The Princess FormulaSome of my friends out there have noted the very formulaic Disney princess movie in Frozen. And, you know, they are right. It really becomes very clear if you watch this Honest Trailer of the movie.
But, after watching the movie a second time, I’ve come to realize that the use of the formula, even the “over the top” stuff of two villains, two hunks, two princesses, two sidekicks, etc., was most likely deliberate. One thing that I’ve noted before in my discussions of Finding Christ in Film is that the story itself is only part of the puzzle. How the story is told, especially in the medium of film, adds so much more dimension to the telling. And, if you watch the credits of the film to the end, you’ll see a familiar name in John Lasseter and this really brought it home to me. The producer of Up, Toy Story, and other films from Pixar’s legacy would not submit to just another formula. This choice was deliberate.
As the trailer I linked in above, there’s so much formula in this movie that it can seem very annoying and cloying. But it is precisely this formula that makes the message of the film so much more striking once it becomes clear. We open with a scene of men singing a good old shanty song (ala Little Mermaid), we have cute animal sidekicks (just pick any Disney princess movie), we have the comedic and yet almost sinister villain in the Duke of Weselton (any good villain is a bit comedic, especially if they have comedic sidekicks), and we have a gorgeously handsome princess. We have a fantastic song with a good hook that almost every little girl knows by heart now, and we have a struggle to “find yourself”. All just plug right into the formula.
But one thing I noticed throughout the film was that this formula played a role in hiding, in plain sight, a message that is so very important. The message involves probably the two most powerful motivating factors of the human condition: fear and love.
FearThese two factors are expressed in various ways throughout the film. But the majority of the time is spent in showing the destructive power of fear. The opening scene of the two princesses as young children event starts with this. If you notice, the two girls very obviously love each other where they play together, spend time together, etc. This is obviously love. But as they play in their magically created snowscape, Elsa reacts out of fear when she sees Anna about to fall and, in that reaction, she ends up harming her sister. From that point on, fear dominates Elsa’s life.
That fear is compounded by her parents keeping her locked up, giving her advice like “conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know.” Each time we see Elsa during the song “Would You Like to Build a Snowman?”, we see her more and more isolated. And the more alone she feels, the more fear she feels, the larger the effect of her gift/curse. When it is time for the coronation, while Anna is rejoicing in finally being able to interact with people, Elsa is trying to calm her fears. But the more fear she feels, the more out of control she gets. Taking off the gloves to hold the scepter of authority is an immense act of will.
The tragic culmination of all this fear is that, when Anna announces her engagement, all Elsa can see is more people, more risk, more things to be afraid of and she lashes out from her fear. We see it as anger and frustration, but it is most certainly fear that drives it. And so she runs out into the wilderness.
And again, we get the Princess Formula as she sings her song of freedom. All the other princess movies have songs of longing to be free, to find their own way, to find true love, etc. Frozen is no different. We get a song about finally being free. But if you listen to the lyrics closely, you don’t get a sense of freedom. She is finally alone, she is finally away from people. In other words, her fear has driven her out and now she can hide in such isolation that there is no need to fear any more (or so she thinks). The hook “the cold never bothered me anyway” is not a statement of triumph, but instead is a denial of the fear and isolation that she is imposing on herself. Phrases like “never see me cry” prove this out. It is a song of avoidance, of fleeing, of hiding. She didn’t win. She just ran away.
There is a contrast to this fear. As much as Olaf is the comic relief, his song about being a snowman in summer is a song of innocence absent of fear. He does not have any knowledge of the dangers for snow in the summer and so he can fantasize, dream, and postulate about the wonderful things he will do. His naive ignorance makes it possible for him to act and live without fear. He does have some self-awareness that, as a snowman, he can’t be hurt.
Getting broken apart, thrown off cliffs, smacked into rocks, etc., and he just blithely continues to comment innocently on what is going on around him. Olaf, silly as he is, shows what life without fear entirely looks like. We think it silly, naive, foolish. It makes us laugh and shake our heads. Kristof feels the intense need to set him straight and, I’ll confess, I’m right there with him. And even when Olaf finally does come into contact with heat and begins to melt, he still does not show fear.
Why not? We’ll get to that in a bit.
When Anna finally confronts Elsa, again, we see fear. Anna, open and honest, without fear of her sister, has no hesitation of approaching her. But, reflected in the ice around her, we see Elsa’s fear manifesting in darkness, angry red, spikes, etc. And, again, the fear of the past, the fear of hurting others, the fear of people being afraid of her and so on, all plays up and climaxes with Elsa, again, from her fear, hurting her sister. The swirl of emotions, the descending spiral of fear manifests in the swirling storm of snow and wind. Everything about the danger of Elsa’s power is all rooted in her fear. Prior to fear, Elsa’s gift was a source of fun for her and her sister. But now, the fear has taken over, just as the trolls had warned, and she has ended up hurting the one she was trying to protect in the first place.
