Monday, December 2, 2013

A Family Therapy Student's Review of Disney's Frozen (*Lots of Spoilers*)

Frozen, the newest Disney film to hit theaters, is sure a hot topic for having such a wintery theme.  The story of two royal sisters, one with the power to create snow and ice, and the other left in the dark for years, hits home for many viewers, and for a good reason.  The family-centered theme is easy to find relatable, and spoke especially true to me as I both currently study families and have a close sister in my life. 

Anna and Elsa’s relationship start out seemingly normal, as sisters who love to play together.  They use Elsa’s powers to create winter wonderlands full of snow and ice, which we all know can be a bit dangerous for kids, especially if unsupervised.  In the instance we see, young Elsa’s powers cannot keep up with Anna’s energy and she ends up with a frost beam striking her in the head.  After their parents, the king and queen of Arendelle, find out the kids are rushed to a mystical herd of trolls in the forest who advise Elsa’s powers be curbed and Anna’s memories of the powers be erased.  The family therapist in me thinks this advice is just crap, and the rest of the film proves this to be true.  Whoever those trolls are, or wherever they came from, I’d like to see some credentials.

Seriously though, think about anything that is powerful yet can be dangerous.  Say, cooking, for example.  Cooking can be very dangerous, involving knives, stoves, ovens, and all kinds of things that can be harmful if used without proper training.  But cooking can also be fun, creative, and extremely safe.  It can result in a product that people love, when you learn how to use a knife, the stove, and the oven. Sealing Elsa away for her powers is comparable to doing the same to a little girl who likes making cupcakes, and once accidentally burned her sister once while letting her try a fresh baked batch.  The reinforcement that her powers were something BAD that could KILL her sister, and must be CONCEALED only fueled her anxiety associated with them.  Conversely, if her parents had found some way to embrace the powers and help her to control them in a healthy way, Elsa would have not had that anxiety, communication would be healthy, and Anna would have been able to see her sister more often.  I know the metaphor is stretched a bit as powers don’t exist in real life, but the concept is what’s important. Roll with it.

The fact that the king and queen died so early in the story is also a shame.  And Elsa’s absence at the funeral was quite noticeable and heartbreaking.  She was so in fear her whole life about exposing her powers that she couldn’t even come out in public to participate in an important grieving ritual.  Who knows what effect that had on her, in the long-term?

The “Do You Want To Build A Snowman” sequence showed Anna’s frustration with the situation really well.  And anyone who has had or been a younger sister can sympathize.  Little sisses are known for following their beloved older sister around, wanting to play, and mimicking everything she does.  It’s annoying growing up while the elder sister is trying to stake out her own identity, but as an adult it becomes more apparent that it’s more flattery, and healthy part of development for the sibling subsystem.  Anna was deprived of this experience, and you can hear the desperation in her voice as she is faced with occupying herself with an empty castle.  Prime development was lost for both sisters here.  Elsa didn’t learn how to care for her sister, or to learn how to properly communicate with her.  And I’m sure hearing Anna’s desperate cries for playtime made her miss their time together even more.  I can attest to the power of close sisters seeming to share brainwaves.  We finish each other’s sentences (and sandwiches!) all, the, time.  So you can imagine how emotional it is to hear two finally grown sisters feeling incredibly lost, alone, and utterly confused, by the end of this heart-wrenching song.  I definitely cried here.

The day of Elsa’s coronation arrives and so much happens here.  Anna has been anticipating the opening of the gates to the public and a huge celebration for so long, and it’s obvious in her song “For The First Time In Forever.”  Her social awkwardness works here, since we know she hasn’t had normal opportunities to socialize while maturing.  Another consequence of that troll’s crap parenting advice, unfortunately, is that she is just so eager to go BE WITH PEOPLE.  But what happens when you’ve been so deprived of healthy relationships for so long? Well, you jump right into the arms of the first person that takes interest in you so you can form some sort of attachment.  Anna’s sudden engagement to Prince Hans is no surprise here.  We know it’s a bit too good to be true, but she hasn’t had the experiences in life that would give her that insight.  She didn’t have an older sister to steer her away from these things.  It’s such a shame.

Meanwhile, Elsa is still locked in her room having panic attacks and stress breakdowns with no one to tell her it’s going to be okay.  No little sister to give her that confidence, and the echo of her parents telling her only, “Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know.”  This just absolutely breaks my heart.  At age 18, adolescence is not too far behind her.  Teens are developmentally meant to be more self-conscious than normal.  They think everyone is watching everything they do, and that nobody in the world understands the emotions they are feeling.  This helps them to develop their identity and individuality.  Elsa’s most likely still feeling these normal emotions, alongside being reminded that that she has deadly powers that no one should know about.  Talk about pressure.

Anna and Elsa’s first conversation (in pretty much forever) is awkward and it seems as though they are complete strangers.  Anna clearly still yearns for a connection between the two of them and harbors no bitterness toward Elsa for keeping herself separate all those years.  It’s beautiful and you can tell Anna has a huge heart.  Elsa acts warm toward Anna but seems like a shell of herself, and almost mentally checked out.  She cannot even enjoy the biggest event of her life because she is so invested in keeping composure.  And when Anna suddenly reappears a few hours later with plans to be married to a man she’s just met, her sister instincts kick into gear.  She sees that this isn’t a good idea and becomes protective, and Anna pushes back.  A younger sister doesn’t always know when the elder is trying to protect her, however, and Anna just sees it as her sister shutting her down once again.  Both sisters can’t be blamed here, especially in context of their stale past.  But unfortunately Elsa’s passion ignites her powers and the very thing she feared her whole life unfolds before her eyes.  People freak out, Elsa sees her sister’s eyes filled with fear, and without any knowledge of how to deal with this situation, she flees.

The following sequence is “Let It Go,” the most beautifully executed musical scene in the entire movie.  Idina Menzel is known for belting emotional numbers in a powerful way and this is no exception.  The emotions revealed here start as sadness, embarrassment, and loneliness, and bubble into empowerment, a bit of guilty pleasure, and finally extreme confidence.  Up on a mountain and away from people, she can “test the limits” and even have a little fun with the one thing she had been taught to fear her whole life.  She is growing into her individuality and independence finally, the task she was struggling with as a locked-up teen.  She blossoms into a free-flowing beautiful woman and literally lets her hair down, her outfit change echoing her internal transformation as well.  However, she unknowingly causes an extreme snowfall on her kingdom of Arendelle, making everything, well, frozen.

Meanwhile back in Arendelle, Anna is very much confused about the night’s unfolding events.  All she knows is that she has to take responsibility for finding her sister, making sure she’s okay, and getting her to unfreeze the kingdom.  Again, her huge heart is evident here.  It’s hard not to be mad at someone you care about who keeps running away from you. But Anna only wants to make things right and without a second thought leaves her fianc√© in charge of the kingdom while she sets out to find Elsa.  Her frustration is revealed though in the next scene, as she rides out and wonders out loud if it is her fault at all, or if all this would have happened if Elsa had just confided in her in the first place.  Poor Anna.  Poor Elsa.  So hopelessly set up to fail before they can have any say in the matter, and all because of one troll.

Along the way Anna happens along a lone mountain man Kristoff and his reindeer companion Sven.  She basically buys their services to help her up the mountain to get to her sister.  He is hesitant at first but after Anna proves her non-total-worthlessness by helping fight off a pack of wolves he actually seems pretty onboard.  Not to mention his livelihood is threatened by a total ice-over since he is in the ice business, so he finds his investment in this cause as well.  One thing I would have loved to know more about is Kristoff’s seeming aversion to people.  He sings a whole song about how reindeer are better than people, but all we know is that he was taken in as a child by the same trolls who I believe should be seeking major malpractice insurance.   Kristoff’s backstory is incredibly underdeveloped, which is one my issues with the film itself.  As such a loveable and sincere character he deserves more, I think.

They meet Olaf, the snowman that Elsa created the night of her accident with Anna and again during her “Let It Go” sequence, along the way and he accompanies them the rest of the film.  He offers some comic relief as well as heartwarming moments and a connection to Elsa that keeps Anna going.

Once Anna reaches the castle she attempts to reason with her sister.  She shows no bitterness or anger, only desperation for her to return home.  Elsa is firmly convinced that her powers can only result in terrible things, and tries once again to protect Anna by shutting her down.  Anna brings up the tiny fact that all of Arendelle is frozen solid and this only reinforces Elsa’s attitude.  She didn’t know she had done it, let alone how to fix it.  The whole situation turns into a dreadful positive feedback loop, amplifying Elsa’s anxiety and fear until she shoots an ice beam at Anna, which strikes her in her heart.  Her darkest fears confirmed, she creates a snow monster to physically throw Anna and her friends out of the castle.  But Anna, Kristoff, Sven, and Olaf escape only to discover her hair turning completely white, an indication that her heart is indeed frozen.  Luckily Kristoff, being raised by the damn things, remembers seeing his troll family unfreeze Anna years ago, and so he takes her to his “friends.”

