The Snow Queen is one of those fairy tales where you really can talk about “the original.” Unlike other fairy tales, in which we use the term “original” to talk about any number of versions from various times in history we can’t really pin down, this one was written and published by Hans Christian Andersen in 1845. It almost feels not like a fairy tale at all, because if you’re used to the usual (I could say Disneyfied, but it’s really far more common than that) fairy tale structures and characters, this one doesn’t follow. It’s about children, not teenagers or adults; it’s quite long and divided into chapters; and it’s really more of a classic hero’s epic, with challenges and magical beings trying to deter the hero – only the hero is a girl, Gerda, and the person she’s rescuing is her childhood best friend, Kai, who otherwise isn’t all that interesting.
So that’s what’s interesting about The Snow Queen. It’s about a girl doing stuff. Being the boss. Having an adventure and traveling. Rescuing a boy who doesn’t even try to rescue himself because he has ice stuck in his chest, freezing his metaphorical heart. So, like everyone else, I waited with baited breath for Disney to mess it all up.
Warning: from here on out, this post contains what you may or may not define as spoilers, depending on how much you think the surprise of a Disney movie lies in the plot, as opposed to in the sound and look of it all.
And I don’t think they ever really did. (Note: It seems that the look of the movie is boringly similar to Tangled, if you’ve seen it – I haven’t – and since Disney continues to have a race problem, I recommend, for entertainment and edification, taking a look at the fabulous Tumblr This Could Have Been Frozen. But I digress.)
Frozen has a complicated backstory in lieu of the complicated journey of the Andersen tale. There are two sisters instead of a childhood friend, and one (Elsa) has magical powers that she has to shield from the other (Anna), causing her to withdraw from her younger sister completely. When they come of age and the magical elder sister is crowned queen, her emotions get the best of her and her magic comes out, covering the summery kingdom in a cover of ice and snow. She runs away and builds a castle of her own out of ice (“The cold never bothered me anyway!” sings Idina Menzel as Elsa). It’s amazing, because you see a young woman who throws off all the ways that her body was controlled and shamed when she was young and decides that she wants to be who she is, the hell with everyone else. In a nod to Beauty and the Beast, Anna’s suitor sends people after Elsa to hunt her down and bring summer back (but if they happen to kill her, that’s okay, too), but Anna fends them off and goes off on her own. At this point, the movie goes for the comedic and the more common journey trope – Anna picks up a sarcastic ice salesman and his reindeer, and the three are followed by a goofy snowman (played pretty perfectly by Josh Gad) who just wants to go to the beach. There are none of the more classic challenges, like identifying something tantalizing as a temptation meant to steer Gerda off her journey, but there are the silly ones you’d expect, like needing winter clothes and finding them all on huge markup because supply is down and demand has just gone way up due to that eternal winter Elsa’s caused. However, once we get to the climax, you see another huge departure, and it’s not what you’d expect from Disney. When Everything depends on an act of True Love or All Is Lost, the True Love that saves all is the sisters sacrificing themselves for each other – because Disney just learned that FAMILY MEMBERS CAN LOVE EACH OTHER. It’s brilliant.
Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of flaws in the film, the usual Disney ones and general ones. Everyone is white and skinny and beautiful. The only parents are dead parents. For something clocking in at close to two hours, there is very little singing, and Menzel’s “Let it Go” is the only song with guts and emotion. But Frozen did some things right, and here’s why:
In my book, fairy tales are not technically very interesting. They are usually either weak on plot or heavyhanded with it. The tropes get tired. They’re either Disneyfied or horrifying. The prose in just about any collection (picturebooks notwithstanding) is dry and without much art. But that’s what makes them fun to play with. That’s why creators take the skeletons and re-dress them, placing them in exotic locales or modern settings, gender swapping them, satirizing them… But what’s really great about looking at a fairy tale adaptation isn’t seeing Cinderella in a kimono instead of a ball gown. It’s seeing what tiny piece of the fairy tale the adapter wanted to point out, what thing they saw as relevant to their life and time, what they saw as fascinating or troubling. In the 1997 film Snow White: A Tale of Terror, it’s the idea that a woman could be so desperate to remain beautiful that she would cut out the heart of a child. In Anna Sheehan’s A Long Long Sleep, it’s the question of whether it’s abuse or protection to hide your child away to keep her from a destiny you think is bad. In Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, it’s that things that are forbidden are sometimes the sexiest things of all.
Disney’s Frozen plays with your expectation of how things in fairy tales are supposed to work, because the studio knows what their audience expects. And in their Disney way, I think they presented an interesting take on gender and family roles in fairy tales – at least the Disney ones. For that, I applaud them. For that, I think they’ve come a long way. They may yet have a long way to go, but Frozen is a promising new beginning for them.
There are, of course, YA and Middle Grade adaptations of The Snow Queen that you should take a look at as well. First, Anne Ursu’s Breadcrumbs, for its looks at what happens when kids start becoming aware of gender and change their relationships with their peers because of it, and for how it discusses transracial adoption. Cameron Dokey’s Winter’s Child, for how it makes the female character the one who puts the ice in Kai’s heart AND the one who takes it out. Frost by Wendy Delsol, because it seems to mix the fairy tale elements with the usual YA tropes. Alice Hoffman’s The Ice Queen, because I just heard about it right now, but apparently there’s a librarian in it. ;-) And for even more on the original tale, adaptations, criticism, and more, head to the great site Sur La Lune Fairy Tales.
What did you think about Frozen?
Edit: I just learned that the special edition of the soundtrack includes demos of the many other songs that were cut from the film. While they have varying levels of musical success, the ideas expressed in them show how interested the movie’s creators were in exploring gender in fairy tales. While the movie is undoubtedly better without the prophecy that apparently existed in early versions (less magic in the world makes Elsa stand out more), the songs are worth looking at, because they make Anna a more developed character who’s interested in her own agency.
– Hannah GÃ³mez, currently reading (since June, on and off – SIGH) A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin