Review: Fairy Tale · Review: Fantasy

Movie Review: Disney’s Frozen (Spoiler Review)

This is a sequel review, if you will, to a more general, spoiler-free review of Frozen that I posted a few days ago, which you can find here.

The Ending, and the Events Leading Up to It

For those of you who are reading this without having seen the movie, or who might want a refresher of the ending, here it is.

On finding Elsa, Anna tries to convince her to return, but Elsa—still concerned that she will hurt people and wishing to avoid this—refuses. Anna tells her of the winter that has fallen over the land, and continues to push; Elsa’s magic explodes, and freezes Anna’s heart. When Anna still refuses to leave, Elsa conjures snow monster Marshmallow who chases Anna, Kristoff and Olaf off a cliff. They survive the fall because physics in negligible in the world of Disney, but realize that Anna’s frozen heart is beginning to affect her.

Meanwhile, Prince Hans leads guards to Elsa’s ice palace. The Duke of Weaselton’s two men sneak past Marshmallow while all the others are preoccupied, and attack Elsa, who defends herself with her ice. Hans and his men come in just as she is about to push one of her attackers off a balcony, presumably to his doom. Hans calls to her to stop, and she does—just as the other attacker, though pinned in place, aims a crossbow at her. Hans redirects the arrow, but a chandelier comes crashing down, knocking Elsa out. She comes to in the castle dungeons, to Hans imploring her to make the winter end. She explains that she cannot; Hans leaves her.

Kristoff takes Anna to his “family” of trolls, who had previously healed her when Elsa froze her head. But as had been stated in the beginning, a frozen heart is not so easily thawed. Only an act of true love can save Anna now; otherwise, she will freeze from the inside out. All agree that the solution called for is a true love’s kiss. Kristoff rushes a weakening Anna back to Arendelle, where he hands her over to the concerned palace staff, who take her to Prince Hans.

When they have their privacy and Anna tells Hans what happened and implores him to kiss her, he leans in…and delivers the wham line, “Oh, Anna…if only there was someone out there who loved you.” Hans, as it turns out, only wanted to marry into a kingship. He had realized that no one was succeeding at wooing Elsa, and turned his attentions to Anna, who was only too willing to receive them and even marry him on the spot. He had been intending an “accident” to befall Elsa after marrying Anna. As he explains this, he snuffs out the candles and pours water over the fire. He locks Anna in the cold, dark room, leaving her to die while he plays the hero and assumes control of her kingdom.

Declaring that Anna has been killed by Elsa’s hand, Hans leads the guards to execute Elsa, but believing her presence to be a danger to Arendelle, she escapes. In her panic, Elsa engulfs the kingdom in a fierce snowstorm, which the departing Kristoff sees, causing him to rush back to find Anna. Olaf finds Anna, and encourages her not to give up, revealing to her that Kristoff loves her. Realizing that a kiss from Kristoff might save her, Anna escapes the freezing palace. So do Anna, Elsa, Kristoff and Hans end up on the frozen lake, each with their own agenda.

Hans finds Elsa, who tells him to look after Anna, for she must leave for the good of everyone. Hans tells her that Anna died of a frozen heart; in her devastation, Elsa collapses, and the storm freezes in place with her. Able to see one another through the sudden calm, Kristoff rushes towards Anna and she stumbles vaguely towards him. But she becomes aware that just behind her, Hans is brandishing a sword, ready to run Elsa through. Her fingers already blue, knowing she has no time left, Anna spares Kristoff one regretful glance before rushing to place herself between Elsa and Han’s sword, where she freezes an instant before the sword strikes. The sword shatters against her, knocking Hans unconscious. Elsa embraces Anna’s frozen body and sobs. But then Anna’s body begins to thaw from her heart and outward; they realize that it was Anna’s act of love for Elsa that thawed her heart. The realization prompts Elsa to understand that love is the key to thawing the winter she has created, and she brings summer back in full glory—except for a small flurry that she creates for Olaf.

Hans and the Duke of Weaselton are sent home in disgrace. Anna replaces Kristoff’s sled, and the two begin a romantic relationship. Elsa decides that the gates will never be closed again, and turns the castle courtyard into a skating rink, where she makes skates for Anna and helps her learn how to skate.

On the Concept of True Love

Phew, that was long. Now, let’s address the biggest innovation to this ending: the act of true love. Yes, it’s very exciting that Disney has acknowledged that true love is true love, regardless of its nature (romantic, familial, etc.). Moving on.

As I have mentioned time and again, Disney is the inventor of true love’s kiss. No such thing existed before Disney’s Snow White. But now it’s become practically a cultural cornerstone, that every child knows and understands. True, in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, it creates a sweeter, more romantic atmosphere than the jostled-coffin-knocks-the-piece-of-apple-out-of-her-throat concept. But some of you are probably saying, “Wait, Sleeping Beauty woke with a kiss! That existed before Disney!” Yes, yes it did. It was altered to sweeten the telling to be suitable for the ears of delicate ladies. I won’t tell you how it originally happened, because then this whole section would veer off topic from Frozen; but if you want to look it up, her name was Talia.