For some reason “frozen heart” symptoms arise in a much slower manner than “frozen head,” which is another discrepancy I found in the film.  Nevertheless, Anna stays conscious and mostly ambulatory until they meet up with the trolls.  Here is my personal lest favorite scene, and not just because of the problem I have with their idea of parenting advice.  The trolls assume Kristoff and Anna are a couple, or on their way to becoming one, and proceed to sing a very strange song about why Kristoff is great despite his flaws.  But it’s just… not a great song and seems to stretch way too far in attempts to be funny or edgy.  Apparently blondness is unmanly, he is close to Sven “outside of nature’s laws,” and it’s weird that he relieves himself in the woods?  I dunno, I don’t understand this song at all and I’m not a fan of anything reinforcing gender stereotypes about what’s masculine or not.  In addition, near the end they start singing about how love brings out the best in people who make bad choices because they’re mad or scared or stressed, which seems like a blatant point to Elsa when they’re supposed to be singing about Anna.  Anyway, after the song papa smurf, err, the lead troll tells Anna that only an act of true love can melt a frozen heart.  And it appears the characters have seen their share of Disney movies because they assume this means true love’s kiss and take off to find Hans.

Meanwhile, Hans and his armed volunteers have gone to Elsa’s castle and brought her back to Arendelle, imprisoned until she can unfreeze the kingdom.  She insists she doesn’t know how so she remains chained up.  Anna returns to Arendelle and as soon as she finds Hans to ask for her life-saving kiss he reveals that he had only been using her all along to take control of the kingdom.  Here I can only imagine Anna’s humiliation.  Hans revels in how easy it was to fool her, as she is wasting away and running out of life.  Her last hope to survive and continue to try to resolve things with her sister is truly the villain of the story and leaves her to die.  She crumples to the ground, her hope and life all but sucked out of her.  Olaf discovers her and gently reminds her that her true love may have been riding alongside them on a reindeer the whole time.  When he sees Kristoff actually returning to help Anna he helps her out onto the frozen fjord to try to get to him. 

At the same time, Elsa has managed to escape and is also out on the fjord fleeing Hans, who thinks Anna is dead and is attempting to kill Elsa next.  Although Anna sees Kristoff coming to her aid, she also sees Hans raising a sword to kill Elsa.  In her last act Anna chooses her sister one last time, throwing herself between Hans and Elsa as she turns completely frozen.

The next few moments in the film are the most poignant and heart-wrenching.  Anna, who has been selfless throughout the majority of the film and has been deprived of so much her whole life, just sacrificed herself for the sister that she believed had been purposely been shutting her away her whole life.  And Elsa realizes this and collapses upon the ice sculpture that was once her little sister, absolutely crushed and sobbing.  At that moment she really “lets it go,” and lets all that pent up emotion loose with absolutely no idea what to do now.  All the love she couldn’t share with her sister her whole life is released.  It is an intense and emotional scene, no doubt.  But in true Disney magic fashion, of course this is an act of true love from BOTH girls finally and the frozen heart spell is broken.  The girls share a beautiful sister moment and it looks like all is well in the kingdom of Arendelle as the love shown by Elsa melts the winter spell.  Hans is sent back to his home country, Anna and Kristoff share a kiss, Olaf is given his own personal snow cloud to keep him alive, and Anna and Elsa happy proclaim that the castle gates will never be closed to the public again.

I just want to reiterate how different this film is from many of the Disney musical films.  The main storyline is family, not romance.  The tears at the end resurrect a sister, not a love interest.  The family dynamics here are incredibly real and relatable, and it actually has a sound moral: Don’t shut people out when you are in need of love, communicate your fears, and embrace the love of others who can help you.  Also, seek family therapy from a professional and not a stone troll, but that should be obvious by now.  In all seriousness, this newest of Disney films makes huge bounds in storytelling, a twist on the typical villain and love story, and music that really rings true. 


  1. Of course the kids are going to love it more, but there's still plenty to be enjoyed by the parents in this flick. Good review.

  2. When your relationship hits major rocks it is possible to use advising or even therapy Familientherapie

  3. My 15 year-old nephew (into football and somewhat-violent video games) raved about "Frozen", much to my astonishment!

    1. Major, that's awesome! Have you seen it yet? My husband is also a huge fan and got into it just as much as I did. :)

  4. Nice analysis, but have to disagree about the trolls. The Grand Troll actually gave good advice: there's beauty and danger in Elsa's magic, but fear will be the biggest enemy. Her father, the King, misunderstood it completely and thought that others' fear of the magic is the biggest threat, not Elsa's own fears. So his decision to shut out Elsa and separate her from Anna, and to hide and conceal her powers, is the ultimate misunderstanding of a good - an extremely vague - advice. The well meaning parents are the ones who are at fault.

    1. Thank you for your comment! I definitely can't argue with you, there is a lot of depth to the messages and subliminal communication in this particular film. I think that's why so many people are so drawn to it! There were quite a few things I noticed the second time viewing it, and I wrote this after my first viewing. I also can't deny the fact that I still did not enjoy the troll characters, even after the second viewing. Thanks for your input!