Frozen is a Surprisingly Christian Movie

My four year old daughter was lent a DVD of the Disney movie Frozen, and in consequence I’ve seen it about a dozen times (so far). It really surprised me just how Christian the movie actually is, especially because it’s almost certain that was not intentional.

I’m going to run through the main plot elements to show what I mean.

The plot begins with two princesses, Anna and her older sister Elsa, playing at night. Elsa has the magic power to create ice is various forms, both solid and snow. Right away, there is an interesting sort of contradiction contained in this power, since on the one hand cold is negative—the absence of heat—and on the other hand she is able to create water, though frozen, from nothing. She has the power to create, but in a very limited way.

Now, normally when a female character has some sort of power, it tends to be a symbol for that great feminine power—fertility. You can generally see this because in the typical case everyone loves her for it (except for other women who are jealous, of course). That is not the case, here. Her ice powers work much better as a symbol of intellectual power and as we will see later, like intellectual powers her ice power isolates her from people.

As the children are playing with the snow Elsa creates, she slips and accidentally hits her sister in the head with a blast of ice, freezing her head. Anna lays comatose and cold as ice, and Elsa calls out to her parents for help. They come and take the children to the trolls, who as magical creatures can deal with magic. The chief troll tells the King that it is fortunate that she was not hit in her heart:

You are lucky it wasn’t her heart. The heart is not so easily changed. But the head can be persuaded.

Here, we really see the symbolism of Elsa’s power almost explicitly. She has the ability to affect the heart and the head. Of the two, it is more fortunate to be injured in the head, because the head can be more easily changed. This is quite correct. Purely intellectual errors can be fixed relatively easily, and even somewhat adversarially. By forcing a man who holds an idea merely as an idea to defend it, one can force him to realize that it is indefensible. Rarely, it is true, will he admit it in the heat of argument, but if it was purely an intellectual attachment to the idea, it will happen soon afterwards, when he has had time to think it through. To change his heart, he must repent.

The chief troll gives Elsa a warning:

Listen to me, Elsa. Your power will only grow. There is beauty in it but also great danger. You must learn to control it. Fear will be your enemy.

While giving this warning he conjures up a vision of people turning on her because of her power, and she’s scared. Her father, not she, responds:

We’ll protect her. She can learn to control it, I’m sure. Until then, we’ll lock the gates. We’ll reduce the staff. We will limit her contact with people, and keep her powers hidden from everyone. Including Anna.

There are several things wrong with this. The biggest problem is that it is a fundamental misunderstanding of what control is. Control is the ability to use force precisely—to accomplish one’s intentions without causing other effects. Control is what allows an adult that can snap a tree branch in half to make a crib for a baby then caress it while it’s lying down to go to sleep. What the King intends is for Elsa to suppress her power.

The difference between those two is stark. Elsa’s power is natural to her—this was made explicit when the troll chief asked if she was born with the power or cursed, and her father answered “born with it”. To control her power is to become fully herself, that is, to act in full accord with her nature. To suppress her power is to act against her nature and to be less than herself.

The other major problem is that the King is entirely passive in this, despite being Anna’s father. He uses the passive voice, “She can learn,” not “We will teach her.” He wants the problem to just go away—he wants Elsa to raise herself.

Indeed, his only real contribution to helping Elsa even to suppress her powers as she grows is to give her gloves and the extremely unhelpful advice:

Conceal it. Don’t feel it. Don’t let it show.

A person can direct their attention, to some degree at least, but cannot control what they feel. What they can do is control how they act in spite of their feelings. Control requires some positive goal, however, that can be focused on in spite of whatever feelings the world may thrust upon one. This, Elsa is not given. (We’ll come back to this, because the movie does.)

We then fast-forward in time, and the King and Queen die in a storm at sea, leaving the two girls orphans. Some time later, it is “Coronation Day” when Elsa is old enough to be crowned queen. (How the government of Arandel works is not explained, and even the technology is a weird mismash of the mid-1800s, the late middle ages, and everything inbetween.)