LoveAt this point, we start getting hints as to what the answer to the fear is. Anna, hurt by her sister, is taken to the trolls where we get what appears to be yet another silly little song. These comedic trolls, ignorant of the importance of the visit, go off on this song about (mistakenly) trying to get Kristof and Anna married. This is another formulaic piece as such misunderstandings are common in Princess movies (Beauty and the Beast has it with the “Be Our Guest” song and the Little Mermaid with “Under the Sea”). But embedded in this song is the answer.
People are broken. There is no perfect person. Everyone has faults and flaws and foibles. What the song says, throughout the lyrics, is that love, real love, “fixes” any of those flaws.
We’re not sayin’ you can change him,There is the answer. But, at this point in the movie, the characters don’t get it. They do hear that love will fix all their problems. ”Only an act of true love can thaw a frozen heart.” And, as per formula, the immediately set off to find Hans and “true love’s kiss”. If that’s not formulaic, I don’t know what is. But, again, the formula is the vehicle by which the real message is told.
‘Cause people don’t really change.
We’re only saying that love’s a force
That’s powerful and strange.
People make bad choices if they’re mad,
Or scared, or stressed.
Throw a little love their way. (source Disney Wikia)
How? Because we find out that who we thought was the hero is the villain and we have discovered that everything we thought was “true love” really isn’t. And the wise trolls, with their fanciful song of “romantic” love also kind of played into this misleading message. Anna hits the point of despair in realizing that what she thought was love isn’t.
I would even hazard to say that the fear of obscurity is the motivating factor behind Hans’ betrayal.
But suffice it to say, the handsome love interest of the formulaic princess movie is just one more misleading factor in obscuring what the true answer to all the fear is.
And here we finally break formula. It is not a self-realization, it is not the act of heroics of the prince that “saves” the princess. It is the comic relief. Olaf comes in, builds a fire, and helps Anna stay warm despite the danger to himself. Anna laments to Olaf that she doesn’t know what love is. And OIaf gives the answer:
Olaf explains that “love is putting others’ needs before your own”. Anna’s need to be warm is more important than even Olaf’s survival. It is worth risking destruction to see Anna made warm.
Unfortunately, Anna and Olaf still haven’t made the connection yet. But as the major players of the story come together in the frozen harbor, we all finally get it. Hans is going after Elsa, Kristof is trying to save Anna, Anna is trying to get to Kristof, and Elsa is simply trying to run away again. In the end, though, Anna decides that the life of her sister is more important than her own life, than her own love interest in Kristof, than anything else in the world and, in her dying act, intercepts Hans’ sword stroke intended for her sister. It wasn’t anything Anna did in direct action against Hans, it wasn’t anything Kristof did, it was the ultimate act of sacrificial love. While Olaf was willing to melt for Anna, Anna was willing to freeze solid for Elsa. And this act, ultimately, was her salvation and the salvation of the entire kingdom.
Only an Act of True Love Can Thaw a Frozen HeartAnd it is not just Anna’s heart that finally thaws. Her self-sacrificial act saved her own life (this is a major break from formula). But, beyond that, by demonstrating this sacrificial love for Elsa, Elsa has her own heart “thawed”. The fear that had paralyzed and “frozen” her life and locked it in the ice of isolation and distance was thawed by her sister’s act and she was able to finally see how to overcome her “curse” and make it a gift. And that is really the key. Fear freezes. Fear locks people into patterns of behavior. Fear enslaves and makes people act in predetermined ways. Fear is so predictably self-destructive that we could pretty much predict the whole film. That is, until love breaks through. The Princess Formula, frozen in time, is shattered by a demonstration of true love.
This is the kind of story I’ve come to expect from John Lasseter. Deeply embedded, not just in the script, but in how the story is executed, is this very simple truth. Almost 2000 years ago, the Apostle John wrote about this truth as well. As I watched Frozen this second time, I had the realization of what was truly being shown. In John’s words:
There is no room in love for fear. Well-formed love banishes fear. Since fear is crippling, a fearful life—fear of death, fear of judgment—is one not yet fully formed in love. 1 John 4:18 MSGThrough Lasseter’s very blatant use of the Princess formula, this message is all the more stark. We expect the romantic love to be the saving or some sort of heroic act by the man. But, instead, we get the woman on her last legs, the weakest of them all, giving over her life. And in this perfect love, fear is completely banished from the kingdom. The final scenes show a restoration of the idyllic Arrendale with the additional decorations of ice. These decorations are no longer stark, no longer sharp, no longer dark and twisted as they were at the coronation. Instead, they show the beauty and the flow of a life characterized by love.
So, yes, the Honest Trailer at the beginning of this article is right. The movie is so formulaic as to be laughable. But, as I said, the way the story is told is as important as the story itself. In this case, if we didn’t have the formula, we would not have received the impact at the end we did. Not only does perfect love drive out all fear, but we get that one more truth that John mentions in his gospel account:
Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. John 15:13 NIV