Melting the Ice on Frozen: Why the Original Author Wouldn't Want to Build a Snowman

Thursday, April 10, 2014

A cursed queen.  A snowman with adorable buck teeth and an unhealthy obsession with summer.  Powerful vocals.  Stunning winter scenery.

These are all elements that make up the much loved, much acclaimed Frozen.  My first winter in Chicago took on a new meaning while my friends and I pranced through the wonderland belting, “Do you wanna build a snowman?” 

While it’s true that I definitely caught the Frozen-fad, it’s also true that I at first had reservations regarding the interpretation of the original fairytale.  As a writer, I was sensitive to the use of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen as the inspiration for a movie that is completely different from the story he created.  (Then again, aren’t most movie adaptions guilty of this?)

The main reason I like Frozen is the music and Idina Menzel’s breathtaking voice.  However, the more I’ve thought about the movie, the more I’ve realized that Disney’s interpretation represents a cultural shift over the past several years.

Andersen’s art was meant to teach.  Disney’s was meant to entertain.  

There is a rigid difference between the way art was utilized in Andersen’s time and the way our more all-accepting, equalized culture views it now.

What do I mean by this?  Let me explain with a bit of history and backstory.

Hans Christian Andersen was a devout Christian.  He wrote about heavy, sometimes sadistic, consequences for actions, a concept we see clearly in the real story of The Little Mermaid.  The non-Disney Ariel wasn’t exactly waltzing with her prince; she was a spoiled child who wanted so desperately to be a beautiful human that she ended up dying in the end after pursuing her vanity.  These themes were throughout his work because Andersen viewed his writing as a tool to instruct and even to rebuke.  His stories helped people to examine their own lives, pinpoint their “vanities” and address them.  His fairytales led to self-investigation. 

The Snow Queen, while softer in tone than his other works, was written to serve this same purpose.  The tale begins with an evil troll, named the Devil, who created a magic mirror.  It was charmed to only reflect the vile and the ugly in anything—it would distort any image to take away its beauty.  The Devil decided to try to trick God and the angels of heaven by shining the mirror upon them—but the closer he got to the celestial kingdom, the more the mirror began to slip from him until it fell to the earth below, shattering into a million pieces.  The small shards of the enchanted mirror infiltrated the earth, piercing some people and causing their hearts to freeze and become cold and callous.  Like the mirror, they were only able to see the bad and and the ugly.

The narrative shifts to the lives of a young boy named Kai and his best friend Gerda.  One winter, Kai sees the Snow Queen outside—she is beautiful and cunning and she beckons to him to come to her, but he refuses.  That summer, Kai becomes accidentally splintered by a piece of the mirror’s glass and he becomes cruel and violent.  The Snow Queen succeeds in convincing him to come away with her, so she abducts him to her winter palace in the north pole.  Desperate to save her friend, Gerda sets off on a rescue mission.  She succeeds by entering the palace, reciting the Lord’s Prayer, and her warm tears melt Kai’s heart.  The book ends with a passage from the Bible.

The Snow Queen is an incredibly complex story that represents duality.  The kids learn that evil is in the world, that it’s powerful and that it can exist within themselves.  The story is a warning about temptation, giving into immorality and it is also about distorted beauty, lust for power and the lethality of sin.  Andersen strongly emphasizes Christian ideals.  We are meant to see the truth of the human condition in the story—we are susceptible to the lure of danger and darkness.  And immorality through a warped perception of truth dominates the social order.

But Andersen’s story is also progressive in that there is not an emphasis on romantic ideals.  It is highly grounded in realism.  The world is marked by depravity and humanity by perversity.  Only through childlike faith can someone overcome the powers of darkness.

And if Andersen can still be considered progressive, with a story written almost 200 years ago, what does that say about where we are today?  Are we regressive, retreating back to unattainable romanticized dreams that are not true reflections of the world?

We are meant to learn from stories like The Snow Queen.  They inspire and illuminate.

What can we learn from Frozen? 

Perhaps we learn about sisterly love.  And we see that it’s not a good idea to marry someone you’ve known for a day.  But we also see that there is still a focus on romance, that unlike Gerda, Anna needs a man (Kristoff) to complete her mission.  The focus is no longer on trust and faith in goodness, but on magic, happy dancing trolls (very different than Andersen intended), cute songs and finding one’s voice.  

We don’t usually leave movies today feeling introspective about the “mirror shards” that control our own lives.  This is because we have reduced the capacity and power of art.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I still love Frozen!  But I also like movies—and books—that challenge me to reflect on my life. 

In today’s culture, we want happy, romantic endings.

The entertainment industry is there to entertain.  To provide amusement and joy.  Stories like The Snow Queen were written to teach.

The thing is, original fairytales were rarely about the happily ever after.  Today, we want stories that make us feel good about ourselves.  But I would like to see more stories that help us learn.  I want to see books that challenge things like pride, anger management, impatience, vanity or gossip.  I would like to see Hollywood address social and cultural issues through personal stories that can truly impact people.