At the coronation party, Anna spends time getting to know a man she met earlier that day when he bumped into her. His name is Prince Hans, of the Southern Isles. They have a whirlwind romance in the space of an hour or two, culminating in Prince Hans proposing marriage and Anna accepting. When they ask the new Queen for her blessing, she refuses, and getting angry in response to Anna’s anger, she impulsively creates a large wall of ice as a barrier to keep Anna way. Her powers revealed to everyone, she runs away into the mountains, where we get the most famous song of the movie:

The snow glows white on the mountain tonight
Not a footprint to be seen
A kingdom of isolation
And it looks like I’m the queen
The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside
Couldn’t keep it in, heaven knows I’ve tried
Don’t let them in, don’t let them see
Be the good girl you always have to be
Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know
Well, now they know
Let it go, let it go
Can’t hold it back anymore
Let it go, let it go
Turn away and slam the door
I don’t care what they’re going to say
Let the storm rage on
The cold never bothered me anyway

It’s funny how some distance makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me can’t get to me at all
It’s time to see what I can do
To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong, no rules for me
I’m free
Let it go, let it go
I am one with the wind and sky
Let it go, let it go
You’ll never see me cry
Here I stand and here I stay
Let the storm rage on
My power flurries through the air into the ground
My soul is spiraling in frozen fractals all around
And one thought crystallizes like an icy blast
I’m never going back, the past is in the past
Let it go
The cold never bothered me anyway
Let it go, let it go
And I’ll rise like the break of dawn
Let it go, let it go
That perfect girl is gone
Here I stand in the light of day
Let the storm rage on
the cold never bothered me anyway

The music and Idina Mendel’s singing sound great, but if you pay attention to the lyrics, they are basically the lyrics of a villain. And, in fact, Elsa is the villain of this movie. She is a realistic villain, though, not a cartoon villain. I think the reason that has confused so many people is that this movie is a cartoon. Still, it is what it is; Elsa is a realistic villain, who is scared and afraid and wrong and doesn’t really mean anyone any harm even though she causes them harm she is culpable for.

Anna goes after her sister to try to bring Elsa back. (Along the way she finds Christoff, who agrees to help her in exchange for carrots for his reindeer.) When she finds Elsa, Elsa tells her to go away, that she’ll be safe as long as Elsa is alone. Anna tells Elsa that in fact Elsa has created a perpetual winter of Arandel, and no one is safe. Elsa is distraught, partially at what she’s done, but mostly that it means that she can’t be free. During a musical number when Anna is singing that they can solve the problem together and Elsa is complaining that she can’t be free, she lets out a blast of her power that hits Anna in the heart. She tells Anna to leave, then when Anna refuses to abandon Elsa, she creates a snow monster to force Anna to leave.

Here we see Elsa more-or-less explicitly choosing to be a villain when confronted with the choice between selfishness and love. She does, after this, try to stop the snow on Arandel by repeating to herself, over and over, “Don’t feel. Don’t feel,” as if that could somehow do some good. It’s not that she doesn’t care about Arandel at all; the problem is that she will only care about it on her terms. Even if she couldn’t stop the eternal winter, her power, used in Arandel, could do much to alleviate the suffering the eternal winter is causing. She doesn’t even consider this, because she lets her fear control her.

Anna begins to feel the effects of Elsa’s blast, and Christoff takes her to the trolls to get her help. There the troll chief tells her:

Anna, your life is in danger. There is ice in your heart, put there by your sister. If not removed, to solid ice will you freeze, forever.

Christoff asks if the troll chief can remove it.

I cannot. I’m sorry, Christoff. If it was her head, that would be easy, but only an act of true love can thaw a frozen heart.

One of the trolls suggests that a “true love’s kiss” might be such an act of love, and Christoff takes Anna to Prince Hans. He leaves her in Arandel, trusting that she will be taken care of. Anna is brought by the servants to Prince Hans, and there left alone with him. He reveals that he never loved Anna but only sought power, and her desperation to be loved made her easy prey. He douses the fire and leaves her to die while he goes off to kill the queen and usurp the throne.

However, Elsa escapes from the dungeon and creates a raging storm that obscures most things. Christoff sees the storm and comes back to help Anna. She sees him riding his reindeer toward her and stumbles out of the castle In the climax of the movie, just as Christoff and Anna almost find each other Anna sees Prince Hans about to kill Elsa. Anna rushes in and protects her sister with her body. She turns to solid ice a moment before the sword hits her, and in a magic blast from her turning to ice the sword is shattered and Prince Hans is knocked back, unconscious.

Elsa, seeing her sister turned into an ice statue, weeps over her, but a moment later Anna begins to thaw. Elsa asks Anna why she sacrificed herself for Elsa, and Anna replies, “because I love you.” Elsa, enlightened, realizes that love can end the raging storm, and she thaws Arandel, ending the permanent winter.

It is tempting to take all this as a mere reversal of the common trope; instead of the man saving Anna she saves herself. It is entirely possible that was how this plot came to be. It doesn’t matter. Whatever the writer was trying to do, what she did was to write a very Christian story.

Anna was saved, not by another creature’s romantic love for her, but by her generous love for another. “Greater love hath no man,” says Christ, “than to lay down his life for a friend.”

Anna was not, however, alone. Had Christoff not first loved her (in the sense of generous love) enough to take her to Prince Hans, what followed would not have happened. Had he not loved her enough to come back for her when he saw that Arandel was in danger, she would not have left the castle where she was huddling next to the fire for warmth, and would not have been near Elsa when Prince Hans moved to strike her down. In short, she was only able to make her sacrifice for her sister because of the love she was shown.

And then we get to the fascinating metaphor of there being ice in her heart put there by her sister. Here we have a recognition that a person can, if they let themselves, become twisted by another. Eve Keneinan has pointed out, more than once, that in the modern world we like to believe that victims are, by virtue of their victimhood, virtuous. Quite the contrary, victims often become vicious. And here we have that acknowledgement—Anna will die, if she cannot love, because of her sister’s hurting her.

We also, in all this, see how well Elsa’s power works as a metaphor for intellectual power. When she merely, through her power, gave her sister a wrong idea, the troll chief could fix that. But when, through her selfishness, she hurt her sister’s heart, fixing that could not be done by another. It’s an excellent metaphor for Modern Philosophy and things like Classical Liberalism (a la Voltaire). Where someone is merely wrong about these things as an idea, he can be set right by another through simple argumentation. When people act on these bad ideas, they injure themselves and others in ways that mere argumentation cannot fix. Having put theory into practice, it no longer suffices to change the theory. They must now repent. The Greek for “repent” is μετάνοια (metanoia). More literally, to turn around. Ideas are dangerous, but practice is more dangerous. Ideas have consequences.

There is another fascinating bit, when Christoff brings Anna to the trolls to heal her, they misunderstand at first and think that he brought Anna as a potential wife. When they find out that she’s reluctant, they sing a song asking her why. In this song they say that he’s a bit of a fixer-upper, and talk about some of his superficial flaws, but point out (obliquely) that these are merely superficial. There is, however, a very curious caveat that they put into the song:

We’re not saying you can change him, ’cause people don’t really change
We’re only saying that love’s a force that’s powerful and strange
People make bad choices if they’re mad, or scared, or stressed
Throw a little love their way (throw a little love their way) and you’ll bring out their best
True love brings out their best!

The first thing to note is that this caveat, though important, is (as stated) wrong. People do change. People can also change each other. Heck, the main plot point of the movie is that Elsa changed her sister (“put ice in her heart”).

What is true is that people can very rarely change other people according to their intentions. Most of the time the effect we have on others is not the effect we intend to have. The other important thing to note is that we can only change others when they are ready to change. You can’t take a drunkard and make him sober. You can, possibly, help him to become sober when he’s ready to become sober. And you probably won’t know when that is.

This is especially true with romantic partners, because (God willing) romantic partners are soon to become parents. They will soon have a ton of work to do in raising new people to be human beings. This means that they will both be under a lot of stress, rely on each other constantly, and will have very little in the way of energy left to try to change each other anyway. In short, the last people who can intentionally change each other are romantic partners.

Except about superficial stuff. Then they’re really good at it.

A husband and wife, if they’re even quarter-way decent human beings, want to get along with each other. They need to be tolerant of each other’s failings, but in general they will be pretty willing to load the dishwasher differently or accommodate themselves to toilet paper being put on the roll incorrectly, or what-have-you. Superficial similarities are worthless, because the superficial stuff does change pretty readily.

The big problem, in mate selection, is mistaking something important like character or honesty for something superficial like how one prefers the toilet paper to be on the roll. Unrefined people can become refined fairly readily, and if they don’t, it doesn’t actually matter all that much. People can compromise that muddy clothes can come into the basement, but they have to stay there. By contrast, vicious people can become virtuous, but it’s a terrible bet to make with one’s children’s future.

Plus, vicious people becoming virtuous often requires something dramatic, like sacrificing one’s life for them.

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