An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

February 2, 2014

Buck/Lee, dirs.: Frozen

Frozen. Dir. Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck. Disney, 2013. Currently in theaters. 108 mins.

Reviewed by: Elan Justice Pavlinich (

Frozen has been under revision since 1943.  Proposed, abandoned, revived, and defunded, for decades multiple teams at Disney have struggled to render the dark tale by Hans Christian Andersen, The Snow Queen, relatable to audiences.1  Now, after a tradition of frustration, writers Jennifer Lee, Chris Buck, and Shane Morris have constructed a screenplay that frustrates tradition.  Directed by Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, with powerful songs by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Frozen came to fruition before audiences in November of 2013.

Following on the heels of Disney-Pixar’s recently released period piece, Brave, Frozen is what Leila K. Norako has described as “a fantasized medieval landscape, [that] is ultimately intended to be a modern one.”2  Frozen engages familiar Disney conventions in order to convey a modern moral that criticizes the traditional heteronormativity of the canon.  Although the medieval context is superficial, Frozen anticipates many of the roles codified by Andreas Capellanus in The Art of Courtly Love, along with features common to romances by such poets as Chrétien de Troyes and Geoffrey Chaucer.
Frozen is a courtly romance that manipulates the courtly romance structure.  It exploits qualities of familiar Disney animations to sacrifice the heteronormative “happily ever after” in favor of a morality that is facilitated by fantasy and grounded in realism.  While Frozen operates in the idealized fairy tale realm, it complicates the structure audiences expect of Disney fantasy in order to privilege practical morals.  As the narrative subverts heteronormative fairy tale expectations, the privileging of practicality and familiarity reconstitutes the structure of the fairy tale and, through a series of frustrations and doubling, integrates familiar experience as essential to—rather than opposed to—the fantasy.

Critics, however, are outraged by the aesthetic direction of Frozen.  Sociologist Philip N. Cohen has found that the princess’s eyes are bigger than their wrists, and Amanda Marcotte argues that Frozen sends the message that “an inherent part of being female is to be as small and diminutive as possible, and impossibly so.”3  Granted, the chronic doe-eyed expression of Frozen’s leading ladies does convey vulnerability, but this aesthetic bolsters the strategy to upset the heteronormativity the audience might assume customary to a Disney animation.  These eyes are familiar.  They resemble other Disney princesses such as Belle of Beauty and the Beast and Jasmine of Aladdin.  Just like the Disney logo, computer-animation, and the medieval setting, the dainty doe-eyed princess informs audience expectations: As part of the Walt Disney Animated Classics canon we can expect singing and dancing, love (at first sight), and a heteronormative “happily ever after” that is sealed with a kiss.  The standard Disney aesthetic establishes expectations for this familiar structure.  Deviation from this structure, however, is more than mere plot twists.  Upsetting the standard moral that goes hand in hand with a heteronormative “happily ever after,” Frozen seems to issue an apology for the dangers of the Disney tradition, and by imposing realism onto the fantasy narrative, Frozen renders the realistic fantastic.

In fact, much of what is familiar about the courtly love tradition is established and undone as the plot progresses.  Audience reliance on standard Disney plot structure is upset from the very opening.  To summarize, Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell) play in the ballroom of their castle when Elsa accidentally strikes Anna in the head with her cryokinesis.  On account of this accident, we learn from the trolls that it is easy to thaw the brain (erasing Anna’s memory of Elsa’s powers) but the heart is far more difficult to fix, establishing the familiar separation between matters of the mind, which are governed by reason, and matters of the heart, which are persuaded by passion.  Following this, Elsa goes into isolation to contain the secret of her powers, the King and Queen of Arendelle die at sea leaving Elsa and Anna alone and all the more estranged from one another, leading up to Elsa’s necessary emergence for her coronation and the first public celebration at Arendelle in years.  From this point, Frozen establishes a familiar courtly romance structure.  It is Spring—the season of love—just before a celebration that will unite royalty from other realms.  Anna is fantasizing about love at first sight before bumping into Hans (Santino Fontana), Prince of the Southern Isles.  Anna and Hans share character traits such as clumsiness, they finish each other’s sentences, and they sing the standard Disney duet.  But their plans for marriage are upset by Elsa’s refusal to bless their union.  A fight breaks out, revealing Elsa’s powers to everyone at the coronation celebration and she is forced to flee her own kingdom across the frozen fjord and into the mountains where her new isolation permits her to use her powers freely and happily.  She literally let’s her hair down and fashions an intricate castle of ice.

