I never thought that any Disney movie could top Beauty and the Beast. I was eight years old when it was released in the summer of 1991. I remember being captivated by the story of a quirky bookworm whose intelligence, bravery, and sacrificial love for her dad were much more important than being “the loveliest girl in all the land.” I saw that movie three times in theaters.
My sisters and I were true Disney kids in the 90s, watching our videocassette tapes of The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, The Lion King, and of course Beauty and the Beast over and over and over, until those grainy horizontal stripes started to appeared on the screen. Pocahontas was dismal, but Mulan was awesome. The Princess and the Frog was a huge disappointment, and I felt that either I had outgrown the films or they had diminished so much in quality that they no longer held any interest for me. So I was surprised by the delightful quirkiness of Tangled.
From the beginning, I loved that Frozen was mainly a story about sisters instead of a rehash of the cliched damsel-in-distress-and-prince-who-comes-to-her-rescue narrative. I also appreciated that it showed the difficult, complex, and sometimes painful relationships that can exist between people who love each other very much. How sophisticated for an animated children’s film!
The story only became more fascinating when Elsa ran away. On the one hand, I wanted to stand up and cheer for her! She was finally free to be herself, to view her power as a gift instead of a curse. I’m not sure that “normal” people (especially women) can completely understand this. When you’re different, people sometimes look at you with pity and disgust, and you can feel like something monstrous, like a cosmic error. To experience a breakthrough where you suddenly realize that what everybody else sees as a curse might actually be a beautiful gift that you can use to do beautiful things–that’s liberating! That’s life-giving! Elsa was released from the harsh judgments of people who wanted her to fit their narrow expectations. And wow, what a song! As a longtime fan of the Broadway show Wicked, I had been waiting for Idina Menzel to display her powerful pipes, disappointed that her singing thus far had been so restrained. But of course, that was the whole point, wasn’t it? Idina finally gives us those glory notes just as Elsa experiences the fullest expression of her natural talents.
On the other hand, there are hints within the lyrics of “Let It Go” that Elsa has merely exchanged one life of pain and misery for another. “No right, no wrong, no rules for me!” she triumphantly croons, confusing individuality with a lack of moral restraint. She exults in her complete isolation–“Turn my back and slam the door!”–even as the audience recognizes that she can never find happiness by rejecting love. Pure selfishness directs the expression of her gifts, which means that they are destructive to others and ultimately to herself.
What is the solution to a life of self-indulgence? What can heal our deepest pain and transform our power into a blessing instead of a curse? Or in the words of the film, what can thaw a frozen heart? The answer to all of these questions arrives in the form of Anna, a girl determined to pursue a sister who has rejected her, shut her out, and even caused her physical harm. She doesn’t go after Elsa just because she wants to restore summer to the kingdom. Anna goes after Elsa because she loves her sister unconditionally.
In the climactic scene of the film, Anna has to make a choice between saving her own life and saving the life of someone who has deeply wounded her, who we could even argue has become her worst enemy. In a glorious moment of sacrificial love, she chooses Elsa. She steps between the helpless Elsa and the villainous Hans, and she willingly takes the blow that was intended for her sister. But that’s not the end of the story. Her act of extreme love is not only sufficient to resurrect her, it’s enough to transform her sister’s heart as well. Suddenly Elsa is free to exercise her gifts in ways that are not destructive, because it is love rather than selfishness that is guiding her expression. I really wish that there had been a reprise of the song “Let It Go” that demonstrates the transformation that took place in Elsa’s perception of herself and the world, a new song that put love at the center. That’s really my only complaint about the movie.
So you know where I’m going with this, right? There’s a glorious parable at work here. We are fearfully and wonderfully made, but because of sin’s corruption, we exercise our talents selfishly, in ways that harm ourselves and others. We throw off moral restraint and end up shutting other people out, living lives of isolation and despair even as we pretend that we are “free.” But along comes Jesus. He loves us and relentlessly pursues us in spite of the fact that we’ve rejected Him and become His enemy. In the climactic scene of history, He takes the blow that was intended for us. Suddenly, our hearts are transformed by that act of sacrificial love, and we can exercise our gifts for the glory of God and the benefit of other people. Frozen is my new favorite Disney movie, not because of having a completely original storyline, but because it contains echoes of the greatest story of all.
Oh, and also…Olaf.
“Oh, look at that! I’ve been impaled.”
Need I say more?