The point is, there was usually a logic to how the curse was broken, and it rarely involved love-just-cures-everything. But there were some exceptions: Andersen’s The Snow Queen was one such fairy tale in its original form, about a boy and a girl turned man and woman, who are nevertheless saved through their still-childish, platonic love. So imagine my surprise when this went above and beyond that telling, even giving the viewer cause to doubt whether any kiss would have worked at all.

The thing about the application of true love’s kiss is that one party is generally unconscious or otherwise non-participatory. In fact, as Anna, only just disillusioned of Hans, rushes towards Kristoff, are we to believe that she’s spontaneously decided that she loves Kristoff, instead? Perhaps, but I think not. More likely, she realized (and Hans had implied) that being loved would fulfill the conditions of a true love’s kiss. Would that have thawed her heart? We’ll never know. What does thaw her heart is her own sacrifice; an action she chooses out of love for someone else. Which makes so much sense that it’s practically a more traditional fairy tale in its own right.

But what about Elsa? If love could thaw all along, how is it possible that she never figured that out? She clearly loves Anna. Surely at some point that would have thawed everything. And when she does learn to thaw, how is it that she can still control her freezing powers? Are we to believe that she has perfect control over her emotions (and by extension, her powers) even after a lifetime of trying not to feel?

I can only conclude that yes, we are to believe that. She has spent so many years trying not to feel that it perhaps isn’t such a stretch to conclude that when all she needs to do is moderate her emotions rather than suppress them altogether, it comes very easily to her. As for not feeling love at all, in her effort not to feel, in her overwhelming fear of herself, perhaps she never let herself love so much as she let herself fear. Her love for Anna was always there, but always manifesting as fear for her safety. “Fear will be your enemy,” said the trolls, and we can see why love ruled by fear might be exactly the enemy they were talking about, rather than merely Elsa’s general fear of herself.

The film is often described as showing fear versus love (with Elsa representing the fearful extreme and Anna representing the loving extreme), but it’s more than that. It’s practically a meditation on the nature of love. Anna’s love for Hans was not true love, and is in fact not treated as love at all. Yet despite having made fun of Anna’s decision to marry a man she just met, Kristoff lays his life on the line for Anna time and again, but he doesn’t seem to have known her much longer than she knew Hans, either. We are led to the conclusion that Kristoff’s love is as true as Hans’ love was false, but once again, the most telling fact of this story is the fact that in the end, both of these loves are just products of a bigger story: one of the love between two sisters.

It is overwhelmingly easy to compare Hans and Kristoff, because that is what we expect, in our lives filled with romance-driven, love-triangle saturated media. But that is not what the film does. The film makes it abundantly clear that Kristoff, though he does love Anna, is not in any way the point of the story. He cannot be, because by the time that Anna meets Kristoff, she is so preoccupied with Elsa that she never even notices him or what he is offering her until the very end. He and Anna embark on a relationship in the end, but where that relationship takes them is another story. The film, instead, would have us compare the love of Elsa and Hans.

Hans, you see, gives Anna exactly what she wants for his own selfish purposes, just as Elsa refuses to grant Anna any of her wishes out of fear for Anna’s safety. Hans draws close to Anna even as Elsa draws away, and we can see how happy, comfortable and utterly herself Anna is with Hans, even as her interactions with Elsa are largely awkward and disappointing despite their good moments. Yet, in those good moments, Anna betrays such utter comfort in Elsa’s presence despite everything else that it goes above and beyond what she ever displayed with Hans.

In the end, the brevity of Hans and Anna’s relationship does not stand in contrast to the time that gets dedicated to Kristoff and Anna’s relationship (though one can assume that she learned her lesson and will take more time with this one), but rather to the years that lie between Elsa and Anna. Most telling of all is that we know that most of those years were not good ones: they were filled with misunderstandings and loneliness and sorrow and fear. But the love that underlies it all, that remains from their childhood before the fear took hold: that was true love. It was swaddled in pain and years of unhappiness, but it was the truest of all the loves laid out before us despite all that—perhaps even because of it, to some degree.

Prince Hans: Villain Extraordinaire

Oh, Prince Hans… This was the most unexpected, out-of-nowhere twist in the film, and the first time I saw it, my jaw dropped. I sat through his this-is-my-evil-plan speech, convinced all the while that he was just pretending, playing some Batman gambit for Anna’s own good. But nope, he was a villain. The villain, according to many.

Whatever other aspects of Hans may be up for debate, I must point out that he isn’t the villain. The story would stand on its own without his involvement. The true antagonist in this story is Elsa’s fear. Hans merely exists to create certain conflicts that make the story more dramatic. This is exactly why, initially, I called the twist of his “evil plan” the downfall of this movie. (The reason why, in the previous part, I described the last fifteen minutes of the film as “tripping over themselves.”)

