Thursday, February 6, 2014

Missing the Heart of the Fairy Tale

A Review of Disney's Frozen

I should be sleeping, or reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, but I stumbled upon this review of Frozen and remembered that I had similar things to say about it.  So.

I liked Frozen.  It was funny, sweet, and well-animated, if a bit buggish (whatever happened to the beautiful, graceful characters from original Disney, making appearances as late as Princess Tiana?).  The songs weren't particularly moving, but I did get the refrain do you want to build a snowman? stuck in my head, so I suppose it was effective.  It takes place in a clear and easy-to-pinpoint location with decent attention to the visualization of culture and customs.  Being a fan of folk culture, and especially Scandinavian folk culture, I enjoyed that part of the film immensely.  But for our purposes here on Straw into Gold, it is imperative that I communicate the residual impression it left with me, which was this: Frozen was not, except by a deft maneuvering of the imagination, a fairy tale.

Minkyu Li, Frozen concept art

My problem with Frozen is that it was virtually gutted of all things Faerie.

I don't mean that it was hardly recognizable from its inspiration, Hans Christian Anderson's The Snow Queen, although it was that.  I mean the magic was all but absent.

Oh, there was magic, as in the powers of Princess Elsa to make ice and snow from the touch of her fingertips.  But there was an utter lack of the magic of Faerie; the sense of and cautious reverence for the Otherworld; of danger from an almost-but-not-quite pernicious sentience; of the fickle, and uninterested, yet inexplicably connected existence just beyond the reach of of our own.  There was no alarm at Elsa's powers or inkling that something deeper was going on in relation to them (the curse of a slighted fairy, or the residual trait of an ancestor's mingling with gods); and even the characters' fear of Elsa was not found in the nature and source of the powers but in her potential to do damage with them.  After the ball scene when the new queen's secret is revealed, Anna doesn't even pause to wonder at this astounding development; it's all par for the course.  "So that's why she's shut me out all these years."  O-kay.

Granted, in traditional fairy tales, fantastic events are often presented without any commentary on their fantasticness.  But the fairy tales never mean to make the fantastical belong to the mortal.  There is always an explanation of sorts, even if that explanation shuts out further investigation, like the lid of box snapping shut on a hand.  "She was actually a faerie changeling in disguise."  That's it, that's all that's needed.  A recognition of the Other, of some always-and-ought-to-be unknown.

Even the trolls are pared down to their lowest common denominator, emptying them of all the mystery and danger of the otherfolk and making them mere comical, cartoonish creatures.

Finally, the glass shard in the heart* loses its potency.  Rather than darkening the sight of Anna,** the shard in the eye (generalized to "head" in the movie) only knocks her unconscious and turns white a strand of her hair.  All her memories have to be erased so she forgets her sister's gift-curse and doesn't question Elsa's separation from her.  But that is a secondary, and not a direct, result of the ice shard.  The second ice shard slowly freezes Anna's body but leaves her heart untainted.  What kind of congress with Faerie only touches the outside of a person, only his physical existence; leaves his perception of the world unshaken?

When Anna finally reaches the palace of her ice queen sister, it is opposite of what little Gerda finds when she arrives at the sheer and terrible fortress of the Snow Queen.  Anna finds only a very human girl, with very human hurts and emotions and fears, and the rest of the palace empty.  But Gerda finds the Snow Queen absent--as her nature, one might say, is a great, gaping absence--and dear Kai with his soul half-killed, working away mechanically at a puzzle made of shards of ice, trying, yet ever failing, to form the word eternity.  Anna's act of sacrificial love for her sister Elsa breaks the spell, as one would expect.  When Elsa feels and knows her sister's love for her, her frigid emotional walls falter and crumble.  It is a self-administered cure.  But when Gerda finds poor Kai enslaved to logic--the ice-cold logic of the mind, of science, of nature, and of seasons--her shed tears melt his heart and wash loose the shards of glass.


For Faerie is vast and fierce, and we often tremble before it and believe ourselves helpless.  But in this, the heroes and heroines of fairy tales prove us mistaken.  We are not helpess.  Faerie is wild but not immune to obeisance--for those with stout hearts and stubborn wills, though the winter seem endless, and the journey long.

*  changed from glass to ice in the movie, so as to remove the uncomfortable and politically incorrect hell-mirror-falling-from-heaven scenario
**  who is the combination of Kai and Gerda from Anderson, though Elsa, the Snow Queen figure, has bits of Kai in her as well



  1. And isn't the hell mirror the best part?!

    I love the concept art girl, her eyebrows don't look like they came from a youTube make-up tutorial.

  2. Yes indeed, fairy tale magic isn't a cute party trick or a neutral ability that someone happens to have. It is alluring and often dangerous. I would argue that the chief message of most folk/fairy tales is that we must respect the unknown (whether manifested by a stranger, an ancient curse, or the wild woods beyond our village).

  3. This is excellent and you have just cleared up so many things for me! I saw Frozen because the grandparents were in town and wanted to take the kids to the latest Disney movie and that was all I knew about it. Watching it, I did not link it at all to The Snow Queen--apparently for good reason. Now at least the whole thing doesn't seem so completely random.

    1. Well, it's interesting--when rumors of it were first circulating the net, we saw conceptual sketchs of a more Anderson-esque Snow Queen, Kai, and the Lapp woman (I think that's who is supposed to be in that first illustration, maybe?). Then it came out, "No. No, Disney's new movie is not The Snow Queen." But when I saw it, it was easy to recognize that they had taken the Snow Queen and maneuvered and snipped most of the good parts of it!

  4. Christie! I've read that you're moving to I right in thinking this is St David's Wales with the dragons and the leeks (and not a Wales in America I haven't heard of)?! Either way, good luck with your move, and if you are by any chance heading to 'my' Wales then perhaps our paths will cross some time~ xxx

    1. Hello, dear! Have you been getting my comment replies? I don't know how to reply via email, but you can e-mail me at and then I can respond!

  5. Loved this post and have shared it - I still haven't seen 'Frozen', partly because this lack of faery was just what I feared.

    1. Thank you so much, Katherine! If you end up seeing it, do let me know you impressions. c:


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