While I like Frozen because its chilling story is beautifully heartwarming, I feel that Andersen would be disappointed.  We have succeeded in minimizing a fairytale that had a potent and powerful style which dared to question the unquestionable.

So in regards to Frozen, should we build a snowman or should we let it go?  


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  1. I really like how you included the un-happy ending of Anderson's "The Little Mermaid". Not many people know about that! Kudos to you!

    1. Thanks, Jesse! I think it's really important to look at the original source for any "inspired" books or movies.

      Thanks for reading. :)

  2. Very thoughtful article, Ciera. I loved it! Your observation of Andersen reminds me of a great discussion I had with my peers in my undergraduate life as an English major. We called Andersen more of a "realist" than a "romanticist," even though his stories may be mistaken as romantic. We called this kind of writing "the dark side of romanticism," but we secretly believed it was much more real than the dreamy romantics.

    Another thought: "Frozen" has actually been critiqued as being more progressive than typical Disney movies. The fact that Anna's "true love" turns on her and is NOT really the "prince charming" she thought is quite different than traditional Disney movies. Yeah, she ends up falling in love with the next guy, Kristof, but at least it was a few days of knowing each other. ;)

    1. Thank you, Mr. Jeub! I would definitely agree that Andersen was a realist and I like how you termed it "the dark side of romanticism".

      And that's an interesting point about Frozen being more progressive...I would agree that, perhaps compared to other Disney interpretations, Frozen makes steps towards a more realistic worldview. (But movies like Enchanted made the same point about "true love".) I still wonder, though, if it's more progressive in regards to other Disney movies but still less in comparison to the original story.

  3. Hans Christian Andersen and Hans from Frozen. The power-hungry antagonist "just happens" to have the same name as the author. Just coincidence, right? Hans is supposedly inspired by the magic mirror in Hans Christian Andersen's tale. So, of all names, why would Disney choose the author's name for the notorious villian-to-be? If I wrote a story, I would certainly not want my name to be forever remembered for a lier. Of all the changes in the story, wouldn't that be the most disrespectful?
    Also, did you know that Hans Christian Andersen "guest-starred" in The Little Mermaid TV show as a cartoon character? I wonder what he would think about that.

    1. Such a great piece of observation! I hadn't even noticed that Hans was named after Hans Christian Andersen. I wonder what Andersen would think about how we have memorialized his name...

      Thanks for sharing!

  4. The Little Mermaid was actually a love letter to one of his male friends, as Andersen could not have him just like the little mermaid could not have her prince.

    1. Very interesting! I actually didn't know that.

  5. Hi Ciera,

    Interesting article and take you have on the movie Frozen! I'm an animator for Walt Disney Animation Studios and had the opportunity to work on much of the animation for the film. You seem to have a great deal of knowledge about traditional fairy tales, particularly Mr. Anderson's. Are you familiar with his ideas of repressed sexual desire that are present in The Snow Queen? We attempted to carry some of that over into the film to add some of the original intended depth.

    Your article has generated quite the buzz in our offices today! You seem like a nice young girl with a bright future ahead of you!

    1. Wow! Thank you so much for reading! I really appreciate your input!

      I am familiar with Andersen's own personal struggle with repressed sexual desire and the way in which his life experiences inspired his work. I haven't considered much how this theme relates to The Snow Queen, though. Would you mind sharing some ways in which the film tried to carry over this theme? I'd be fascinated to learn more from an inside perspective!

      Also, do you happen to know Brian Kesinger? My family and I were just recently in Burbank and Brian knows my Dad through work connections (my Dad works in youth marketing for Disney in Orlando) so he gave us a tour of the Animation Studios! :)

      Again, thanks for stopping by my blog!

  6. I agree. I believe most of our media is feel-good. I prefer (so I write) stories that coax one to self analyze themselves. To me, Frozen was cute in ways, but it had many, many story errors that miffed me during watching it (for example: Hans' villainy being completely not foreshadowed). I liked the theme about sisters, but I felt like it lacked the depth of other Disney stories all the same (Beauty & The Beast, The Lion King, Tangled, Mulan and Pocahontas to me covered a lot of deep things).

    Stori Tori's Blog

    1. I'm the same, Tori, in that I like stories that prompt us to be introspective. I enjoy learning and so I appreciate art that challenges. (And my favorite Disney movie is by far Beauty and the Beast!) Thanks for your input. :)

  7. Is it possible that Andersen wrote to entertain as well, but during a time when entertainment meant something different entirely? As an avid movie watcher, one of the things I've noticed is that films from the last century tended to be much more commentary based than the films of today (take for example Paton, Streetcar Named Desire, and the Man Who Shot Liberty Valence). Now, I think that could either be because of the type of storytelling, or rather that we are so included in the culture and commentary of the day that we no longer notice what it is saying.

    1. I think it is true that Andersen's art (as a fairytale) is entertaining. And like any piece of art, there is the matter of creative expression for artistic enjoyment. My main argument is that the purpose of art, however, was not limited to entertainment, but usually had deeper intellectual and moral purposes driving it. And I love how you referenced old films like A Streetcar Named Desire. I definitely agree!