Now, Frozen complicates the Disney fairy tale structure by presenting familiar conventions, doubling them, and reconstituting the narrative center and periphery.  Typically, one might assume that our protagonist is the elder sister, who has a rightful claim to the crown of Arendelle and who possesses magical powers that are worthy of a Walt Disney Animated Classic.  But Elsa is an outcast who enjoys her hermitage in the wilderness.  She is not the dainty princess who communicates with animals and sacrifices her own well being for the happiness of others.  For all of the familiarity established by the film’s opening, the instability of a central character is a forewarning to the audience that the standard Disney structure does not apply.  The medieval kingdom in springtime customary to the courtly love story is overtaken by the blizzard unleashed by Elsa.  As the plot progresses, Elsa, the elder sister with political and magical power, recedes, and Anna becomes the focus of the narrative.  Kristen Bell describes Anna as “not a good fighter, she doesn't have good posture, she's not very elegant, and she's constantly putting her foot in her mouth.  But she's a good person and she's utterly determined.”4  Anna is the second sister, without inheritance or supernatural powers, who becomes the main character.  Anna, who is traditionally decentered by her elder sister Elsa, becomes the new center in defiance of the standard Disney structure. 

Reconceiving the center in this way, however, incites another anxiety.  If Anna is the protagonist princess in a Disney fairy tale, according to the tradition she ought to be recuperated by the end of the trial through wedded bliss to the man she fell in love with at first sight.  Then, what of Elsa?  Frozen’s producer, Peter Del Vecho, explains, “There are times when Elsa does villainous things but because you understand where it comes from, from this desire to defend herself, you can always relate to her.”5  But within the standard Disney structure, Elsa is a queen who threatens her own people.  Either her actions render her antagonist, or identification with her character complicates traditional categories within the narrative.

Frozen plays with this uneasiness.  Anna teams up with Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and his reindeer Sven to bring Elsa back to Arendelle and save the people now trapped by the frozen fjord.  Elsa casts them out by creating a giant snow monster and again strikes Anna with her powers—this time in the heart.  We learn from the trolls that the heart can only be thawed by an act of true love, thus Anna is affirmed as the center of the romance as they race to return her to Hans of the Southern Isles, because she fell in love with at first sight, and so only his kiss can break the spell. 

Except, Hans is conning Anna.  Hans plans to facilitate Anna’s death, condemn Elsa as the culprit, and control Arendelle himself.  He provides a bold new moral:  Prince charming may not be trustworthy.  Frozen demonstrates that love does not happen at first sight; rather love flourishes through experience, as trials reveal a person’s true character.  For a Disney fantasy this is an oddly practical moral. 

Still, if Hans was a bust, what will save Anna and Elsa?  Thank goodness they kept a back-up hunk just in case of an emergency.  Before Hans confesses his true intentions, his character actually garners sympathy as Anna and Kristoff show signs of developing affection, and once again it is made unclear whether it is more appropriate to identify Hans or Kristoff as the Disney standard suitor whose efforts will recuperate the damsel in distress to the heteronormative “happily ever after.”  Kristoff does not come from royalty, he is certainly not refined, and he is socially marginalized—just like Anna!  They met circumstantially and seemed to be at odds at first.  Now, after enduring the aventure, they share an ineffable bond.6  It is Kristoff who can administer the kiss that will save Anna’s heart from freezing.  His love will recuperate the doe-eyed princess to the fairy tale tradition; without him Anna is doomed to become an ice sculpture emblem of failed love.

As the audience rolls their eyes anticipating the inevitable kiss towards which the traditional Disney classic culminates, Anna turns away from Kristoff and towards her sister.  She relinquishes herself to the ice in order to protect Elsa.  Anna reaffirms the bond between them and redefines ‘true love’ as a dialectical process conjured between kin, rather than some inexplicable and ineffable occurrence between royal strangers.  Anna’s action saves her sister, and because it is an act of true love she also saves herself.  The center of the traditional structure, the heteronormative kiss, has been pushed to the periphery twice, frustrating the standard Disney narrative, in favor of self-sacrifice and the bond between siblings. 

Audience expectations are continuously undermined, privileging practical morals such as ‘don’t trust strangers despite their charm,’ and ‘familial bonds constitute true love’ over and above the fantasy romance that has dominated much of Disney Animated Classics.  This privileging of realism at the expense of idealism facilitates audience assumptions in order that these practical morals emerge as the new ideal.  That is, there is no sense of having been manipulated by the cartoon fantasy to forego practicality.  Because the realism of the narrative emerges from a structure of frustrated idealism, the practical morals reconstitute the center of the narrative by which familiar experiences with which the audience can identify are rendered fantastic.