It seemed to me that when outlining the story, the writers created the prince that Anna would fall instantly in love with to form her character defining moment. They seemed to be setting up the Duke of Weaselton as the big villain who would be constantly trying to kill Elsa. But then, at the climax, they realized that it would simply fall too flat if Hans’ kiss merely did not work, and the Duke was too unremarkable of a villain to bring any proper suspense to the scene where Anna sacrifices herself for Elsa. It would make Anna less sympathetic a character, too, if she merely turned to Kristoff on kissing Hans and realizing that he wasn’t her true love after all. And here, someone went, “Ah-ha! We can make Hans the villain! It puts him out of the picture, explains why Anna would turn to Kristoff, and lets the viewer really despise the villain at the climax!” I found it incredibly reminiscent of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and not for the better.

If you are not familiar with the opera The Magic Flute, in the first act a young prince meets the Queen of the Night, who explains to him that her daughter is captive to the evil Sarastro, imploring the prince to save her. But when we meet Sarastro and his men in the second act, they seem quite wise; in fact, we learn that Sarastro is the father of the aforementioned “captive” daughter. The Queen of the Night quite suddenly appears as the villain, handing her daughter a dagger and telling her to kill Sarastro—an act with which the daughter does not follow through, and is instead comforted by her father. The switch of the “good” and “bad” is so abrupt that it has been said that Mozart simply had a sudden change of heart about the direction the story should take after he had already written half the opera.

But the thing is, Mozart’s sudden switch of roles never really bothered me. Why must villains always appear as villains from the beginning? I asked, even at the age of eleven when I watched the opera for the first time. Surely a villain wants sympathy, especially if her aim is to get someone to do something else on her behalf.

So after fuming over the ending for a time, I had to sit down and ask myself, “Why?” Why would the very same twist bother me in Frozen, but not in The Magic Flute? I was finally forced to admit: it’s because it’s Disney. Disney tends to create worlds of good and evil, clearly labeled for your easier understanding. There has never been a villain like Hans in a Disney animation. He is so utterly perfect through most of the film: the perfect man to fall in love with, the perfect prince looking after the kingdom and trying to save it… Certainly, Disney protagonists are often fooled by a villain, but the films have never been so determined to fool the viewer.

After sitting back and looking at it anew,  Hans is the most terrifying Disney villain yet: he is a master manipulator. He was perfect to Anna because he wanted her to love him; he was perfect to the people because he wanted to be their king, and he understood that good kings must be beloved by their subjects. The only reason he revealed his true colors at all was because he was placed in the position where Anna’s death would mean his victory, and her death would come all the sooner if he broke her freezing heart. How are we to know that he wouldn’t have been a good king to Arendelle, if he had succeeded? Perhaps in traditional Disney fashion, he would have become a blatantly cruel tyrant the moment he wiped out all opposition, but given the route he took to get there, it’s more likely that he would have ruled under the mask of the kind, wise king, knowing that this would give him the advantage.

There are only three aspects of Hans’ character, then, which must still be addressed:

First, how utterly well he and Anna get along in the beginning. Are we truly supposed to believe that he faked that? Could anyone fake such complete synchrony with another person? I think not. And barring the sloppy writing explanation, the conclusion can only be that he was, to some extent, being genuine. The parts where he says, “That’s what I was going to say!” can be him faking easily enough. But the rest must have been honesty. Which makes him all the more villainous, since it shows that he would choose a chance to rule Arendelle over any real attempt to connect with someone. I suspect that, had he and Anna married, she might have eventually melted his heart; but given how adept he’s proven at hiding himself and how determined he is in his goal, I would not be surprised if that were not the case at all.

Second, the scene where Hans redirects the assassin’s crossbow from Elsa to the chandelier. It’s obvious from the flicker of his gaze upwards that this was deliberate. What was he hoping to accomplish? To knock her unconscious so he could capture her, as occurred? But he couldn’t have known whether she would successfully evade any fatal blow from the falling chandelier. So are we then to believe that he was attempting to kill her under the pretense of trying to save her? It must be so. Which leads us to the third point.

Why did he keep Elsa captive for as long as he did? In fact, why did he go after her at all? It would have suited his designs perfectly if neither sister had come back—but, of course, I must concede that once again, I’m trying to define his motivations as if he were a traditional villain rather than a master manipulator. He would have known that the best way to play concerned suitor would be to go after Anna. Yet one still has to wonder: why capture Elsa? Why hold her captive? He needed her disposed of at some point; but not knowing what had become of Anna, he could not kill her himself. So, looping back to the second point, wouldn’t it have been simpler if he had let the man shoot her? It would have given a higher chance of death, and plenty of opportunity for Hans to pretend to try and fail to stop it. Which, as I said, he would have subverted by his need to act as helpful as humanely possible.

Hans’ actions and motivations are still things that I dissect, and roll around in my mind trying to make them all fit, like the pieces of a puzzle. But the fact is, they already do. He is the most human, manipulative villain Disney has yet created. His errors were brought about not by his own failures, but by events he could not have foreseen; it is, in fact, quite astounding that he did not succeed, given how adept he proved to be at making the people around him dance in the palm of his hand.

Check out Frozen in the theaters, in 3D if you can!

You can find a master list of my reviews here.

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