lovely singing voices, turn out to be quite limited in their interpretation of the “gesture of true love” that can save Anna’s life. As the film builds to its climax, the knee-jerk impulse to rush her towards the man who did and said all the right things and promised to love her turns out to be fatally wrong; the real love that can save her is actually her sister’s love for her, the original love that she always wanted and almost gave up on. This is admittedly quite a heavy way to look at such a shiny and pretty movie, but subtract that weight and you’re left with the glare of the movie’s blinding whiteness and its at-times grating celebration of physical beauty and royalty. Shiny and pretty is all it is, to its detriment.

All this, and yet. My connection to this movie was forged by the starry eyes of a three-year-old child. She sees twirly dresses and cute little snowmen, and she hears beautiful voices and arresting melodies, and I don’t want to take away the pleasure that those things bring her (lest I imply that her feelings are bad and wrong and should be concealed, let’s say!). Reading Frozen: Ghost Hunt with Ros and seeing Elsa and Anna as attractive illustrations in a story about nothing, I get why it exists. We are reading the wish-fulfillment version of “Do You Wanna Build A Snowman?” - the version where Anna knocks, Elsa throws open her door, and all of a sudden there’s Olaf with his little snow cloud and everyone’s hunkering down with candlesticks for story time. It’s very hygge, actually; cozy and intimate, the opposite and every way of the austere hallways and closed doors that the two sisters grew up with. Ros doesn’t know the names of either of Anna’s love interests, and they might as well not even exist. “What do you like so much about Elsa and Anna?” I asked her yesterday. “Because they are my favorite girls, and they are really nice friends.” Who doesn’t want to spend more time in the company of their favorite girls? I remain vigilant about the encroachment of the Frozen industrial complex, but my hunch is that I’ll have a better shot at a real conversation about Elsa’s and Anna’s feelings and the societal pressures that run their lives and the impossible beauty standard they bear if I let her love them now on her own terms. I’ll always want to know what she thinks; the question is how I’ll know when she truly wants to hear what I think. I’ll be paying close attention. I’ll also be secretly thankful that we started our Disney journey with Moana and not Frozen, and I look forward to the day we figure out how to stream My Neighbor Totoro even more.