Upsetting the Disney heteronormative tradition does not end with the explicit and repeated derailment of the kiss.  It is also subtly reaffirmed by Elsa’s rise to power.  We’ve seen Cinderella and Ariel both blissfully wed to their princes, but rarely have we seen a Disney queen rule (justly).  Women in power is not a simple notion that plays out within the fantasy, negligent of practical concerns.  The reality of Elsa’s rule is made part of the fantasy through a real decision that does not lend itself easily to “happily ever after.”  Over the course of the film masculine forces control commerce: the Duke of Weselton seeks to infiltrate Arendelle to exploit their trade; Oaken, the mountain shopkeeper, overcharges in the midst of a winter sale because he has no competitors; and Hans plays the courtly love game because he is the youngest brother and must marry into wealth.  (Of course Elsa and Anna, historically, would have been integrated into these economic concerns as property.)  Elsa’s command of power, however, is not an idealized conclusion that does not involve itself in the messiness of authority.  She places Hans into captivity to be returned to his people for punishment and she ceases trade with Weselton.  This seems like a simple enough command, but it demonstrates practical leadership decisions made by a woman that have potential consequences within the Disney fantasy.  Granted, Elsa’s decisions are still quite tidy because she does not explicitly execute Hans, and severing the bond with Weselton is based solely on personal moral offense rather than the ambiguous commerce of her kingdom.  This is, after all, a children’s cartoon.  The issuing of a command that affects all of Arendelle from the doe-eyed Queen reorganizes the economy corrupted by men and integrates realism into the idealism of Elsa’s rule.

In addition to frustrating heteronormativity, Frozen presents the natural realm along a spectrum that ranges from realistic to fantastic.  In accordance with common experience, Sven, the reindeer, does not use words.  This upsets the anthropomorphism characteristic of Disney fables in favor of familiarity.  Conversations in which Sven’s dialogue is supplied by Kristoff resonates with how some people talk for their pets at home to enhance the pet’s participation in circumstances and to translate and engage the pet perspective for their human companions.  The integrity of the natural realm is maintained because Sven depicts a range of emotive responses.  He is equal to other characters in that his actions and reactions mobilize the narrative, but he uses reindeer morphemes rather than human words.  Realism, however, is not the governing principle behind Sven’s lack of anthropomorphism.  There are moments when Sven’s lack of English contrasts starkly with the speaking roles of other characters who are closely acquainted with the natural realm, such as the musical number performed by Olaf the snowman and the trolls who live in the forest disguised as boulders.  Kristoff’s voice imposed onto and in place of Sven’s inability to speak commands attention for its departure from the Disney anthropomorphic standard and it assumes privilege for its realism and familiarity.

Finally, concerning anachronism and medieval ceremonial practices, ritual in Frozen has been evacuated.  A term borrowed from Stephen Greenblatt’s Transreformational analysis of signification, ‘evacuated’ refers to the properties of the medieval mass that are reappropriated for the stage in accordance with Protestant criticism of the theatricality of traditional religion.7  Greenblatt’s terminology appropriately describes Elsa’s coronation, which imitates medieval ritual but signifies Protestant anxiety.  Frozen stands between the ideal of an efficacious medieval priest, and a post-Reformation anxiety over the trappings of traditional religion.8  The priest utters a phrase to pronounce her queen and, like the hoc est of the medieval mass, she is rendered the ruler by the priest’s efficacy.  The orb and scepter, however, have been evacuated of their properties as relics and their signification is replaced, by Elsa and the audience, with anxiety because we know that anything she touches will visibly frost over.  The ritual coronation begets social cohesion in the moment of performance without identifying any specific religious allegiance, but as Elsa’s political body is revealed to be corrupt and she is accused of witchcraft the stability that she signifies unravels along with the well being of her people.  The coronation ceremony and Elsa’s conformity to tradition do not unite Arendelle.  Elsa’s powers, the cryokinesis perceived as corruption, become the source for social cohesion amongst her people, privileging the passion of self-expression rather than romantic feelings, as the sociopolitical source for a new happily ever after.

Frozen presents conventional Disney animation features integrated with common experience in order to upset problematic fairy tale ideals and to present a practical morality that privileges the process of emotional development and the freedom of personal expression.  By manipulating traditional Disney narrative qualities Frozen signifies the emergence of a fairy tale that presents the practical as inherent to the fantastic.

Elan Justice Pavlinich
University of South Florida

1 Jim Hill, “Countdown to Disney Frozen: How one simple suggestion broke the ice on the Snow Queen’s decades-long story problems,” Jim Hill Media, October 18, 2013, accessed December 28, 2013,
2 Leila K. Norako, “Andrews, Chapman, and Purcell, dirs.: Brave,” Medievally Speaking, August 30, 2013, accessed December 20, 2013,
3 Amanda Marcotte, “New Disney Heroine’s Eyes Are Bigger Than Her Wrists,” Slate, December 18, 2013, accessed December 22, 2013,
4 Bryan Alexander, “Frozen defrosts Kristen Bell’s Disney dreams,” USA Today, June 17, 2013, accessed December 28, 2013,
5 Brendon Connelly, “Inside The Research, Design And Animation Of Walt Disney’s Frozen With Producer Peter Del Vecho,” Bleeding Cool, September 25, 2013, accessed December 28, 2013,
6 Anne Brannen, “What is an Aventure, and why would I want one,” Anne Brannen Life Coaching, 2014, accessed January 5, 2014.
7 Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1989), 126.
8 Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005), 298 and 390.